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The enduring honesty of Mint Condition

“Keeping it real” is probably the most hackneyed catch-phrase in the argot of contemporary black music.

“Keeping it real” is probably the most hackneyed catch-phrase in the argot of contemporary black music. Once upon a time it stood for integrity: For describing life’s conditions the way you saw them, for staying loyal to the “‘hoods” in which you were raised, and for resisting creatively crippling commercial compromises to follow your muse. Rather than slap a cliché on a band that deserves more in-depth appreciation, let me just say that I can’t think of a musical group that embodies that three-pronged definition more successfully than the St. Paul-based quintet Mint Condition.

I first met the group more than 15 years ago, out by the loading dock near the game room in the Flyte Tyme Studios run by Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis in Edina. Fresh off a promotional tour for their just-released second CD on Flyte Tymes Perspective Records label, they sported all the “fly gear” and period fashion of the early ’90s, but seemed preternaturally down-to-earth in conversation. Although in their mid-20s, they’d been together since high school at St. Paul Central, and had seen years of local gigs pay off in the smash success of their 1991 debut album, “Meant to Be Mint.” One of the singles from the record, the ballad, “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” soared up the pop charts, nestling just beneath Michael Jackson and Prince among r&b acts.

Could play anything from Latin to soul
Seemingly on the cusp of major stardom, the members of Mint didn’t boast about their commercial clout, or otherwise front with the swagger that was de rigueur for the times. But they did proudly emphasize that, at a time when studio sampling and other technical gimmickry was all the rage, they were a self-contained band that made their own music, and could play anything from Latin to jazz to classical to soul. “We sample ourselves,” laughed guitarist Homer O’Dell, referring to the way they’d use outtakes from discarded original songs to adorn the mix.

Flash forward 15 years. Although Mint Condition has enjoyed a handful of middling pop hits and r&b chart successes, any notion of superstardom is a bygone pipedream. Perhaps it’s appropriate that, in lieu of platinum platters filling their walls, the group has become the gold standard for professional r&b ensembles, reaping the profound and lasting respect of their musical peers. Long before there was “neo-soul,” or The Roots making a splash as a “hip-hop band,” Mint Condition was wowing crowds with its multifaceted stage show, pressing the advantage of their musicianship by rendering their studio songs with remarkable fidelity and creative splendor.

First original collection in three years
That’s why soul stars such as vocalist Anthony Hamilton, and turntablist Ali from a Tribe Called Quest, jumped at the chance to guest star on the band’s new CD, “E-Life,” Mint Condition’s first collection of original material in three years, and their second since 1999. And it’s why many locals have circled the night after Thanksgiving on their calendars, when the group will lure those returning home or simply able to kick back for the holiday weekend to Trocaderos for one of their memorable concerts.

It all sounds great, as far as it goes. But what makes Mint Condition especially admirable is their response to the less pleasant side of their reality. Members of the group are entering their 40S, prime time for a midlife crisis even without the deflated commercial circumstance of their careers. But except for the amicable departure in 2000 of keyboardist Keri Lewis, who married star soul singer Toni Braxton and went on to produce her and other artists, the original six members of the group have hung together. And whether it is a song lyric or a media interview, they never flinch from an honest appraisal of their circumstances.

“We struggle to keep everything original, to keep doing what we do,” admits bassist and songwriter Ricky Kinchen, speaking from the KARE-11 studios, where the band has just finished a sound check before doing guest appearance on the morning news show. “People in the group have different opinions. Some want us to have a song on the radio, like T-Pain,” Kinchen says, referring to the cartoonish rapper with the distorted, vocoder-ized vocals, who recently made an ass of himself crowding singer Chris Brown as the latter was giving an acceptance speech at Sunday’s American Music Awards. “But some of us say we aren’t like T-Pain, and we don’t need a club hit or a dance hit. [Neo-soul stars] Maxwell and D’Angelo never had a club hit. Some of us say we need to go commercial, but I won’t let it happen — I’ll quit first. I’m not gonna write no song about some girl’s booty unless I see it and it inspires me. If that’s what you want to write about, then you come up with it.”

A group of different elements
Instead, Kinchen writes songs like “Livin’ the Luxury Brown,” about his childhood in Chicago (he’s the lonE bandmember not from St. Paul) when his father used to bust a hole in the pipes to siphon heat from the neighbors so his family wouldn’t freeze because they couldn’t afford their own. The first single off the new record, “Baby Boy Baby Girl,” arose out of a ditty he started humming with his daughter on his knee. “We have all these different elements in the group. Some of us have had our lives threatened, others live in the ‘burbs. Sometimes we love each other, sometimes we hate each other, like any other work situation. We have jealousy: ‘He has more great ideas than me. I need a great idea,’ ” Kinchen says.

So what has kept the band together through all these years? “Well, first of all, these dudes are talented like crazy. When we come together to make music, it is incredible. Coming out, we were Stevie Wonder’s favorite band. Alicia Keys used to come see us practice. There are all these artists and band members who have been inspired by us.”

Then there is the example set by Stokley Williams, the singer, multi-instrumentalist, and charismatic nexus of the Mint Condition identity. The son of Mahmoud El-Kati, a venerated elder in St. Paul’s African-American community who taught at Macalester College, Williams supposedly rejected offers from both Prince and Flyte Tyme to be a solo artist, stipulating that it was everyone in Mint Condition or no one at all.

‘Like a Prince or a Stevie Wonder’
“I have only seen Stokley get mad like two or three times in over 20 years,” Kinchen says. “But Stokley is like a Prince or a Stevie Wonder talent-wise; when I see him do a drum solo it makes me want to practice. When we see what Stokley can do, it makes us all want to come with the heat. So that’s part of it. Then there is the financial thing. This is how we’ve made our living for more than 20 years. If we don’t do this, what are we going to do?”

By its simplest definition, “Keeping it real” is about longevity and honesty. “We know we lose some possible gains by not ever moving to New York or L.A., but we live in a realistic place in the Midwest. There are real folk here,” says Stokley Williams, also speaking from KARE-11 in Golden Valley. “When we were young and impressionable, there were always people around to tell us, ‘don’t get cute.’ We know who we are, and that’s important to us.”

Or, as Kinchen says at the end our conversation, “I apologize for telling the truth.”

Here’s Mint Condition at a recent appearance at the San Francisco jazz club Yoshi’s (sound better than visuals):

Here’s a better clip from their performance in Amsterdam earlier this year: