Unsung Quick Thoughts: Mint Condition

cd-coverThe Mint Condition episode was special to me because of a close friend of mine, a lovely Virgo lady  named Liz who is absolutely the biggest Mint Condition fan I know. Every time the group is in town, usually at Yoshi’s, either the Oakland, or San Francisco clubs, she’s there, and her support extends to buying their new CD’s too. It was with her in mind that I checked out Mint Conditions’ Unsung.

Mint Condition is an interesting group for the program because in some ways, they represent what happened in black popular music after the collapse of disco, the rise of hip hop, and the emphasizing of singers and producers over bands. Mint Condition is a group that started after the narrative that led to a lower profile for the Ohio Players, P-Funk, Bootsy, Roger and Zapp, and many other funk bands who have been featured on the show. As a result they never reached those peaks of success that the earlier bands reached in terms of being icons in music, but on the positive side, they seem to have avoided many of the personal problems those groups faced as well. The members stressed that they knew the importance of their status as a band and the image of unity it represented for a group of black men to be united in the enterprise of playing music. Various clips were shown with people like the comedian Sinbad stressing the need to appreciate the group while they are here because they had a special status as one of the last popular black bands.

The groups origins in Minnesota were covered. Five of the original memebers hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota. Stokely Williams father, Mahmoud El-Kuti, was mentioned and interviewed, and he was a leader in the black community in St. Paul, an afrocentrist and a college proffessor. Stokely explained that there were always live African rhtyms in the home and he began to play the conga drums early, four years old early, which led to him taking up the trap drums.

The band came together at St. Paul Central High School, in the recording arts program. I was slightly jealous at the in depth nature of the schools program, way back in the ’80s! The school had a recording console, proffesional looking mixing board, the whole nine! I found this part of their story exceeingly interesting in regard to the musical changes since the late ’70s or so. One of the stories spun regarding hip hop and the lack of instruments and bands in recent black music has been the elimination of music programs in public schools due to budjet cuts enacted by President Ronald Wilson Reagen. The reason this was so crucial, is because the school, alongside the black church, has been a vital incubator of black musical talent. Examples of this include Capt Walter Henri Dyett, of DuSable High School in Chicago, Illinois, who mentored artists such as Eddie Harris, Gene Ammons, Nat King Cole, Bo Diddly, Dinah Washington, and Red Foxx through his band program. Captain Dyett was said to arrange for private instruction for his students at low cost, in addition to their lessons at the school, also providing mentoring after his students graduated.

There were other examples of this around the country, such as the Kashmer Stage Band from Houston, Texas, run by Conrad O Johnson, about whom the recent picture Thunder Soul was released. Johnson’s program featured young people playing funk so good ithas been sampled just like the proffesional’s. Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles is another example, putting out artists such as Patrice Rushen, Gerald Albright, and Leon “Ndugu” Chancelor. So it was very telling that Mint Condition was nurtured in a program that survived those Reagen era cuts. It also makes one wonder if they were not benefited by being in a school district that was by no means predominately black or minority and probably had access to better resources. His royal badness, Prince, also came through a state of the art music program up in Minneapolis.

The program treated us to early footage of the band, in which they were a Prince influenced band in Jheri Curls and super stage outfits. They performed at the legendary First Avenue club, made popular in the classic film Purple Rain. As a whole, the documentary showed how successful musical acts from various far flung outposts on the musical map can be a big boon to local artists. The group was signed to a label run by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and their album was produced by Jellybean Johnson, the drummer for The Time.

Early in their career Mint Condition released a single entitled “Are You Free”, that did not do particularly well. Jam and Lewis mention that they always wanted to have an uptempo hit. Finally they released “Breakin My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)”, which Jam and Lewis always felt was their strongest song anyway. Jam and Lewis sort of laughed, in the manner of father figure/big brother types sayin, “well, they got that uptempo stuff out of their system”. That whole point kind of touched one of the realities for a black band in a post-funk world. One of my own criticisms of the band has always been, “when are they gonna lay that heavy funk dance groove” on us. There is a perception out there among most of the black listening community that the dance grooves will come from electronics and hip hop artists and that bands are best for mellow music and love songs. This irks me because I see people at live shows moving vigorously to the sounds bands can make, moving both young and old. But that perception is there and it’s hard to shake. I’m always pulling for an R&B based band to come out with a major dance hit, in the line of all the great funk, R&B, and soul groups, and it was interesting to see that Mint Condition, raised on this type of music, had a similar type of thinking, but “Pretty Brown Eyes” turned out to be a huge smash for them that has sustained their career.

I personally love the huge synth chords on “Pretty Brown Eyes”, they are very Minneapolis sound as well, and recall for me, the synth chords on Prince’s “Darling Nikki”. I also love the huge reverb on the drums and the big live sound, almost like a band in a practice room. The record soared to #1 R&B, and #6 pop, reining on the R&B charts over Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time”, and Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.”

I must admit as a kid I didn’t understand that Mint Condition was a band, or exactly what kind of music a black band would play in the age of hip hop. I understood Cameo, Prince, and other artists who were older and played instruments, I understood the older jazz artists, and Stevie Wonder, but the sight of a band in the present tense was a curiosity. The record label apparently understood this confusion of mine, because they tried to front the group off as a vocal group in videos, having them appear without instruments. The group says their perspective was changed when they played a gig with a DAT tape and people were disapointed, they actually WANTED to see a band playing live.

All in all, Mint Condition was presented as another of those groups with a great integrity to their fans and their music. It was mentioned that Stokely has had several oppurtunities to go solo, but he views himself as a musician and is very much into being part of a band. Also the band shared royalties, much as the Ohio Players did. This has been a common theme on the Unsung program as well, as there are some bands who shared money in a way that money issues never divided the band, whereas that was the dividing issue for others. Mint Condition is still performing today, and releasing albums that are very successful from an Independent perspective, their debt to their funk roots in particular is continually discharged in their explosive live show.

Mint Conditions episode made me think of another definition of “unsung” that is covered in the show. They were a band doing something that was not trendy among the black audience at the time they came out. It’s like a blues artist during the time period of Motown, or a southern soul artist during the height of disco, or a swing jazz artist during the time of bebop. Several artists like Bobby Womack who have been profiled on the show fit into this category, people who do good quality music regardless of the trends. All in all it was a fine program for a band that went for what it knew.

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