FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Mint Condition hit the music scene back in 1991 with the top ten pop single, "Breaking My Heart." Nearly 18 years later, the platinum selling R&B group is still around. The five members work out of Minnesota and now have their own record label.
Mint Condition's new album, their ninth, is called "E-Life." I sat down with band members, Stokley Williams, Jeffrey Allen, and Homer O'Dell to talk about getting their start with the iconic producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Mr. STOKELY WILLIAMS (Member of Band, Mint Condition): We actually came out here in search of a record deal like early on, and it's just ironic that we ended up being on the same label that we came out here, and they told us, no and shut the door. No and get out of here, kid. And ended up being through, you know, prospective records.
But, yeah, we met these guys, you know, they were around town, just, you know, homeboys and everything. And we kind of had a first - one of our first showcases at First Avenue, and they came out to see us. They loved the show. And, you know, we invited, you know, the whole Prince family out, you know, at the time, and everything. And next thing you know, we was up in flight time, having a meeting with them. They were like, what do you guys, what do you want to do with that?
Well, we just want to make music and do our own thing. And they were, like, you guys can do the whole album if you want.
CHIDEYA: Staying in the past for a second, was the music industry, as you got into it, what you expected it to be? You know, obviously a lot of people dream about making a career, you made a career. Was it what you thought it would be?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I don't even think I thought about it like that. I just wanted to do music, and that was one of the things that people who did music, they did. They just went and got a record. I thought you just got a record deal, and you went out and just played all - the business side of it, I didn't even think about, you know, I just wanted to make music.
So, at that point, when we got into it, it was probably learning that, you know, business is probably 90, 95 percent of it really, was probably my biggest shocker. I was like, whoah, we can't play music today? We've got to do business, you know. So, that was probably my biggest eye opener getting into this game was like wow, the business takes up so much time of it. And it takes away from just creating music. That was my downer for me, you know, the business being, this being more business than music.
(Soundbite of song from Mint Condition)
MINT CONDITION: (Singing) Always wondered why you are on that phone, From the neighbor's house to our stove, I was stealing gas to keep us warm, Thank God we made it through the storms, Storms, storms
CHIDEYA: You guys have been together for 18 years now. Did you think you would ever reach a point where you had just stuck with each other for so long - I mean, you've only had one person not be on this album out of the original six people. I mean, that's a huge accomplishment. What made you, you know, be willing to go the distance with each other?
Mr. WILLIAMS: It something we always strived for. I mean, we always said we never, we never wanted like a big hit. We want to retire from that. Thing is, we always wanted a career which is old school days, they had careers. A lot of them are around still today, like the Temptations.
Most people who get into the music industry they have, like, moments, you know. It's just like they're gone in five years. It's like the life span of an artist now is pretty rough. So, I mean, that's how we kind of measure our success, you know, like, in the old days, that's how they did it. They'd stick together, and try to make it a career, a business, and figure out how you can parlay that into other things. And you try to enrich your life around it with, you know, family and other interests that you have. So we just, we're blessed that we're still here, and that people are still digging what we do.
(Soundbite of song from Mint Condition)
MINT CONDITION: (Singing) Now we try to talk, but just end up fighting. Try making up, but there's just no denying. Just ain't the same no more, What are we putting ourselves through war for?
You talk and hear me, But you can't communicate, Cause you're not listening, Girl, these are two different things...
CHIDEYA: What about this album? What was it like going back into the studio having had time pass, and I'm sure all of you had x, y, and z personal, and professional developments. You've got lives that probably have other obligations. What was the process of recording this album?
Mr. WILLIAMS: The process was what led us to the title which is "E-Life." You know, which has to do with the way the world is working now, electronically, through email, downloading, and file sharing, mpegs and jpegs, yadda yadda, and all that stuff.
So, the title has more so to do with the approach then lyrically, which we do touch on some things lyrically, as well, having to deal with relationships in the texting age, you know, that we have now.
This is a natural progression for us, I think. We've always been interested in, like, technology. You know, being a live band and everything, you know, traditionally, in the sense, as far as instrumentation, drums, bass, guitar, horns. But we've always, you know, experimented with, for instance, on the "Life's Aquarium" CD that we did, we did digital tracking then. You know, we kind of experimented, and the engineers were like, I don't know. Is this good enough? The quality? And it turned out that it was.
So, everything turned out just right. And experimenting with, for instance, they would file share with me the track, and I'd sing on it. And then, you know, ship it off to Rick to do bass on it, you know. That was one way, I mean, we'd set up to like in a live kind of setting and do that as well.
CHIDEYA: So much of this was done in parallel, or even, you know, at different times, using technology?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
CHIDEYA: Did you find that distancing or difficult?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Really, it wasn't as time consuming because everyone did it at their leisure, kind of, OK, get to this, if I had certain time constraints or anybody else had certain time constraints. It worked out. Just by the end of this day have it finished, you know, kind of thing.
So, you know, the days we had to be there all together, we did that, too. So, it's like, this is real interesting. I mean, like I said, this is the day, I did a project last year with this guy I've never met, you know, from England, who emailed me a thing, I emailed it back. It's on his record, you know. That's how people are doing music and business these days, you know.
So, there's all kinds of different ways, but, you know, we thought it was still interesting music and as long as we can always get our live element in there, you know, it's always good. But the thing is, to stay relevant, you've always got to keep your ear to the street.
(Soundbite of Song from Mint Condition)
MINT CONDITION: (Singing) Give it up for my little baby girl, She's the only one in my world. She's the only one who really loves me. I can tell when she comes and hugs me. Give it up for my little baby boy, Another one that brings me joy. (Unintelligible) like we're best friends, Be my little man to the end.
CHIDEYA: Would you, or have you, told your kids, yeah, music is a great thing to do or stay away?
Mr. JEFFREY ALLEN (Mint Condition): I always tell him, I'm doing this so you don't have to. This is why I'm doing it. You're going to go on - you don't worry about it. You're going straight to college. There ain't going to be no, I'm going to take a year off, college will be here tomorrow. No, you're going straight in. You're finishing. Then if you want to do something that's...
Mr. WILLIAMS: For me, I already have a daughter that plays, actually both of my daughters play. One of them plays keyboard, and the other one plays guitar. And the guitar player is, she's a true rocker, so, you know, she's going to do something with it. Like I told them, whatever you want to do, as long as it's something positive, I'm behind you. Don't worry about it, I got you. Just, you know, keep it positive, and we're cool. If it's music, then I'm cool, you know. It could be something worse, you know.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, I know, absolutely. Well, gentlemen, it has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.
CHIDEYA: That was Homer O'Dell, Stokley Williams, and Jeffrey Allen of Mint Condition. Their new album "E-Life" is out in stores today. They joined me here in our NPR West studios.
That's our show for today, and thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to our show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.
News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is News & Notes.