Mint Condition has built an enviable reputation in contemporary music as the rarest of artists: Incredible live musicians whose unique chemistry and ground breaking songwriting technique have influenced R&B, alterna and hip hop. Their long awaited Elektra debut, Lifes Aquarium, their first disc in three years, enthusiastically explores both familiar turf and exciting new ground as the St. Paul, Minneapolis sextet plus 1 delivers 12 charged-up tracks. Says lead vocalist Stokley: "For us its been an incredible journey since our first album (the acclaimed 1991 Meant To Be Mint) where we were primarily known for our ballads."
The aforementioned debut LP yielded the intoxicating number 1 R&B gold smash "Breakin My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)," and the now classic "Forever In Your Eyes." "We were literally driving around in a winebago touring, to break that song," laughs Stokley. "One of the ways we garnered our reputation as a great live band was by relentless touring. We did it the old fashioned way: tour and tour some more. We did everything, including driving the bus. Our motto was do whatever was necessary, play wherever theyll have you."
The group had already had solid reps as core musicians, essentially forming in the late 80s because they kept running into each other at various studio sessions around town. For Ricky Kinchen, the only non-twin cities native, live performance also taught them the kind of camaraderie needed to navigate the rollercoaster ride of the music industry.
"Weve weathered a lot of challenges through the years - with our previous record company going through difficulties (Perspective / A&M), management changes and the general wear and tear of growing pains. Through it all Mint Condition has remained focused on two goals: to write and play music the way we know how, and to bring it as honestly as we can to our fans who luckily for us, have always remained loyal."
Mints unique mixture of styles - everything from funk to salsa and jazz, to straight ahead rock, and their fierce dedication to the song made them the new standard bearers of post-modern R&B. Infusing it with their own experimental elasticity has earned them critical acclaim from almost every corner of the music world. Their sophomore effort, From The Mint Factory continued their eclectic dynamics, melding the seductive thrust of "U Send Me Swingin" with the smooth cool of "Nobody Does It Betta." The disc broadened Mints already rich rhythmic scope. It also established the group as inventive producers and arrangers. "We wanted to bring the stage to the studio," says Stokley.
Their next LP, 1996s Definition Of A Band, which includes the number 1 single, "What Kind of Man Would I Be?" pushed the envelope even further, showcasing Mint Conditions Caribbean and African styling, as well as their nods to jazz, with five inspired interludes that paid homage to the genre. The cutting edge "Sometimes," also revealed the groups rock leanings. It was around this time that the group started getting the handle as "alternative R&B." But the hiatus of sorts, between the 96 effort and the bands new release would find them re-inventing themselves once again. "We worked on a few other projects, but for the most part we re-dedicated ourselves to what we wanted to accomplish as Mint Condition," says Stokley. "We wanted to renew the psychic rewards we get from our music. We wanted to stay close to the street and keep our integrity. The fact that weve never chased the marketplace or watered down what we do is one of the main reasons we get such respect from the hip hop community."
And its also why the group gets kudos from legends such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Rick James who have often touted the band as one of their favorite artists. All Mint Condition fans will be celebrating the diversity of Lifes Aquarium. From the funk-drenched opener "Touch That Body," to the up-to-the-minute production display of "Who Can You Trust," to the jazz-singed Prince-like lament of the LPs closer "Leave Me Alone." The alluring finale, complete with a mesmerizing thrash of fuzzy guitar and drum leads into an eclectic patch of hidden songs, showing once again that Mint Condition is one step ahead of the R&B curve. They also prove that theyre one of the few groups from any genre to possess an almost spiritual understanding of R&Bs historic past. "There was a time when youd hear Earth, Wind & Fire, The Doobie Brothers, and Steely Dan all on the same station," says Stokley. "Were blessed to be able to play the kind of music that we feel has no boundaries." They even call on some of their idols on the new one. The band enlists legendary Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band on the song "Pretty Lady."
The result just may be more Mint Condition gems than on any previous effort, both in the rough and those diamonds rounded off to perfection. "The basic energy of the band has always been that live vibe," says Stokley. "The challenge of this album was to capture the uptempo feeling naturally, to let the recording process serve us."
Ricky says the band worked harder than ever to achieve their mission. "Normally we cut just enough songs for an album. But on this one we had the time and inclination to push ourselves. Here we were able to pick the best of the best and shape the album as we wanted. I once heard Lauryn Hill talk about how her audience has grown. We feel the same way. Weve grown together. Our fans are a mixture of different cultures and different ages. We get young people at our shows and we get fans who were with us from the beginning. Our goal has always been to make music that is inclusive, with out compromising or pandering to any formula." For Mint Condition it has always meant being true to themselves first. Maybe the real motto of the group can be found on a spoken word interlude at the end of "Leave Me Alone."
"The real challenge of our aquarium, "Lifes Aquarium," is to learn how to live together without having to live alike." -Mahmoud El Kati