After more than twenty years together, the chart-topping band Mint Condition that brought you classics like “Pretty Brown Eyes” and “What Kind of Man Would I Be,” is back with a new single “Believe in Us” off of their eighth album Music @ The Speed of Life. Members of the Grammy-nominated group Ricky Kinchen and Jeffrey Allen shared with EBONY their thoughts on what it takes to stay together for two decades, whether R&B is dying, and what it’s like to be one of Prince’s all-time favorite bands.
EBONY: You’ve been together over twenty years now, still performing and touring all over the world and writing your own music. What’s your secret to staying together and continuing to be innovative all of these years?
RICKY KINCHEN: Well for one, we love music. When we work together we still have the magic. For the group to be writing all of our own songs for this long and having that longevity, like you said, not too many groups have done that. We still get along. I guess the best way to describe us is this combination of 5 great writers in one band. [We each] have different attitudes and some of the guys are really [musically] educated and polished and some of us don’t have all of that but have incredible lives to draw from. But we need each other and when we come together, we pay bills and get the job done.
JEFFREY ALLEN: We have our challenging times too.
EBONY: What were those challenging times like?
JEFF: I’d have to say the first time was probably after Keri [Lewis, keyboardist] left the group [he married Toni Braxton and went on to produce music full-time]. When he left, we had to come up with a different sound because when he was in the group, he was definitely one of the writers that had a signature sound for the group. We all wrote songs but his sound was one of the more signature sounds of the group, so after he left, [we had to] just try to change and morph into another sound. It took us a little while to come up with a new style that complimented the five artists that we had left.
RICK: Keri was more of a song-writer, producer than a true musician. He would always make reference to how any one of the rest of us could go up and play an instrument on stage alone and he was more comfortable on the production side to begin with. The band offered an opportunity for him to do that, but you also had to go and play the shows and he probably just wasn’t feeling the performance side of it and he wanted to just write and produce.
But, for me, a challenging time was when everybody started downloading music off the internet and all of the record companies started closing and merging and we found ourselves without a [record] deal. A friend of mine had a hook up with Image Entertainment and I grabbed a couple of managers and we hired a couple of crew members and we got back working.
EBONY: And now you’ve got your eighth studio album coming out, Music @ the Speed of Life. What can we expect to hear on this latest album?
RICK: We feel great about this album it’s an incredible record. Jeff just stepped up and wrote a few songs that are just unbelievable.
JEFF: We all stepped up. The new single ‘Believe in Us’ really shows we’re on a different thing right now. We added a horn section to about five or six songs and definitely added more guitar and that really took our songs to the next level. It’s reminiscent of the more nostalgic bands but with a fresh twist.
RICK: And we’ve got Brother Ali who rhymed on the last song on the album. The job that he did on the album, nobody in the industry could’ve done a better job. You could take the top five dudes in the game right now and nobody could’ve done better. And we’ve got DJ Jazzy Jeff on a song called ‘Girl of My Life,’ which is a song that is written about one of the guys in the group having different women in his life who’s ready to just chill it out like all the rest of the guys that are around him and it ends with a drum solo that’s just the most incredible thing that you’ve heard in your life!
EBONY: We got a taste of your newest single, ‘Believe in Us’ and it’s classic R&B. But as a whole, you can’t really categorize Mint Condition as just one genre, since you all keep it fresh by mixing it up and playing funk, soul, rock and everything in between. But this new single reminds me of what some people have been complaining is missing from R&B today. Would you agree with some critics that say R&B is dying?
RICK: No, I don’t really listen to that talk that R&B is dying. I respect a lot of the folks that are out there doing their thing right now, like Frank Ocean, and I wouldn’t say it’s dying; I think if [artists] want to have dance records, pop records, that’s fine, just remember to stay true to your fans too. That’s what we always try to do, stay true to the fans and give them what they want from us. But we respect everybody and take pieces from everybody. Growing up, my I listened to Led Zeppelin, my favorite band is Radiohead and I’ve got Frank Ocean and Imogen Heap on my iPod. Our inspiration’s all over the place.
JEFF: It’s like you said, we can’t put it in a category. We’re kind of on our own island and we do our own thing. When we do a festival or summer jam tour, we’re normally linked up with Kem and Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton, but we’re a little more rock-and-roll than those groups.
RICK: But when we come out on stage, we’re going to come out like a rock band and then get mellow and then bring the total energy and if you weren’t a fan before, you will be by the end of the show! [Laughs] We just stay true to ourselves. If you look at Earth Wind and Fire, the minute they started thinking about commercial and hit records, their style changed and that’s when they stopped selling. That’s what we took from the older bands: you have to stay you. Inside the group we have fights; some of us want to be more commercial and we all want that single and that hit record on the radio, but some just want to be able to stay creative. That’s why our albums are so diverse. We’ve got something for everybody and we’re just doing ‘Mint.’
JEFF: But even as independent artists, we still had a song on the charts for like 11 months in the top 5. That proves you can still make music independently, do your own thing and still chart and be successful.
EBONY: Prince has called you one of his favorite bands and even brought you all on his ‘Welcome to America’ tour last year. What was it like working with Prince?
RICK: First of all, for him to do a tour and ask us to do it with him, that’s the biggest compliment ever. To perform on his stage, is an unbelievable honor. It was a great show. He’s the man. He’s the guy we all grew up listening to and trying to be like and whenever we come together and play together, it’s great. He’s like our big brother and he’s such a cool cat.
JEFF: He respects the band and we respect his work. He’s a big reason why that’s what made me move to Minneapolis because he’s the one who put it on the map for musicians. People wanted to be a part of that Minneapolis sound. So we’re definitely fans of his and have a lot of respect for him.
EBONY: You’ve been in the game for over twenty years, constantly performing and churning out albums. What do you hope your legacy will be?
RICK: I hope not to be looked at as just an R&B group. Just like we did TV On, we can do Jay Leno, David Letterman. I want the broadness of Mint Condition to be recognized. R&B is our home and we’ll never leave that, but it’s more than just R&B. We just want the world to know, whether it’s jazz or rock or R&B, we rock it all. It’s time more people knew how deep we go with our music.
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