Though his album is called ‘Introducing,’ the truth is that Stokley Williams needs no introduction to R&B fans that know their stuff. He’s the voice of Mint Condition, of course, the brilliant, multi-faceted Minnesota band once championed by Prince, and who scored memorable Top 10 US R&B hits during the 1990s in the shape of ‘Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),’ ‘U Send Me Swingin’,’ and ‘What Kind Of Man Would I Be.’ Now, though, 49-year-old Stokley is stepping away from the long-running band temporarily to embark on his first solo project during a career in music that stretches back almost 30 years.
He started out as a drummer, playing behind African dance troupes in his hometown, St. Paul, as a juvenile, and later, co-founded Mint Condition (with whom he played drums and sang) with some friends in high school. Influenced by soul, jazz, funk and both African and Latin music, he also fell under hip-hop’s spell in the 1980s, forming a short-lived rap group, Royal City Crew. Though Mint Condition has always been his priority, Stokley has participated in a raft of extra-curricular activities as a drummer, vocalist and producer – which include studio and stage appearances alongside Janet Jackson, Karyn White, Johnny Gill, Toni Braxton, Prince, and more recently smooth jazz saxophonist Boney James, rapper Wale, and Robert Glasper Experiment. He also occasionally plays with another group, the France-based Ursus Minor, when Mint Condition is in down-time mode and at the time of writing is touring the USA with Prince’s legendary Purple Rain band, The Revolution.
“The whole project is me spreading my wings,” says Stokley, talking from San Francisco, explaining the concept behind, ‘Introducing,’ his long-awaited debut platter. “I’m trying to say and do something different,” he continues. “It’s very eclectic. I call it a blend of sonic art pieces. It reflects my upbringing and I just wanted to express that and try to make something that was cohesive as well as very genre-bending but still all one thread.”
The album has a big cast of collaborators, which include noted Philly producers Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias (known for their work with Jill Scott, Ledisi, and Musiq Soulchild) plus songwriters Sam Dew and the A-Team. There are also guest spots for keyboardist supreme, Robert Glasper, British R&B singer Estelle, and two cameos from rappers Wale and Omi. The opening cut and first single, ‘Level,’ is an infectious mid-tempo song with an addictive hook that spotlights Stokley’s soulfulness while the rest of the album ranges from impassioned R&B ballads to jazzy dance cuts and sun-drenched Caribbean grooves.
Via an in-depth interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Stokley – who considers himself “an analogue dude in a digital world” – talks about his first solo flight, sheds light on his rich musical background, and discusses the enduring influence of his late mentor, Prince…
Tell us about your first solo album, ‘Introducing.’
I’ve been working on it for a little while but it really came together in four months of last year, working with different people like Sam Dew – we had worked together before on a project for Wali, who’s also on the album – Estelle and Robert Glasper, who I’d I done stuff with before on his ‘Black Radio’ album. There were various people I wanted to have and although the album is a collection of things that represented me it didn’t have to all be me, so I wanted some different sonic painters.
You’ve been in the music business now for almost 30 years but despite your wealth of experience does this album feel like a new beginning for you?
Yeah, absolutely, and I want to keep things fresh, new and energetic otherwise it becomes stale. Like any human being, I want to experience all that life has to offer, so any time you can make it fresh and you put a new cover on it all then that’s great. So yes, definitely, it feels like a fresh new beginning.
What’s the response been so far?
It’s been incredible. A lot of people know about it but a lot more people do not know and I’m trying to get the word out that it is a solo endeavour because they know the group and just assume that it’s what they already know. So I’ve been trying to paint a picture that shows that I can create things a few degrees away from what people have known that I do and offering a different way of hearing me sing and experiencing me in what I’m doing.
Are any of the other guys from the band on the record?
No, I thought about that and thought well this is what I’ve been doing the whole time but I’ll make this one just totally me. People have asked me why did you name your album, ‘Introducing,’ because they know my voice and figure, well we know you already. But they just know one fifth. With Mint Condition, and throughout my whole musical journey with them, each time we did something you had just bits and pieces of me because we have democracy within a group but with this solo project you’re getting a lot more of me in bigger chunks: you’re getting 100%.
The album has been a long time coming perhaps in some people’s minds. Had you ever contemplated doing a solo album at any time in your career before this?
People would ask me, when are you going to do one yourself, but I felt it was necessary to keep doing what we were doing in Mint Condition because there was just no other group around like us. I thought it was much more valuable than me doing a solo project. So yeah, I thought about it but it wasn’t a big priority. It was a thought in a lot of other people’s minds, as well, like the label, and them saying you should do this and do that, but I was looking at the broader picture as far as making a splash or statement. I’m sure a lot of people could have made a lot of money off of me, but I felt that the band was much more important for the music industry, to showcase what a self-contained band can do because you don’t see that much anymore. It’s a lost art. We were an island on our own but it was really important to us.
Are all the songs brand new or did you have some that were lying around for a while that you weren’t able to use within the context of the band?
Most are relatively new but there are some that I’ve had that I was putting off for me because I felt they didn’t have a Mint Condition type of feel. So some of those ones I had, like the song ‘Now,’ I had for a while. With that one, the people I was working with were like, man, you’ve got to put it out now, but I said, you know what, I think it’s going to stand the test of time so I’ll wait. It held up and is on the CD. But most of them are pretty new and are from the time when I did the whole project in those four or five months when I was getting it together.
Do you play drums on the album as well, as you used to in Mint Condition?
Yes. Absolutely but I like to spread the love around a little bit so my fellow drummer, Brandon Commodore, is on ‘Organic.’ I love his feel as well. But that’s me on the rest of it.
What instrument do you write your songs on?
Piano and guitar and sometimes, if it’s more of a rhythmic song, I’ll write the idea from the drums. It’s a weird way of doing it because rhythmically and harmonically I’ll have certain sections in my head and it will challenge me to come up with things in a different way. I enjoy that because most people use a harmonic instrument, like a piano or guitar, but that lends itself to a lot of different things and dictates a lot. But with drums, you really have to fill in the blanks. So I have a totally blank canvas and just create from there. It comes up totally different.
Do you write the words first or the music, or does it vary?
Sometimes it’s the music and the music will dictate what the lyrics are going to be about. It depends if it sounds sad or sounds contemplative or troubled or funky. I would say 60% of the time, it’s the music first but there are times when it might be just a melody or even a song title. Sometimes I might come up with a title that really makes sense or I’ll be humming a melody and then I’ll fit the music around that. Whatever the melody is dictates the chords. I try to keep it really flexible because that way it keeps you flexible and you’re able to create in any kind of different way.
How did you come across the producers Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias (pictured above) and what was it like working with them?
Oh, amazing. They remind me of an east coast Jam & Lewis. They’re a little bit younger but really musical and with the same kind of music sensibilities. They are really, really cool and have just a great sense for music. They have their ear to what’s going on right now. I wanted to work with some folks who I really, really admired and have that same kind of energy and outlook and see things the way that I see them through my lens. We got together and collaborated and compared notes, and thought man, this is really a great blend, a great mix because I didn’t know it if it was going to work. My manager got me in touch with their manager and checked out their stuff. I’d heard their work of course with Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott and all these different people because they come from the DJ Jazzy Jeff camp in Philly. It was just amazing, the way we worked together. It just clicked. You know when you have that kind of thing when a relationship just clicks? It was like that. After a while, I just stopped asking why. I thought it works, let’s go. (Laughs).
It felt like you’d known each other for years?
Exactly. This relationship is so great and it keeps blossoming and blossoming. We did ‘Organic’ together and ‘Think About You,’ and ‘We/Me.’ There are about maybe five or six songs that we did together. There’s a lot more that we did that we didn’t put on that are amazing. It’s going to be on the next album. It’s really great.
What was the inspiration behind your album’s standout ballad, ‘Organic’?
I’ve always been on the search for better everything: better spirituality, better health, that kind of thing. I’ve always been on a quest and I wanted to do a play on words as far as this kind of thing goes. That’s my quest, to find things that are more natural, and then I realised that I’m also speaking to women. I guess everywhere and not only in America. I just think that the market is such that when women go to a magazine stand, they are bombarded by all these images of what they have to be and look like just to be accepted, to make them feel whole, to make them feel like they’re enough. And I’m saying in the song, you’re enough as you are, as you come, truly. That was pretty much the basic idea and I just wanted to play off of those two things. Like when I talk about the GMO in the song, instead of meaning Genetically Modified Organism I mean God Modified Original, so all these things tie into food and how women are perceived right now.
Stylistically, the album is very eclectic with an array of different sounds and influences. Where does that come from? What sort of influences did you have when you were growing up and helped to shape you?
My influences are vast, varied and broad. I come from percussion and when I was younger my first introduction to playing it was with African dance troupes. That continued and my parents were educators so we had parties sometimes at the weekend and there would be all these different people from all walks of life and from different countries and continents, like Africa, and they would play all this music. It was incredible. It wasn’t called Afrobeat then but High Life. It was great music and I was exposed to it and later on, I heard Latin music, like Mongo Santamaria, and jazz. Some of my favourites in jazz as far as drummers and using a traditional drum set were Max Roach and Art Blakey and I also heard singers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Then I heard soul and funk, like Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown and P-Funk. Moving on, later on in life, I met a guy called Cliff Alexis Sr, who was a steel drum player from Trinidad & Tobago, so I learned to play the steel drums. All this time I had all these influences. Of course, you had radio at this time happening, in the mainstream and I heard a lot of the same stuff that you hear in Prince’s music, the rock ‘n’ roll. So all these things I was exposed to. I was in 12 different bands at one time and playing music from different genres, from rock ‘n’ roll to reggae and soca. Just everything. It was pretty amazing. I spent a lot of my time cutting my teeth as a drummer and singing backgrounds. So by the time we got to high school – where they had a recording studio – that’s pretty much where Mint Condition came about. We all went to school there. So it’s very interesting. Some people said I was beyond my years when I was younger and I attribute that to the older musicians that I ended up playing with. I was always learning something new and fresh. So it makes sense that I would make all this kind of music. That’s what I heard. I was taking it all in.
On ‘Wheels Up’ you play the steel drums and have a special guest called Omi (pictured above).
Omi had a very, very big song here in the States called ‘Cheerleader.’ He’s a Caribbean brother and I love his voice. He’s got a really unique style. I thought I’m going to include him on this thing to help me bring that island flavour to the mix. He really brought it and did a great version and his original style is very dynamic. I enjoyed listening to him and I’m so glad that I was able to get him on here to help me see this project through.
You’ve also got Robert Glasper playing keys on ‘Art In Motion.’ What it like working with him?
Just a blast. Silly and nutty. (Laughs). Every time we call each other, we just start laughing. It’s just a good time. He’s just beyond brilliant. He basically just did one take on ‘Art In Motion.’
You’ve also got the U.K.’s own Estelle on the album.
She’s great, I’ve always loved Estelle. It’s funny because the industry becomes so small the longer you work in it. She had a couple of TV shows that we’ve done together. She’s got an amazing voice and is an amazing songwriter. We talked to her management and we got to know each other and they said it would be great. She also works with Carvin and Ivan so that was a perfect thing. I thought this was made to be. So we collaborated on ‘U & I.’ What she did was amazing. She’s a great storyteller with a great voice and she’s really dynamic. She has a very unique style which I really like and it compliments my voice as well.
Despite a lot of collaborations, you remain the star of the album.
That’s what it’s meant to be but they helped to bring my vision to life and they make it much brighter. I have all the ingredients and but they kind of add a little bit more saffron, a little vanilla, a pinch here or a pinch there, whatever ingredients that I need.
Going right back, what was it that drew you to music and made you want to be a musician?
I was always attracted to the drums and rhythm and I think all young kids are attracted to them. Like if you hear a drum corps in the street, people run into the street, saying what is that? I think it’s a natural thing for any human being because of our heartbeat. Also, I think for me it was just natural to sing because the first instrument is the voice. The first guy that did it for me as a singer was Al Green. He was the guy that really turned me on vocally. He really just did it and it was amazing because he could be 15 different people in one song. It was pretty amazing for me to hear that so I was trying to mimic him and also Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic and Ohio Players and all these different people. Later on, of course, I got the whole Prince influence.
Is Mint Condition still a going concern despite your solo album? Will you continue to work together?
Yeah, at some point. The thing is, everybody’s doing different things right now because we’ve been doing records and been on the road for quite a few years. It’s only natural to want to turn your interest somewhere else to try to explore and expand and enrich your life and enjoy what it has to offer and figure out what else you can do both inside or outside of music. And music comes out differently when you have a different cast of players. My thirst has been growing and there’s only so much you can do in the confines of a band where you have five members, so we got to a point where there’s a lot of growth that can be done for myself and a certain potential that I can get to. We each have to measure what that will be and try to figure out how to get there to do it. Nothing is wrong between us; you just get to a point where it’s been so many years and think let’s figure out what other things are there that I can do while we are still relatively young and still able and agile and our minds are working. Life is short.
You did some concert dates earlier this year with Prince’s old band, The Revolution, didn’t you?
Yeah, I’m actually touring with them still. Right now we’re in San Francisco, we’ve got a couple of shows here. We started in April and will be gone until late September. We’re doing that in between my own dates. The first month was pretty rough because we are doing all earlier Prince stuff, right before Purple Rain, so it was kind of like mourning for him all over again when I started this thing. I didn’t know how to approach it because there’s only one Prince and you’re not going to get another one. He was his own thing, his own island. So, I can only interpret the songs using my own natural abilities to make them as dynamic as possible. It’s an amazing opportunity and experience being with them on stage and reliving those moments.
Do you sing on all of the songs?
Wendy, Lisa, and Brown Mark sing and then I come on for a few and then leave. Then Wendy and Lisa sing some more so I come on and off several times. But when I’m off the stage and watch them, I become a fan again. So it is a really unique slant for me. It’s a lot of fun and I feel like the fans are saying goodbye, of course, to somebody that we’ve all loved for so long. And it’s also a hello to the beginning of The Revolution in a new way, because they get to experience how talented Lisa, Wendy, Brown Mark, Dr Fink and Bobby Z all are. It’s just amazing how talented they are but a lot of people wouldn’t know that. They’re planning to come to Europe to play. It’s a band that everybody wants to see because it’s the movie band and a lot of people didn’t get to see them on the Purple Rain tour, which was cut short.
How much of an influence has Prince been to your own music?
An amazing amount, of course, because he was somebody we saw growing up around town. When I was playing in some of the dance troupes and percussion groups that I was talking about, we’d see them. We’d be rehearsing at a place that they were playing parties at later on. They were doing sound checks and he was this little guy, about 17. He was very young and it was amazing to see this guy morph into what he became, so he gave me an amazing amount of influence, just like he was with everybody. When I was in high school I used to mimic the things he was doing, or in the spirit of that, like the falsetto singing and the synthetic horn parts. So he gave me an amazing amount of influence. I got to know him and got a wealth of knowledge from him. He became like a mentor, friend, and a champion for everything that the group and myself tried to do and accomplish. He even spoke to me about my solo project; it was something that he really wanted me to do. He said “you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to spread your wings and hit it. It’s a natural progression for you.” So I feel good that before he passed it was something that he wanted to see and he gave me these little nuggets to help aid me to the next level.
He gave your solo career his blessing, then.
Absolutely. He’d say, “man, I’d like people to know who you are,” so he was really generous. He was always very generous with us and myself. I’m really forever grateful for everything that he’s left us.
Will you be doing any UK concert dates to support and promote your album?
We’re planning that now. We’re actually going to go to Europe, Australia and Asia. The U.K.’s a place we definitely want to hit because you’ve been so supportive in the past and I think you’d all really enjoy what we have to offer. It’s an incredible band and hopefully, I can get all of them over there so they can get the full experience. Even if it is the small Jazz Cafe, we’ll go ahead and hit it, man!
STOKLEY’S ALBUM ‘INTRODUCING’ IS OUT NOW ON CONCORD