By Jamal Denman
Stokley Williams (known throughout the music industry on a first name basis — simply as Stokley) is a St. Paul native and the front man for one of the most talented, successful, and consistent R&B groups of the past 25 years, Mint Condition. Most artists would be completely satisfied with just being a part of a multi-platinum group that is highly respected by their contemporaries and an inspiration to many. But Stokley — as well as the rest of the members of the band — are expanding their musical horizons even further by putting more of a focus on producing and working with other artists.
The members of the band, who have been together since the early 1980s, have plans to provide production work for new and established artists collectively and individually, and not just with other R&B artists.
Stokley recently finished working on hip hop artist Wale’s latest release, The Gifted, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart (and is currently sitting at number two). Wale put together a team of producers and musicians to assist him with crafting his latest critically-acclaimed project. “I happened to be fortunate to be one of the selected producers/songwriters. He had a vision in his head, and we just tried to make those colors brighter [and] make his vision come to life,” says Stokley. Wale wanted to infuse the musical aesthetic of Mint Condition into his work, a concept he referred to as “New Black Soul.” Stokley made contributions vocally and production-wise on six of the tracks on the album.
For Stokley, doing production work on a hip hop album is not anything that takes him out of his comfort zone. As a teenager during the 1980s, Stokley was coming of age during the period when hip hop was just starting to gain popularity. “In junior high and into high school the influx of the whole hip hop [culture] was happening, so I kind of pushed my drums to the side for a minute and became a b-boy for a minute. We had a breakdance crew; me and Dan Speak and some other cats… That was an influence for me as well… That also plays a part in this musical aspect that I’m doing [now].”
Although he is mainly known as the lead singer for Mint Condition, Stokley is also a very experienced and talented musician. His main instrument is drums, which he has been playing ever since he was four years old. “Drums are my thing; that’s first and foremost what I do.”
His curiosity of music began at an early age, and it was also when his father, the highly respected writer, lecturer and intellectual Mahmoud El-Kati, noticed his young precocious son’s talents. “As the story goes, my parents had some antique bongos up on the wall and I took them down and started playing [with them], and it sounded like somebody that knew what they were doing. My dad had a friend who played in an African dance troupe, and he had him come by and hear me, [because] it sounded good to him but he needed a professional opinion. So from then on, I was playing in his group.”
“I remember loving [music] as a kid… Around the Twin Cities they had these different arts and crafts community centers which, you have some of them now, but there were a lot more back then when I was coming up. And we were all involved in that, and I just remember always loving anything that had to [do] with the arts, whether it was visual arts like painting… I was always involved in the musical aspect of [the programs at the community centers] or the visual arts side; my parents always pushed me towards that because it was something I loved doing, so they saw that and tried to capitalize on that excitement and energy I had for it.”
“My parents would go back and forth to Africa and trade with people and bring back music, and I would listen to a lot of [that] music. [I was also listening to] jazz music… I was being exposed to music from all around the world, as well as the stuff on popular radio.”
Stokley was heavily influenced by jazz artists such as Miles Davis, and holds drummers such as Art Blakey (later known as Abdullah Ibn Buhainaand) and Max Roach in high regard, saying “Drummers like that are still my favorite old school masters.”
“I had such a great blend [of influences] from different genres,” says Stokley, which he largely credits his parents for exposing him to. Although his father has a high public profile in the Twin Cities area, Stokely describes his mother as “low-key,” yet very instrumental in his upbringing and subsequent success as a musician. “Of course, [she is a] great woman, the backbone of the family.” He goes on to add, “I couldn’t have a lot of stuff without both of them encouraging me since day one. I don’t know how the hell they put up with all that noise in the basement, because every group I played with pretty much rehearsed in our basement – and we weren’t acoustic – we were definitely amplified!”
The group will be performing at the 30th annual Rondo Days Festival on Saturday, July 20 2013. “We think it’s important, and it will be a real special homecoming and commemoration.”
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses at [email protected]