He didn’t get nervous going on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” where he sat in with his cronies and admirers the Roots for the full hour. The morning radio shows, however, somehow tripped him up.
For the first time ever, Stokley Williams is out promoting a new album without Mint Condition, his group of 30-plus years. “The Roots are a real band, just like Mint,” he said of the TV gig before a few million viewers. “So it felt completely natural to just go into a room and vibe with them.”
With a lighthearted jab at the “good talkers” and longtime friends in his St. Paul-reared R&B group, the singer bemoaned the radio gigs, though.
“I’m on the air by myself, still half-asleep, and I’m expected to do all the talking,” he said with a laugh. “That’s been at least one instance where I’ve really missed them.”
All eyes and alarm clocks are on Stokley these days. At 50, the St. Paul native — who’s going by his first name for his first-ever solo outing — cut loose from the group that has been the focus of his career since he and his bandmates graduated from Central High School.
“Everything in due time,” he said of his solo venture. “It was a natural progression. I’d done one thing successfully for a long time, but I don’t think any of us are meant to do just one thing. The essence of life is change.”
He shoved off in a big way, too, dropping an ambitious 15-song album, “Introducing Stokley,” and playing tour dates along both coasts over the past year.
Intermittently, he has also been crisscrossing the country singing with Prince’s old band the Revolution, an experience he sums up as “surreal” — especially since he said his late mentor “really encouraged this record.”
A diverse and adventurous collection, “Introducing” includes collaborations with the Jam-and-Lewis-like Philadelphia hitmaking production duo Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias, Grammy-winning Houston jazz pianist Robert Glasper, British soul singer and Kanye collaborator Estelle, and Washington, D.C., rapper Wale.
Although the record dropped back in May, Stokley is just now getting around to promoting it with a hometown show. There are two reasons for the delay.
“I wanted to kind of work up to it,” he said of Sunday’s performance at Ordway Concert Hall, which will feature his new backing band doing new and old songs, including a few Mint staples as well as some classics that influenced him.
Stokley was deep into planning for the show when he sat for an interview last month at a St. Paul rehearsal space. His band — including three members of the forward-looking R&B crew #MPLS — was working on new material, while Stokley tended to other business including preparing lighting and adding other visual elements.
“This Ordway show will be more theatrical than my touring show,” he explained. “It has some historical pieces that look into my journey, my evolution, to explain where I sit inside all these genres. It’s going to be a special night.”
Another reason he hasn’t yet promoted the record with a hometown show is the fact that the Twin Cities really doesn’t treat him or other R&B acts like anything special. This has been a continuous story line with Mint Condition, too.
Aside from tried-and-true public station KMOJ, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear Stokley’s new songs on his hometown FM radio dial. Likewise, Mint has always been able to play bigger venues in other cities than it does back home, a trend that continued on Stokley’s recent outings to Mint strongholds like Atlanta, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago.
“A lot of those cities are playing my stuff around the clock,” he said matter-of-factly, finding an upside to what he called “a lack of infrastructure” for R&B acts locally. “The people here who know these songs are people who are plugged in, who find things on internet radio and purposefully seek out new sounds.”
‘Play it, little brother!’
Exploring new sounds was Reason No. 1 to make a solo album, and it had been a long time coming. Stokley couldn’t even pinpoint when he started working on the new record, since, he said, “I’m always recording and dabbling in stuff on the side from Mint. I’ve probably got three more albums’ worth.”
He didn’t want to get into specifics, but Stokley did reveal Prince “wanted to be involved” with the record. The late icon had been a supporter of Mint going back to 1990-91, when producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made the band one of the flagship acts on their label, Perspective Records, and the group shot to No. 6 on the Billboard singles chart with “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes).”
“He kind of took us under his wing,” Stokley solemnly recalled. “We had started to talk more in recent years than back then. He’d invite me to Paisley just to talk. That’s the thing I’ll miss most: just a cool dude giving me his little gems of advice.”
Stokley’s cousin, Ordway program director Robin Hickman, vividly remembers what was probably the first time Prince and Stokley crossed paths, at a community concert where Prince’s teenage group Grand Central performed. A 10-year-old Stokley was there as the youngest member of the Black Arts Midwest Drummers.
“I remember the little guy with the big afro [Prince] standing there nodding and saying to Stokley, ‘Play it, little brother! Play it!’” Hickman said, beaming at the memory.
Stokley’s parents, Mahmoud El-Kati and TiTi Williams, are both educators who immersed their kids in African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American music and culture from a young age, which is how the singer started out playing drums before he entered grade school. He would continue playing drums on all of Mint’s records and got behind the kit for the new record, too.
“My parents had a lot of parties at the house, playing all this music that they now call Afrobeat,” he remembered. “Those parties planted the seeds for me being into all kinds of music — and into eating curry, too, because they would have a lot of people from the Middle East come over.”
There’s a smorgasbord of musical influences on “Introducing,” ranging from the reggae-infused “Wheels Up” with Jamaican rapper Omi, to the fiery rap throwdown “Way Up,” to the lively gem “Victoria,” a song fueled by steel drums and a fun island vibe. The latter will be performed for the first time at the Ordway.
“It’s a challenging one, but that’s exactly the kind of thing Stokley was going for in doing this record,” said Brandon Commodore of #MPLS, who’s serving as Stokley’s drummer after touring with Mint over the past decade. “It’s been exciting seeing him seize this opportunity and not just do the Mint thing, which we all know he can do well.”
There is still a good smattering of modern, Mint-style R&B on the solo record, though, starting with the lead single “Organic,” which ties together his own newfound dietary habits (he’s pescatarian) with his contempt for “women being bombarded with all these images they got to be this or that,” he said. “The way God made you is good enough for me.”
Another Mint-like jam, “Level,” is a straight-ahead love song clearly inspired by Stokley’s wife, Sylvia. They live in a Twin Cities suburb with their daughter and son, ages 15 and 10.
“When you find someone who sees the world the same way you do,” is how he described the song’s meaning.
For the record, Stokley and his Mint bandmates also still see eye-to-eye. Mint is officially on hiatus but will probably never break up. The group will at least make a return over the winter in the Jam-and-Lewis-produced Super Bowl Live concert series on Nicollet Mall, Jan. 26-Feb. 4, where Stokley will also perform separately (exact dates are not yet confirmed).
“We always all talked about doing different things, and now we’re doing it,” he said of his bandmates.
“Some are doing things that are musically based, and some are trying different things. We’re all pushing boundaries as musicians, humans, fathers.
“This has been a liberation for me in more ways than one,” he summed up.
Those morning radio gigs are getting better, too, if any local station managers want to look him up.