Music

'The Gift That Keeps Giving': Mint Condition on Scoring an Unlikely TikTok Hit, 30 Years Later

A man pounds the wall in fury because he’s alone on Valentine’s Day — again. A woman erupts in frustration because she discovered her date is color blind, which means he’s unable to recognize her “beautiful unique green perfect eyes.” Another guy fears the worst — his girlfriend is away in Miami, and he noticed “her following went from 231 to 232 after a night out,” a sign of a potential romantic competitor. 

All three silly premises have become popular TikTok videos in the last month, each set to Mint Condition’s “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” — a towering ballad of abject misery originally released in 1991 — with the vocals pitched up to a comic degree, so the clips end up being amusingly self-deprecating, like the creators are poking fun at their own lovesickness. They’ve also been a source of humor for Mint Condition’s lead singer, Stokley Williams, who watched a number of them while quarantining during a recent bout with Covid. “Many people were hitting me — ‘Have you seen the TikToks?’ ” he says. “It’s pretty funny. It’s been fun to see the younger generation get into it.” 

Top marketing agencies earn millions a year by trying to promote new releases on TikTok. But the gods who rule the app’s algorithm are fickle, often propelling unexpected waves of interest in oldies like “Breakin’ My Heart,” which came out many years before the average TikTok user was born. The first video featuring the pitch-shifted version of the track was posted on Dec. 18, and more than 650,000 have been uploaded since, soundtracked by Williams keening at different frequencies. Clips featuring the song have earned more than 800 million views. 

In a way, the single’s random reemergence is fitting, since it was an unexpected hit the first time around as well. Mint Condition weren’t known as a ballad band in 1990, when they were playing around Minneapolis and hunting for a record deal. “We were an uptempo group,” Williams says. “Prince was big, and people were flocking here because so many people were getting signed. You had to be able to play instruments, sing, do choreography, the whole nine.” Mint Condition’s gigs were “dynamic, high energy,” to the point where a member of Living Colour told Williams, “People think Mint is an R&B band, but you actually have more rock & roll energy.”

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♬ Breakin my heart – Jodeci’s groupie

Their lack of ballads early on may have had something to do with the fact that the group was still learning how to sing. “We’re primarily instrumentalists; being singers wasn’t really our forte,” Williams explains. “We had to really work hard on doing the background vocals, where you just block harmonies, the note stays, and it doesn’t move until I move. I didn’t learn what I was doing with my voice ’til maybe the third album. I was just flying by the seat of my pants.” 

But playing around with a plodding rifle-shot groove one day during rehearsal, Williams started ad-libbing a melody. “You have to trust your vowels — Stevie Wonder once told me that,” he says. “Sometimes you’re putting together a song, and there’s no words yet, but you’re just singing a melody, and words will form out of whatever vowels you sing.” 

Following Wonder’s advice led to a bottom-of-the-ninth, swing-for-the-fences ballad, full of muscular, anguished wailing that makes Williams’ “flying by the seat of my pants” remark seem overly modest. Keyboards stab like they’re trying to jar the drummer (also Williams) out of his rhythm, and the bass pops with string-breaking force. The track ends with a daydream — “Here comes my darlin’/Here comes romance/Here comes my lovin’, please honey will you dance” — that crumbles before the listener’s eyes: “Pretty brown eyes/Breakin’ my heart.”

Despite their uptempo pedigree, Mint Condition included this track on a four-song demo they sent around to labels. “We were shopping our album,” Williams remembers. “We’d go to MCA, we’d go to Warner, and everyone would say, ‘I don’t hear a single.’ ” But the group was able to obtain a deal locally with Jam and Lewis, former Prince bandmates and super-producers behind unimpeachable hits for the S.O.S. Band, the Human League, New Edition, and Janet Jackson, among others. 

Much like executives at Warner and MCA, the manager of Jam and Lewis’ label didn’t hear a future hit on Mint Condition’s demo. “When we got signed, bands were on their way out,” Williams says — the rise of sampling and drum machines would eventually kill the ensemble approach to R&B — but “we were still out here singing, dancing, playing our own instruments.” As a result, “We’d bump heads with the general manager.” Williams remembers being asked, “Why don’t you do what Jodeci is doing?”

Listening again now, Mint Condition’s first single seems like a clear concession to the market — 1991’s “Are You Free” sounds like an attempt to fit in with the New Jack Swing that was ascendant at the time, though it also nods to the “dynamic, high-energy” roots of the band. Either way, the track fell flat. “‘Are You Free’ — we didn’t get free,” Williams jokes. “We still ain’t free on that.”

After that, the group decided to go against type and release “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” the demo track that had been dubbed “not a single” by so many record executives. Naturally, it became a massive hit, going Top Five on the R&B chart and Top 10 on the pop chart. The song was so big that Mint Condition got in trouble if they performed without playing it. “That was a no-no,” Williams says. To try and stay engaged, the group repeatedly rearranged the song when they played it live, experimenting with a new intro or bridge. 

One of the most famous versions of the track, captured in a live recording at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., has truly monstrous drumming, a flashy flurry of speed and power. “Double-timing the drums is just fun to do,” Williams says. “And that became a staple for younger generations — when people play it now, a lot of times they’ll do it like that.”

Mint Condition hasn’t released a new album since 2015; during that time, Williams has been focusing on his solo career. He’s not on TikTok himself, and might not even have watched all the videos built around his song if he hadn’t been laid up sick. But he’s grateful for the latest wave of attention. “My latest album, Sankofa, talks about looking backward to travel forward,” he says. “And here we are, you call me about this. This is the gift that keeps giving.”

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