We’re TLC and We Just Tell It Like It Is: Chilli on Trio’s Unfiltered Debut 25 Years Later

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TLC‘s 1992 debut Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip turns 25 tomorrow (Feb. 25), but its content still feels relevant today. Roll through the 15-track opus and there’s no faking the attitude that seeps through album cuts like “Bad By Myself” and smash hits like “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” or “What About Your Friends.”

Blending hip-hop with R&B, the trio — comprised of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas — weren’t shy to shun industry expectations of female acts. Wearing baggy clothing, boxers and condoms to promote sexual awareness and speaking directly and frankly bout their friendships and relationship standards was all normal routine for the Atlanta reps, whose tagline could have been, “When keeping it real goes right.”

Here, Chilli reflects to Billboard about the key players (cc: L.A. Reid and Babyface), the hit records and incessant pranking that created TLC’s unfiltered debut.

L.A. Reid, who executive produced the album, said in an interview that he didn’t have to sit around and think of everything for TLC because the three of you had your own ideas of what you wanted the group to be. In 1992, what were you, T-Boz and Left-Eye trying to accomplish with TLC?

The funny part is, I don’t think we were necessarily trying so hard — we were truly being ourselves, and we fought hard to be that. Especially being young ladies, and not wanting to wear the typical outfits that girls would wear, like tight dresses. There’s nothing wrong with that look, but it wasn’t what we felt comfortable in. It was cool because L.A. [Reid] wasn’t trying to pressure us. He was on our team, he saw the vision and supported it — our outside-the-box way of thinking. And we had no idea that we would be speaking to so many other girls who felt just as we did. Once we found our niche and were really comfortable about it, then we really went on with it.

What were the first impressions of each other upon meeting?

Well, I was a dancer for Damian Dame, which was L.A. and Babyface’s first group, and I was a dancer. Then when I met them I kinda just put them on the spot and said, “Hey, I can sing. Wanna hear me sing?” And I just started singing. It’s funny how timing is everything — like how we say it’s an “MTB” thing, “meant to be” — because at that time, Tionne and Lisa were looking for a third member.

That’s when L.A. relayed that message back to his then-wife Pebbles [TLC’s former manager]. I think she came to rehearsals, I met her and went back to her office to meet the girls, and it was so funny, because Tionne was not friendly at all, and Lisa was. But I didn’t care. I didn’t take it personal: I hugged Tionne, I hugged Lisa and started singing.

Then that same night we went out to L.A. and Pebbles’ house and put together a quick little routine. Tionne sang a verse in Guy’s “Wanna Get With U,” because she’s got that deep, raspy voice. I did “Hold On” by En Vogue, and Lisa did one of her raps. So we auditioned in their basement in front of L.A. and Babyface — I think [songwriter/musician] Daryl Simmons was there, and [producers] Kayo and Dallas, and then that was it.

What’s the first memory that comes to mind while recording Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip?

Pranks. [Laughs] We got in so much trouble back then, during that time in the studio, with water fights and just playing all the time. You hear that in the album with the interludes. We had a lot of fun on top of a lot of stress. We would always pull pranks on other people — we were a team for sure. A rep from LaFace Records would take us to dinner and had fake roaches and fake ants. After a while, no one really wanted to hang out with us because they knew we were gonna do something to them — girl or guy, it didn’t matter. So we would be at a really nice restaurant and eat half the food then put fake bugs on it. It was crazy!

Then we’d be in the airport and run with those baggy pants and boxer shorts underneath. Our pants would fall down to our knees. I would run, put my hand on the wall and pretend like I slammed my face, and people would be like, “Oh my God! Are you okay?” Of course we’d be dying laughing, and [people would] be so annoyed like, “Are you little kids?” Because we looked like babies, but we were grown. We were some rugrats.

Going to some of the big records on the album, like “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” — where did the confidence in talking about sex come from? 

Dallas was very observant when it came to the attitudes between the three of us and the things that we talked about — things most other girls wouldn’t be comfortable talking about. All of that kind of helped him with the direction almost instantly, because we just didn’t care. We still don’t.

I remember being in the studio when he was working on that track, before our lyrics even came up, and Lisa and I would kinda stand in the corner and start putting routines together. Lisa and I would be jumping up and dancing because it sounded good. It was different. I hadn’t heard anything like that. Sometimes different can be too different for people — but I think, again, it was the timing of it all [that made it work]. How he was evolving as a producer, and us coming out as these strong-headed girls with a lot of stuff to talk about.

I remember we were called feminists, and we cracked up laughing, because we were like, “What? Why are they calling us feminists?” I had to go back and listen to what we were saying again, and I thought, “OK, I guess I could see how they could get that a little bit.” But to us, we were just speaking from a woman’s point of view, saying the things that women talk about, and weren’t afraid to say out loud.

What did being called a feminist then mean versus now? 

Well back then, we didn’t take it as a compliment. We were like, “Oh my God, we’re not feminists!” We took it as a bad thing. But then after a while, we just embraced it. But we didn’t necessarily put ourselves in any category — we weren’t saying, “Yeah, we’re feminists.” We’re TLC, and we just tell it like it is.

The album intro starts off with a man saying that the baggy clothes and the group’s directness was just a fad. Whose idea was it to put that at the top of the record?

That was Dallas’ idea. It wasn’t a fad because no one made us dress like that, or came up with this idea and completely transformed it to TLC. Everything from the music to our clothes was truly authentic. Lisa and I were in my basement spray painting our overalls.

For our first album, we were our own dressers. We didn’t have no stylists. We came up with all of the ideas when it came to dressing. At that time, Cross Colours and Jabos were really popular so we were able to get stuff from them but we always added accessories. We always had a vision of how we wanted to be. There’s no way in the world we could do the dances that we did in high heels and tight dresses — it would just be a total accident [waiting to happen]. We’d be in the hospital somewhere with broken ankles. It’s not good at all.

Talk to me about “What About Your Friends.” What conversation sparked the idea for that song?

All of us can relate to that. Dallas brought that on through conversation. Of course, Lisa went back to her experiences, and it kinda just flowed naturally. It just came about because we all say that to a person we thought was our friend, like, “What about your friends? What’s going on?” We’ve all been back-stabbed by people we thought were our true friends and that’s a life lesson that you learn as you get older.

I remember my big mama [grandmother] used to say, “You’ll start out with so many friends, and then as you get older, if you’re blessed to just have one good one, it’s a blessing.” I didn’t know what she meant by that because I was thinking, ‘Nuh uh, I want like a bajillion friends.” Now, I totally get what she was talking about.

“Shock Dat Monkey” was an interesting track. How did that one come about?

Well that was L.A., Babyface, Kayo and Daryl Simmons. We started in the studio in Dallas first, then once L.A. and them heard these songs, they’re like, “Oh my God. ‘Two inches or a yard/Rock hard or if it’s sagging?’ That’s a hardcore line right there!” And they were like, “Well shoot! Let’s just go there!”

Were there any lines that the group was hesitant to say then or wish you could change looking back on it now?

Oh my God, no! It’s funny because one of my most memorable studio moments was when we worked with [producer] Marley Marl. He did “Das da Way We Like ‘Em.” We’re fans of LL Cool J, and at that time, [Marl] was one of his main producers. When we went to New York to work with him, he was like, “All three of y’all should rap” and I was like, “What?! Now, hold up. I’ve got that singing part down but I don’t know about that rap!” I just got the confidence, especially with the hook, because “Das da Way We Like ‘Em” was just us talking about the kind of guy we like. I wrote that rap at 21 and when I look back and read the lyrics, it’s the same stuff I say today about the type of guy I want. I’m like, man, I knew what I was talking about!

At that age, you kind of know things, but you’re not always very confident to share some of your thoughts, in fear that somebody might say something or judge you. As you get older, you become more unapologetic about how you really are, how you feel about things, and you really say it out loud. People say silly stuff to me like, “You’re too picky,” and I know that I’m not. I listen back to that and I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t just make this up, I always felt like that.” So I was very proud of that rap and I love that song. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

Everything about the album is pretty unapologetic, even with “Hat 2 Da Back,” where you all embrace your sense of style. Did that song come from a specific place?

Yeah, Lisa was dating this white guy and he was kind of wanting her to dress a little bit more feminine. She’s got this line, “I never talked about them damn finger waves in his head.” [Laughs.] Back in those days — leaving the ’80s and coming into the ’90s, guys could wear those kinda feminine hairdos and it was all good so that was real. The song kind of started out because that’s how we dress, and then it just kinda evolved into her dissing the dude that she was with. That’s one of my favorite raps from her.

With independent-women anthems like “Bad By Myself,” were there certain people in your lives who encouraged that confidence and belief in self?

I can definitely speak for myself on that, because I was raised by my mom and my great-grandmother. Seeing these very strong women do the damn thing, I admired that so much, and wanted to be like that. I thought it was strong and a really great quality to have. And it doesn’t mean that you’re not feminine or you can’t be vulnerable when it comes to things but at the same time, you don’t lose who you are. Because I did, in a relationship. I lost who I was as a person for a minute. I mean, if you can avoid it all together, try to avoid that! But those teachings and things from my mom and big mama helped me.

Tionne was the same way — her mom was really strong. And a lot of the things Lisa experienced — she talked about her parents, her dad was abusive and so you can look at things like that and it will certainly affect you, but you make a choice and say, “Hey, I’m not gonna be that. I’m not gonna deal with that kinda stuff.” You could tell out of the three of us, Lisa was the rebel of the group, and it had a lot to do with her upbringing. We balanced each other out. It’s funny because Tionne and I talk about this to this day — we’re never really crazy mad at the same time, which is good. We’re firecrackers, so it would not be good if all three of us was on 10 at the same time.

In ’92, what was going on in society that sparked “His Story”? Lisa shouts out Tawana Brawley, who was the 15-year-old girl that alleged a group of white men had raped her. 

“His Story” was happening before we were even born. Once you’re at a certain point where you really pay attention and it affects you, because you’re old enough to understand what that is, we felt it was very important to talk about that because it’s very unfortunate that something like that can happen. Society will believe his story over yours and that’s just not right. I don’t care if a woman goes on a date butt-naked. If she’s not saying, “OK yes, I’m with this,” then it’s still a no.

It kinda grew from the [Brawley] story, but her story along with so many stories like that. I remember when I was in college, we would have in our dorms this certain ringer that you would press if a girl was date-raped. And it’s so sad. You would hear that bell ring every weekend, [girls] not wanting to say anything or report it in fear that no one’s gonna believe you.

With this album, were you looking to help women of all ages cope with whatever they were going through?

Absolutely. Truly, these are stories — some of that stuff is from our own experiences, and just other people we’ve heard about, so we wanted to be that voice. We didn’t know who would really hear it or who would pay attention — we just knew that we wanted to stand up for women, period.

At the time, were there any female artists that did that for the three of you?

Salt-N-Pepa have some really good songs, like “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and I think they were very upfront with certain things that related to that. Obviously Janet Jackson was that way. They told the stories from their point of view, in their way. Just like with us. And those are women that we like and admire. We just wanted to tell it in our way, not ever trying to be like anybody else, to this day.

TLC also showed different sides of themselves, with songs like “Baby-Baby-Baby.” What inspired that song?

The amazing Babyface. Who else? [Laughs.] It’s so funny. I just always loved and enjoyed working with him in the studio, because when you meet him, he’s so quie,t but then when he’s in the studio with us, it got crazy! I think we brought that out of everybody. Everybody’s got a silly side in them. So we’d be inside the studio, having fun with him all the time.

Wth this song, it was just so perfect lyrically because it’s true. The way he has Tionne singing, and then I come in. We all had our role and everybody respected each other’s role in the group and how you delivered your part. When we sing “baby, baby, baby,” I love the lyrics for my part, because I feel like every woman should have that attitude. “As long as you know I can have any man that I want to, but I choose you.”

And so clearly a lot of guys can look at it and go, “You’re a trip,” but it is true! Girls really do choose the guy — that’s just how it is. We, as women have to remember the power we have and not use it in the wrong way — be respectful about it, and always respect yourself, but just know that you do have that power and hold onto it. Don’t let it slip through your hands.

Lastly, how many O’s were actually meant to be in the debut’s title?

I can’t remember how many O’s we had in the ‘Ooooooohhh’ but it was very important to get the right amount. That came last-minute, because we always say we’re on our own tip and then once TLC started saying “Ooooooohhh,” the Ooooooohhh’s got longer. So we were like, “Shoot, that’s gonna be the title of the album!”

Looking to the future, TLC has been teasing a new album. What can you share about that project? 

It’ll come out this summer and I’m so excited because it’s classic TLC. When you hear it, it won’t feel like it’s old music. It’s TLC today because that’s the one thing that’s kind of hard — once you figure out what your niche is and people fall in love with you as an artist for certain things, moving forward, you want to be able to evolve, but you have to keep that key ingredient that makes you, you and that makes you the artist that people love and admire. And I feel, with everything in me, that that’s exactly what we did.

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