Kick Your Game: A Conversation with TLC
Pitchfork: Next year is the 25th anniversary of CrazySexyCool. In that time period, do you think it’s become any easier for women in the music industry to be independent, both artistically and financially?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: Women have more of a voice now. I think it was definitely harder before we came out and during the time that we came out. You had to fight a lot harder to make sure your voice was heard. We kicked down a lot of doors. It makes us feel really good when we hear someone like Lady Gaga thank us for paving the way for them. I definitely think that it’s different and the struggle is not over, but not the same.
So much about TLC broke the girl group formula, but there are also aspects of your music that fall into the girl group history: harmonies, choreography, a sense of unity. Did you see yourself as fitting into that lineage when you were forming TLC?
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins: I don’t think we had girl groups on our minds at that time. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a group or just be an artist, period… But growing up [performing] in a band with my family, my mother and my father singing, of course I knew about the Ronettes. Patti LaBelle was one of my mom’s favorite singers. The Supremes, I loved them. But honestly, it wasn’t until I was put in the situation of a group that I started paying attention to the dynamics of being with girls, because I never got along with women growing up. I was like, “Uh oh, is this gonna be super hard for me?” Then I started paying attention to groups.
Did you ever sing girl group music growing up?
T-Boz: Oh, yeah. [singing] “Wait a minute, Mister Postman!” Of course. Even that song that’s out now [“Feel It Still” by Portugal, the Man] sounds just like it and it’s a major hit. When you hear something familiar to your ear that was already a hit, you don’t know why you like it, you’re just drawn to it. And I think that’s why that single did so well, because it was a classic from the Marvelettes.
Women’s self-esteem has always been a big topic for TLC, from “Unpretty” through your more recent song “Perfect Girls.” Do you have any thoughts on this now, in the age of Instagram?
T-Boz: Social media has made it to where young girls are striving to be something that’s not real. They have all these apps and filters where you can adjust your body shape. So I just want the younger generation to understand: None of us are perfect. We all have flaws. I just wish people would be more forthcoming about that. It cracks me up when you see somebody with a clearly fake booty; you wanna lie and say you was doing squats and you got on a push-up bra? Come on, man. Just say, “I got some injections in my lips. I got cheekbones. I got a butt ’cause I didn’t like mine being flat,” and keep it moving.
Chilli: It’s the deceitful part that makes it not okay. Nobody has this super-smooth everything from your head to your toenails.
T-Boz, I know you have a teenage daughter and a younger son. And Chilli, you have an older son and you founded Chilli’s Crew, an Atlanta nonprofit for disadvantaged teen girls. What are you trying to teach your daughter and your program girls today about how to live in this world?
T-Boz: My daughter understands how to respect herself. She’s been knowing that since she could talk. I’ve heard her even tell her friends about how they should respect themselves. And I don’t have to worry about nobody else raising my child, because I do. I’m secure in knowing that I’ve done my job as a parent and she’s not looking to Instagram to raise her.
Chilli: It’s sad because a lot of those girls [in Chilli’s Crew] are in group homes and they have a lot of challenges. I tell them to tell themselves,“I’m not going to allow these circumstances to be the reason that I can’t be successful.” You don’t always have to be a product of your environment…. And with my son, I’m just raising him to not be the average dude. That would not be acceptable to me. I’m teaching him to be respectful not only to women but to adults. I tell him,“I don’t care how old you become, I’m always gonna be older, so you’re never gonna be my equal.”
Do you have a favorite Left Eye moment in a TLC song?
T-Boz: Just her essence is my favorite. But one moment is the opening of how we all began, on “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” I mean, if I didn’t know us and I saw this girl with this bright green hat going, “Yo, one check, mic check, one, two, one, two, we in the house…” She just had this energy; you had to pay attention.
Chilli: I really love how she rapped in our Christmas song, “Sleigh Ride.” I miss how silly we all used to be together. It was just how we interacted, at least when we were all liking each other at the same time—you know how sisters are! We used to get into so much trouble. Almost getting kicked out of hotels, making an airplane almost turn back.
Wait, you almost grounded an airplane by being too crazy?
Chilli: Yeah, on the [MC] Hammer tour. Lisa got on the plane with her boombox and every time the flight attendant would come by, she’d ask her to turn the volume down. And Lisa would turn it down, but as soon as the flight attendant would walk away, she’d turn it back up. She kept doing that. And then it just kind of escalated from that point.
T-Boz: They had the police waiting for her when we landed. Lisa didn’t like the way the lady asked her. She felt that she could have asked her more respectfully. She was like [uncanny Left Eye impression], “I wouldn’t have minded if she would’ve asked me better than that!”
Chilli: She was fearless.
Which women in music do you like right now? Who’s carrying your girl power torch?
T-Boz: I’m happy that Janet’s back, for sure. “The Pleasure Principle” is my favorite song. SZA is dope. I like Cardi B a lot. She just wants to do herself, see her dream out. I love that and I think it’s refreshing.
Chilli: I have to agree on Cardi B. I just like her attitude. She’s real.
Have you reached out to Cardi B to do a song?
T-Boz: There’s been talk about us doing something together, yeah. You know how it is, the politics and people always getting in the way.
Chilli: We would definitely love to do something with her. I think it would make a lot of sense.
Next year is also the 20th anniversary of “No Scrubs.” Have your red flags for a scrub changed in the last two decades? I mean, Tinder is like scrub central.
T-Boz: Oh god, that’s hilarious. I never use that.
Chilli: Yeah, I never. No, it has not changed. It’ll never change.
T-Boz: There are always scrubs. Any generation, you have a scrub. Always.