By Wesley Case
When Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas learned last week that Riplay, the rising R&B trio from Baltimore signed to Def Jam Records, cited her group, TLC, as a major inspiration for the members’ individuality, Thomas beamed like a proud parent.
“When we hear those kinds of things, especially young girl groups that are really wanting to come out and make a difference, I’m like, ‘Yes! We’re doing what we’re supposed to do again,’ ” Thomas said on the phone from her Atlanta home. “We’re staying on the right path. More power to them.”
She’s heard similar stories since the early ’90s, when TLC — featuring Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes — burst onto the R&B scene, complete with their own colorful, hip-hop-influenced style with “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” From Grammys and platinum plaques to tragedy and drama that led to a memorable VH1 “Behind the Music” special, TLC’s story and influence continues to resonate with fans today — something Thomas does not take for granted.
“It’s definitely a blessing from God that we’ve been able to have longevity in such a hard business,” said Thomas, who will be in town to perform with Watkins as TLC at Artscape on Friday. “We never allowed all the craziness to tear us apart.”
One of the best-selling female singing groups ever with more than 70 million records sold worldwide, TLC appeared like fresh-faced stars out of the gate, with a look and sound that nodded to a recent past (early rap, new jack swing) but felt fresh and distinctive, too.
After their 1992 debut, maturation and pop domination followed: 1994’s “CrazySexyCool,” and songs like “Creep” and the crossover hit “Waterfalls,” announced the trio as an undeniable pop force, and 1999’s “FanMail” birthed the now era-defining anthem, “No Scrubs.”
With messages of self-respect and empowerment, the songs resonated with Top 40 audiences, and women of all ages in particular. Thomas said it was clear during recording that the songs were special to the members, but they had no idea at the time if they’d ever catch on with the masses.
“You hope that once it’s out there, people can relate. … We don’t go into the studio and say, ‘OK, what do we think people want us to say?’ ” Thomas said. “It really boils down to the simple fact that we’re all the same. We all go through similar things.”
That includes unexpected tragedy, which struck TLC in 2002.
While in Honduras, as TLC was on a collective break and Lopes pursued a solo career, she died in a car accident at 30. Thousands attended her funeral in Georgia, while many more mourned around the world.
In late May, Thomas posted a candid photograph of Lopes on Instagram with a caption that said she thinks of her “all the time.” On the phone, Thomas said, “the memories are always good.”
“I always think about if she were still alive, what we’d be doing. I know we’d still be on the road, being our silly selves,” Thomas said. “We know that what we’re doing is what she would have wanted us to do — to keep going so that we keep this TLC thing alive as long as we possibly can.”
Lopes didn’t sing on TLC records, Thomas said. But as the group’s rapper, she was the most charismatic, often stealing songs with thoughtful verses that added a welcomed hard-edge to TLC’s smooth R&B. She was the most outspoken and controversial of the group, too. (She infamously burned an ex-boyfriend’s house down in the mid-’90s by setting fire to his sneakers).
But Thomas said Lopes was irreplaceable, which is why TLC has remained a duo in her absence. Despite reported inner-group turmoil over the years, Lopes kept her role, a fact Thomas wasn’t going to change in her passing.
“We would always say, if we were ever going to replace her, it would have happened while she was still around,” Thomas said with a laugh. “It could never be done anyway.”
Still, a final chapter of sorts came last summer, when TLC released their self-titled and last studio album, Thomas said. Led by singles “Way Back” and “Haters,” the album debuted at No. 38 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, a sign that even a group as successful as TLC isn’t immune to lukewarm responses after a considerable layoff. (It was their first original album in 15 years.)
Despite no plans to ever record a full album again, Thomas and Watkins plan to record for soundtracks and other one-off opportunities, she said. They couldn’t stop singing if they tried, according to Thomas.
The creativity is all the way through the DNA. We can’t shelve it even if we wanted to, and we don’t want to,” Thomas said. “It has to make sense to us, not only musically but visually, too. Those kinds of things are important to us, and when it feels right, we do it.”
For Thomas, there’s satisfaction in simply knowing TLC’s influence on music’s current generation. Besides inspiring groups like Riplay, she’s proud to see artists like Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars — noted TLC fans — ruling the charts by being themselves, just as her group did.
“Bruno Mars is very colorful, like how we were when we first got started,” Thomas said. “You love watching him perform because he’s just so entertaining, and he reminds me a lot of us in so many ways.”
Studio albums may be in the past, but TLC will continue to perform live regularly, Thomas said. There are plans for the duo to sign on for a Las Vegas residency in the near future, she said.
Thomas couldn’t remember how long it’s been since her last trip to Baltimore, but guessed it was on a tour date many years ago. Artscape attendees can expect the group’s big hits, and an overall vibe of positive energy, she said.
“We love what we do still. We give 200 percent on stage,” Thomas said. “We hear so many people say … our albums were the soundtrack of their high school years or college or whatever. All that love that we get from them and pour back out to them, it’s just a whole TLC lovefest going on.”
Thomas doesn’t take for granted the fact she still gets to provide that love, and it’s received with open arms.
“We’re just so thankful and grateful that we’re able to do this, and even more thankful that people still want to see us,” she said. “It’s a big deal.”
TLC performs at Artscape on 7:30 p.m. Friday at the MICA Main Stage, 1400 Cathedral St., Mid-Town Belvedere. Free. For more information, go to artscape.org.
Cred: Luis A.