After the booze, the bankruptcy, the arson, the self-inflicted scarring and the multi-million sales, the ‘crazy’ member of TLC has made her own record. Is teeny, tiny Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes the new Lauryn Hill? Or will her miseducation get in the way of solo superstardom?
Precious Williams, October 2001
Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes is a surreal affair. First off, Lopes — the TLC member who put the ‘Crazy’ into the group’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ mantra — can’t eat ‘solid food’. Or drink coffee. Or tea. She is on day 38 of a 40-day fast and her idea of a substantial meal is a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. On the rocks.
We are in a vast warehouse studio in midtown Manhattan with Bob Marley blaring out of the stereo and Lopes’s publicists and record label execs fitting around. Lopes seems oblivious to the commotion as she sits on a stool at her dressing table, clad in jeans, a black vest and a pair of yellow fluffy slippers.
‘Too many of us eat to satisfy our hunger when we really don’t need that much food to survive’, she says, staring serenely at her reflection in the huge mirror in front of her. ‘We need to eat to live, not live to eat’.
Make-up free and with a cotton bandana covering her hair, Lopes is not the statuesque babe you’ve seen in TLC videos alongside bandmates Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas. She is petite and elfin, with daintily pretty features, glowing skin and huge, soulful brown eyes.
At five foot one and six and a half stone (she’s lost a stone during the fast), she is formidably toned, but tiny. She is 30, but fulfils the cliche of looking half her age. It’s hard to believe that this delicate-looking creature once burnt her boyfriend’s (Andre Rison, a player with American football team the Oakland Raiders) house down in a drunken stupor.
Her screwed-up behaviour was a result of immaturity and guzzling too much booze, she says now. ‘I’ve been through a lot of experiences’, she sighs. ‘The way that I chose to deal with things had to do with my parents and how I was raised. But I’m tired of all that stuff.’
So Lopes kicked the booze. She claims she gave it up ‘absolutely alone’ with no help from friends or Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘I’m a strong-willed person’, she says. ‘I am so in tune with my body right now that if I was to take a drink of wine, I could literally feel it burning my stomach, like acid. I could feel it. It doesn’t feel good at all’.
While admitting minutes later that ‘occasionally I do give in to peer pressure and break down and drink wine – but it will be just one glass’, Lopes’s idea of fun these days is to flit away to a secluded holistic ‘healing’ village in Honduras. ‘Everything there is natural, she says dreamily. ‘There are huts made out of mud and they are gonna last for hundreds of years. But when they finally do crumble and fall to the earth, they are mud, so they will blend back into nature.’
She sighs again. ‘I just got tired of the pain. You get to a point when you decide there are only a couple of directions you can go in. You know what I’m saying? I chose to go in a direction that would help me free my mind. And now I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to do since the first TLC album: I’ve finished my own album.’
Lopes’s distinctive rap style — all languidly drawled vowels and bouncy delivery — has helped make hits for a range of artists, from Melanie C (Spice Girls) to Method Man. But with her long-promised solo album, it’s all her shout.
‘Supernova’ is a blatantly autobiographical pop/rap ride which combines the eclecticism and beats of Missy Elliott with the soulful uplift of Lauryn Hill.
Free of collaborations (Lopes had suggested there might be duets with Madonna, Prince and Lil’ Kim), the album showcases Lopes’s production and writing prowess, as well as her MC-ing skills.
First single, ‘The Block Party‘, takes a slinky, Eastern-inspired beat and laces it with a rap about shell-toe Adidas and fat gold chains. ‘I Believe In Me‘, with it’s feel-good chorus and self-affirming lyrics, is more reminiscent of a TLC tune, but the song’s lyrics are strictly about Lopes. ‘I am Diana Ross/And not a Supreme‘, she raps gleefully, before adding that she loves TLC and that people underestimate – or simply don’t know or understand – the real Left Eye.
‘This album is very personal and special to me. I’ve been talking about and wanting to do a solo project since after TLC’s first album. Just to show everyone what I can do and to really challenge myself.’
When TLC emerged in 1992 with the single ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’, from the platinum selling ‘Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip’, Lopes was, to most observers, the pretty, hyperactive little rapper with the trio. She has claimed since that she is in fact, ‘the creative force’ behind the group. Regardless of which band member had the most creative input, TLC topped the charts with their ground-breaking hybrid of pop, rap and R&B at a time when Destiny’s Child were still in junior high school.
TLC served up feminist ideology in a sexy wrapping, quickly becoming as famous for their surreal videos and out-there outfits (in the early days they wore Day-Glo condoms as accessories) as for the uncompromising, do-it-yourself lyrics of songs like ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’ from 1994’s ‘CrazySexyCool’. As well as earning TLC three MTV Video Music Awards for Best Video, ‘Waterfalls’ catapulted the trio from R&B leaders to mainstream pop mega-stardom.
Then everything went pear-shaped. Although they had sold over six million albums, Lopes, T-Boz and Chilli filed for bankruptcy in 1995, listing over $3.5 million in liabilities (including mortgages, production costs and a $1.5 million bill for torching Rison’s mansion). Lopes pleaded guilty to a charge or arson and was locked up in a detention centre for six months.
TLC looked almost certain to split and the three formerly close bandmates began to focus on carving out their own niches in the world. Chilli settled down with former TLC producer Dallas Austin, had a baby and then announced that she wanted to leave TLC to spend more time raising her son.
T-Boz launched a fashion line, Grungy Glamour, starred in Hype Williams’ hip-hop flick Belly and wrote an autobiography ‘Thoughts’, before marrying rapper Mack 10 and giving birth to a daughter.
Lopes got a job at MTV, presenting the daily talent show The Cut. And then in 1999, the trio bounced back with the hugely acclaimed ‘FanMail’ and the singles ‘No Scrubs’ and ‘Unpretty’.
‘FanMail’ won them three Grammys and made TLC best-selling female trio of all time. But the success was blighted by tension. T-Boz announced that she had sickle cell anaemia and couldn’t travel to promote the album. Meanwhile, the trio were arguing over who had contributed most to the writing of the album.
‘I didn’t care for ‘FanMail’, Lopes says flatly. ‘I was disappointed with it. If fans hated it, then I understand why. Lots of fans loved it and I don’t know why’, she chuckles loudly.
‘There are some great songs on the album, but overall, y’know, everybody has their opinion and mine is that ‘FanMail’ is not good. I just don’t care for it.’
The ‘FanMail’ fallout culminated with Lopes calling on her bandmates to ‘show and prove’ their talents — they should find out who was the most popular member of TLC by each recording solo albums. At the time of the challenge, Chilli retorted: ‘I thought it was ridiculous. Why would I compete with my own group member? I didn’t understand the mentality’.
Today, Lopes simply says that T-Boz and Chilli are ‘relieved’ that she has now finished the solo project she has talked of working on for close to a decade. Things are ‘cool’ with the group, she insists, and they are currently working on their fourth album.
‘We don’t hang out much but that’s not a reflection on anything we’ve gone through. Even before all of the problems, we weren’t really hanging-out types. We spent so much time together on the road that we needed space.’
Lopes leans forward and reaches into her beaten up little rucksack and pulls out what looks like a giant paper Rubik’s cube.
‘Here’, she breathes, handing me the cube. ‘This is a dodecahedron I made to go with ‘Supernova’. It’s got 12 sides, and each side represents a song on my album. You need to throw it and see where it lands.’ Each side of Lopes’s dodecahedron bears a song title and mantra, in her own scrawl.
As she puts the cube back into her bag, I see her left forearm clearly for the first time. The word ‘hate’ has been savagely carved into her arm in capitals, the raised reddish-brown letters standing out angrily against cafe au lait skin. Lopes smiles disarmingly as she fingers the scar.
‘I did this seven years ago’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘It was a bad time for me. I was in the detention centre, and I’d got this overnight pass to go visit Andre’.
‘But it wasn’t a good visit. So I guess I was in need of a lot of attention that night’, she continues, with a strange gurgling little laugh obviously masking a lot of pain. ‘It was just like the movies, I wanted them to come in and find me and rescue and bandage me up and give me some comfort. There was blood everywhere.’
Lopes was undoubtedly driven to arson by Rison’s well-reported anti-social behaviour. He allegedly cheated on Lopes, slapped her around and even fired a gun during a fight with her in a parking lot. Then Lopes split with Rison and began dating model Sean Newman. Last year, however, to widespread incredulousness, Lopes and Rison got back together and announced to the world that this time it was forever. Rison even raps on one of Lopes’s favourite tracks on ‘Supernova’, the autobiographical ‘Rags To Riches’.
‘He’s a producer and I asked him to produce a song on my album. Once he came to do that, one thing led to another. We want to be together. We’re spending a lot of time together, quality time.’
So far the marriage has been held up by Lopes’s work on her new album and by Rison’s complicated and manifold legal woes, including a lawsuit for $50,000 in unpaid child support to the mother of his two sons.
Why does Lopes want to settle down with a man who infuriated her so much that she burnt his house down? ‘There’s almost nothing we can hide from each other and that makes the relationship better. We have gone through so many challenges, you know. Situations. Nothing is that big a deal anymore’.
‘And he’s changed’, she adds, giggling girlishly. ‘In the same kinda ways I have changed. He’s been searching for himself and I think he’s starting to find what he’s been looking for’.
Lopes admits that, in the early days of a seven year relationship, Rison reminded her of her late father, a former soldier: ‘my dad was a disciplinarian. He was really, really strict. We was incredibly well-behaved kids.’ Lopes’s father also physically abused her mother in the presence of Lopes and her siblings. She refuses to go into details about the violence she witnessed as a child and instead reminisces about her father’s ludicrous rules.
‘I was on punishment for my entire time at high school’, she smiles wryly. ‘I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio or hang out on the block with the other kids. I wasn’t allowed to have no boyfriend. I didn’t keep up to date [with what was happening in music] then and I don’t to this day. I don’t watch television or go to the movies. I don’t even really read books. I just skim through them and gather data. I guess a lot of people just don’t get it…’
Lopes claims that she only knows what is current in music because she ‘feels it. I don’t have a CD collection and I don’t listen to the radio’. She also doesn’t have any musical heroes as such. Apart from herself.
‘I really think that in five years’ time I will be like a superhero, she announces.
Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes stares expressionlessly at her reflection as she pulls off her bandana and runs her fingers through her thick dark brown hair, which is cornrowed back off her face.
‘I have a real purpose in life’, she says as she unbraids and fluffs out her hair and begins to work on the front section with a sizzling-hot straightening iron. ‘And my purpose is definitely not to be in TLC’.
So is it strictly solo projects ahead for the group formerly known as TLC? Lopes shakes her head.
‘No’, she says slightly unconvincingly. ‘TLC are still together. We are working on our album. We’ve only finished two tracks so far but those two tracks are good. I’m part of TLC but I am an individual. You know? I don’t ever see myself as, um, a smaller piece of a bigger wheel. I wanna be the wheel.’