Arson, bankruptcy, alcohol, abuse. For a group who used to dress like teenage girls, TLC have had to face some grown-up problems…
In the far corner of a London photographic studio, the three members of TLC are busy playing at being school girls. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas certainly look the part. Running through a selection of nursery rhymes, hand jives, and the occasional high pitched shriek, the girls could feasibly pass for 13-year-old teenagers and not the mid-twenty-something adults they actually all are. But then it’s easy to misjudge TLC.
Quite simple just to file them with SWV and Eternal, or the multitude of other vocal troupes in the business. But TLC are different. You can sense it in the intensity and emotion in all three girls’ voices when they drag themselves away from their playground games and finally to sit down to speak. You can sense it in their refusal to dwell on familiar themes of love and romance. And when, in a break for photographs, the trio begin singing to the tape that plays the first three tracks from Nirvana‘s “Nevermind” LP — not just like fans, but with obvious empathy for the sentiments expressed by Mr Cobain — it’s also obvious that something’s not quite right.
In many ways, TLC are your archetypal American pop group. One of the foremost examples of how a black musical sound, R&B, has infiltrated the mainstream consciousness of a nation and proceeded to sell in the sort of numbers — 7 million copies worldwide for their second album, “Crazysexycool” — not seen since the halcyon days of Motown.
Shortly into my conversation with the group, I realise TLC could do without all the theorising about their success. “Sometimes it seems like the people we’d least like to give credit to are the ones taking all the praise”, insists Lisa Lopes. “And that hurts”.
So who really deserves credit for TLC’s success? For starters, a young woman called Crystal. It was Crystal who trawled the streets of Atlanta in a search for two girls to start her own group. And some time in 1990, Lisa Lopes and Tionne Watkins accepted her offer. Lisa was a rapper. She’d grown up in Philadelphia, but fled to Atlanta to escape family problems. Tionne had also experienced life in a broken home. First in Iowa and then in Atlanta. She worked as a manicurist, a shampoo girl and a hair model. She’d never really wanted a regular job. Besides, she could sing. “We all had very definite ideas about where we wanted to take it, you know?” says Tionne. “But it would have been a whole lot easier if both of us could have got on with Crystal. But it wasn’t meant to be. Me and Lisa, we decided to go off on our own”.
A friend of a friend introduced Lisa and Tionne to Pebbles — the wife of superstar producer LA Reid, and a moderately successful singer in her own right. Pebbles became the girls’ manager. It all made perfectly good sense. As did the entrance into the group of a third singer, Rozonda Thomas, whose sweet, child-like voice complemented the other two perfectly.
When TLC signed to LaFace Records — LA Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds’ newish label imprint — under the management of Pebbles, “we couldn’t have dreamed that things would work out better,” says Tionne. “We were three girls with plenty of ideas, with a woman manager who we thought could understand all about problems and look after all our needs. We really felt we were in control. TLC was always going to be about three female singers in the group getting their viewpoint across. That’s why we are happy. Maybe a little bit too happy, in fact.”
TLC’s 1992 album, “Ooooooohhh… on the TLC tip“, was, it has to be said, not a triumphant debut. The album contained two decent singles, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby-Baby-Baby”. Beyond that, the group were more notable for their image than their music. Dressed in ultra baggy, Day-Glo costumes, and with Lisa Lopes sporting glasses featuring a condom attached to the left lens, in an attempt to promote safe sex, they looked tomboyish and quite ridiculous at the same time; the very antithesis of the airbrushed, pouting genre of a female band. As if they weren’t yet ready to grow up.
It was in 1992 when TLC went off on a huge tour of the States, alongside Hammer, Boyz II Men and Jodeci. Already the cracks were beginning to appear. Arguments flared over management, money and the future direction of the group. The debut album had sold over three million copies, and yet TLC (particularly Lisa Lopes) were far from happy about their role in all of this. It was producer/songwriter Dallas Austin who’d written most of the tracks for the debut. TLC wanted more of a say in their future. Increasingly, they wanted more money too.
So exactly what were the main arguments that blew up on tour?
“We found out what the other groups on the tour were earning,” says Lisa abruptly.
“When you’ve come from nothing, even $4,000 seems like a lot of money,” argues Rozonda. “But when you start to realise you’re part of a very successful group, you start to wonder what’s happening to the rest of the money that your record and tour is making”.
“You start to get angry about being told that you always have to mention the names of certain people that we were working with in interviews,” explains Tionne.
But throughout the years since the group’s formation, Lisa Lopes had had her own personal problems too. In 1991 her physically abusive father died. Lisa’s subsequent success left her shouldering responsibility for the rest of her family. She bought cars for her mother and paid the college tuition fees for her brother and sister. And she also began to drink excessively. Lisa admits that for a while drinking affected her career. But most of all, it almost destroyed her relationship with her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband, American football player, Andre Rison.
“My father was an alcoholic, so I became an alcoholic”, Lisa says. “There was a drink around me all of the time. But then in other ways he was really strict. He’d beat me and my mother. So when I decided to run away from home, it was alcohol that I looked to for support.”
Lisa’s relationship with Andre Rison was anything but conventional. She’d met the sporting hero when she was 17. Violent altercations between the couple were common. In September 1993 passers-by claimed to have witnessed Andre striking Lisa and then firing a 9mm handgun into the air when they tried to intervene. Charges were dropped, but the stormy relationship lived on. Ten months later, Andre Rison’s $2 million mansion was destroyed by a fire in the early hours of the morning and Lisa Lopes was involved in the incident. “I started a small fire, but I didn’t expect to burn down a whole house”, admits Lisa today.
Whatever the reasons for the fire — the most popular thesis being that Lisa was drunk and that Andre was violent — it was settled in court. Lisa received a suspended sentence for arson and a stint in Charter Peachford, an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. Remarkably, the couple’s relationship lives on. They are due to wed next July.
Against this catalogue of disasters — the group ditched Pebbles in the process as well — it’s a near miracle TLC got around to recording their second LP. Even more so that “Crazysexycool”, with tracks like the poignant, elegaic “Waterfalls”, turned out to be the near-perfect example of R&B-influenced pop that it was. Although half the tracks were again written by producer Dallas Austin, this time around the personalities of all three members seemed to shine through far more strongly.
Ironic then, that today, almost one year after it’s release, TLC wish to distance themselves almost entirely from “Crazysexycool”. And that despite the album’s multi-platimum success, the trio announced that they were bankrupt three months ago, citing liabilities in excess of $3.5 million. Debts incurred, they claim, from attempting to live perpetually on advances. Lisa, Tionne and Rozonda each owe their production company, Pebbitone (owned by ex-manager Pebbles), $566,434. The trio also owe a further £387,000 to their label LaFace.
You seem to pride yourselves on the control you exercised over your career — doesn’t bankruptcy prove you were in no control at all?
“Of course, I can see how people will think that”, says Tionne. “I can see that people will probably be laughing at TLC. But until those people have been put in the situation we’ve been through, those people will never understand”.