TLC have hit the road for the first time in years, but the rising tensions between T-Boz, Chilli, and enfant terrible Left Eye are making for a crazy, sexy, and very uncool ride.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in cyberspace. As TLC kick off their first tour in merely five years to a less-than-capacity crowd in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on Oct 22, a crescendo of computerised bleeps and blats envelops the arena. A mammoth robotic vixen — Virtual Vic-E (pronounced “Vicky”) by name — appears on the huge screen at the rear of the stage.
It’s disorienting and dramatic, a Matrix moment. You half expect to hear Laurence Fishburne welcoming you to the real world, but soon Vic-E is introducing the flesh-and-blood stars of the evening: Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, 28 (“Personality: crazy”, Vic-E intones), Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, 29, (“Personality: sexy”), and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, 29, (“Personality: cool”), the Atlanta-based trio whose multiplatinum third album, ‘FanMail’, has spawned two of 1999’s most inescapable anthems, “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”.
As the group launch into set opener “Silly Ho”, they dance with jerky, machine-like precision, their shimmering silver outfits making them look like androids. You find yourself fearing they’ll take this Devo-like shtick too far. Not to worry…
“What’s up with the lights?”, demands Lopes testily between songs, calling the attention of 5,500 fans to some unseen glitch. “This ain’t how we programmed the lights for the show”.
Ah, Left Eye. The most controversial member of the group — it was she who, in 1994, was arrested for burning down the house of her then beau, former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison — can be counted on to inject some chaos into the mix.
Where the baby-faced Chilli projects a palpable sweetness and T-Boz is a combination earth mother and homegirl, Left Eye radiates danger and unpredictability. Prior to her solo spot in the show, during which she performs a magic act, she rattles off definitions of the word ‘crazy’: “Unsound of mind, mentally unbalanced, deranged…” She savors each phrase like a choice morsel.
As it turns out, her magic tricks won’t cost David Copperfield any sleep. But of them provides an analogy with what’s really going on with TLC these days.
“Here we have a string that’s been treated with nitroglycerin”, says Left Eye, grinning loopily. “And here we have a lighter…”
One week earlier, Chilli and T-Boz are sitting high above the crispy autumnal splendor of Central Park in a plush suite in New York’s Trump International Hotel & Tower. Conspicuous in her absence is Left Eye, who’s flown home to Atlanta after a fitful few days of press and radio appearances.
It’s noted that 48 hours before, Lopes had arrived late to and left early from an EW photo shoot, seeming to hold herself apart from the group. She was also a no-show for TLC’s appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live earlier in the week.
Such apparent lack of unity feels particularly significant now, with the group embarking on their first-ever headlining tour, just months after a Vibe cover story in which Left Eye proclaimed she’d “graduated from this era” and could not “stand 100 percent behind this TLC project”. With Left Eye working on her first solo album, inquiring minds want to know: Is the biggest-selling female trio in history in danger of being reduced to a duo?
The question elicits a textbook pregnant pause, during which Chilli and T-Boz exchange pointed glances. With a sigh that roughly translates to screw it, Chilli decides to let it all hang out.
“Honestly, we’re tired of saying things, covering up, making it seem like it’s one thing and it’s really not. We’re stressed”.
T-Boz: “And Lisa doesn’t respect…”
“…Respect the whole group. TLC has to stick together…”
“She doesn’t stick with us.”
“She doesn’t stick with us. And we have to argue to bring her back and focus… She wants to go solo and do other things, so that’s what she’s focused on, which is not fair to us”.
Once the emotional floodgates open, the pair vent — often heatedly — for 45 minutes, railing about Lopes’ alleged derelictions and disloyalty, and at one point break into an a capella version of the old O’Jays hit “Backstabbers”.
They tell how, prior to the recording of ‘FanMail’, Lopes sent their label, LaFace, a letter saying she was quitting, an action that temporarily froze the group’s finances before she changed her mind (“The most evil, selfish, heartless thing anybody could ever do”, says Chilli); how she seems to undercut them by dissing them in interviews and ditching rehearsals; how she’s bitter that every one of the eight songs she’d written for ‘FanMail’ were rejected; how she’s become distressingly capricious about decisions that affect them all.
T-Boz says they’re “tired, tired, tired” of it. “We want her in the group, and she knows that”, Chilli continues. “So it’s almost like she feels she has the power to dangle meat in front of some hungry dogs, like, ‘I can do what I want, because I know they want me here’. So she takes advantage. We’re covering up for her because we don’t want the fans to be mad at us. But we’re mad at her”.
“We lied on MTV, saying she was sick”, adds T-Boz, referring to the TRL taping. “She was not sick”.
“She was at the hotel, upset [with us],” says Chilli. “Left Eye is only concerned about Left Eye”.
The tirade is fearsome. A TLC handler drifts into the suite and turns a whiter shade of pale at the tenor of the conversation. “You guys gonna talk about the tour at all?” she prompts, hopefully.
“We talked about the tour the other day”, snaps Chilli. “This is very important. What was I saying?”
Err, essentially that Lopes is jeopardizing what TLC have worked for since the release of their first album, ‘Ooooooohhh… on the TLC tip’ in 1992. Surely, though, with the tour about to start and millions of dollars at stake, she wouldn’t jump ship now. Would she?
“She has commitments that she has to [honor]”, asserts Chilli. “We just want to let everybody know what we go through. This is what T-Boz and Chilli have to deal with”.
Producer Dallas Austin, often referred to as the fourth member of TLC, chuckles when asked about the Left Eye situation. “They’re like sisters”, says Austin, the father of Chilli’s 2-year-old son, Tron. “I’ve seen this for years. Lisa started playing into a lot of bad stuff in the press because she feels it’s her job. She’ll admit it, too, like, ‘It’s my job to keep the press going’.
She does this wacky stuff, and the next day she’ll change her mind and the girls will get p—ed. They did that Vibe story and Lisa said, ‘I’m not into TLC’. Then she does another article and says, ‘I love the girls to death and I’ll never leave’. Lisa does it as a part of her character, kind of like the guys in Oasis”.
Just what makes this apparent human time bomb tick? Born in Philly, Lopes was raised in a household dominated by an alcoholic father, and she gravitated to music as an escape. In 1991, she and T-Boz were in am embryonic version of TLC. They caught the attention of Perri “Pebbles” Reid, then wife of LaFace co-owner L.A. Reid, who became their manager: When Chilli signed on as the third member; TLC was born.
While Lopes’ first few years with the trio were scandal-free, her reputation as a loose cannon took hold after she was convicted of torching Rison’s house in 1994 (a crime for which she was fined and sentenced to five years’ probation). Soon after, she entered rehab for her own drinking problem.
Austin confirms that Lopes was angered to the point of destruction by the fact that none of her songs were chosen for inclusion on ‘FanMail’. “She turned in eight songs, and they weren’t up to par”, he says. “It’s crazy, because she’d quit the group, then a couple of days later be like, ‘I’m back’. She cries wolf a lot.”
And what of the wolf-child herself? “Wow”, she says some days later; when confronted with Chilli’s and T-Boz’s charges. She takes a few moments to collect her thoughts, then, with seeming indifference to her group mates frustrations, coolly acknowledges a history of intragroup disagreements. She readily admits to being wilful, to missing rehearsals, to being preoccupied with a solo project, and, perhaps most significantly, to quitting TLC.
“I guess it was about a year and a half ago, right before we started working on ‘FanMail’. The process was taking such a long time, the record company wasn’t really adamant about pushing TLC, so that was my attempt to raise eyebrows and get some attention. I wanted to make [LaFace] think, How important is TLC? Is it important enough that if one of us were to leave, you guys would get on the ball? That was my way of doing it. As soon as that happened, chaos broke out. As soon as I sent the letter, T-Boz and Chilli called me and said, ‘Please don’t leave the group, let’s just do it one more time’. I said, ‘That’s not a problem”. From my perspective, me sending that letter did not take away or add to the relationship me and Chilli and T-Boz had. The problem was that we had different views and we wanted to go in separate directions.”
Just how different are those views? Lopes claims she never wanted to tour in the first place. Her TRL sick-out was a form of protest, an unwillingness to play the promotion game. “I don’t think [touring] is the best move for us. We have an agreement where we can’t make big money decisions unless it’s unaminous. But sometimes they like to think that two thirds rule. That’s the part that p—ed me off.”
Obviously, there is plenty of ill will all around. Given the unpretty picture painted by T-Boz and Chilli (who joke about replacing Left Eye with Virtual Vic-E if things don’t improve), and Left Eye’s righteous, if not unruly, stance, it’ll take a load of tender loving care to hold these women together. The pressure-cooker conditions of their tour — which includes 17 US shows in 1999 and will continue globally through October of 2000 — won’t help. But Austin, for one, is keeping the faith: “At the end of the day, all of them know TLC is their home. Left Eye wants attention. But she knows that if she drops out of this thing, that attention’s not gonna be there”.
Now Lopes is firing back. On Nov. 11 the singer sent EW a letter characterizing Thomas and Watkins’ statements as ”merely shouts from those who only have a fractional understanding of what business is in this business.” Lopes then went on to make a startling proposition to her fellow band members and TLC’s label, LaFace Records. ”I challenge Tionne ‘Player’ Watkins and Rozonda ‘Hater’ Thomas to an album entitled The Challenge,” writes Lopes, ”a 3 CD set [consisting of] three solo albums,” one from each TLC member. Lopes proposed LaFace offer a $1.5 million prize to the ”winner,” who would be determined by Billboard.
”I was thinking we could release three singles at once and see whose does the best,” says Lopes in a subsequent phone interview, ”but I’d have to talk to [LaFace co-owner] L.A. Reid to see what his ideas are.”
While Reid declines to comment, LaFace COO Mark Shimmel isn’t completely dismissing the scheme. ”We’re always open to new marketing ideas and concepts,” he says, ”but it’s got to be something where everybody sits down and agrees to it, not something that’s discussed long distance in the middle of a concert tour.” For their part, Thomas and Watkins released this statement: ”We think it’d be best to paraphrase the great poet Iyanla Vanzant…. ‘At a time when unity is so desperately needed it is significantly lacking…. Unity does not mean we will all believe in or do the same things. It means we will agree to do something without battling over how and why.”’
Though it sounds like her gauntlet won’t be picked up, Lopes remains defiant. ”I just want to present the challenge—they don’t have to take it,” says the woman who was once arrested for burning down a boyfriend’s house. ”I just want credit for my ideas, because I am the creative force behind TLC.”
How this will affect the tour remains to be seen. Even before the current fireworks, the intra-group tensions were evident in their shows. At various points during their Oct. 31 gig at the Baltimore Arena (for which roughly 3,000 of the venue’s 12,500 seats remained empty), Watkins and Thomas high-fived each other while pointedly ignoring Lopes—who, in turn, did her best to avoid all contact with her partners. And during the rendition of ”What About Your Friends,” Watkins glared at Lopes while singing the lyrics ”What about your friends/Will they stand their ground/Will they let you down again?”
Better question: Can TLC keep from imploding? “I hope so,” says Shimmel. “The yin and the yang of what pushes at TLC also keeps them together—and they’re still together.” For now, anyway. But given Lopes’ penchant for playing with fire, both literally and metaphorically, how long can that last?
An excerpt from LISA “LEFT EYE” LOPES’ Nov. 11 letter to EW:
…Let it be understood that I am interested in making multimillion-dollar business deals. It seems that my two group members are not. This poses a serious conflict. Therefore, I propose The Challenge.
I challenge Tionne “Player” Watkins and Rozonda “Hater” Thomas to an album entitled The Challenge. A 3 CD set that contains three solo albums. Each…will be due to the record label by October 1, 2000…. I also challenge [TLC’s producer] Dallas “The Manipulator” Austin…to produce all of the material and do it at a fraction of his normal rate. As I think about it, I’m sure LaFace [Records] would not mind throwing in a 1.5 million dollar prize for the winner…. Billboard will determine the winner….
After careful analysis of the tangled political web woven by my associates, I place the burden of TLC’s future in their hands. The challenge is on the table ladies and gentlemen….
Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Left Eye also forwarded a letter to Jamie Foster Brown for use in her magazine, Sister 2 Sister, which was published in it’s entirety along with a detailed conversation with Lopes on her frustrations within the group.
In January 2000, Chilli reassured the media that TLC were ok. “Everything is fine with us,” she said by phone. “Lisa is just Lisa. She does this all the time. She’s always going off about something.”
Yeah, but this time Lopes sounds pretty fed up. Sure enough, the more you talk to Thomas, the more she stops trying to save face.
“It used to be no big deal, you know? Everyone got so used to Left Eye always being the rebel, always the one saying something outrageous. But the sad part is that after a while, the things she would say did affect us. Certain people didn’t want to work with us because of things she said. We had this ridiculous reputation and it only had to do with Lisa, and T-Boz and I are like, ‘Whatever, don’t say anything and it will blow over.’ But that doesn’t always work.
“We’ve even told her stuff like that before, you know, like when people are talking about us. But she just doesn’t listen. She does what she wants to do.”
That’s putting it mildly. It could be argued that Lopes has long been the crux of TLC’s persistent problems, dating back to when she wigged out and torched then-boyfriend Andre Rison’s $861,000 home. That fit of rage cost her $10,000 in fines, five years’ probation and a stint in rehab — and in the long run it contributed to TLC’s bankruptcy in 1995, a battle fought mostly with the group’s original manager, Perri “Pebbles” Reid, but which was compounded by debts incurred by Lopes’ behavior. It’s estimated that one-third of the $3.5 million in debts TLC had then amassed stemmed from the arson.
So when Lopes mouths off, everyone listens. “I’d rather not solve all of this through the media,” Thomas said. “I would rather sit down and talk about it. But then sometimes you can’t do that.”
For the record, Thomas won’t predict whether TLC will split after this tour. “I have no idea what the future holds,” she said resignedly. “There’s just too much going on right now to think about that other stuff.”
Indeed, if there’s a group that has always lived in the now, it’s TLC. In a roundabout way, that’s partly what has sparked breakup rumors before.
After the group’s hip-hop-laced debut, Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip, blew up big time in 1991, the trio took three years to follow it up. When it did, it was with an entirely new look and sound.
That second album, the unstoppable CrazySexyCool, which was certified diamond status (10 million copies sold) in November, was an enormous success, spawning the massive singles Waterfalls, Creep and Red Light Special and earning two Grammys and four MTV Music Video Awards.
And then TLC disappeared. For almost five years. And those absurdly long breaks between albums have brought more speculation than anything.
Thomas knows it, though she says it still takes her by surprise when people are put off by the wait.
“I know a lot of people thought we had broken up [before FanMail came out], maybe because Lisa was doing [MTV’s] The Cut and no one had heard from me because I was pregnant, though no one knew. When it finally came out, people would say to me, ‘I didn’t think you’d have to wait as long as you had to this time. We thought you’d have this thing out at least a year sooner.’ You just never know what’s going to happen.”
She is quick to point out, though, that the long gaps between releases help give them renewed perspective.
“Everything between the last album and FanMail has changed. Fashion has changed, music has changed. But we didn’t stay in the past, even though that’s where a lot of people thought they would see us. For us, having Dallas to guide us has always been a blessing. He’s always been able to reinvent TLC’s sound, put us on the next level. That was why we didn’t work with the hot producers at the time when we recorded the album. I know Lisa talks about wanting that, but we just wanted to keep our chemistry tight.”
And what if she did finally make good on all her threats and left? “If she ever decides to leave, that’s why TLC would break up. It definitely wouldn’t be anything else.”
As hard as it may be to believe, Thomas claims all of this strife dissipates the minute the show starts.
“When we’re onstage, everything disappears. The chemistry that we have between us takes over. That’s the magical part. Nothing, not TLC or anyone else, can change that. When we’re up there performing, everything else is in the past.”