TLC‘s long-term producer Dallas Austin sat down for an exclusive chat with hip-hop journalist DJ Vlad to talk everything in his eventful career, from creating some of his biggest records with TLC and Monica, to turning down opportunities to work with Boyz II Men again because they got too big for their boots!
During his in-depth interview, Dallas opens up about his past struggles growing up, before moving to Atlanta and getting his big break at 16 years old, producing a #2 hit for Doug E. Fresh and Joyce Irby called “Mr D.J.” in 1989, before working with the group Another Bad Creation, a boy band that consisted of members between 5 and 11 years old.
What most people might not know is that Dallas was the mastermind behind the success of the 1991 debut Boyz II Men album, ‘CooleyHighHarmony‘. The group personally asked Dallas to produce the album almost entirely by himself, which also helped to further put Dallas on the map as an established producer in the business.
The success of the album prompted them to request the musical genius once again for the follow-up album, 1994’s ‘II‘. However, Dallas had other plans after discovering how their success had changed their attitudes and egos, which he didn’t like. He agreed to producing only one song for the album, which was the smash, “Thank You“.
Dallas reveals that Boyz II Men also tried to discredit the talents of Babyface, who landed them one of their biggest singles to date, “I’ll Make Love To You“. “They just got to that point where they were smelling themselves so much”, Dallas says. “From that point, I was like, I can’t believe they turned into that, really. They became really disrespectful to people and not nice. I don’t tolerate it and it shows, because after that record they tried to get me to do the second one and I said no”.
After the Boyz II Men debut, Dallas was approached by LA Reid and Babyface to produce the debut album for TLC. “In the meeting, LA looks at me like, ‘what do you think they should be’? They’re definitely not En Vogue, so let’s make them the female BBD (Bell Biv Devoe). Let’s find the right things and the right topics to make them the guys of the girls”, Dallas states.
Dallas reveals how he managed to get their creative juices flowing, by simply having fun in the studio, playing games and having water fights! “We recorded every moment we were having. We captured all that fun on that album”, Dallas says. He also touched on how the multiple samples used on the first single, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg“, almost hindered it’s success.
“The radio stations were saying it’s got so much noise in it. We can’t play this, it’s got noise all over the place. And then [Left Eye] said, ‘two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it’s saggin’, and they were like, we’re not playing this on the radio. So, we ended up having to go to do the video first, so they could see what the girl’s looked like. From that point, when they see Left Eye with the big glasses come on and everything, it took the group to another level — it took off instantly after that. But before that, it was a little more difficult to get them off because of the noise and the content”.
Dallas touched on how the playful image of TLC helped to soften some of the harder messages that they were trying to deliver, such as safe sex. “I was writing the lyrics to be more edgy than what the girls were”, Dallas admits. “We knew that they were going to have a cartoony vibe when they first came out, but the radio looked at the lyrics as being too risque. So that’s why we ended up putting the condom on her eye. We’re talking about safe sex, even though she ain’t too proud to beg for sex, she’s being safe about it. There was a big [AIDs] epidemic at the time. That kinda encouraged the condoms and hanging them off everything.”
One of the biggest standout moments during the highs and the lows of the history of TLC is the infamous management deal the girls had signed with Pebbles, the wife of LA Reid at the time. “Your first album deal is pretty much like, the label is the bank, there’s no guaranteed way for them to get their money back, so they string you up in any way possible to get their money back because there’s no sure fire success rate”, Dallas says.
“At that time, to shoot one video, even a low scale video would cost $150,000. The “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” video cost $175,000. By the time you do the shoot, go to radio — the girls also don’t know about the business set up at this point. As the group started to take off they didn’t understand that it takes more money to be successful now. When you do another video, they’re going to get better and better — the balance is through the roof. According to the deal at that time, what you’re supposed to get wasn’t enough, considering the success. The deal was based on no success. Between that, and then signing to Pebbles, and then LA, and then Pebbles management — it just became mess”.
Dallas opens up about his relationship with Chilli, which started during the first album, revealing that Chilli miscarried due to the stress brought on by Pebbles. T-Boz and Left Eye knew about it but they agreed to hide it from Pebbles, as she had a thing about girls being groupies in the industry and told the girls not to date their producers. Pebbles decided to kick Chilli out of the group once she learnt about her first pregnancy and began holding auditions for a new member to replace Chilli’s role in TLC.
“I had to go to Pebbles and be like, we’re not just messing around, this is my girlfriend, it’s been going on for a year you just didn’t know it”, Dallas states. He was also against the replacement of Chilli and told Pebbles that it would not work. “We already started working, it just didn’t work out. The synergy of the group didn’t work out, the girls didn’t want another person in the group, so she kinda forced her way back in because it didn’t make any sense”.
Pebbles gave in and let Chilli stay in the group, as the girls had already cemented their line-up via their ongoing success, and on top of the relationship, the business handling came into question, after the lack of royalties for their second and best-selling album, ‘CrazySexyCool‘. “When they started to find out what they should be getting — they didn’t really find out what they should be getting, it was more like ignorance is bliss. ‘Mary J. Blige got $5 million we want $5 million’, there was no logic behind it, it was just hearsay, but they stuck to it”.
When LA heard these numbers being demanded by the girls, he said it didn’t make sense or fit in the business. They were still demanding their money, so he told them to go and ask Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, and the parent company to LaFace Records. “The girls got 3 or 4 gangster girls from Techwood in the projects here, and they drove all the way to New York, and went all the way to Clive’s office during his meeting with Puff [Daddy] and hung up his phone, and this big ghetto girl said, ‘TLC got something to say!’ They shut the door and told Clive and LA they need to talk on the phone together, personally, so there was no BS going on”, Dallas recalls.
“That noise was the only way that they got the deal fixed, because the logical way wasn’t working. Acting the way they did worked for them, and getting on award shows reading from rolls of toilet paper thanking everybody. It embarrassed LA and them so much that they figured, okay, let’s try to work and figure this out. By the time we got to “CrazySexyCool” it panned out, obviously. But inbetween that time it was a mess”.
Dallas dives into the life and turbulent times of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, noting that the common perception of her arson incident with Andre Rison didn’t actually propel them into the limelight positively. “It took them to a whole different place, and it hurt them at the same time. They were just coming off all the bankruptcy stuff and getting into the studio”, Dallas reminisces. “She had this thing that 2pac told her a long time ago that if they’re not talking bad about you, they’re not saying nothing about you. So, she would just kinda act out even more, based off of that, even though I think that she didn’t mean to burn the house down, she had that streak in her at the time.
It ended up where they lost endorsements. TLC has never had anything — the things that they should have done as a big group they never did because of stuff like that. No CoverGirl endorsements, no Pepsi, you never see them on make up, they never even did a world tour until now. The records and the image of the group ended up being way bigger because of all that. They’d be sitting in New York, and Lisa would get into this thing where she would go back and forth to MTV, telling them that she quit, right after they finished another interview saying they were all together. At one point it seemed really dark, because she was on a misison to be her, and stand out in any way possible, and that way wasn’t really good all the time”.
T-Boz is very loyal to the people she chooses to work with, and that included Dallas Austin, whom she was close to and knew years before he worked for TLC, as they used to skate in the same spots in Atlanta. “It was hard to get T-Boz to go to the studio with anyone besides me and Jermaine [Dupri]. So, I just had the keys to it, I knew where to go next, I knew what would make us different. I knew that when we got to “Fanmail“, it was time for another change. I knew that I was gonna do an ‘Unpretty‘ type of song just from listening to music by Ani Difranco and Alanis Morrissette, it was time to take them somewhere else. But I always had the vision of what we should do next.”
One of his favorite tracks that he ever worked on for TLC was their 1994 #1 single, ‘Creep‘, because it was based on a true story — his own. “It was about this girlfriend I had at the time. I knew I wasn’t being faithful and I wasn’t around at the house. I found her cheating on me! She was like, ‘what do you expect me to do? You haven’t been there for me. I’ve been loyal to you and I just needed some attention, and you haven’t been giving it to me’. I was like, you’re right. I’m just gonna have to take one for the team — and write a song about it”.
The whole world was shocked to learn that Chilli was with a child, when she gave birth to her son, Tron Austin, in 1997 whilst TLC were on hiatus, in between albums. It was more of a shock because she never looked pregnant, so it was easily kept a secret. “Nobody knew that she was pregnant until she was 9 months. She would just wear big, oversized sweatshirts because she was so little.
It wasn’t until my mom saw her one day, spitting into a cup. My mom said, ‘ did you just spit into a cup? You’re pregnant’. What does that mean? I’ve never heard of that before. By the time my mom and them figured it out, she was 9 months gone. It kinda just came, nobody really had the chance to be — she was so afraid of what Pebbles and the girls would think that she just kept it to herself. So we just hid it for the longest”.
Despite it being true that TLC have never broken up, Left Eye was on a mission to express herself freely and creatively on a music project, after LA Reid silenced her debut solo effort, “Supernova“, from receiving a full release in the United States in 2001. The legal wranglings with Arista Records over not paying her what she was owed, effectively allowed her to be free to sign with another label and putting TLC’s 4th LP on hold. She chose to be affiliated with Suge Knight‘s rebirth of Death Row, renowned as Tha Row. “She would do anything to ruffle the feathers”, Dallas admits.
Dallas goes on to confess that he was involved in stirring some of the drama during the successful ‘Fanmail Tour‘. Left Eye had told the girls she wasn’t happy and that she wouldn’t be joining them that night on the tour, which upset them. Dallas went on to write a note to Left Eye, posing as T-Boz and Chilli, to tell her they didn’t need her and they quit. Left Eye frantically told them she wasn’t quitting and admits she was just saying it for effect. After the tour, she later came back to tell them of her solo wishes, which they respected, until she revealed she was working with Suge.
Throwing Suge Knight into the mix surely turned things upside down for everybody. Left Eye was using a new moniker under his label, N.I.N.A (New Identity Non Applicable). “You couldn’t do anything with her at that point”, Dallas recalls. “Her mind just started going way somewhere else, and then she just started being more and more trouble. She felt like that is where she needed to be at to support her troubles, to support her acting out the way that she wanted to. She had Suge telling her, ‘yeah you can do this and that, you don’t need them’. LA Reid was scared to talk with and deal with him, in a sense, like ‘why are you trying to break up my group?’, so we just had to let it do what it did and let her get away with it. So that was another mess. Left Eye’s manager being Suge trying to talk to the TLC’s managers, it was a nightmare”.
Dallas felt like Lisa was spiritually uneasy, and feels that her adapting a strict vegan lifestyle and her many trips to Honduras to meet with Dr. Sebi may have contributed to her changes. “Sometimes when you go vegan like that, especially back then, your mind can start going a little bit because you’re not getting what you need or something. She started going a little bit weird, then she was going back and forth to the Doctor. Something dark is going on but we just can’t figure it out, with her going to Suge and then back and forth over there and the vegan — she was just on her own planet”.
Dallas reminisces the time they were working on “Creep”, and LA Reid being upset with Left Eye because she refused to lay down a rap for the single. “She didn’t want Andre to think that’s what she was doing. She’d go outside and write a rap in her car for hours and come back with nothing. Finally she said, ‘I’m not doing it, I’m not writing a rap that says I’m cheating’. I said forget it, this is gonna make it new. Let T-Boz just sing it, and it’ll be fresh from where we came from”. Left Eye eventually wrote a rap for the remix, with a message that strongly opposed cheating.
Dallas feels that there is a void in TLC without the presence of Left Eye, but understands their decision to never replace her. “Even after her passing, they didn’t wanna put anyone else in the group, they didn’t want anyone to do her parts, it’s like kinda weird. Like, I see the two of you on stage, just throw Lil’ Mama in for a second, and they were like no, we’re not adding anybody to the group, and that’s it. You can feel the void now when they do their shows, the songs are so big and a lot of people never got the chance to see them perform, so it’s like new and exciting. You go to a TLC show and you’ll see people in Cross Colours, and it’s like everybody who didn’t get to do it before then they can do it now”.
Dallas continued working on his projects over the years, including co-producing “The Boy Is Mine“, for Brandy & Monica, the latter being the first singer he signed to his Rowdy Records label, while she was a mere 13 years old. Dallas recalls the two not getting along, and Monica hitting Brandy in the face backstage before their first and only performance of the song in the 90’s at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Dallas also worked his magic with Pink, the mega superstar who began her journey signing with LaFace in 2000. LA Reid insisted she have an R&B debut, “Can’t Take Me Home“, however she hated it and Dallas also knew that was the wrong direction for her. He worked with her on her follow-up album, “Missundaztood“, which LA didn’t understand as it had a pop rock edge, but it was a major hit. Dallas admits that the songs he produced for the project were actually songs he wrote relating to his break-up with Chilli.
“That album was a trip, because really it was a break-up record — me and Chilli had broken up”, Dallas admits. “So all these songs that I was writing, I was writing myself out of the relationship. Me and Pink just clicked and it was the right moment and right artist to do them with at the time. I love ‘Don’t Let Me Get Me‘, that was a breakout album for her to just be Pink, not being held by the label or the scrutiny of what LA wanted her to be”.
Not many producers can boast such an iconic roster of work like Dallas Austin. He has worked with legendary artists ranging from Madonna and TLC to the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Dallas worked on the ‘HIStory‘ album in 1995, including the controversial singles “Stranger In Moscow” (written while he was being hidden in Russia by the government) and “They Don’t Care About Us“, which sparked racial controversies related to the Jewish community, amid allegations of antisemitism.