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.”
As the world approached the brink of the new millennium in the year 1999, no one knew what to expect. This fear of the unknown crept into the music of our favorite late-’90s pop stars, from the baby robot voice embedded throughout Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time debut, Backstreet Boys shooting their second album Millenniumright into outer space and Blaque booming like an earth-shattering 808 on its self-titled debut. But it was TLC who fully embraced the impending chaos that many thought the Y2K Scare was going to bring, with their third album FanMail.
The album, which turns 20 on Saturday (Feb. 23), aestheticized a digital world that was born after the turbulent events that the girl group went through during the five-year hiatus they took after releasing 1994’s Diamond-certified CrazySexyCool, still the best-selling U.S. album by a girl group of all time. Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas became a first-time mother with the group’s longtime producer Dallas Austin, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins spent many nights in the hospital to combat her sickle-cell anemia, and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes made headlines for burning down the house of ex-boyfriend Andre Rison, while also getting into conflict with other members about TLC’s musical direction.
Throughout all of this, the group revealed they were bankrupt, and trying to claw themselves out of a messy contract with Pebbitone, the management company founded by L.A. Reid’s former wife Pebbles. When they finally got back into the studio, they decided to dedicate the entire album to their supportive fans — but the recording process wasn’t easy.
“The only thing we were nervous about was being gone for so long and wanting everyone to [still] accept you,” T-Boz tells Billboard. “But FanMail was the one where Lisa started tripping out! [Laughs.] That’s when she decided after we signed our contractual obligation that she wanted to go solo. All of that drama!”
Due to Left Eye’s absence, the group had to figure out how to replace her signature voice. Thus, the female android Vic-E was created. “Lisa didn’t want to be in the studio at the time so Dallas and I were just like, ‘Well, “eff” it! We’ll make the computer rap!’” T-Boz continues. “We went on the Mac computer, and back then you could choose different voices [as your greeting]. So we picked Vic-E because she sounded sexy. When Lisa got back on board, she said, “Well shit, let’s go ahead and make it a character!”
Austin, who was friends with Chilli and T-Boz before the group’s ideation, echoed: “[Recording] was a little bit of a disaster because Left Eye wanted to take it a little too far and name the album Fan2See. She wanted a website where the fans would be able to create their own fantasies. Back then we had Lil Kim and other female rappers doing their thing, so she wanted to push the envelope a bit more. When we told her it wasn’t a good idea, she got a little mad at us.”
The narration of FanMail’s Vic-E was a direct reflection of the era’s journey to cyberspace, as seen with the rise of of AOL Instant Messenger, HotMail and dial-up connections. With Left Eye now just a sporadic presence, the album filled that void with dial tones, glitchy synths, computer keyboard clicks and warped vocal effects that echoed the cold nature of the song’s themes. “I was dying to get into the future because 2000 was about to come up,” explains Austin. “But I’ve always been into that stuff because I’m a big Star Wars fan. Since we had to use Vic-E in place of Lisa’s voice, I thought, ‘Let’s just go as futuristic as we can.'”
Those otherworldly elements were found not just in the songs themselves, but the actual binary code-wrapped album cover as well. “We were actually painted with real silver paint,” reveals Chilli. “When we had the shoot, [photographer] Dah Len of course saved that for the end because you just can’t throw that on and wipe it off for another look. I showered so much for a whole week! It was behind the ears, on our neck, under our chin, around our nose — just everywhere. That was not digitally altered at all. We went in for real.”
All of these creative risks proved successful for TLC, as FanMail peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for five non-consecutive weeks. It was certified six times Platinum by the RIAA and spawned two massive No. 1 hits: “No Scrubs” (which topped the Hot 100 for four straight weeks) and “Unpretty” (three weeks at No. 1). The album was also nominated for eight Grammys, including album of the year, and took home the trophies for best R&B album, best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals and best R&B song for “No Scrubs.”
Below, TLC’s T-Boz and Chilli — along with collaborator Kandi Burruss and the album’s co-executive producer Dallas Austin — dive into the backstory of every track of FanMail (not including the three interludes), and reflect on what the impact of its mainstream success meant for the future of R&B.
Dallas Austin: I thought the FanMail concept was brilliant. So I took a bunch of interviews they did to create the actual “FanMail” song. I was listening to a lot of drum and bass, which was becoming big in London at the time. I thought, “How do I incorporate this without being too overbearing for people?” I always looked at albums like movies, so I seek out the title track. When you hear “FanMail,” that should help you understand what the rest of the album is gonna feel like. It’s become one of my favorite songs I’ve done.
Chilli: We used to get so much fan mail back then, and we just could not respond to everybody. A lot of it got lost, and then we tried to retrieve as much as we could. So that was the song for the fans period. It was us feeling bad that we weren’t able to get to everybody. When Drake redid “FanMail” [with 2010’s “I Get Lonely Too”], that was a big deal. It’s funny because a lot of our fans told us about his cover. But I wasn’t very familiar with Drake. When I heard it, I wanted to make sure he did a good job — I didn’t care who it was! [laughs] And I thought he did great. I was really happy with how he put his own little spin on it.
T-Boz: [The title] was actually Lisa’s idea. When we were going through all that [legal] stuff with Pebbles [Reid] and trying to get away from her, we had missed a lot of fanmail. We tried to fit as many names as we can possibly fit in the [album booklet]. When the record company screws you over and doesn’t promote certain things the way they should have been, the fans make you realize you’re still important. Because we didn’t even promote this [album] and it still went platinum.
Austin: I knew they had a great response from fans in Japan from the last record. So I wanted to include that international aspect in the album. Everyone thinks about Europe when they’re making a record, but not Japan. So I started the song out with [mimics sound effects], ding-ding-ding-ding! And the [“Vic-E Interpretation”] interlude before it says, “In Japan they just move to the one and two.” So that, along with the street lyrics, separated the group at that time. T-Boz loved “Silly Ho” because she liked songs that didn’t make her feel like too soft of a girl.
T-Boz: Well “ho” is my favorite word ’cause I don’t like them! [Laughs.] We used to put up signs in the studio that said “No hoes allowed.” Dallas said that we should write a song about it, so I just talked about everything that I didn’t like about hoes. It’s so funny because that’s the song my kids like the most, and of course it had to be the most explicit one. I can’t clean it up, there’s no way to get around hoes!
Chilli: When the song got leaked, I heard that Timbaland got upset about it. He was feeling like Dallas bit off of his sound or whatever. I didn’t think it sounded exactly like his stuff, but it definitely sounded like maybe he could have did a collaboration. It was just a popular sound at the time. The lyrics are so TLC, as far as our whole girl power thing and talking about guys. It’s actually one of my favorite songs to perform.
Kandi Burruss: [Xscape girl group member Tameka “Tiny” Cottle] and I got the music from [producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs]. I had this notepad that I used to write song titles or concepts in. I used to say it to all my friends all the time: If there was like a dude that was wack, we just called him “that scrub.” So I thought, “That’d be a cute concept for our record.” One day I was riding around with my friend while listening to the track that She’kspere gave me. We were both were dating brothers at the time, and we were dogging them out because we were mad at them. I freestyled the entire song while just driving down a highway: the verse, hook, pre-chorus, the whole thing.
I actually wrote a majority of the record on an old envelope that was sitting in my car! I took it to Tiny the next day. The lyric originally was: [sings] “A scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly and also known as a busta/ Always talking about what he wants and just sits on his fat ass!” Tiny busted out laughing and was like, “Girl, you are so crazy!” But I thought that people were going to like it.
Austin: So this song came in at the last minute. It was originally for Kandi and Tiny because they wanted to do a project together. But I told Kevin, “If you let me have this for TLC, I’ll make it the first single.” It would be different, with Chilli singing the record, rather than us always starting with T-Boz. “No Scrubs” was a breakthrough for Chilli because we hadn’t focused on her like that for the first two albums. It was a great way to expose her; being a secondary vocalist was not just her purpose. After the song’s success, it felt like TLC was a new group, because we took a different approach to reinvent them.
T-Boz: Kandi and Tiny wrote the heck out of that song, and I’m glad they gave it to us instead of keeping it for themselves. When we did the video, we went all out except for Chilli — she wanted to look like an island princess! [Laughs.] I was so excited about the part where I wore the all-white outfit where my boobs lit up. We never really did anything super sexy like that. I remember not having a routine and [the video’s director Hype Williams] just told me to dance. RuPaul also came to see us on set, but he wasn’t in drag. His makeup artist [Mathu Andersen] did our makeup and it was so amazing. Me and Lisa had a ball with that. I was like, “Can I put rhinestones on my lips too?”
Chilli: Being on set was really scary, especially the one scene where it was all three of us and it looked like we were in space. This tube thing was constantly moving so you couldn’t stand still or else you would fall. I was getting so frustrated and yelling, “How many more takes?” Lisa was falling and we were hitting each other by accident, it was just crazy. That’s why we were acting so silly at the end of the video, because trying to fight against [the moving set] was not working. Then, there was that really ginormous swing. I had to practice first because I was so nervous. Of course by the end, I didn’t want to get off the thing! That was a long day, but it was fun doing the whole futuristic stuff. Even our space suit-looking outfits were right up our alley. We always knew that our image was just as important as our music.
“No Scrubs” is an empowerment anthem. When we are performing it, I look out in the audience and say this cool little speech about certain guys you got to stay away from. I always say this — and I’ll say it forever — but scrubs are like roaches. You can never get them under control completely. [Laughs.] They just won’t die. They just keep multiplying. That’s why you just got to stay away from them suckers! The reason I knew [the song] was going to be big because what it’s talking about is so relatable to every woman in America. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, scrubs come in all shapes, sizes and colors. So it was just a universal song that every woman can high-five each other with. It was a winner.
We were cracking up when we heard Sporty Thieves’ [response track] “No Pigeons.” There’s so many songs that are negative towards women and you don’t hear a lot of females saying, “We’ve got to do an anti version of that one.” So it’s funny that you have these guys that want to flip “No Scrubs” real quick. They can’t take the heat! I just knew that our song hit some real nerves. But I absolutely loved Weezer’s version, and reposted it on Instagram. We’re actually talking with them now and trying to figure out when we’re going to perform it together on upcoming shows. I love when guys sing that song. Any man that can sing “No Scrubs” comfortably, he is definitely not a scrub — or he’s a reformed scrub. Those days are far behind him and he’s like, “I can sing this proudly!” [Laughs.]
“I’m Good At Being Bad”
Chilli: We actually worked with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on this one. They are the sweetest people ever. You would be so surprised at how humble they are, no diva [attitude] anywhere. They were so creative and open to our ideas. They asked for our input, so the collaboration was amazing. Tionne and Lisa were really excited about saying “I need a crump, tight n—a” and all that kind of stuff. I was just like, “Guys I’m not saying all that! I got the pretty stuff.” The song is jamming, I just don’t like saying the n-word.
T-Boz: So I wrote the song with Jimmy Jam in Minneapolis, and he works so fast. He said, just go to the booth. I’m gonna play the beat. Whatever comes to your mind, just hum it.” I had never written like that before. Usually you listened to the beat, you sit down and you write it. But that technique really helped me grown as a writer. So I got out the booth then we wrote the lyrics to it.
I loved the way Kurt Cobain used to go soft and then hard, like on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So I told Jimmy we could be like Nirvana, just sing really pretty and then go into “I need a crump type n—a!” I actually wanted Lisa to do that first rap part, but she thought I sounded good because my voice was thicker. So they keep me on it until she did the final rap verse.
Austin: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are my favorite producers in the world. They just did Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” [in 1995] and I was like, “Wow, these guys are insane!” So when we got them for the TLC project, I knew they were gonna come with something different. When I first heard “I’m Good At Being Bad” I thought, “NO. WAY. This is crazy!” They did a great job of showing off the [R&B] genre, and it was a great contrast for all three of them.
“If They Knew”
Chilli: This song is just giving another perspective [of a relationship], because we’re definitely not about being on that side whatsoever. But we always thought that it was important to make songs that were not always just from our point of views, but from some of our friends who were experiencing things like that.
T-Boz: Me, Dallas and Lisa were in the studio basically gossiping about scenarios we know about, with guys trying to get with you when he’s in a relationship. And that happens all the time. That’s how people cheat. We’ve all been approached by somebody who’s married or already in a relationship and you know, we’re basically talking about how [would] that other girl feel, if she knew you were doing this over here with me?
“I Miss You So Much”
T-Boz: Chilli ended up doing this as a solo song because it’s just too pretty for me. I was too rough and rugged for that at the time, I don’t want to talk about missing nobody! [Laughs.] But she sounded amazing and it was totally up her alley. It really highlighted her as a singer. I would have messed the song up!
Chilli: We were signed to [FanMail co-executive producer] Babyface’s label [LaFace Records], so I was always around him. He is such a joy to work with. A lot of people do not know that he is actually a really silly guy. He’s just very quiet and observes everything. But when we would get in the studio, we just laughed the whole time.
We were at the end of recording the album and I was sick. I had like a sinus infection and was on all these steroids trying to get my voice back all the way. And I asked Babyface, “Can we do [this song] next weekend?” But we had this deadline to finish the album. And so I was just like nasal spraying it up. It was crazy. I wanted to redo it because I sounded stuffy. But he thought it sounded good and was going to work out well. I just loved being in the studio with him because he helps to bring out things in you that you didn’t even know you had.
T-Boz: At the time, I had just got out the hospital and was in my hotel room. My boyfriend still went out and left me. When you get out the hospital, you feel so weak and frail and ugly. I had all these IV marks and bruises everywhere, and I was just really skinny. When he left, I was watching [an episode of] Ricki Lake that night, where these men were calling women fat pigs, so I was already emotional. I went to the desk, turned on the light and I got a piece of paper. Men have a way of making us feel the opposite of pretty. So I put “un-” in front of it. That actually sparked me writing a whole poetry book on my thoughts. So I took this poem to Dallas and he was like, “Oh my god, this is it!” He got in the booth so fast and put it in song form.
The words mean everything when I sing them, because that’s every last emotion that I felt. But I had no idea that so many other people felt the way that I did, until the song went to No. 1 [on the Billboard Hot 100]. I remember Lady Gaga was crying so hard when she met me [in 2013]. She said, “You don’t understand how much ‘Unpretty’ changed my life, because I was an outcast.” Fans also told me the song prevented them from committing suicide. That was deep, and I’m glad our song could help people.
Austin: I knew I wanted to do a song like “Unpretty,” because at the time I was listening to a lot of folk and alternative artists like Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. I was trying to figure out a way to bridge that into TLC’s music, because I knew that would make them different [compared to] everybody else. By having an acoustic-driven pop song, that would take them to a whole ‘nother place they haven’t been before. So “Unpretty” was a big breakout record for them, just as much as “Waterfalls” was. It separated them from Destiny’s Child and SWV. I didn’t want people to see them as trendy. By this record, I wanted everyone to look at them as being established and that they know what they were doing.
We would get letters back then from kids saying this song changed their lives, whether they were a cancer patient or getting bullied at school. For my career, it’s one of the most touching songs I’ve done as far as the impact it had on fans.
Chilli: As beautiful as you are and as much as you have to offer — I don’t mean just the outward beauty, I’m talking like good stuff on the inside — being in the wrong relationship makes you doubt everything. We’ve all been there. It could even be a family member that’s talking negative towards you and making you feel bad about yourself. So that’s one of those songs that again, resonates with so many people. Not just girls, but guys too. Everybody can get that low.
For me, I’m a very petite woman, and was never extra developed like how most girls in high school were. I wanted bigger boobs and all that. So that’s why when we shot the video, it was personal to me to tell that story. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you feeling like you want to get a breast job or reduction. But the most important part is it needs to happen because that’s something you want for yourself, not someone else. Not some guy telling you that you’ll look better if this was bigger. If they do say that, just drop them.
Chilli: [Co-writer and producer] Jermaine Dupri is a part of the team. We couldn’t put out another record and not have him be a part of it. I always crack up at him because he’s not a singer, but he’ll try to push those notes out. It’s so cute to see him do it ’cause his head kind of cocks to the side and he is just singing all beautiful. He’s so creative and has so much energy. It’s almost like a little party when we’re in the studio working with Jermaine.
T-Boz: Lisa loved the media. She thought all press was good press, but me and Chilli don’t feel that way. [Laughs.] We didn’t have TMZ [back then]. So if something was a rumor, that meant it went a long way, because it was through word of mouth. [The lyrics] are really about living life in this industry and being a real person, but being looked at as a celeb. You’re still a real person even though people don’t view you as that. I breathe the same and my heartbeat’s the same. I didn’t want my whole life on display. I don’t owe you anything but a song and a dance, because that’s all I signed up for with my contract.
T-Boz: We got the inspiration from [Tears For Fears’ 1984 single], “Shout.” But this song isn’t a favorite of mine, I’ll be honest. [Laughs.] So when they would do the salsa breakdowns to “Shout” on the FanMail tour, you’ll see that I leave the stage and don’t come back until they’re done. I’m such a prissy tomboy. Everyone would get so mad at me, but I didn’t care!
Austin: It was fun doing “Shout.” The remixed version [which was never officially released] had Enrique Iglesias and Sheila E. on it. I was trying to have a little Latin feel to it — because it was really kicking in at the time — while still keeping it futuristic.
Chilli: I love Lisa’s rap verse on this song. “Shout” and “Hat 2 Da Back” [from 1992’s Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip] are my favorites. She just lost her mind and went crazy. You can just tell when something is personal or truly speaks to a person’s spirit when they’re recording. So I was really proud of her with how she delivered.
“Come on Down”
T-Boz: I went into the booth and attempted to do it, because the verses were written [by Diane Warren] for me. I came out and said, “Diane, I’m sorry but I can’t do this!” [laughs] She is an amazing writer, and I love her because she respected my views. I told her to give it to Chilli because it was such a sexy song. “Red Light Special” [from 1994’s CrazySexyCool] worked for me, but not “Come On Down.”
Chilli: I don’t know who she originally wrote this song for, but she told me on the phone that whoever it was didn’t want to sing it. I loved everything about “Come On Down” because you know what it’s talking about, but it was very nicely subliminal. I loved the country feel of the record, so I couldn’t wait. And she was so excited that I wanted to do it. She wasn’t actually in studio with me ’cause we recorded it in Atlanta and she was in LA. But I was happy that she was so happy with it. It’s definitely one of my favorite songs because I do like a little touch of country. It reminded me of something Shania Twain would do.
Chilli: “Dear Lie” also came from one of Tionne’s poems, and she worked with Babyface on it. I love it because it’s kind of like a metaphor. You can hear a lie that somebody says about you and it’s not true. But it can really have so much power over you and that is why it sucks. But you’ve got to take that power back. We get so caught up sometimes in being upset about things and the person that we’re allowing to have that type of power over us are doing just fine and — as they say these days — living their best life.
T-Boz: Babyface liked this one because I was talking about a lie as if it were a person. My father used to lie all the time, so I absolutely despise liars. So I thought about what I would say if it was a person. I love the way it starts off vulnerable and then turns into a place of strength where you’re saying, “I won’t let you hurt or unravel me.”
Chilli: It wasn’t one of my favorite songs, because being love sick is not good! It’s so sad, but that what was going on at the time. And who can’t relate to being love sick?
Austin: Chilli and I were together back then. One of us was love sick at the time, maybe it was both of us! [Laughs.] The way I used to write for them was to think about if I were them. For this song, we took [inspiration] from both of our perceptions as well as experiences from people we knew.
I think that was the first record we cut for FanMail. I remember being at the front desk at the studio and the phone keypad made a blip blip! sound. I thought it sounded cool, so I found it on the computer and turned it into a little rhythm. It’s funny because we did the “Communicate” interlude before the song and AT&T hit us up and asked, “Can we use that for a commercial?” I did [that style] on purpose, because if you looked at movies that were based on the future back then — like Blade Runner — you always hear that voice telling you what to do. So I took that element and put it into the song.
T-Boz: Chilli and Dallas were going through so much at the time! I think Dallas was the one who was lovesick. That song was about all of us, because me and my boyfriend were going at it every five seconds. It was perfect because that’s how you feel, especially when [your ex] gets into another relationship and you’re not quite over them. It makes you feel better when they girl is not as cute. But don’t let it be a bad chick that’s actually pretty! [Laughs.]
Austin: That was me diving back into the Prince element for them. He actually had a song called “Automatic” [from his 1982 album 1999], so I wanted to maintain that Minneapolis sound a little bit. We did that one second because it was connected to “Lovesick.”
Chilli: I like that song way better than “Lovesick” because it’s not sad. [Laughs.] When VH1 used it during the opening credits [for 2013’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story film], we just had to make sure they had access to whatever song they needed.
T-Boz: We were so excited about that song because a new digital style was just created where you can play a certain sound in the right speaker and another one in the left. We were being innovative because we were among the firsts to do a digital album with all those effects. I love the way the song drifts in and out of the different speakers.
“Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet”
Austin: I had a leftover TLC song called “Oh Honey” that we didn’t end up using for CrazySexyCool because it had that doo-wop feel. It was a little more sensual. So when we got to recording “Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet,” I still thought we needed to capture that. It was kind of like my interpretation of something Babyface would do. I was also thinking, “How can I get them back to earth a little bit?”[Laughs.] I wanted to bring them from the future and back in the land of songs like “Baby-Baby-Baby” [from 1992’s Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip].
Chilli: This one has a little bit of a Prince vibe. It’s funny how during that era, almost every song you recorded got on the album. You have the ones that are some really good album cuts, and then some are just okay. [Laughs.] You can tell because those are the ones that’s usually like number 10, 11 or 12 [on the tracklist].
But I think that’s a real good feel-good TLC record for that album. This song was a little more mature, because by that time I was a mama. We were in our late 20s and by that time you’re conscious of not making some of the silly mistakes that you made when you were in your early twenties. You do grow and you share that with the world, because they’re growing too. Even when we’re trying something different like on “Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet,” it still felt like a TLC record, you know, even though it was a little different. So, you know, we just always made sure that we stayed true to ourselves.
In 1998, songwriter Kandi Burruss — on hiatus from her R&B group, Xscape — took a drive around Atlanta with a girlfriend, looking for inspiration. In the car, Burruss was playing tracks she’d gotten from a fellow songwriter, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, a few days earlier.
“No lyrics, no melody, just the music,” Burruss says. “I always like to listen to tracks in my car because I come up with my best ideas when I’m driving.”
As Burruss tells it, she and her friend were also trash-talking the guys they were dating at the time. “So I started freestylin’ over the track,” she says. “And I was just like, ‘A scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly, and is also known as a busta / Always talking about what he wants, and just sits on his fat ass.’ “
She knew she had something there. For a title, she remembered something she’d scribbled in her songwriting notebook. The phrase “No Scrubs” came from a term popular in Atlanta at the time, slang for a guy with no purpose, no prospects, no couth.
Burruss took her idea to fellow Xscape member Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, who loved the freestyle. Together, they quickly fleshed out the entire song and recorded a demo, thinking they’d keep it for their own upcoming joint project. But once the demo was passed to a few other industry figures, the two were persuaded to sell the song to a bigger group — who would end up running with it.
TLC, also from Atlanta, already had its own formula for success. Early hits like “Creep,” “Waterfalls” and “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” cultivated an image of being socially aware, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes were known as bold, confident, independent young women. So when “No Scrubs” landed in their court, a few words were changed to suit that image and make the song their own. (Among them, “fat ass” became “broke ass,” making clear the group’s problem was with men who lacked not just coin, but ambition.)
“No Scrubs” was released Feb. 2, 1999, as the lead single of TLC’s third studio album, FanMail. The track locked up the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Hot 100 for four weeks and stayed on the chart for months. Chilli Thomas says she knew it would be a hit the first time she heard it, because even though the term was regional, the idea was universal. “A scrub is just a bum guy, you know?” she says. “You don’t want to bring him home.”
At the time TLC hadn’t dropped an album in over four years, but two things helped “No Scrubs” take off commercially. For one, it was bolstered by a dope, futuristic video helmed by director Hype Williams. The visual found the trio in a cruising spaceship and each lady, decked out in a swishy space suit, got the chance to show her individual personality. Chilli remembers the challenges of that now-iconic shoot, in which she performed her verses on a giant swinging platform.
“I was looking at it and it’s ginormous — I’m like, ‘Who’s supposed to get on the swing?’ ” Chilli says. “I was so intimidated, but eventually, I did it. I mean, I got on there and I got comfortable, and then I got realcomfortable.” The video would earn TLC a MTV Video Music Award for best group video, beating out the all-male competition in a category that included both ‘NSync and the Backstreet Boys at their height.
Second, LaFace Records was smart about marketing the single. “No Scrubs” was released in two versions, one with Left Eye’s rap verse and one without. This strategy ensured the song would get airplay on a variety of radio stations, regardless of format.
While some of the most popular late ’90s hip-hop and R&B tracks were saturated with misogyny and damsel-in-distress plotlines, Burruss says, “No Scrubs” helped flip the script. “This song almost made it to where guys felt they couldn’t ride to an event together anymore,” she remembers.
And men weren’t just stopping short of carpooling to the club. “No Scrubs” was a wake-up call for guys like Sean Armstrong, aka DJ Face of the radio station Majic 102.3. He remembers hearing the song for the first time at a Baltimore record store and spinning it at D.C.-area clubs when it first came out.
“Guys started checking themselves, like, ‘Am I a scrub?,’ ” Face remembers. “You had to really think: ‘I don’t really lean out the window, you know, hollerin’ at women. I have my own car. I got a job. I’m not a scrub.’ Like, you had to take yourself off the list.”
Chilli says it’s not guys like DJ Face who have to worry. “I always say, the guys getting upset are the scrubs. If you’re not a scrub, then … a hit dog will holler, right?” she laughs. “So, if that’s not who you are, then you shouldn’t be getting upset.”
The feathers of Yonkers, N.Y. rap group Sporty Thievz were so ruffled, the trio released its own response track, “No Pigeons,” in May 1999, a month after “No Scrubs” hit No. 1. But even if some perceived “No Pigeons” as a diss to the song’s originators, it used the same melody as “No Scrubs” — so Burruss, Briggs and Cottle still got paid.
“That was a check,” Burruss says. “I thought it was clever. I love the fact that they flipped the song and gave the male point of view. And plus, we ended up getting all the royalties from it.”
In the two decades since the song was released, it’s never really gone away. In 2017, Ed Sheeran added the songwriters of “No Scrubs” to the credits of his own No. 1 hit, “Shape of You,” after some drew comparisonsbetween the two songs’ melodies. And it’s inspired covers across all genres. British R&B singer Jorja Smith keeps her version stripped down, while country star Kacey Musgraves adds a bit of twang. In January, the four men of Weezer released a rock cover, with all gender pronouns left intact.
But at the end of the day, the original is still popular. On Spotify, “No Scrubs” has over 300 million streams to date. NPR intern Sophie Fouladi was born in the early 2000s and says the song was a hit at her junior prom in Northern Virginia just last spring.
“I thought it was really interesting that a throwback song was something that got everyone really excited,” Fouladi says. “There was just screams of recognition from a bunch of girls, and they were pulling each other to the dance floor. These are people who were born after the song was released.”
Chilli says she recognized the power of “No Scrubs” back when TLC first recorded it, and she’s proud of its legacy. “I feel really happy because I know that — even though you can jam to it, you dance to it — lyrically, I know that the girls are listening, you know? And the guys are, too,” she says.
Kandi Burruss agrees. “As women, we go through things every day, all day,” she says. “No matter where we go, somebody is gonna try to push up or try to holler at you, and they’re not always a gentleman about it. So I feel like this song put it out there … and it just made women be a little bit more outspoken.”
On Thursday, Weezer followed up the surprising success of their 2018 cover of Toto’s persistent hit “Africa” with The Teal Album, a collection of 10 faithful covers by the rock band ranging from Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”) to Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”). The most surprising — and immediate fan favorite — has been the group’s take on TLC’s 1999 megahit “No Scrubs.” Speaking to Rolling Stone, TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas co-signed the ebullient cover.
“When I heard it, I loved it! They did a great job,” Chilli tells Rolling Stone. She hadn’t heard about Weezer’s plans to cover the track until the album dropped and has witnessed a “flood” of opinions from her trio’s fans. “I hope we can perform it together.”
Prior to hearing the fuzzy, alt-rock take on the Fanmail single, Chilli has not exactly followed Weezer. She was as surprised as anyone by the group’s choice to tackle the R&B track amidst mostly classic rock reinterpretations.
“I’m definitely familiar with the group,” she adds, though she laughs off the possibility of TLC ever swapping positions with Weezer and covering one of their songs. “I totally get why any girl would do it, but when guys do it I go, ‘Clearly, they’re not scrubs.’ If they were scrubs, they wouldn’t sing the song with this type of confidence,” she adds. It reflects a similar sentiment to singer Rivers Cuomo’s own explanation for how the band chose to approach the song in the album breakdown on Apple Music.
“I just thought it was one of those songs that’s freakishly popular,” he said. “I was trying to decide which gender perspective to sing it from, then I saw this tweet that said, ‘If you’re a guy covering a song by a girl, you gotta keep the pronouns. For those three minutes, you’re gay.’ So I was like, ‘Cool, let’s try this.’”
She also expressed admiration for the group’s tenacity when it came to singing a Jackson hit like “Billie Jean” for the album. “You gotta be pretty brave to do any of his songs, no matter who you are,” she says, jokingly referring to the late pop star as “the only husband I’ve ever had.”
Prior to Weezer’s cover, Chilli has appreciated Bette Midler’s “Waterfalls” as well as any time Hanson has tackled the girl group’s discography. She’s honored that new life continues to be breathed into all of their music.
“It feels really good because when you’re in the studio working, you hope and pray that you make songs that have longevity. And we have, so that’s a blessing. I’m telling you, I wanna reach out to [Weezer] and try to make this performance happen!”