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.”
They’re the sexiest female stars in the world, making, yes, even All Saints look a little ordinary. We talk to TLC about men, ‘scrubs’ and erm, condoms as fashion accessories.
By Pete Robinson | September 11, 1999
TLC are exhausted. The whirlwind campaign for “No Scrubs” the album “Fanmail” and new single “Unpretty”, has all come to a head and now, for a few minutes at least, R&B’s foremost sex symbols can have a little sitdown, sip a few drinks, and talk dirty for The Sex Issue.
But first there is something to clear up. “Unpretty” has caused widespread confusion, to the point where respected music pundits such as, erm, Doctor Fox have spluttered comments along the lines of “Hey! But these babes are hot!”. What Foxy hasn’t considered, of course, is this is the point: that the insecurity in the song must be really bad for three (ahem) “beauties” to feel worthless. Except, as Left Eye explains, “that’s not what the song’s about at all, either.”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with good-looking people or bad-looking people,” she elucidates. “You can make me feel Unpretty, depending on how you see me through your eyes, but it shouldn’t be that way. What it all boils down to is being able to see inside of yourself and of other people, without necessarily using your physical eyes. We’re saying that we limit ourselves to our physical senses, but in fact there’s a life force, there’s an energy behind all of us and that’s what counts the most. We get too distracted by our physical senses to see and hear what’s real”.
But while “No Scrubs” has it’s precursors in musical history, there aren’t that many songs that challenge the listener with such a tricky subject matter as “Unpretty” — there must have been some catalyst for the single being recorded in the first place?
“Well, part of it”, concludes Chilli, “is that one day we were talking about breast implants in young girls. I feel really strong about that. Big breasts doesn’t mean you’re beautiful — it has nothing to do with beauty. If you naturally have them, then that’s one thing, but if you don’t, that’s okay, y’know?”.
“It originally came from a book of poetry I’ve written called ‘Thoughts‘”, T-Boz clarifies. “Actually, ‘Unpretty’ was the first poem I had ever wrote — then Dallas Austin, our producer, read it and he was like, ‘let’s make this into a song’. So we took a lot of the words from the poetry and made it into a song. So yes (claps) ‘Unpretty’ is my work! My little poem!”
House-burnings, bust-ups, ding-dongs and argy-bargies have plagued TLC ever since they stomped onto the pop scene in 1992 with the proto-Girl Power anthem “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg“, yet despite even bankruptcy a couple of years ago, they’re back on the toppest of all forms, and one can’t help but imagine (especially with the “stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to” aspect of ‘Waterfalls‘) that if Britain could call them their own, they’d be tabloid agony aunts by now: kind of a three-headed, PVC-catsuited Marje Proops.
But is there any romantic advice the girls have themselves been given, or that they can offer to those plotting their first expedition into the choppy seas of love and rumpo?
“I don’t know”, thinks Left Eye, who once torched a beau’s house, but who’s currently very much ‘with’ a new boyfriend. She pauses. “Uhhh… I’ve been given lots of advice. Um, oh man! I don’t know. Live and let live. I don’t know anyone who actually gave me that advice. (Laughs) but I do live by that!”
“You know what?”, squeals Chilli, jumping back into the conversation. “I’ve got my mom to thank for so much advice — I’m really sensitive now, but no way near as sensitive as I used to be when I was growing up. I mean, you’d just look at me and I’d cry. I would cry at the drop of a hat and at the time I always felt like my mom was too hard on me — kind of ‘Im only doing this because I love you’ stuff. My mom always told me to be strong and I always knew she was right there for me. She’s the reason I’m the woman I am today. All her advice was the best and I’d pass that on to anyone”.
T-Boz has the final tip. “Treat people how you wanna be treated”, she reasons. “Respect yourself, because if you don’t respect yourself, nobody else will. If you treat people good, that means you’re trying to be a good person. If you respect yourself, then you’ll do right by yourself”.
By now, you’ll be a little concerned about your chances of bagging a date with a member of TLC. Last year it would have been easy — why didn’t you give them a call then? Nowadays you’ll only need to hold a door open for them and they’ll deck you and call you a scrub. So how, exactly, might one chat up T-Boz, Left Eye or Chilli?
Best to cut to the quick: and while Chilli remains tight-lipped, her bandmates are happy to offer some quick, at-a-glance guides to their psyches.
“I am creative, intuitive, mental, physical and spiritual”, Left Eye announces.
“While I”, T-Boz adds, “am stubborn, funny, blunt, outgoing and a sweetheart. That’s me!”
TLC can almost boast an image that is very much their own. Yet for every ultra-cool item of clothing the girls have sported in their career, there must have been some hidden disasters. T-Boz, for example, has her own fashion crime: “An afro. I can’t believe my momma did me like that. It was so ugly! Ha ha! The afro did not look right on me. I look right in a haircut. “
“The worst thing that I have ever worn?”, Left Eye flams, clearly with something in mind. Probably the condom she used to wear under her (hence the name, etc) left eye. “Mmm.. that’s a toughie, because if I don’t look right, I won’t walk out the front door, mmh hmm hmm hmm. Um, and no one can make me wear anything that I don’t think looks right. There’s nothing I look back in TLC that looks bad. I’m pretty open-minded. I just try to be comfortable. Eww…!”
So what happened to the condom? She pauses, then laughs, “It’s the same reason why someone like Prince needs to take ‘Slave’ off his face. It’s just that people like fresh, new and innovative artists, so as long as you keep innovating and changing their ideas, people will keep looking to you for guidance”.
Do you still get recognised without the condom?
“Heh heh heh!”, she giggles, “TLC are too cool to not be recognised! Not be re-cog-nised!”
T-Boz, today, the picture of un-unprettiness, must at some point have looked f***ing awful. We all have at some point. When was the last time you went out looking an absolute wreck, when nobody would touch you with a bargepole?
“The last time? Well, that weren’t that long ago, honey! Umm (laughs) I don’t know, I feel like that occasionally. Sometimes you just have bad days and I just don’t feel I look good, which was probably last week! I’m the type of person if I’m tired or if I’m sick I have bags and dark circles — it runs in the family, so I think I look like a raccoon. A lot of people have complexes no matter who they are, but that’s my definition of feeling Unpretty”.
Looking like a raccoon. There we have it.
“So you liked the bit where we rubbed our butts?”, guffaws T-Boz, when the climax of the “No Scrubs” video — the trio backing up to the camera and patting their behinds — is brought up. “Really? Good, I’m glad you picked that part (laughs)”.
Yes, a saucy trio of vixens and no mistaking. Have they ever gone too far in their overt sexuality?
“I shocked my grandmother, I have to say!”, reveals T-Boz. Explain? “There’s this song called ‘Oh Honey‘ — it’s one of her favourites, but it’s nasty and she was like, ‘Oh dear! Oh my! I like this song but…’ cos the breakdown is really raunchy. Yeah, it blows her away, but I don’t really do anything that vulgar…”
OK. But what do TLC find really vulgar in other people? What would be the turn-off if a reader accosted you?
Left Eye: “That’s a hard one, because I can’t think of anybody who.. wait a minute. (Thinks). See, if I say that (thinks more). Uhhh… I don’t know. I don’t know, there’s a lot of sick people in the world”.
Who’s the worst? Who do you really, really horribly hate? Who’s the worst thing ever?
“I was gonna say Hitler”, she begins, not entirely unreasonably. “But I don’t even know the man, I don’t know. (Quiet laugh) there’s a lot of people who don’t have any respect for life and that’s a long list of people. Y’know, the mass murderers, the genocides… all those evil spirits”.
This hasn’t been much help. What about the perfect date — where could we take you? The movies?
“You know, I have a baby now,” states Chilli, flatly. “I don’t get to see movies. Dancing! Uh! Old school. Really bootie-shaking music. I love booty-shake music. There’s an artist out — JT Money — have you heard of him? JT Money is the bomb — I love his music. It’s a touch of bootie music. Are you familiar with Luke? That would definitely get me on the floor — dancing.”
Just — potential scrubs, take note! — don’t ask them to lend you a fiver when you go to the bar.
Was there much in the way of a backlash over the ideology behind “No Scrubs”?
“No”, Left Eye states, “but there was that Sporty Thievz song (‘No Pigeons‘). Which was pretty funny. But no, we haven’t been criticised at all. I mean when it comes down to it, there are so many female artists who have come out and sang songs with the same subject matter — (sings ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on but the Rent’ by Gwen Guthrie) ‘Gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me…’ It’s not like we started anything new, heh heh”, she adds mischievously.
Sporty Thievz wanted you to pay for stuff, though.
“Erm, they said that, really? That they’d expect us to pay? Well, being that they want to go on the dates with us, I’d expect that they’d pay.”
Which is only polite.
“But if I was interested in going a date with the Sporty Thievz,” which judging from her tone she clearly isn’t, “I wouldn’t mind paying”. Cool!
So, date successfully over (hey, we can dream, can’t we?) we move on to… well, the interview is almost over. Let’s just go the whole hog. To the bedroom.
“The bad dream?” Left Eye mishears, though she’s probably along the right lines. “Oh, my bedroom! You wanna know what it’s like? Um, it’s eclectic and it looks like an oversized doll house”.
“My mom, you see, is an interior decorator and when I was a little girl and we couldn’t afford really nice things, she’d decorate our rooms with sheer pink material. She’d drape it from one corner of the ceiling to the other, she’d have it coming down and she’d have all different shades. She decorated for a lot of people in the industry, and she did my house so it looks like a princess’ castle”.
“Everything in my house is natural tone,” adds T-Boz. “Everything matches with my hair — even my dogs! Haha! I have a canopy bed with silk material hanging down, a whole bunch of pillows — I love pillows, and everything’s cream, tan and beige. And I love curtains — real elegant, like the fabric’s real thick, a silk type… and I have a real big TV”.
And, to conclude, one of the worst chat-up lines ever invented must be resurrected.
T-Boz, what do you like for breakfast?
“Well, I do like breakfast, but I’m just never up that early…”
“…Actually, today I ate French toast. And I love Pop Tarts.”
So with the image of T-Boz biting into a pastry snack and spontaneously spitting lava-hot jam across her posh kitchen, it’s time to leave TLC. Hopefully, readers, you’re now fully equipped with the knowledge to accompany the girls on a date. Keep us posted on your progress — but we can’t cover any medical costs.
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”.
For a group who’ve been as successful as TLC, the announcement that you are bankrupt still sounds rather absurd.
“You try surviving off of advances”, reasons Lisa. “One advance after another — all of which has to be repaid”.
Were you happy with “Crazysexycool” as an album?
“We were happy that the original concept for the album — the idea that the album title was meant to describe something every single woman felt — was our concepts”, Lisa insists. “But it’s hard to be happy about an album once you’ve declared yourselves bankrupt.”
“I went to the producers with a set of tracks I’d written and not a single one got used for the album”, bemoans Lisa.
TLC are your archetypal female American pop group. From the Sixties, when groups like The Ronnettes and The Supremes began to enjoy major-league success, through to modern times with bands like SWV and En Vogue, it’s almost always been the male producers who’ve held the upper hand and influenced the final direction taken.
Lisa Lopes claims she presented her producers with several new songs she’d written for “Crazysexycool”, none of which were used. One in particular, dealt with her relationship with her father. It hurt immensely when her producers knocked it back. Where do TLC go from here?
“Back to the court to get the money we’re all owed,” says Tionne defiantly.
“Hopefully a career in acting”, says Rozonda.
“Who knows?”, sighs Lisa.
by Lee Harpin / London / November 1995