Anniversary, History, Interview, Review

25 Years Of “Freedom”: The Top R&B Divas Of The 90’s Unite To Create Epic Black Girl Magic

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In fall of 1995, more than 60 female musicians traveled to Capitol Records in Los Angeles, where they recorded both the vocals and the visuals to the ground-breaking single, “Freedom“, on the same day. The single was the title track to the Mario Van Peebles directed movie, ‘Panther‘, based on the Black Panther Party.

Women’s publication Zora gave us a well documented account of events of how this historic masterpiece came together. The song was originally recorded by the singer Joi for her debut album, produced by Dallas Austin. It was later picked up, reconceptualized, and released as ‘Panther’s official theme song.

Former label executive Ed Ecksein says having a record featuring all women sent a message about the film before it even hit theaters. “The power behind the organization was women. The backbone behind the organization was women,” he says. “So we needed to do something similar on the soundtrack as we did for the BMU record (Black Men United).”

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The actual day of the track’s recording required ultimate levels of coordination and an understanding of how and why to stagger artists’ arrivals and recording schedules to avoid overlaps. There were camera crews, food service, hair and makeup, but no egos in sight.

Even with stars like Queen Latifah, Vanessa Williams, MC Lyte, Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, Brownstone, Salt-N-Pepa, Patra, XScape, and En Vogue in the house, A&R Sam Sapp remembers this remarkable tidbit: “Everyone was in the same room, and there was no VIP area.”

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TLC were determined to be a part of this amazing project but were unable to be there at the same time as the other artists, so they recorded their parts at a later date and were edited into the final mix.

In order to work around Left Eye‘s probation-related travel restrictions Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins says the trio recorded vocals in a local Atlanta studio and filmed the video from the conference room at LaFace Records.

“It was the most amazing thing to have my fist pumped and have on this hat that had a Black ballplayer and a ball on the front and represent,” she says. “It made you feel so proud to be Black. It was an awesome thing to be a part of.”

The record was also a game changer in that both an R&B and a rap version were featured on the soundtrack. Sapp says artists were freestyling to the instrumental while waiting to record, and they commissioned the “Dallas’ Dirty Half Dozen Mix” on the spot.

The “Freedom” single was a top charter on the ‘Panther’ soundtrack, peaking at #10 on Billboard’s R&B Singles Chart and snagging the #45 spot on the Hot 100.

While there may not be as many Black women artists today, they are still making their mark in music. For the first time in history, four Black female soloists recently occupied the Hot 100’s top two slots (Doja Cat‘s “Say So” remix with Nicki Minaj took the top spot, with Megan Thee Stallion and Beyonce‘s “Savage” remix at the second spot).

As for another Black woman collective recording in the future, “Freedom” artists are passing the torch.

“It should be another song now with the new generation of artists that would show people that we’re sticking together,” T-Boz says. “I think it’s needed again, especially with the state of the world today.”

Read the full story from Zora here.

Artists featured on “Freedom”:

Aaliyah, Amel Larrieux, Brownstone, Jade, Blackgirl, SWV, Monica, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Mary J Blige, Tanya Blount, Changing Faces, En Vogue, TLC, Felicia Adams, Joi, N’Dea Davenport, For Real, Zhane, Eshe, Queen Latifah, Billy Lawrence, Lalah Hathaway, Brigette McWilliams, Miss Jones, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Pebbles, Patra, Chantay Savage, Sonja Marie, Xscape, Terri & Monica, Y?N-Vee, Vanessa Williams, Karyn White, Caron Wheeler, Crystal Waters, Vybe, Tracie Spencer, Brenda Russell, Sweet Sable, Raja-Nee, Pure Soul, Nefertiti, Natasha, Yo-Yo, Cindy Mizelle, Milira, Da 5 Footaz, Emage, E.V.E, Penny Ford, Jazzyfatnastees.

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History, Interview, News

Jermaine Dupri: “Xscape Sang Low On First Single To Sound Like TLC”

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In the second episode of T.I.‘s ExpidiTIously with Jermaine Dupri (April 9), he reminisces about the early days of his career and how he first became to work with Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, whom he met through his close friend Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who was sleeping in his closet at the time.

The girls were in a girl group — but it wasn’t the TLC we currently know and love. T-Boz and Left Eye were in another group, calling themselves Second Nature. “I started cutting songs with ‘TL’ in my house, way before L.A. and Babyface came onto the scene”, Jermaine recalls.

“I was writing R&B songs for them, and they were like, ‘okay, let’s do it’. So, I wrote these songs for ‘TL’ and one was called “I Got It Goin’ On“, he continues. “The way I was singing on the demo, I said I want you to sing it like this. Tionne was like ‘that’s low, don’t nobody wanna hear me sing like that, they wanna hear me sang’.”

“I was like ‘nah, you’ve gotta be cool. You’ve gotta sing down here where I’m at. You hear where I’m at?'”, Jermaine said. “So, Tionne started mimicking my demo, and that’s how she got that T-Boz sound that people know of today “.

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TLC as 2nd Nature in 1990

Before TLC signed a record deal with LaFace Records, Left Eye called Jermaine to tell him about a meeting she had scheduled with Pebbles. “She said ‘JD, we’re having this meeting with Pebbles, should I take the meeting?’ I could have told her don’t go.”, he recalls. “But I didn’t have a label or an outlet to tell her to say no at the time. I couldn’t replace the opportunity. So I told her to go to the meeting, because if you get signed I’m going to do the songs. So, I was thinking as a producer as opposed to the CEO of a record company. I was thinking if they get a deal bigger than I had, then I can produce on these bigger records. So, I encouraged her to have this meeting with Pebbles, and basically said I’m caught up with Kris Kross, I don’t have the means to do both.”

Jermaine points out that if he had signed TLC at the time when he had the opportunity, it would have been a slightly different TLC with a former member instead of Chilli. “The C at that time was a girl named Crystal, who was the girlfriend of Headliner, a DJ from the group Arrested Development, another one of Ian Burke‘s groups, which is how Crystal got in the group. I don’t know what happened in that meeting with Pebbles, but she got rid of Crystal and added a girl she knew, which was Chilli, and introduced them to L.A. and Babyface.”

He is grateful for how TLC have always had his back throughout their career, never forgetting where they came from and keep him involved in their projects. He said, “I did the “Hat 2 Da Back” remix, which is the version that came out, and a couple of songs on ‘CrazySexyCool‘ including the intro with Phife Dogg, rest in peace. But they always kept me in the mix, they really remembered and never acted like that shit came from somewhere else, they remember how it started. So I was cool; I’ve got TLC. I’ve got Kris Kross. I’ve got Xscape”.

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T-Boz with Jermaine Dupri on the video set to TLC “Baby-Baby-Baby” in 1992

Jermaine mostly wrote his R&B songs with a low register in mind based on the T-Boz sound. “I was making these records with Tionne and she was singing low, so that’s all I knew when it came to R&B, as far as me writing it”, Jermaine explains. This sound went on to influence Xscape, the first group he signed to his So So Def label.

Although Xscape already had cemented their sound with LaTocha Scott as the lead singer, Jermaine wanted to inject some songs with a low register lead vocal like TLC. He presented the track, “Just Kickin’ It” to the girls, which was also the debut single for the group. However, it featured Kandi Burruss on the lead vocal, as Jermaine felt she had the lower register that LaTocha couldn’t achieve. “I had LaTocha sing on it but it didn’t sound right for what I wanted”, he admits.

Jermaine notes he feels that his influence on changing the original vocal dynamics of Xscape led to their problems with each other later on in group, which ended with the original line-up of the group going on a lengthy hiatus for 18 years before reuniting to go on tour in 2017.

“I was against them being just another En Vogue, there needs to be an edge to it than just four girls singing, all of them need to sing” Jermaine explains. “If “Just Kickin’ It” wasn’t successful, Kandi probably wouldn’t have been lead on the second album. If people liked her singing on lead, then okay”.

Do you think Kandi and T-Boz sound alike vocally? Would a TLC and Xscape collab be good? 

Catch up on the first part of the JD interview here

Interview, Music, News

Jermaine Dupri: “Left Eye & Kris Kross Were The Original So So Def” and Regrets Not Signing TLC!

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The legendary hip-hop producer and So So Def founder Jermaine Dupri took part in T.I.‘s latest podcast episode of ExpidiTIously (April 2) to discuss his career from the very beginning of his early years in Atlanta.

Dupri touches on the moment Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes came into his life as a solo artist from Philadelphia, who had nowhere to stay, so she used to sleep in his closet which had been transformed into a vocal booth. JD had gotten himself a reputation as ‘the dude with all the studio equipment’, which attracted a lot of up and coming artists that were often introduced to him by music mogul Ian Burke.

Lisa and Jermaine began writing songs for Kris Kross, Dupri’s latest teenage rap duo he discovered in a shopping mall, comprised of Chris Smith and Chris Kelly. “Lisa was helping me write these songs [for Kris Kross], and we wrote this song called ‘The Girl Is Mine‘, where I sampled Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney“, JD recalls. “Chris and Chris were arguing over Left Eye, and she rapped to them. This was my mindset of the single. I was like, “This is it, this is the single. Two little boys arguing over this girl. She’s grown, ya’ll little. That concept didn’t work”. The duo weren’t feeling it so the song was scrapped.

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Chilli and Left Eye with DJ Dolemix on the TLC video set “Baby-Baby-Baby” in 1992

Lisa would sometimes even beg for money at the local airport. “She went to Hartsfield Airport every day and posed as one of them kids who needed money for a church to make money”, JD recalls. “She would come back to me and say, “Look at all this money that I got! I made the sign, they give me the money“. She would come back with $200, $400. She figured it out”.

Lisa expressed her creative ideas very early on as she inspired Jermaine to think outside of the box, which helped the fashion of Kris Kross. “She just wanted to make music. She could rap, I like her — mentally she could write. She was talking to me about concepts”, JD says. “I was very intrigued with the fact that she would come up with things that we should do — like, cut your eyebrows off! We had the parts in the eyebrow, and then I had three parts for like a month. I was like, what next? She would say shave the whole eyebrow off and just have one!”

“We’re in this room just trying to think of shit. That’s how the backwards jeans came about. Like, “JD, go get a nose ring, that shit is cold!“. Left Eye was the heartbeat of me trying to do things, her and my conversations and her and Chris and Chris’ conversations with her. In the end, that was the crew — Ian, Left Eye, Chris and Chris and Jermaine. We were the unstoppable team that didn’t have nothing — that was the first So So Def!”

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Left Eye with Xscape members Kandi and Tiny on the set of Xscape “Am I Dreaming” in 1998

A few days before the podcast was released, Jermaine shared an article on his Instagram (March 31) in which he declared his regrets at not taking TLC under his wings at the same time as Kris Kross. “I was only 19 years old at the time and didn’t believe in myself as a person, as someone having the bandwidth to have both artists”, he admits. “I was putting so much energy into Kris Kross, and I was only giving TLC maybe 30 to 40 percent, not even 50 percent”.

“I felt that I was spreading myself thin by trying to provide both of these groups with what they needed to become the successes that they eventually both grew to become”, he continues. “So I eliminated myself from TLC being a group that I actually introduced to the world”. In the meantime, an encounter with Pebbles at a hair salon Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins worked at led to TLC being signed to LaFace Records instead.

Although he wasn’t quite ready to sign TLC in the early 90’s, he continued to play a big role in their sound, producing on their first three studio albums, including favourites like “Switch”, “Kick Your Game”, “My Life” and “Bad By Myself“. Jermaine was also responsible for conditioning T-Boz to sing in her iconic lower register. “Tionne would sing high, and Tionne would sing low”, Lisa explained on MTV in 1995. “But when Tionne sang low, Jermaine called it scruffy and said that is dope, let that be you, your voice, what you’re known for”.

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T-Boz with Jermaine Dupri on the video set to TLC “Baby-Baby-Baby” in 1992

Despite Jermaine having some success with his first girl group Silk Tymes Leather (whose member Dyonna “Diamond X” Lewis went on to become DJ Dolemix for TLC in their early days), and his missing out on signing TLC led him to having luck in the third attempt at working with a girl group, when Ian Burke introduced him to Xscape, who sang at his birthday party and he vowed to sign them. They were the first act on his own label, So So Def, a joint venture with Sony and Columbia which also homed Da Brat, Jagged Edge, 3LW and Bow Wow.

Do you think TLC should have signed to Jermaine’s So So Def label?

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TLC with Teddy Riley, Kris Kross and Jermaine Dupri
Anniversary, Interview, Tribute

Melanie C Shares Her Time Working With Left Eye On Her First Solo Number One Record

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Mel C & Left Eye in 2000 (Credit: Ron Davis)

Melanie C aka Sporty Spice of the Spice Girls took the opportunity this week to celebrate her debut solo album, 1999’s ‘Northern Star‘, with the weekly pop podcast Track By Track to discuss the album in detail, track-by-track.

The year 2000 was a special time in music. TLC were on hiatus after the success of their mega-selling ‘FanMail‘ album and the record-breaking tour to support it, while the Spice Girls were also taking a break from world domination to focus on their solo projects.

Melanie C decided to team up with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes on her debut solo album, which led to Melanie earning her first solo number one single in the UK in the summer of 2000, an exciting time for both TLC and Spice Girls fans!

The single in question was “Never Be The Same Again“. Melanie C gave us some beautiful memories of her time working with Lisa around the time of the single being released.

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Melanie proudly states that the Spice Girls were huge fans of TLC. “I couldn’t believe my luck when I had the opportunity to work with [Lisa]. And she was perfect!”, Melanie exclaims.

Lisa was the only rapper Mel C wanted on the track with her. “She was the only person I wanted on that song. I was writing with Rhett Lawrence & we got to the middle 8 & all I could hear was a Lisa-style rap”, she recalls. “He gave her a call & next thing I knew she was on the track. So that was a wonderful experience”.

Melanie states that she shot the spiritual video with Lisa in Malibu, which features a scene with Lisa and Melanie performing tai chi moves together while Lisa lays down her iconic verse, once again proving why she was the perfect choice for the track.

Following the success of the single in March 2000, Melanie invited Lisa to promote the single with her in London for a couple of performances and interviews to help keep the track at number one for a second week!

At the time of the promotional run, Lisa told Top Of The Pops: Backstage how she felt about being part of the success with Melanie. “Now that we might be number one twice in a row, I feel like I’m running a marathon and I’m almost at the finish line!”, she says excitedly.

The solo recognition also meant a lot to Lisa, as she was seeking to launch her solo career in the UK. “It is important. I’m going to be coming back over here to do a solo project of mine, so it is always good to be recognised and especially if you can make that number one slot”.

Lisa and Mel C also stopped by at BBC Radio One, where Lisa further discusses her need to have her voice heard solo. “I’ve always wanted to do a solo album. I am an emcee, and I love TLC — but I’m very limited to the amount of work that I can actually do. It’s usually a few songs, 16 bars here and there, and I like to really strut my stuff.”

“But as far as the rumors, we’re fine. We haven’t broken up. We went through a little something last year, but it’s not the first time that we’ve been through something, it’s just the first time that it was publicized”, Lisa explains.

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“The issues that have existed?”, Lisa continues,  “personal differences when it comes to business decisions and the direction that we move forward in. It’s one group, with three different people with three different visions, so which direction do we go in?”.

Mel C co-signs with Lisa about the struggles of being in a group. “We have earned the right to yell at each other”, Lisa jests. “You spend so much time together that you become like sisters”, Mel adds. “And no matter what’s said you still love each other. You iron out your differences and you sort it out”.

“Never Be The Same Again” will always be special to Mel C, not just because it blessed her with her first number one, but because Lisa was a part of it with her. “This will always be a very important song to me, obviously being my first UK No. 1 and really launching the whole album to new heights, but also sadly losing Lisa was so tragic, she was so young and such a huge talent, so I feel very lucky I was able to work with her and we have this piece of music, that we worked on together, forever”.

Melanie eventually got the chance to meet the rest of TLC in 2018 at the Mighty Hoopla in London, 19 years since she first worked with Lisa. Fans can always live in hope that the two biggest girl groups in history unite one day on tour. Lisa would have loved the idea.

Melanie C’s new single, “Who I Am“, is out now.