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.
— Chilli (@officialchilli) January 24, 2019
“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!”
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
After the booze, the bankruptcy, the arson, the self-inflicted scarring and the multi-million sales, the ‘crazy’ member of TLC has made her own record. Is teeny, tiny Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes the new Lauryn Hill? Or will her miseducation get in the way of solo superstardom?
Precious Williams, October 2001
Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes is a surreal affair. First off, Lopes — the TLC member who put the ‘Crazy’ into the group’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ mantra — can’t eat ‘solid food’. Or drink coffee. Or tea. She is on day 38 of a 40-day fast and her idea of a substantial meal is a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. On the rocks.
We are in a vast warehouse studio in midtown Manhattan with Bob Marley blaring out of the stereo and Lopes’s publicists and record label execs fitting around. Lopes seems oblivious to the commotion as she sits on a stool at her dressing table, clad in jeans, a black vest and a pair of yellow fluffy slippers.
‘Too many of us eat to satisfy our hunger when we really don’t need that much food to survive’, she says, staring serenely at her reflection in the huge mirror in front of her. ‘We need to eat to live, not live to eat’.
Make-up free and with a cotton bandana covering her hair, Lopes is not the statuesque babe you’ve seen in TLC videos alongside bandmates Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas. She is petite and elfin, with daintily pretty features, glowing skin and huge, soulful brown eyes.
At five foot one and six and a half stone (she’s lost a stone during the fast), she is formidably toned, but tiny. She is 30, but fulfils the cliche of looking half her age. It’s hard to believe that this delicate-looking creature once burnt her boyfriend’s (Andre Rison, a player with American football team the Oakland Raiders) house down in a drunken stupor.
Her screwed-up behaviour was a result of immaturity and guzzling too much booze, she says now. ‘I’ve been through a lot of experiences’, she sighs. ‘The way that I chose to deal with things had to do with my parents and how I was raised. But I’m tired of all that stuff.’
So Lopes kicked the booze. She claims she gave it up ‘absolutely alone’ with no help from friends or Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘I’m a strong-willed person’, she says. ‘I am so in tune with my body right now that if I was to take a drink of wine, I could literally feel it burning my stomach, like acid. I could feel it. It doesn’t feel good at all’.
While admitting minutes later that ‘occasionally I do give in to peer pressure and break down and drink wine – but it will be just one glass’, Lopes’s idea of fun these days is to flit away to a secluded holistic ‘healing’ village in Honduras. ‘Everything there is natural, she says dreamily. ‘There are huts made out of mud and they are gonna last for hundreds of years. But when they finally do crumble and fall to the earth, they are mud, so they will blend back into nature.’
She sighs again. ‘I just got tired of the pain. You get to a point when you decide there are only a couple of directions you can go in. You know what I’m saying? I chose to go in a direction that would help me free my mind. And now I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to do since the first TLC album: I’ve finished my own album.’
Lopes’s distinctive rap style — all languidly drawled vowels and bouncy delivery — has helped make hits for a range of artists, from Melanie C (Spice Girls) to Method Man. But with her long-promised solo album, it’s all her shout.
‘Supernova’ is a blatantly autobiographical pop/rap ride which combines the eclecticism and beats of Missy Elliott with the soulful uplift of Lauryn Hill.
Free of collaborations (Lopes had suggested there might be duets with Madonna, Prince and Lil’ Kim), the album showcases Lopes’s production and writing prowess, as well as her MC-ing skills.
First single, ‘The Block Party‘, takes a slinky, Eastern-inspired beat and laces it with a rap about shell-toe Adidas and fat gold chains. ‘I Believe In Me‘, with it’s feel-good chorus and self-affirming lyrics, is more reminiscent of a TLC tune, but the song’s lyrics are strictly about Lopes. ‘I am Diana Ross/And not a Supreme‘, she raps gleefully, before adding that she loves TLC and that people underestimate – or simply don’t know or understand – the real Left Eye.
‘This album is very personal and special to me. I’ve been talking about and wanting to do a solo project since after TLC’s first album. Just to show everyone what I can do and to really challenge myself.’
When TLC emerged in 1992 with the single ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’, from the platinum selling ‘Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip’, Lopes was, to most observers, the pretty, hyperactive little rapper with the trio. She has claimed since that she is in fact, ‘the creative force’ behind the group. Regardless of which band member had the most creative input, TLC topped the charts with their ground-breaking hybrid of pop, rap and R&B at a time when Destiny’s Child were still in junior high school.
TLC served up feminist ideology in a sexy wrapping, quickly becoming as famous for their surreal videos and out-there outfits (in the early days they wore Day-Glo condoms as accessories) as for the uncompromising, do-it-yourself lyrics of songs like ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’ from 1994’s ‘CrazySexyCool’. As well as earning TLC three MTV Video Music Awards for Best Video, ‘Waterfalls’ catapulted the trio from R&B leaders to mainstream pop mega-stardom.
Then everything went pear-shaped. Although they had sold over six million albums, Lopes, T-Boz and Chilli filed for bankruptcy in 1995, listing over $3.5 million in liabilities (including mortgages, production costs and a $1.5 million bill for torching Rison’s mansion). Lopes pleaded guilty to a charge or arson and was locked up in a detention centre for six months.
TLC looked almost certain to split and the three formerly close bandmates began to focus on carving out their own niches in the world. Chilli settled down with former TLC producer Dallas Austin, had a baby and then announced that she wanted to leave TLC to spend more time raising her son.
T-Boz launched a fashion line, Grungy Glamour, starred in Hype Williams’ hip-hop flick Belly and wrote an autobiography ‘Thoughts’, before marrying rapper Mack 10 and giving birth to a daughter.
Lopes got a job at MTV, presenting the daily talent show The Cut. And then in 1999, the trio bounced back with the hugely acclaimed ‘FanMail’ and the singles ‘No Scrubs’ and ‘Unpretty’.
‘FanMail’ won them three Grammys and made TLC best-selling female trio of all time. But the success was blighted by tension. T-Boz announced that she had sickle cell anaemia and couldn’t travel to promote the album. Meanwhile, the trio were arguing over who had contributed most to the writing of the album.
‘I didn’t care for ‘FanMail’, Lopes says flatly. ‘I was disappointed with it. If fans hated it, then I understand why. Lots of fans loved it and I don’t know why’, she chuckles loudly.
‘There are some great songs on the album, but overall, y’know, everybody has their opinion and mine is that ‘FanMail’ is not good. I just don’t care for it.’
The ‘FanMail’ fallout culminated with Lopes calling on her bandmates to ‘show and prove’ their talents — they should find out who was the most popular member of TLC by each recording solo albums. At the time of the challenge, Chilli retorted: ‘I thought it was ridiculous. Why would I compete with my own group member? I didn’t understand the mentality’.
Today, Lopes simply says that T-Boz and Chilli are ‘relieved’ that she has now finished the solo project she has talked of working on for close to a decade. Things are ‘cool’ with the group, she insists, and they are currently working on their fourth album.
‘We don’t hang out much but that’s not a reflection on anything we’ve gone through. Even before all of the problems, we weren’t really hanging-out types. We spent so much time together on the road that we needed space.’
Lopes leans forward and reaches into her beaten up little rucksack and pulls out what looks like a giant paper Rubik’s cube.
‘Here’, she breathes, handing me the cube. ‘This is a dodecahedron I made to go with ‘Supernova’. It’s got 12 sides, and each side represents a song on my album. You need to throw it and see where it lands.’ Each side of Lopes’s dodecahedron bears a song title and mantra, in her own scrawl.
As she puts the cube back into her bag, I see her left forearm clearly for the first time. The word ‘hate’ has been savagely carved into her arm in capitals, the raised reddish-brown letters standing out angrily against cafe au lait skin. Lopes smiles disarmingly as she fingers the scar.
‘I did this seven years ago’, she says matter-of-factly. ‘It was a bad time for me. I was in the detention centre, and I’d got this overnight pass to go visit Andre’.
‘But it wasn’t a good visit. So I guess I was in need of a lot of attention that night’, she continues, with a strange gurgling little laugh obviously masking a lot of pain. ‘It was just like the movies, I wanted them to come in and find me and rescue and bandage me up and give me some comfort. There was blood everywhere.’
Lopes was undoubtedly driven to arson by Rison’s well-reported anti-social behaviour. He allegedly cheated on Lopes, slapped her around and even fired a gun during a fight with her in a parking lot. Then Lopes split with Rison and began dating model Sean Newman. Last year, however, to widespread incredulousness, Lopes and Rison got back together and announced to the world that this time it was forever. Rison even raps on one of Lopes’s favourite tracks on ‘Supernova’, the autobiographical ‘Rags To Riches’.
‘He’s a producer and I asked him to produce a song on my album. Once he came to do that, one thing led to another. We want to be together. We’re spending a lot of time together, quality time.’
So far the marriage has been held up by Lopes’s work on her new album and by Rison’s complicated and manifold legal woes, including a lawsuit for $50,000 in unpaid child support to the mother of his two sons.
Why does Lopes want to settle down with a man who infuriated her so much that she burnt his house down? ‘There’s almost nothing we can hide from each other and that makes the relationship better. We have gone through so many challenges, you know. Situations. Nothing is that big a deal anymore’.
‘And he’s changed’, she adds, giggling girlishly. ‘In the same kinda ways I have changed. He’s been searching for himself and I think he’s starting to find what he’s been looking for’.
Lopes admits that, in the early days of a seven year relationship, Rison reminded her of her late father, a former soldier: ‘my dad was a disciplinarian. He was really, really strict. We was incredibly well-behaved kids.’ Lopes’s father also physically abused her mother in the presence of Lopes and her siblings. She refuses to go into details about the violence she witnessed as a child and instead reminisces about her father’s ludicrous rules.
‘I was on punishment for my entire time at high school’, she smiles wryly. ‘I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio or hang out on the block with the other kids. I wasn’t allowed to have no boyfriend. I didn’t keep up to date [with what was happening in music] then and I don’t to this day. I don’t watch television or go to the movies. I don’t even really read books. I just skim through them and gather data. I guess a lot of people just don’t get it…’
Lopes claims that she only knows what is current in music because she ‘feels it. I don’t have a CD collection and I don’t listen to the radio’. She also doesn’t have any musical heroes as such. Apart from herself.
‘I really think that in five years’ time I will be like a superhero, she announces.