In 1992, I made myself the honorary 4th member of TLC. I studied every dance move, learned every lyric, and read every magazine article I could find on the group. I even went as far as attempting to go to school one day with a condom placed over the left lens of my eyeglasses! Needless to say, that incident earned me the worst punishment of my life! However, there was still something about TLC that I just couldn’t resist. The loud colors, funky sounds, and unique style that embodied the group was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. Left Eye’s playful rhymes, T-Boz’s sultry alto vocals, along with Chilli’s straight-laced R&B harmonizations were like a music formula of pure genius! Unlike many of the female groups in the 1990s, TLC didn’t just sing about love and what it feels like to have your heart broken. Their message was one of female empowerment, individuality, and responsibility. While love was occasionally in the equation, they were also able to touch on more serious topics such as friends, date-rape, and domestic violence. As a young lady, those things were very important to me. From the moment I heard the first single, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, I was wanting and needing more TLC in my life!
TLC was comprised of members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. The group met in Atlanta, GA and were signed to Laface Records in 1991. TLC’s first album Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip was released in February of 1992. With lyrics written mainly by Left Eye and music producer Dallas Austin, the album proved to be both a commercial and critical success. It was certified quadruple-platinum within a year, producing three top ten singles on the U.S. Hot 100 charts. “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, “Baby, Baby, Baby”, and “What About Your Friends?” introduced the world to the blended sounds of R&B, Hip-Hop, Pop, and Funk that made TLC truly unique. Wearing brightly-colored, baggy clothing adorned with condoms helped to promote the group’s message of safe sex while also giving TLC a signature style of their own. Dismissing and ignoring all pre-conceived notions and stereotypes of what it was to be “a proper young lady”, TLC earned staying power and respect by being exactly who they wanted to be at all times. In the song and video for “Hat 2 Da Back”, TLC described their style and were completely unapologetic for it. This act earned the ladies much respect.
In despite of all of the success that TLC achieved with their first album, personal problems seemed to plague the group as well. T-Boz, who had sickle cell disease, became very ill during their first national tour and had to be hospitalized. TLC member Left Eye who had been dating Atlanta Falcon’s football player Andre Rison, was arrested and indicted on charges of first-degree arson. The two reportedly had a volatile relationship that reached its boiling point when Left Eye tossed numerous pairs of Rison’s sneakers into a bathtub, covered them with lighter fluid, and then lit them on fire. The bathtub began to melt and subsequently set the structural frame of the house on fire. Left Eye was sentenced to five years of probation and a $10,000 fine. She was also ordered to attend rehab for an addiction to alcohol. As seen in the VH1 documentary, “The Last Days of Left Eye”, the rapper admitted to being a heavy drinker since the age of 15 years old.
In 1994, TLC re-entered the studio to begin recording their second album CrazySexyCool. With help from producers Tim and Bob, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, and long time collaborator Dallas Austin, the album proved to be TLC’s most successful one to date. The title of the album derived and was a play on each of the women’s personalities. Left Eye was considered to have more of a crazy side, Chilli was known for her sexiness, and T-Boz had more of a laid-back, cool vibe. With 2 years passing since the release of their first album, TLC’s sound on was a bit more mature, sexier, and less boisterous on this album. In the video for CrazySexyCool’s first single, “Creep”, we saw TLC dressed in sexy, silk pajamas singing tunes of unfulfillment and infidelity. Left Eye’s raps and vocals appeared significantly less on this album, as she was still continuing her treatment in rehab. However, her writing remained ever present. She was responsible for writing the group’s biggest single ever, “Waterfalls”, which dealt with issues of drug dealing and HIV. The song’s message was powerful and touched many all over the world. In 1996, the song was nominated for two Grammy Awards: Record of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Along with the single “Waterfalls”, three other singles: “Creep”, “Red Light Special” and “Diggin’ On You” all reached top 5 slots on the US Hot 100 Charts. CrazySexyCool sold over 11 million copies and became one of the first albums to ever receive a diamond certification from the RIAA.
Money is without a doubt known to be a little “funny” at times. While many of us were thinking that TLC were comfortably enjoying the fruits of their labor, the group was actually in financial turmoil. Things got so bad that in the summer of 1995, the group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They declared debts totaling 3.5 million dollars, claiming that after paying managers, producers, expenses, and taxes they were only bringing home about $35,000 a year. They eventually settled their cases, renegotiate their 1991 contract with LaFace Records, and parted ways with their long time manager Pebbles.
With all the drama out of the way, TLC re-entered the studio in 1996. As a group, they made appearances on the Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack with the song, “This Is How It Works”. They also appeared on the Soundtrack for the motion picture Panther by contributing to the song “Freedom”. Before working on their third studio album, FanMail, the women of TLC took some time off to pursue personal interests and work on side projects. Chilli appeared in the independent film HavPlenty, and T-Boz co-starred in Hype Williams’ 1998 film Belly. Left Eye started her own artist development company and signed Blaque, who were a TLC-like female R&B trio. She also contributed a verse to Lil’ Kim’s Remix of “Not Tonight”.
FanMail was released in 1999. The album title was a tribute to TLC’s fans. In typical TLC fashion, this album was full of female empowerment, positivity, and a reversal of the mainstream and traditonal “female and male” roles in society. The first single, “No Scrubs” was a number-one hit and had ladies walking around telling guys, “No, I don’t want your number. No, I don’t wanna give you mines. No, I don’t wanna meet you nowhere. No, I don’t want none of your time!” The second single, “Unpretty”, dealt with a woman’s struggle with her self-image. It was through this song that TLC let us know that as women, unrealistic concepts of beauty often portrayed by the media were not at all important. Inner beauty and self acceptance were the two things that really mattered. FanMail went on to sell over 6 million copies in the U.S. and won TLC two Grammy Awards.
While recording their fourth studio album, 3D, growing tensions between Left Eye and the two other members of TLC began to mount. Left Eye wanted to withdraw from the group to pursue solo stardom. She recorded her debut album, Supernova, that was to be released on Death Row Records in 2001. The album was not initially released in the United States, although it was released in other countries. The album included a song entitled “A New Star is Born” which was dedicated to the memory of her late father. She told MTV News:
“That track is dedicated to all those that have loved ones that have passed away. It’s saying that there is no such thing as death. We can call it transforming for a lack of better words, but as scientists would say, ‘Every atom that was once a star is now in you.’ It’s in your body. So in the song I pretty much go along with that idea. … I don’t care what happens or what people think about death, it doesn’t matter. We all share the same space.”
While reluctantly working on tracks for TLC’s album 3D, Left Eye took some time off for 30 day spiritual retreat in Honduras with family and friends. During the retreat, Left Eye reflected on her personal life, career, and was also in the process of setting up an educational center for Honduran children. Tragically on April 25, 2002, Left Eye was involved in car accident in La Ceiba, Honduras that took her life instantly. She was only 30 years old. The passing of Left Eye was a loss that left people all over the world shocked and saddened. Much like death of songstress Aaliyah, it just didn’t seem fair that such a talented, young soul would have her life taken so abruptly. Millions mourned for her. Left Eye was one of kind. She was a true hip-hop star who’s light seemed to shine just a little bit more brightly than her counterparts. Her talent, positive energy, and dedication to the art of music were apparent in every word that she had ever written. Controversial, spontaneous, and full of color, Left Eye will forever be remembered for her tremendous contributions to music and the world at large.
Devastated by the death of their friend and band mate, Chilli and T-Boz made the decision to complete the remainder of the album 3D, but retire after the release and promotion. 3D featured the singles “Girl Talk”, “Damaged”, and a Left Eye tribute entitled “Turntable”. In 2003, TLC released a greatest hits album entitled Now and Forever: The Hits. The following year, T-Boz and Chilli hosted a reality television show, R U the Girl, with a grand prize of a chance to record a song and perform once in concert with the pair. Currently, T-Boz continues to be a spokesperson for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. In 2005, she opened a children’s boutique called Chase’s Closet (named for her daughter). In 2009, she was a contestant in the reality show The Celebrity Apprentice. Songstress Chilli markets a line of handbags titled, “Bags by Chilli” and in June 2009, VH1 announced plans to air a reality series documenting her quest to find love. Although, TLC was never the same without founding member Left Eye, T-Boz and Chilli continued to record and perform both separately and collectively.
Those of us who were fans of TLC are left with memories of both joy and sorrow. Although are hearts were broken after the passing of Left Eye, we are forever grateful for music and messages that were given to us by TLC. Memorable songs and moments will live on forever with the reminder that good music is timeless. Often imitated, but never duplicated, there will never be another group quite like TLC.
TLC: Remixes, Soundtracks, and Non-Album Tracks
“Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”
“Baby, Baby Baby – Live At The Apollo”
“What About Your Friends?”
- The Music Link List – 1.12.2010
- Reminisce With M.I.S.S. : Arrested Development
- Reminisce with M.I.S.S. – JJ Fad
- Reminisce with M.I.S.S.: Luscious Jackson
- Reminisce With M.I.S.S. – Jodeci