“Creep,” “Waterfalls,” “No Scrubs”
Who Are They?
One of the most successful girl groups of the ‘90s (and of all time).
In 1990, Atlanta-based record producer Ian Burke and his client, teenager Crystal Jones, got the bright idea to start a girl group. The two wanted a female equivalent of Bel Biv Devoe, combining a tomboyish, hip-hop image with contemporary R&B music.
So Crystal put out the call for two more girls to join her group. Tionne Watkins and Lisa Lopes took the job and the three called themselves 2nd Nature.
The girls got an audition with singer Perri “Pebbles” Reid, who gave them the name TLC-Skee. She was so impressed with them that she set up another audition with local label LaFace Records. The label heads saw potential in Tionne and Lisa, but felt that Crystal should be replaced (ouch). Crystal left and Rozonda Thomas stepped in just in time to record the group’s first album.
(Fun fact: Once Rozonda joined the group, the name was changed to just TLC, which was originally an acronym for Tionne, Lisa and Crystal’s names. In order for the name to still make some sense, the girls adopted nicknames—Tionne became “T-Boz,” Lisa became “Left-Eye” and Rozonda became “Chilli.”)
TLC’s first album, 1992’s Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Trip, was a critical and commercial success. The debut is often cited as a prime example of “new jack swing,” which is a genre that fuses dance-pop, hip-hop, R&B and swing, and landed TLC with an opening slot on tour with MC Hammer.
After the tour, the group dropped Perri Reid as a manager and began work on a new album in 1994. During this time, Lisa began dating Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison. The two were living together by 1994, but the relationship was rocky (Lisa filed an assault charge against Andre in 1993, but Andre maintained that he didn’t assault her). After a fight in the early hours of June 9, 1994, Lisa tossed a few pairs of Andre’s shoes into the bathtub, doused them with lighter fluid and set them on fire. The whole house caught on fire and Lisa was charged with first-degree arson.
All of that happened right before TLC released CrazySexyCool (arguably the group’s best album). CrazySexyCool spawned four successful singles, including the socially-conscious “Waterfalls,” and was one of the first albums to receive a diamond certification from the RIAA.
(Fun fact: Remember the Nickelodeon show All That? Remember the theme song? That was by TLC.)
TLC was on top of the world by 1995, but in the midst of the girls’ success, they were forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This was mostly due to Lisa’s insurance payments from the arson incident and Tionne’s medical bills (she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease), but the primary reason for all the debt was the fact that all the money was going to managers, producers, expenses and taxes.
Work on the group’s third album, 1999’s FanMail, was constantly delayed due to drama between Chilli and producer Dallas Austin (who were dating at the time and had a son together) and Chilli and T-Boz’s appearances in various films. By the time the album was released, tensions were at an all-time high between Lisa and the rest of the group. Lisa openly claimed that she was unable to fully express herself on FanMail and challenged T-Boz and Chilli to record solo albums and let the fans decide who was the better musician.
The girls eventually settled their dispute and FanMail ended up going six times platinum.
Where Are They Now?
Without the incredible talent of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (R.I.P.), but still making a comeback.
Before TLC began recording its third studio album, Lisa recorded her own album, 2001’s Supernova. The album didn’t sell well at all (and wasn’t even released in the US), so Lisa went back to recording songs with Chilli and T-Boz.
On April 25, 2002, Lisa was killed in a car crash in Honduras. She had only completed vocals on five of the tracks on 3D, but Chilli and T-Boz decided to keep those tracks and finish the album as a duo (most of the other tracks eulogize Lisa).
Chilli and T-Boz made their final appearance as TLC (until now) in June 2003. After two greatest hits albums, the two remaining members announced they would search for a third member on a reality show called R U the Girl. The winner, 20-year-old Tiffany “O’so Krispie” Baker, did not become a permanent member of the group (Chilli and T-Boz vowed never to replace Lisa), but did record a single with the group.
In 2009, Chilli and T-Boz began making more appearances as TLC, and signed a new recording contract with Epic Records just last month (October 2013). TLC released a compilation album called 20, and just one week later, VH1 premiered a biographical TV movie about the group called CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story.
As of right now, Chilli and T-Boz plan to start a tour in 2014 (most likely as a duo, as they refuse to replace Lisa).
But Why TLC?
Chilli and T-Boz are making a comeback, of course! And then there’s the VH1 TV movie, which I haven’t seen (but I’ve heard mixed things).
What Does Sam Think?
I grew up with the poppier version of TLC (the FanMail era). Not that “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty” are bad songs (I still love them), but they don’t really have the same substance as a song like “Waterfalls.” That’s what made CrazySexyCool such a great album—it was socially conscious and empowering and it still had that new jack swing sound.
If you guys surf the interwebz as much as I do, you’ve probably heard of a lovely Internet celebrity by the name of Nostalgia Chick. What does she have to do with TLC, you ask? Well, she made a video a while back about the group and just how important these girls were. I could reiterate everything she said here, but I urge you to watch the video because Nostalgia Chick gets pretty passionate (part 1, part 2).
The one point she makes that I will reiterate here is that TLC was a very empowering group. In comparison to another prominent ‘90s girl group, the Spice Girls, TLC just had more soul. The Spice Girls brand of “girl power” was pretty superficial—you can be any girl you want to be (as long as you fit into one of these five stereotypes). TLC’s brand of “girl power” was a bit more subtle and involved more emotional support. “Unpretty” (while not the best TLC song out there) is a good example of that support. It’s pretty blunt in its delivery of a message (inner beauty vs. outer beauty), but the message still gets across.
Now let’s talk about Left Eye. She contributed a lot to the group and her death was definitely tragic. But is it okay for Chilli and T-Boz to continue on without her? This is always a tricky situation (and I think I’ve addressed it before in another entry). Should a band continue to make music after losing a key member? Technically, Chilli and T-Boz are okay because they haven’t replaced Lisa. But is TLC still the same with only two members? In this case, I don’t think so. If Chilli and T-Boz want to continue making music, I think they should retire the TLC name. They’re both talented, so why do they need the name to back them up?
In any case, it’s tough to deny how influential this group was. Even if you don’t like the music, you have to look at it objectively—here’s a girl group made up of three strong women of color that wrote songs with deep messages. Sure, they had their issues, but those issues just made them stronger. Now these are great role models for girls.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.