Lisa Left Eye’ Lopes, Tionne T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozan­da Chilli’ Thomas

November, 1995: So who really deserves credit for TLC’s success?

To cel­e­brate the long-await­ed return of The Face, we have select­ed a stand-out sto­ry from each year of our exten­sive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Lee Harpin

There was a whole new wave of black R&B com­ing through that I liked. It was pop­py, but it felt fresh and new and, lyri­cal­ly, I thought it was say­ing quite a lot: TLC, SWV, En Vogue – Destiny’s Child were still a ways off… At the time there were peo­ple who couldn’t wait to get into The Face mag­a­zine, and would do any­thing to impress you. Then there were peo­ple who didn’t know what The Face mag­a­zine was and cer­tain­ly didn’t care. TLC fell into the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry. I remem­ber feel­ing quite intim­i­dat­ed at the start of the inter­view, in that they gave very short respons­es to my ques­tions. But then I stum­bled across a theme of con­trol: them being in con­trol more than oth­er groups at the time. They liked that. Com­pared to the oth­er two, Lisa Left Eye’ Lopes seemed quite tor­tured, [the way] she spoke about finances, song choic­es, not want­i­ng to be dic­tat­ed to. She felt like the most vul­ner­a­ble, and you were more con­cerned for her going for­ward. [Lopes died in a car crash in 2002, aged 30.] TLC have stayed one of the most influ­en­tial groups – No Scrubs is still being played now. You speak to peo­ple half my age and, unlike some of the groups from back then, they know who TLC are.” 

Lee Harpin is Polit­i­cal Edi­tor at The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle, a free­lance nation­al news­pa­per jour­nal­ist, and a PR and cri­sis man­age­ment consultant.

In the far cor­ner of a Lon­don pho­to­graph­ic stu­dio, the three mem­bers of TLC are busy play­ing at being school­girls. Lisa Left Eye’ Lopes, Tionne T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozan­da Chilli’ Thomas cer­tain­ly look the part. Run­ning through a selec­tion of nurs­ery rhymes, hand jives and the occa­sion­al high-pitched shriek, the girls could quite 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 sit down to speak. You can sense it in their refusal to dwell on famil­iar themes of luurve 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 an 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 – sev­en 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, some­time 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 Atlanta. She’d 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 the both of us could have got on with Crys­tal. But it wasn’t 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, Rozan­da Thomas, whose sweet, child­like voice com­ple­ment­ed the oth­er two perfectly.

When TLC signed to Laface Records – LA Reid and Ken­neth 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 our 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 were hap­py. Maybe a lit­tle bit too hap­py, in fact.”

TLC’s 1991 album, Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip, was, it has to be said, not a tri­umphant debut. The album con­tained two decent sin­gles, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and Baby, Baby, Baby. Beyond that, the group were notable more 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 air-brushed pout­ing female band. As if they weren’t yet ready to grow up.

It was 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 near­ly 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 that 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 Rolanda.

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 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,” says Lisa. There was 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 Andres 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 Lopez was involved in the inci­dent. I start­ed a small fire, but I didn’t expect to burn down a whole house,” admits Lisa today.

Crazy­sexy­cool was meant to describe what every sin­gle woman felt”

What­ev­er the rea­sons for the fire – the most pop­u­lar the­sis being that Lisa was drunk and Andre 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, ele­giac Water­falls, turned out to be the near-per­fect exam­ple of R&B-influenced pop that it was. Although over 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 its release, TLC wish to dis­tance them­selves almost entire­ly from Crazy­sexy­cool. And that despite the album’s mul­ti-plat­inum suc­cess, the trio announced 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 Rozan­da 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 had 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 own con­cept,” insists Lisa. 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 Ronettes 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 court to get the mon­ey we’re allowed,” says Tionne defiantly.

Hope­ful­ly into a career in act­ing,” says Rolanda.

Who knows?” sighs Lisa.

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