Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas managed to appeal equally to pop and R&B audiences, blending catchy hooks and bouncy funk with a sassy, sexy attitude. Initially, their image was equal parts style and spirit, bolstered by a flamboyant, outrageous wardrobe. As time passed, they became equally well known for their chaotic personal lives, leaving a trail of headlines that read like a soap opera plot: arson, rehab, bankruptcy, serious illness, high-profile romances, and countless intragroup squabbles. After their star-making second album, CrazySexyCool, TLC fell into disarray, taking over four years to record the follow-up, Fanmail; even so, they returned more popular than ever, and the hits kept on coming. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in early 2002, when Lopes was killed in a car accident in Honduras.|
One of the biggest selling female groups of all time, TLC by domestic count is the second best selling female group in America ever with approximately 23 million albums and 7 million singles sold in the United States. TLC's second album, 1994's CrazySexyCool, was one of the first albums to be awarded diamond certification by the RIAA for over 10 million copies sold. However, the group was just as noted for its controversy as it was for its music and success.
In 1991, Atlanta teenager Crystal Jones put out a call for two more girls to join her in a hip-hop/R&B group to be called "2nd Nature". Her request was eventually answered by Tionne Watkins, a native of Des Moines, Iowa who moved to Atlanta with her family at an early age, and Lisa Lopes, a rapper and singer who had just moved to the city from her native Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with only a keyboard and $750. 2nd Nature eventually managed to arrange an audition with R&B singer Perri Reid, professionally known as Pebbles, who had started her own management and production company, Pebbitone. Impressed by the girls, Pebbles renamed the group "TLC" and arranged an audition for the group with local record label LaFace Records, run by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Pebbles' husband, Antonio "L.A." Reid. L.A. Reid was impressed with Watkins and Lopes, but felt that Jones should be replaced; within a few months, former Damian Dame backup dancer Rozonda Thomas was brought in to replace Jones. The girls were signed to LaFace through a production deal with Pebbitone (with Pebbles taking the role of the group's manager), and almost immediately went into the studio with producers L.A. Reid & Babyface, Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, and Marley Marl to produce their first album.
Besides being an acronym for "tender loving care", the name "TLC" was based upon the first names of the original members of the group: Tionne, Lisa, and Crystal. Therefore, when Thomas joined, the girls were given nicknames: Watkins became "T-Boz", Lopes "Left-Eye", and Thomas "Chilli". These nicknames would later be explained as follows: "T-Boz" because "Tionne is the boss," "Left Eye" because "the eye is right," and "Chilli" because "Rozonda brings the sauce."
The first TLC album, Ooooooohhh.... On the TLC Tip, was released in February 1992 by LaFace. The songs on the album were a blend between hip-hop and R&B, similar to the "new jack swing" sound popularized by producer Teddy Riley in the late-1980s; TLC's sound was dubbed "new jill swing". The album was a success, going double-platinum in a year's time and launching a number of US Billboard Top Ten singles: "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" (#6), "Hat 2 Da Back" (#30), "What About your Friends" (#7), and "Baby-Baby-Baby" (#2).
TLC's lyrics, chiefly written by Left-Eye and Dallas Austin, were playful, female-empowering anthems characterized by Left-Eye's quirky, nasal-toned raps, T-Boz's low-voiced lead vocals, and Chilli's powerful vocals and harmonization. The musical formula was augmented by the girls' brightly-colored videos and curious costuming: each girl wore unwrapped condoms on their clothing (Left-Eye also wore one in a pair of glasses over her left eye), thus openly advocating safe sex.
During TLC's first national tour as MC Hammer's opening act, Left Eye and Chilli discovered that T-Boz had sickle-cell disease, an aliment which she kept a closely-guarded secret until she became ill while TLC was touring the southwestern United States. T-Boz would continue to battle her condition, and eventually became a spokesperson for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America in the late 1990s.
At the conclusion of the tour, TLC decided to take more control of their careers and thus informed Pebbles that they no longer wished her to be their manager. Pebbles released the group from its management deal, but they remained signed to Pebbitone, and Pebbles continued to receive a share of their earnings.
In 1993, TLC played the musical group "Sex as a Weapon" in the New Line Cinema feature film House Party 3, starring Kid 'n Play.
Left-Eye had started dating Atlanta Falcons American football player Andre Rison shortly after the release of Ooooooohhh.... On the TLC Tip, and by 1994 the two were living together in Rison's upscale double-story home. Their relationship was allegedly filled with violent moments, and Left-Eye filed an assault charge against Rison on September 2, 1993, although Rison later denied battering her. Left-Eye was also battling alcoholism, having been a heavy drinker since her early teen years. After another fight between Left-Eye and Rison in the early morning hours of June 9, 1994, Left-Eye, tipsy from alcohol, tossed numerous pairs of Rison's newly purchased sneakers into a bathtub, doused them with gasoline, and lit them on fire. The Plexiglas bathtub quickly melted and set the structural frame of the house on fire. Although firefighters were called to the scene, the house could not be saved due to the toxic fumes from the gasoline. Left-Eye was eventually arrested for and indicted on charges of first-degree arson; she was sentenced to five years of probation and required to enter alcoholism rehabilitation. Rison eventually reconciled with Left-Eye, and they continued dating on-and-off for most of the next few years.
TLC re-entered the studio with Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, Organized Noize, and Sean "Puffy" Combs to record their second album, CrazySexyCool, during the fall of 1994. Left-Eye was released from rehab to attend the recording sessions, but the finished album featured significantly less of her vocals. The album instead focused more on T-Boz's and Chili's contributions and a smoother, more fluid sound, similar to the most successful single from the first album, the US #2 hit "Baby-Baby-Baby". All four singles from CrazySexyCool reached the Billboard Top 5, including "Red Light Special" (#2), "Diggin' On You" (#5), and the #1 hits "Creep" and "Waterfalls". "Waterfalls", an Organized-Noise produced record that featured an old-school soul-based musical arrangement, socially conscious lyrics criticizing drug dealing and unsafe sex, and an introspective rap from Left-Eye, became TLC's biggest hit ever, and its million-dollar music video-at that time the most expensive ever was an MTV staple for many months.
CrazySexyCool eventually sold over 11 million copies in the US alone, becoming one of only seven R&B albums to ever receive a diamond certification from the RIAA, and won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. However, many were shocked when, in the midst of their apparent success, the members of TLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995. They declared debts totaling 3.5 million dollars, much of it because of Lopes' insurance payments citing from the Rison arson incident and Watkins' medical bills, but the primary reason being that the three women were each taking home less than $35,000 a year after paying managers, producers, expenses, and taxes. They sought to renegotiate their contract with LaFace-under their 1991 contract, they only received seven percent of the revenues from their album sales-and to dissolve their association with Pebbitone. Both Pebbitone and LaFace countered that TLC simply wanted more money and were in no real financial danger, resulting in two years of legal hassles before the cases were finally settled in late 1996. TLC's contract was renegotiated, their production deal with Pebbitone and Pebbles (who had separated from husband L.A. Reid by this time) was rescinded, and the group was set to re-enter the recording studio in 1997.
Preliminary work on TLC's third album, FanMail, was delayed when friction arose between the group and their main producer Dallas Austin, who was by this time dating Chilli and helping to raise their young son Tron. Austin wanted $4.2 million and creative control to work on the project, resulting in a stand-off between the producer and the artists. During this period, Chilli appeared in the independent film "HavPlenty" and T-Boz recorded the solo single "Touch Myself" (as well as remix featuring Richie Rich) for the Fled soundtrack and co-starred in Hype Williams' 1998 film Belly with rappers Nas and DMX. Left-Eye started her own Left-Eye Productions artist development company and signed Blaque, a TLC-like female R&B/hip-hop trio.
TLC eventually began working with other producers for the FanMail album, until finally negotiating with Austin, who produced the bulk of FanMail and gave the album a futuristic, more pop-based feel. FanMail was another success for TLC, selling 6 million copies and featured the US #1 hit "No Scrubs", a single written by Kandi Burruss and Tameka "Tiny" Cottle of Xscape, and produced by Burruss' husband, Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs. "No Scrubs" was the second song by TLC to feature Chilli alone on lead vocals (the first being "Take Our Time" from 1994's CrazySexyCool and the third was "I Miss You So Much", another track on FanMail). This track was famously the victim of a rebuttal entitled "No Pigeons" by hip-hop group Sporty thievz. The second single, "Unpretty", was an alternative rock-styled song about self-love written by T-Boz and Dallas Austin, and also made it to #1.
The videos for both songs were heavily featured on MTV and BET, and three more singles received decent radio play without the support of a music video: "Silly Ho" (#59), "I'm Good At Being Bad", and "Dear Lie" (#51) (a video was shot for "Dear Lie", but it only played overseas). Very rare singing dolls were made by Yaboom Toys in 1999. Like CrazySexyCool before it, FanMail won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Album of 1999.
During and after the release of FanMail, Left-Eye made it known to the press on multiple occasions that she felt that she was unable to fully express herself working with TLC and Dallas Austin. Her contributions to the songs had been reduced to periodic eight-bar raps, and studio session singers (most often Debra Killings, who has added her harmonies to Watkins' and Thomas' on all of the band's albums) often took her place on the background vocals for the groups' songs. In its November 28, 1999 issue, Entertainment Weekly ran a letter from Left-Eye that challenged her groupmates to record solo albums and let the fans judge which of the three was the most talented:
"I challenge Tionne 'Player' Watkins (T-Boz) and Rozonda 'Hater' Thomas (Chilli) to an album entitled The Challenge... a 3-CD set that contains three solo albums. Each (album)... will be due to the record label by October 1, 2000... I also challenge [producer] Dallas 'The Manipulator' Austin to produce all of the material and do it at a fraction of his normal rate. As I think about it, I'm sure LaFace would not mind throwing in a $1.5 million dollar prize for the winner."
The ladies eventually settled the feud, and The Challenge was never followed through. Left-Eye did, however, begin recording her solo album, Supernova. Indeed in the year 2000, she released a single with Melanie C (of the Spice Girls) in the UK and around Europe, called "Never Be The Same Again", this was a massive success in the UK and Europe going to number one in many countries including the UK, and sold well over a million copies. Unfortunately this song was never released in the US, where it could have helped to start both artists successful solo careers.
After the conclusion of the successful FanMail tour, the ladies took some time off and pursued personal interests.
T-Boz married rapper Mack 10 in August 2000, and the couple had a daughter, Chase, that same year. They would remain together until 2004, when T-Boz, stating that Mack-10 frequently terrorized her, filed for separation. In 2000, she released a book entitled Thoughts.., which featured essays and anecdotes from her personal and professional life, and her poetry, including the two poems that were the basis for "Unpretty" and "Dear Lie". She also appeared on the soundtrack for the animated film Rugrats In Paris.
Left-Eye did not attend T-Boz's wedding; when she also did not turn up for a scheduled press conference and a family gathering, T-Boz and Chilli announced to the press that Left-Eye was missing, in hopes of finding her. For an entire week, no one was able to find or contact her. Her bandmates, family, and label worried until Left-Eye showed up on the August 14, 2000 broadcast of Inside Edition, stating that she and her new boyfriend Sean Newman had gone looking for wedding rings. Left-Eye and Newman eventually called off their wedding, and Left-Eye began dating Andre Rison once again. On June 14, 2001, Rison announced that he and Left-Eye were engaged, but the wedding plans were eventually cancelled.
Left-Eye died in a car crash in 2002 while on holiday in La Ceiba, Honduras.
Chilli and Dallas Austin separated in 2000, and Chilli began a relationship with fellow LaFace recording artist Usher Raymond. The couple's high-profile romance ended in 2004; the breakup was the main subject matter of Usher's Confessions, which became his most successful album.
It was decided by TLC and Dallas Austin that they would complete the remainder of their fourth album, to be called 3D, which also featured production from Rodney Jerkins, The Neptunes, and Missy Elliott & Timbaland. The decision was also made that TLC would be retired after the release and promotion of 3D; Left-Eye would not be replaced. Left-Eye had already completed her vocals for six songs; the remainder were performed by T-Boz and Chilli alone, who gave reverence to Left-Eye on a number of the tracks. The first single for 3D was "Girl Talk", the video for which featured T-Boz and Chili alone in live-action segments and Left-Eye in animated segments. Its follow-up, "Hands Up", featured only T-Boz and Chili in its video, but took place in a nightclub named Club Left Eye (Lopes' production company's "eye" logo was a prominent feature on the club's walls). 3D received the highest rated reviews of the band's career, yet the album only sold two million copies in its first year of release, and "Girl Talk" (US #28) was the only single to reach the US Top 40; "Hands Up" never charted and a third single, "Damaged", made it to #53.
In June 2003, at Zootopia, an annual concert hosted by New York radio station Z100 held at Giants Stadium, TLC appeared in what was announced to be their last performance. The group, introduced by Carson Daly, showed a video montage dedicated to Lopes, and went on to perform songs against video footage of Lopes performing the same songs, and wearing the same outfits, that were appearing onstage. Fan reaction to the performance led Watkins and Thomas to decide not to disband the group.
TLC was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame on September 28, 2002.
In 2003, LaFace had scheduled the release of Now and Forever: The Hits, a TLC greatest hits album with a new song, "Come Get Some", featuring Lil Jon and Sean Paul of the YoungBloodZ. However, the compilation did not come out domestically until June 2005, although versions of the compilation were released internationally in 2004 and the album was also available as a legal download from the iTunes Music Store in November 2004. On June 21, 2005, Now and Forever: The Hits was quietly released in the United States. The album debuted at #53 with just 20,000 copies sold.
On June 25, 2004, T-Boz and Chilli announced that they were pitching a reality television show to Fox Television, where contestants would compete for a chance to record a single and perform in concert with the two of them. Fox passed on the show, which was eventually picked up for development by UPN. R U The Girl with T-Boz & Chilli debuted on UPN on July 27, 2005. The winner of the show would record with T-Boz & Chilli on a new single and perform the track with them in a live concert finale in Atlanta.
Roughly 4.1 million viewers tuned in for the season finale of R U The Girl on September 20, 2005, with 20 year old O'so Krispie as the winner. Despite media speculation that the winner of the series was to become a new, permanent member of TLC, Watkins and Thomas have stated that Lopes will never be replaced, suggesting that they will continue to record and perform together as TLC.
On October 4, 2005, "I Bet", TLC's first new single in over two years, was released as a single to radio and on the iTunes Music Store, credited to "R U The Girl with T-Boz & Chilli" with no mention of the TLC name on the package. The song was also appended to pressings of Now and Forever: The Hits released after October 11, 2005.
"I Bet" failed to chart in America and Europe. By the end of 2005, reports that Watkins and Thomas are putting the finishing touches on a repackaged Greatest Hits album had died down. Both members are currently in talks of producing a second season of R U the Girl and are pursuing projects individually. Aside from TLC projects, Watkins and Thomas have kept themselves busy. During the fall of 2005, Watkins lent her vocals to an Atlanta, Georgia sports anthem titled "The ATL." The song, produced by Dallas Austin, features a variety of Atlanta based music artists including Ludacris, Monica, and Ciara. Watkins also lent her vocal talents to fellow Atlanta-based act the Youngbloodz, for a track called "It's Good." In addition,
Meanwhile, Thomas recently signed with New York-based publicity firm WeRoqq and is represented by Josie Zohny. She is currently working on her first solo album and shopping around for a record deal. Her album is now done. Her album has been scheduled to release this summer, with a single out in the spring.
Watkins has been working on three projects. She has been co-producing the upcoming film called "The ATL" which is loosely based on her and childhood friend Dallas Austins'(a TLC producer) high school experiences. The film, starring rapper T.I., was released March 31st, 2006. Watkins has also been working on her clothing line for kids titled, "Chase's Closet", named after her daughter. Lastly, Watkins will be starring in a new cartoon series called "Class of 3000", also starring Andre Benjimin aka "Andre 3000" of the group Outkast, who is also the creator of the show. The show is based on Benjimin's life as a child. "Class of 3000" is scheduled to air on Cartoon network this fall.
In a Black Hair Magazine interview, Chilli stated that TLC is to get back in the studio some time this year to record a new album.