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Members include Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (born Lisa Nicole Lopes on May 27, 1971, in Philadelphia, PA; died on April 25, 2002, in Honduras; one adopted daughter, Snow), rapper; Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas (born on February 27, 1971, in Atlanta, GA; one son, Tron), vocals; Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins (born on April 26, 1970, in Des Moines, IA; married D. Rolison [aka Mack 10, a rapper]; one daughter), vocals. Addresses: Record company--LaFace Records, One Capital City Plaza, 3350 Peachtree Rd., Ste. 1500, Atlanta, GA 30326-1040. Website--TLC Official Website: http://www.tlcfanmail.com.
When TLC burst upon the scene with their colorful clothes, preaching safe sex and promoting equality, no one knew what to expect. The three young women in TLC, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, embraced the opportunity to influence the lives of the young women who buy their records. Their music had a message, but TLC longed to do more: "We want to go to middle schools and high schools," Thomas told J. R. Reynolds of Billboard, "and let people know about life from someone their age. Sometimes we're all that kids have--they might not have that sister or auntie to talk to." The threesome stuck to this path through a fair amount of scandal and tragedy until founding member Lopes died unexpectedly in 2002.
The group was much in the public eye--not just because their 1992 debut album, Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip, sold four million copies, but also because they achieved that success while radically redefining the R&B "girl group." While past trios, exemplified by the legendary Supremes and contemporary incarnations including Destiny's Child and SWV, presented themselves as sultry and sophisticated, TLC burst onto the music scene with baggy, boyish clothes and a hip-hop attitude borrowed from male ensembles.
TLC approached the usual musical topics--love and sex--from an unusual angle, opting to talk directly to young women about self-assertiveness and self-protection. Left Eye earned her nickname for the habit of wearing a condom over the left lens of her glasses, while all three used the colorful packages to accessorize. Young black women were watching them; Joan Morgan declared in Vibe, "The trio damn near led a grassroots womanist revolution, banji-girl style."
Overcame Struggles to Succeed
Self-confidence is something all three singers had to learn themselves before they could begin to communicate with others. Each also attributed that struggle to her father's limitations as a parent. While Lopes's relationship with her father, who died in 1991, was characterized by violence, Thomas and Watkins essentially lacked fathers: Thomas's was absent altogether and Watkins's might as well have been. Consequently, Watkins's mother provided the groundwork for Tionne's self-esteem. Watkins's earliest experience as a singer was nurtured by her mother, with whom she would sing in church.
Thomas was able to move away from the projects through the support of her mother, who was 17 at her daughter's birth, and her great-grandmother. The native Atlantan first set her sights on the fashion industry, spending two years at Georgia Southern University. She was faced with a choice between fashion and entertainment when an offer to manage a store and one to dance for a hip-hop artist came at the same time. She went with the dancing--which brought her to the attention of R&B singer and producer Pebbles.
Lopes's story has received the most attention. Born in Philadelphia in 1971, she was reared by an abusive man who, paradoxically, also helped her to see her own talent and strength. "My dad was real strict," she recalled for Vibe. "He was in the military, and he treated me, my sister, my brother, and my mother like we were in boot camp. He looked at me like I was the brightest, and expected more from me. I always got beaten before they did." She also informed Morgan that her father bonded with her through alcohol, explaining that "my father is responsible for my drinking. He gave me my first drink, and my hundredth drink."
Lopes's father was also a positive force in recognizing the girl's gifts. She taught herself to play piano by age five. In her teen years, she demonstrated ability as a composer, writer, visual artist, designer, and rapper. She honed her performance skills in talent shows and offered her expertise behind the scenes at various venues. But she was also having trouble at home, as the many times she ran away as a teenager illustrate. She left permanently at 17, ending up in Atlanta with a boyfriend.
First T-Boz and Left Eye, Then Chilli
TLC was formed in 1991 by the C--Crystal--who faded from sight when Watkins and Lopes discovered that they worked better together without her. The duo also met Pebbles that year; she became their manager. Pebbles had a good deal of sway with L. A. Reid--her husband at the time--and one of the founders of Atlanta-based LaFace Records. A recording contract followed. Thomas came on board soon after, discovered by Pebbles while rehearsing a dance routine for a Damian Dane music video. Thomas added a different kind of vocal skill and dance experience; she choreographed TLC videos and live performances.
When Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip hit the market in 1992, listeners welcomed it enthusiastically. The instant excitement over TLC's look and sound prompted Morgan to argue that the album "put LaFace Records on the map." Looking back at the debut, Los Angeles Times writer Dennis Hunt recalled that when "the trio ... burst on the hip-hop scene, it was a breath of fresh air, bringing a cocky, macho sensibility to the prissy girl-group genre...." Watkins pointed out in BRE that they had "proven that you don't have to wear tight slinky outfits to make it. We stand up for the (girl groups) who always wanted to dress like this, but couldn't. We didn't show a stitch of our skin and we made it."
The album quickly went multiplatinum. It did so, at least in part, on the basis of its run of chart-topping singles. "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and "What About Your Friends" each reached the number two spot on Billboard's R&B singles chart, becoming, respectively, platinum and gold. Light lavished praise on the group's "independent, street-level feminism," while YSB's Pendleton noted that although "the seriousness of their safe-sex message could have distanced potential fans, their openness and sense of humor about the necessity of condoms made them even more popular."
Distractions Postponed Production
An unexpectedly long hiatus intervened between Tip and the group's second full-length production. Some of the distraction was work-related: they appeared in the film House Party 3 and contributed a song to the soundtrack for the film Poetic Justice; they exposed audiences to their hyperactive live act while on tour with Hammer in 1992 and Bobby Brown in 1993. Furthermore, despite the success of the first album, the trio decided that they needed a different management direction, consequently ending their professional relationship with Pebbles. They stayed with LaFace Records, but began working instead with manager Hiriam Hicks.
Unfortunately, however, much of the two-year period was lost to personal problems, most of them Lopes's. After Lopes met Atlanta Falcons football player Andre Rison in the spring of 1993, the two began an intense, tumultuous relationship, with Lopes moving into Rison's mansion in the suburbs outside of Atlanta. The relationship escalated to Lopes's arrest for setting fire to Rison's home. Lopes attempted to fill out the picture a few days after the fire, giving police photographs of herself with bruises on her face. Similarly, several observers have argued that the fire was Lopes's effort to fight back in an abusive relationship. Label head L. A. Reid has concurred with this view, telling Vibe that "Lisa is a victim more than anything. People have got to ask themselves how there can be a 'fight' between an All-Pro athlete and a little girl." Rison forgave Lopes for the arson and the two continued their on-again, off-again relationship for several years.
On December 29, 1994, Lopes pleaded guilty to destroying Rison's million-dollar home. According to People, she "was sentenced to several months in a halfway house and five years' probation. She was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, undergo treatment for alcohol abuse, and receive battered-woman counseling." (Rison admitted in court to hitting Lopes.) Lloyd's of London also wanted to collect money from Lopes for the destruction of Rison's mansion, and this, along with money mismanagement, forced the group to file for bankruptcy.
When production did get under way for a second album, TLC and their producers found themselves struggling with trying to top the success of the first. Since the debut album had displayed a particularly "young" character, the three had to demonstrate growth in order not to appear stagnant beside their maturing fans, but they couldn't change so drastically that they abandoned that audience. "My challenge," said Reid, who acted as creative director for Crazysexycool, according to Vibe, "was to give their fans good music but allow TLC to grow in a way that would keep them around. I want them to be larger than just hip-hop. I want them to be thought of as true creative forces."
One decision found the three showing more skin--on the album cover and in videos--than they had before. They generally pursued a more mature approach to sexuality, expressing this in the album's title. "Crazysexycool is a word we created to describe what's in every woman," Lopes told Vibe. Crazysexycool also found the artists more involved in their own recording; Lopes, who had always written her own raps, contributed the songs "Waterfalls" and "Kick Your Game" and joined in the actual production of the record. "Waterfalls" would became a hit single during the summer of 1995.
When Crazysexycool hit the market late in 1994, it immediately took the number two spot on the R&B chart. Critics waxed poetic over the group's growth. Writing for People, Jeremy Helligar declared that the "sharp funk and libidinous R&B of Crazysexycool easily outgrooves its predecessor's sloganeering bubblegum hip-hop." Billboard's Reynolds reported that the "musical evolution of TLC is marked by stronger voices, closer harmonies, and tighter raps" and Time's Christopher John Farley found "the vocals ... stronger and the melodies more piquant than ... on the first album." Crazysexycool also spawned the hits "Creep" and "Red Light Special" and spent numerous weeks in the pop top ten.
As fans eagerly awaited the release of their third album, conflict arose again, this time between the group members themselves. Lopes, according to the Seattle Times, had sent LaFace a letter stating that she was quitting. She had missed rehearsals and interviews. Watkins and Thomas discussed Lopes's actions in Entertainment Weekly, which prompted Lopes to send a letter discussing her displeasure at the two members' airing of dirty laundry. She issued "The Challenge" with the release of a three-CD (one CD of each member) box set and each member releasing a single simultaneously and the winner would be the one whose single sold the most.
The release of the trio's third album, Fan Mail, did not improve the situation. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lopes stated: "I'm not really feeling TLC." Even concertgoers could see, hear, and feel the tension between the threesome. As the tour went on, the group found a middle ground, and became unified again. Lopes, commenting in the Constitution, "It feels like a renewal right now. Like we're starting all over again."
Fan Mail met with favorable reviews, and sold over six million copies in the United States alone. According to the Daily News, Thomas said the album was "the most personal album the trio has made because it reflects experiences and emotions the group faced in the years since TLC became known around the world." Fan Mail was produced by some of R&B's biggest producers, including Babyface, Dallas Austin, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The group released four singles, "Silly Ho," "No Scrubs," "Unpretty," and "No Lie." "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty" both achieved gold status. The group won two Grammy Awards, one for Best R&B Performance by a Duo/Group for "No Scrubs" and another for Best R&B Album, in addition to numerous other awards and honors.
Members Pursued Other Interests
Each member began branching out into different areas. Watkins published a book of poetry and continued making music. She made the top 40 list with her single, "Touch Myself" from the soundtrack of the film, Fled, and had another hit with the single "My Getaway." She made her solo film debut in the controversial film, Belly. Watkins also married rapper Mack 10 and gave birth to a baby girl.
Thomas also began acting, appearing in movies, including, Hav Plenty, Snow Day, A Diva's Christmas Carol, and Ticker. She and then-boyfriend, producer Dallas Austin, celebrated the arrival of a son, Tron. Thomas has expressed joy at becoming a mother and told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "When [Tron] gets to kindergarten, I'm through (with TLC). That's just the way it's going to be."
Lopes was approached to host MTV's The Cut, in 1998. She also appeared in rapper Lil' Kim's remix of her single "Ladies Night," and on pop group 'N Sync's song "Space Cowboy." Lopes discovered the groups Blaque and Egypt, making frequent trips to Honduras to work with them. She had completed her solo album, Supernova, which was only released internationally. She also adopted a little girl named Snow.
The group began recording their fourth album and were scheduled to complete it in 2001, when Watkins became ill due to sickle cell anemia. She stayed in the hospital for two months recovering. On April 25, 2002, Lopes was killed in a car crash in Honduras. Many were shocked at the rapper's sudden death. Watkins and Thomas released a statement, quoted at MTV.com: "We had all grown up together and were as close as family. Today we have truly lost our sister."
Thomas and Watkins finished the album that they were recording at the time Lopes died. Lopes appears on five tracks on 3D, released in late 2002. Thomas and Watkins dedicated the CD to Lopes. It was unclear whether they would continue to record together as TLC, but one thing was certain--Lopes would not be replaced. "She was our sister," Thomas told Entertainment Weekly. "You can never replace a TLC girl."
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
Group formed in Atlanta, GA, 1991; signed with LaFace Records; released debut album, Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip, 1992; released CrazySexyCool, 1994; Fan Mail, 1999; founding member Lopes died, 2002; released 3D, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip LaFace/Arista, 1992.
- Crazysexycool LaFace/Arista, 1994.
- Fan Mail LaFace/Arista, 1999.
- 3D LaFace, 2003.
- Contemporary Black Biography, volume 34, Gale Group, 2002.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 14, 1994; February 28, 1999; March 5, 1999; April 1, 1999; February 7, 2000; June 15, 2000; September 29, 2000.
- Billboard, October 1, 1994.
- Black Beat, February 1995.
- Blues and Soul, December 13-26, 1994.
- BRE, December 9, 1994.
- Details, March 1995.
- Ebony, August 2002.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 18, 1994; December 9, 1994; May 10, 2002; November 15, 2002.
- Fanfare, November 27, 1994.
- Fresno Bee, (Fresno, CA), January 16, 2000.
- Gavin, December 2, 1994.
- Jet, June 27, 1994.
- Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1994.
- Mademoiselle, January 1995.
- Network Forty (Burbank, CA), November 4, 1994; January 16, 1995.
- Newsweek, November 18, 2002.
- People, June 27, 1994; December 5, 1994; May 13, 2002; November 25, 2002.
- Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992.
- St. Louis Dispatch, May 3, 2002.
- Seattle Times, January 6, 2000; January 11, 2000.
- Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 27, 2002.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 28, 1999.
- Time, December 19, 1994.
- United Press International, December 1, 1999.
- Vibe, November 1994.
- Word Up!, January 1, 1995.
- YSB, June/July 1994.
- "Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes Killed in Car Accident," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/left_eye.html (August 4, 2003).
- "Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Thomas,+Rozonda+%27Chilli%27 (July 1, 2003).
- "TLC," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2003).
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