The SPIN Interview: TLC Look Back on Their First Decade and Ahead to Their Final Album
T-Boz and Chilli open up about the real stories behind "Creep" and Left Eye's solo album challenge
With all due respect to En Vogue, Boyz II Men, and a little-known act called Destiny’s Child, TLC — the trio of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas — were the quintessential R&B group of the ’90s. Melodies like that of the smash hit “Waterfalls” were instantly recognizable, and their sound hit a sweet spot by blending the sounds of the previous decades that inspired them and the post-new jack production of the day. Not to mention the lyrics, which were often matter-of-factly feminist, and sisterly without being holier-than-thou, as on the self-respecting “No Scrubs” and its introspective flipside, “Unpretty.” They turned condoms into a fashion statement, made a sexy hit out of unrepentant cheating (“Creep”), and printed their fan mail in an album booklet as thanks when replying to all of it became impossible. (They called the album Fanmail too.)
Unfortunately, tragedy marred their legacy far too early, as Lopes was killed in a car accident in 2002. This year, the surviving members have dusted off the TLC name for a tour with New Kids on the Block and yes, one last album (which they’re funding via Kickstarter) as a final valentine for the fans. SPIN spoke to Watkins and Thomas, now 44 and 43 respectively, about the group’s entire career and their plans for the upcoming album.
When TLC first debuted, what was missing from the music world that you felt you could bring?
Chilli: What was missing?
T-Boz: Well, when we were younger we didn’t know what was missing, we just thought we had a lot to bring. We felt like we were going to be the jam, we were like, “Oh, they need us.”
And it turned out we did.
T-Boz: Thanks to Babyface in L.A. for moving to Atlanta because there was so much talent there. Atlanta was its own entity; we just had our own vibe, style, dancing. It’s just energy that you don’t get anywhere else. That southern energy from ATL is amazing so I think that’s what we brought to the table.
Chilli: Fun, just fun, really.
Your unique clothing choices — was that the way you guys dressed already, did you decide as a group you wanted a look that was very unique to you?
Chilli: I wasn’t dressing baggy like that, but I still wasn’t wearing tight clothes because I was very petite. I’m still petite, but I was extremely petite so I was like I am not wearing anything tight because I kind of felt more comfortable covered up a bit. I got in the group last, so when I got in, they were already dressing baggy like that. I kind of had to get on board but I was cool with it. Man, boy did we go baggy. Our bagginess was doper that what they do today because we didn’t have our butts hanging out. It was like we had the boxer shorts on; the jeans were kind of going across in the middle of the booty.
T-Boz: I had just started dressing baggy because I was hanging with the guys, but I knew Dallas Austin when I was 14 and I used to admire the way he dressed and some of the other guys that used to go to the skating rink. So I would try it, but it just wasn’t as cute until it came together more. Bell Biv Devoe back in the day, we used to look up to them. They had incredible style back then so we wanted to be like them.
You guys were instrumental in promoting safe sex in the ’90s. Did you intend for the condoms and stuff to be such a part of your image and what you guys stood for at the time?
Chilli: Oh yeah, definitely.
T-Boz: Yes, because we weren’t preaching, telling people to have sex. We were just saying for the kids that if we wore them as a fashion statement it would make them more comfortable to go buy them. Instead of just having sex unprotected, because they were ashamed to let people know. So the fashion statement was like, TLC wears them so just go buy them. Like “Oh, I’m not having sex, I’m just wearing them on my clothing.”
It’s well-known that promoting CrazySexyCool bankrupted the group and now you’re funding the new album via Kickstarter. Do you feel that artists are better at managing money these days or that the industry’s gotten better at taking care of them in that way?
Chilli: I think to a certain extent it’s always going to be “Fend for yourself.” Because at the end of the day it’s a business and the way that the industry has evolved with social media and stuff, you can get yourself out there a lot faster without the help of a record company. Sometimes it’s from a YouTube page and then a label or whoever wants to invest in them will come on board after the fact. Kind of like how Soulja Boy got his start. There’s so many different ways to get yourself out there, a lot more options than when we first came out.
Do you feel like it would’ve saved a lot of people’s careers in general — peers who came up with you — if the industry was different? If it was like this then, that you can just get direct access?
T-Boz: I don’t know if it would’ve been good back then because everything happens for a reason — it has to have evolved and have a stepping stone. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to because it’s just like cavemen — you evolve and grow and learn. So it was DVDs, now it’s digital. I think it would’ve been too much back in the day. I still miss those VHS tapes, though. I miss the old; like, I don’t like the new TVs and stuff. Some stuff has just gone too far.
Chilli: It looks like somebody’s about to come out and touch you, I don’t like that.
T-Boz: Yeah, when my kid was five and playing with my camcorder. I don’t like it. It makes it look fake looking, too much HD. I don’t need to see your pores on TV, like why do I see your pores right here? That’s not cool. It’s like invasive, all up in you.
What can you tell me about the making of CrazySexyCool that hasn’t already been said or run into the ground?
Chilli: That was our best album, it’s classic.
T-Boz: I know when we had success on the first album, it was hard for us to figure out… like, we had to really sit and figure out how we did it the first time in order to try and do it better. I think that was a time where we were really figuring out like, “Okay, this is who we are, this really worked, our image is as big as our name, and we have hairstyles.” That’s when you really start to get to know yourself and realize what kind of artist you are. For me — I don’t know if we ever talked about this — that was a growing stage, a big stepping stone in understanding myself and [TLC] as artists.
Is it true that “Creep” was inspired by Radiohead’s “Creep”?
T-Boz: No, it wasn’t. It was a situation that I went through. That we have never told, with my situation…
Chilli: Yeah, people didn’t know it was your situation. It’s a thousand years later so it’s okay.
T-Boz: We had to do a song about it… [Sings] “So I creep / Yeaaaah / And I’ll just keep it on the down low.” I’m not a cheater, it was just one of those situations. I had told my boyfriend at the time that if you were where you were supposed to be, he couldn’t be here.
Chilli: Damn, like a TLC girl.
T-Boz: That’s what I told him. I mean we were not getting along, it was just like, hell, if you were where the hell you were supposed to be at, he couldn’t be in your place, now isn’t that right? What was he going to say? Jedi mind trick — this is really your fault.
What did you think the first time you saw the finished “Waterfalls” video?
Chilli: We all started crying.
T-Boz: Yeah, we broke down. We were in a room and they played it and we started crying and we were like, “It’s so good, we don’t even have to be in it!” It was so touching; that was the first time as a group collectively that we all came up with a video and L.A. [Reid] fought for us because Clive at the time did not like that song. We did a big poster board cause Lisa has artistic writing and damn near begged L.A., “Please give us a chance, believe in us!” And he framed it. He said, “I believe in y’all and I’ll go against the grain,” and we did the video and it blew up.
I can’t believe Clive Davis didn’t like it.
T-Boz: The video made that song pop.
Chilli: They didn’t understand the lyrics. Like, “Okay, ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls,’ what does that mean?” From that era, the videos were so important. A lot of times you saw the video first before you would hear the song, and so you fell in love with what you saw and so you instantly liked the song. It just helped people understand what those lyrics were talking about.
You’re not also going to tell me you cried when you heard the “Weird Al” version, right?
Chilli: Didn’t cry on that one, but we thought it was kind of funny.
When it came time to make Fanmail, what were some of the things that you knew you wanted to do differently than on CrazySexyCool?
Chilli: Well, so much of our fan mail never got answered, and a lot of fans were upset because they wanted us to reply back to them so we were like, you know what? The best way to give our thanks is to put their names inside the CD jacket.
T-Boz: And we dedicated the album to them as well. It’s your album, your songs.
Chilli: And we really didn’t know it was going to be a whole futuristic theme until we had the photoshoot. Painting us all silver, [Lisa and Tionne] liked that kind of stuff, I don’t. I didn’t want to do it.
T-Boz: I asked to do it, I wanted for us to be space cadets and she likes to be the island princess, but she was such a trooper.
Chilli: Do you know it took like three weeks to get that silver shit out of my ears? It would not go away, but it was worth it.
T-Boz: I was itching, it was terrible.
T-Boz: Hype was killing it then.
“No Scrubs” and “Unpretty” were so relatable. Do you identify as feminists?
T-Boz: I wouldn’t say that, we’ve got a little rebel in us but we are just three strong women. It probably fits in the feminist thing, but I never looked at us that way. I just looked at us as outspoken, strong women who are not afraid to stand up for themselves and respect themselves and will kick ass if needed. We’ll jump you.
I think that meets all the requirements.
Chilli: Of a feminist, right? I’ve always said we’re lightweight feminists.
T-Boz: We can be considered that, it’s not a bad thing.
If it’s okay to ask about Lisa, was it a complete surprise when she wrote that letter challenging you all to make solo albums?
T-Boz: We were shocked; it was a surprise, a very big one. I knew she was trippin’ in that area, but I was surprised, like, “You really went there, for real?”
It’s a shame that the idea was borne under such animosity because OutKast did that the next year and it would’ve been a good idea if it wasn’t such a negative thing.
T-Boz: Right, it’s the way it was done. It could’ve been a great idea.
Chilli: It could’ve been so dope but we don’t compete in our group. There’s no competition here.
Is there anything that isn’t well known about Lisa that would surprise most people?
Chilli: She could cook, people knew she could cook. It’s funny because she really loved to help people but it’s the people whom she liked to help that was interesting, in my opinion.
T-Boz: They can’t be helped; you need a professional to help them, or Jesus.
Chilli: Those types of people were these challenges that she would like. And maybe that’s something she saw within herself, who knows?
Have you already started writing the songs for the new album? Do you know who will be working on it with you?
Chilli: We’re still putting together the team, and we’re very excited about that. A lot of special people want to work with us during this time and help us put together this project. As soon as we get the team together, we’re definitely going to make that announcement.
Is it definitely going to be out this year?
Chilli: That’s our plan.
Do you think it’s going to sound like what’s out right now?
Chilli: No, it’s not going to sound like anything that’s out because we don’t like doing that. When we go in and make new music with producers, our goal is to always find like, what’s the next sound? What makes it a TLC sound is her voice and my voice together, so we start from scratch. That’s the formula that works best.
T-Boz: I think we have our own lane when it comes to music. We still got that little street and we’re going to keep on riding up that street.
How’s the Kickstarter going so far?
T-Boz: It’s great, we’re almost there and it’s only been up two days. Katy Perry, Donnie Wahlberg, and New Kids on the Block are now helping us as artists, which is awesome. This is a great way to go out with a bang for our fans, and they get to be involved. Once you pledge, the awards are so TLC: We have slumber parties, going to the movies with us, all kinds of cool stuff. It’s different! It’s fun and personal. [Ed. note: They’ve since surpassed their Kickstarter goal by more than double.]
And you knew that you wanted to make it your final album for sure?
Do you know what you want to do after?
T-Boz: A live residency would be awesome because we have such an amazing catalog. We’ve been performing those songs for years and we can do them for a lot more years hopefully.
So to clarify, the group’s not splitting up?
T-Boz: No, absolutely not. TLC is forever.