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TLC On Their Past, Present And Future As The Girl Group That Defined A Generation

14 December 2023 | 9:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

"You can't think about the '90s without thinking of us."


TLC (Supplied)

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The much-loved TLC made history in the '90s, becoming the top-selling US girl group of all time – and opening the way for Spice Girls, Destiny's Child and BLACKPINK. But, even as surviving members Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas return to Australia to celebrate the 30th anniversary of CrazySexyCool, they're still chasing recognition. "Like Rolling Stone – why haven't we been on the cover?," T-Boz declares. "That's disrespectful."

Auspiciously, T-Boz and Chilli are chatting via Zoom for TheMusic's cover story. The pair enjoy a comfortable rapport, their old friendship apparent as they banter between themselves and finish each other's sentences. The "Cool" in CrazySexyCool, T-Boz, sporting a baggy OutKast T-shirt, is exuberant and jokes often, while the "Sexy" Chilli, in sleek grey with silver jewellery, is mellow. The singers constantly reference their absent third member, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes – speaking of the "Crazy" talented rapper in the present two decades after her tragic passing in 2002.

TLC first toured Australia in only 2014 – astonishingly, three years before their European debut. They're now regulars, flawlessly performing as part of 2022's RNB Fridays with Macklemore an eyebrow-raising headliner. This go, Busta Rhymes – who cameoed on CrazySexyCool – and En Vogue will support them.

And TLC have cherished their experiences Down Under. "We get so much love when we come there," Chilli says. They've discovered local treats. "I'm going to all of the stores buying up all the papaw – I love papaw," she gushes. "I love the ginger beer," T-Boz counters. "I had never had it until I went there. I fell in love! Okay?"

Inadvertently, TLC boosted Australian hip-hop Stateside. In 2005 they hosted a reality show, R U The Girl?, auditioning potential guest femcees for their single I Bet. O'so Krispie won but Sydney's Mirrah came runner-up – the rapper latterly working with L-FRESH The LION. "I always liked her," T-Boz proffers. "I think she was actually my favourite."

In June, the multi-Grammy winners rolled out an intimate, and unvarnished, documentary, Forever TLC – its Australian premiere at SXSW Sydney. T-Boz and Chilli ruminate on their spectacular triumphs as well as their trials, covering inequitable contracts, financial stresses, internal discord, health challenges, losing Lisa, and misogynoir. Viewers were surprised to glimpse an unexpected ally: Dave Grohl.

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TLC emerged in the early '90s amid Atlanta's hip-hop and R&B boom, dubbed 'Hotlanta' – although Chilli is the sole Georgian. They debuted on LaFace Records – the powerhouse label launched by producer-cum-executives Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds – in 1992 with Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip, their breakthrough hit the rowdy Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg. The unknown beatmaker Dallas Austin was crucial sonically – and was nabbed by Madonna for Bedtime Stories.

TLC pioneered hip-hop soul with messages of female empowerment and body positivity, Lisa initially the ideator. Indeed, the trio were as identifiable by their fashion as their music – Lisa wearing a condom eye patch to promote safe sex as AIDS dominated headlines.

Alas, TLC faced setbacks. T-Boz battled sickle-cell disease – her advocacy combatting stigma around the blood disorder. Meanwhile, Lisa, who had childhood trauma, was embroiled in a volatile relationship with footballer Andre Rison, accidentally burning down his mansion – the star unusually self-possessed despite media derision.

In 1994 TLC ushered in a sophisticated R&B on the monumental CrazySexyCool, encompassing the hits Creep, Red Light Special and Waterfalls – the latter their signature with socially-conscious lyrics. Even the deep cuts were choice, TLC covering Prince's If I Was Your Girlfriend. Among CrazySexyCool's guests was André 3000 on the grungy Sumthin' Wicked This Way Comes. TLC scooped the Grammy Awards and, with their Waterfalls video, directed by F Gary Gray, were the first Black act to score 'Video Of The Year' at the MTV Video Music Awards (beating Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream).

Shockingly, post-CrazySexyCool, TLC filed for bankruptcy – suing their backers for fairer remuneration. They re-surfaced with another blockbuster in 1999's Fanmail, led by the sassy No Scrubs – the lowkey Chilli singing lead. Tragically, Lisa died soon after in a car crash in her Honduras sanctuary – TLC's fourth album 3D a tribute. Resilient, TLC carried on as a duo.

Filming Forever TLC was prolonged. "At first it was a little tedious, because you hate cameras all the time," Chilli states. Then there was the emotional toll. "I hate to cry – and they would start it off with me crying," T-Boz confesses. "I was just like, 'Really, guys?' But I think that was different for everybody to see such an emotional side of me talking, 'cause you don't never get to see that…

"But, honestly, it's okay being vulnerable. I have children now. I'm more sensitive – and life happens. I'm a person that kinda just moves forward and leaves whatever happened behind me. So I think it gets emotional for me because, hearing myself say it out loud, it makes it reality for me. So then I get all soft and stuff now and mushy – like her." She looks at Chilli.

Chilli deems Forever TLC "liberating". "We got a chance to really give a lot more detail into things that people assumed, or things that were just completely not true," she explains. "We got a chance to just touch on all that kinda stuff – and I love that all of this comes from Tionne and myself.

"We're so blessed and thankful that we're allowed to tell our own story, because no one can tell it better than the two of us. Even when we talk about Lisa – I mean, the three of us started together and we have things that we share, like secrets and things just between us that no one will ever know…"

T-Boz interjects, "[Secrets] we'll take to the grave."

"Yes," Chilli affirms. "Secrets that we'll never tell. And, then, [there are] the things that we can tell that not even our mothers know."

In fact, TLC have generated a biographical industry. In 2013 the duo executive-produced the bio-pic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story for VH1, and T-Boz has published a memoir, A Sick Life – TLC 'n Me: Stories From On And Off The Stage. However, they aren't done. "We could have a whole 'nother documentary," Chilli laughs. T-Boz joins in, "We got a lot more stories to tell…"

TLC's influence on pop culture has been enduring – T-Boz describing them as an inherently Y2K ensemble. "You can't think about the '90s without thinking of us."

The current wave of female hip-hop and R&B stars radiate CrazySexyCool energy – Top Dawg Entertainment's Doechii sampling No Scrubs for What It Is (Block Boy).

"Even when I wasn't looking, it just would find me, you just would see on Instagram or something somebody emulate something that one of us have done," T-Boz muses, citing Cardi B's sartorial nod to Left Eye at 2018's Coachella (the New Yorker namechecked TLC, too, in Be Careful off Invasion Of Privacy) or Doja Cat's Get Into It (Yuh) video, a homage to No Scrubs.

Nonetheless, TLC were thrilled to notice themselves repped on Missy Elliott's viral 2022 Christmas tree – its ornaments records by her personal GOATs, Chilli purring, "And she was one of the greats herself!"

The humble Chilli is always "touched" when other artists relate personal stories about their favourite TLC songs. "It just lets us know that the body of work that we did truly holds a lot of weight – and it meant a lot to people and it changed people's lives for the better. That means the world to us."

TLC declined what became Britney Spears' break-out, … Baby One More Time – T-Boz telling MTV News, "I'm not saying 'Hit me baby.'" More curiously, David Bowie fancied having TLC sing on 1999's Thursday's Child – his guitarist Reeves Gabrels overruling him. ("[Bowie] was a voracious chaser of new things," Gabrels said in 2017). "But not every new thing [should be chased].")

T-Boz and Chilli had no idea – Chilli gasping. "You know what?," T-Boz reflects. "[Chilli] just said she didn't know. But I remember David wanted to do a song with us – I didn't know what the song was and I didn't know what you just said. But I remember getting a call from the record company – 'cause I'm a big David Bowie fan!"

"I am too!," Chilli protests.

"I love him, okay?," T-Boz continues, bursting into a breezy rendition of Let's Dance. "So knowing that he even wanted to do a song, even though it didn't work out – that was just an honour within itself."

Chilli mock seethes, "I want to know the name and number of that person who convinced him to do it by himself!"

"Yeah!," T-Boz cackles. "How could you ruin our chance like that?"

In 2017 TLC delivered an eponymous "final album", crowdfunded by a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign with celebrity champions like Katy Perry. Their comeback mined '90s nostalgia with the single Way Back (featuring Snoop Dogg), but they also ventured into house on It's Sunny.

Today TLC remain adamant that they won't release a sixth LP – but T-Boz teases something else. "We said we wouldn't do another TLC album; we never said we wouldn't do music. So there will be new TLC songs – like we're doing a Broadway play. So you will hear singles and stuff like that. We're not done singing. We just don't wanna do a studio album."

TLC have collaborated inter-generationally – elevating J Cole's 2013 Crooked Smile, a self-love bop. Are they up for more? "Oh, yeah," Chilli enthuses. "We wanna work with Bruno Mars too. I love him so much – he's amazing! I think it's just a match made in heaven that hasn't happened yet. He's such a great performer. I think it would be amazing."

TLC have pursued side-hustles. In 2002 the creatively restless Lisa had a cult album Supernova – issued in Australia, albeit not in the US. But, as early as 1996, T-Boz aired the risqué single Touch Myself (for the Fled OST) and subsequently contributed to Raphael Saadiq's neo-soul opus Instant Vintage. Chilli branched out later, briefly signing to Akon's Konvict Muzik.

The two have likewise acted – T-Boz appearing in Hype Williams' 1998 Belly, and Chilli impressively portraying Zora Neale Hurston in Chad Boseman's 2017 movie Marshall about the Supreme Court's first Black American Justice.

Regardless, TLC aren't as invested in solo pop endeavours. "We've had things that we have done, but it's always gonna be the greatest [us working] together as well," T-Boz says. "I think, just in between our personal stuff, life happens. But it's always the best with us together. That's how we started – and that's the biggest and the best and it always probably will be."

Chilli concurs, "I think what people love so much about us is everybody's got their favourite TLC girl. But everybody – even those same people that's got their favourite TLC girl – loves when it's just one; together.

"It's funny because we are three solo artists in a group together. I don't rap, T-Boz doesn't rap. I can't sing like her, she can't sing like me. So everybody has their respective spots and roles and so it just works that way."

TLC appreciate the many accolades – their legacy assured (there's actually a Weird Al Yankovich parody of Waterfalls). But do the group feel they have received their flowers?

"In certain instances, I would say 'yeah' and, in certain instances, I would say 'no'," T-Boz responds. "Like Rolling Stone – why haven't we been on the cover? That's disrespectful."

Chilli mentioned the elusive Rolling Stone cover cachet when in April she accepted an award at Variety's Power Of Women event, disclosing that they were told Black artists don't sell magazines. (Not coincidentally, Rolling Stone's co-founder Jann Wenner recently caused furore over his public dismissal of Black and female musicians.)

Ironically, nor have TLC graced the Black women's title ESSENCE. "Fans will bring up like, 'Why aren't y'all here?,' T-Boz says. "[We reply], "Well, go ask them.' Because it makes no sense how we can be the number one girl group of all time in America and never have been on either one of those [magazines]. So somebody needs to answer that. Why are we not?"

Chilli sighs, "At this point, I honestly don't care."

"Yeah, I don't either," T-Boz agrees, "but I still wanna hear what the answer is – answer it. 'Cause you've had people who haven't even done half of what we've done in our career."

Chilli finishes, "And been around as long as we have."

TLC previously toured a CrazySexyCool retrospective show in the US for its 25th birthday, the album freshly certified Diamond. Yet, live, they're not complacent. TLC undertake gruelling rehearsals. "We work hard to this day," T-Boz reveals. "Mostly two to three weeks; eight hours a day, six days a week…

"It makes you better throughout the years. You can't ever go to sleep 'cause somebody'll take your spot. That's why we still hold the torch, because we never slept… You're gonna have to take this – we ain't just gonna hand it over to you. Come get it!"