TLC (Contemporary Musicians)
Many celebrities with teenage followings welcome the support of those fans, but simultaneously insist that they shouldn't have to act as role models. This is not the case, however, with the three young women in TLC, a trio known for its hip-hop spin on the R&B revival known as "New Jill Swing." Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas embrace the opportunity to influence the lives of the young women who buy their records. Their music has a message, but TLC longs 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 havehey might not have that sister or auntie to talk to." The threesome have even stuck to this path through a fair amount of scandalost notably Lopes's arrest for burning down the home she shared with her boy-friend, Andre Rison of the Atlanta Falcons.
When newspapers reported the fire on June 9, 1994, Lopes was already a media celebrity as the rapper for TLC. The group was much in the public eye, not just because their 1992 debut album, Ooooooohhh ...On the TLC Tip, sold nearly three million copies, but also because they achieved that success while radically redefining the R&B "girl group." While past trios, exemplified by the legendary Suprêmes and contemporary incarnations including Jade 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. They 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."
Self-confidence is something all three singers say they had to learn themselves before they could begin to communicate with others. Each also attributes 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 may as well have been. "It's better just not to have one at all," Watkins commented to Tonya Pendleton when encouraged to talk about her father in YSB. "Let the family replace the love that the father couldn't give." Consequently, Watkins's motherho bore her daughter in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1970rovided 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. In the ensuing years, she saw music as a route away from the drudgery of a regular job, which she pursued for a while in the beauty trade, working as a hair model, a shampoo girl, and a manicurist.
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 dancinghich 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's Morgan. "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."
Her father was a more 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. Before she joined TLC three years later, she had been forced to support herself "by any means necessary," as she told Morgan.
TLC was formed in 1991 by a Crystalho 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 and one of the founders of Atlanta-based LaFace Records. A recording contract followed. Rozonda Thomas came on board soon after, discovered by Pebbles while rehearsing a dance routine for a Damián Dane music video. Thomas added a different kind of vocal skill and dance experience; she choreographs TLC videos and live performances. Her "look" also complemented the territory already mapped by Watkins and Lopes; where "Tionne is almost like a guy," songwriter and producer Dallas Austin told Morgan, "Chilli is a girl.... And Lisa has always been pretty much rebellious."
"We all have our parts," Chilli told BRE, "our own areas and we respect them. I don't try to rap and Left Eye doesn't try to sing, but we all dance." Jeff Lorez commented in Blues and Soul that they "had the perfect blendeft Eye's rebellious, outrageous rhymes, TBoz's cooled out, nonchalant vocals and Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas' sweet, soulful cooing. " Morgan went into greater detail, trying to capture the distinct quality that each woman provided. "T-Boz's raspy harmonies are the funk," she wrote, "the voice of the blue-collar sister who works hard during the week, parties her ass off on Friday, saves the lovin' for Saturday, and makes it to church every Sunday morning. Lisa's rap is the grit, the sound of the urban street that grounds the group." Morgan pegged Thomas's voice as the one that "personifies the magic of falling innd makingove."
Shook Up the New Jill Swing
When Ooooooohhh ...On the TLC Tip hit the market in 1992, listeners welcomed it enthusiastically, both for how it rode the New Jill Swing trend and for how it disrupted it. 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.... A wacky, cartoonish quality coupled with a reckless inhibition made that debut something special." 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 became, as Alan Light wrote in Rolling Stone, "a New Jill Swing gem." 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. "Baby Baby Baby" also went platinum and took the Number One spot. These songs traded the usual girl-group fare of broken hearts and tortuous seduction for "a determination to have women free themselves from the labels given to those who dare to assert themselves sexually," according to Word Up! magazine. 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."
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 Janet Jackson 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. Lopes also moved into management herself, dedicating a portion of her time to Left Eye Management, which sponsored young hip-hop performers.
Unfortunately, however, much of the two-year period was lost to personal problemsnd most of these were Lopes's. After Lopes met Andre Rison in the spring of 1993, the two began an intense, tumultuous relationship, Lopes moving into Rison's mansion in the suburbs outside of Atlanta. On June 9, 1994, one of their fights led to news stories across the country. Rison's version of the incident appeared in People a few weeks later: after a night out with friends, Rison returned home at 6 a.m. to find Lopes in the driveway, furious with him. "I started taking blows to the face," he said. "Finally, I grabbed her and asked her what was wrong. But she kept coming at me." Unable to stop the assault, he slapped her, Rison claimed, "not to hurt her, but to calm her. Didn't work. We were inside the house now, and I picked her up and slammed her on the bed and sat on her. I still couldn't control her. So I left. I went on a 20-mile walk." Lopes then started a fire with cardboard in a bathtub; the ensuing conflagration destroyed the mansion. As the house burned, she vandalized three of the cars in the driveway and drove away in another.
Lopes turned herself in to police the next day to face arson and criminal damage charges. Soon after, she entered a rehab clinic to seek treatment for alcohol abuse, suggesting that her drinking had played a role in what had happened.
"There is no damn way in the world," Lopes argued in Morgan's interview, "I would have intentionally started that fire. I lived in that house for a whole year. I had a year's worth of time invested in that house, that relationship. Anybody with common sense should know that there were stories behind what happened." 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. Morgan, for example, noted an incident reported in September 1993, when Lopes and Rison were seen fighting in a grocery store parking lot. "According to two passersby," recorded Morgan, "Rison hit Lopes and then fired a 9mm handgun when they tried to intervene." Such actions, many commentators surmised, probably characterized their relationship.
Demonstrated Growth on Crazysexycool
Label head L. A. Reid has concurred with this view, telling Morgan 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. It's hard, because in Lisa's head, her relationship is not an abusive relationship but a relationship where something bad happened." Later that year, it appeared that any major conflict had been resolved; in December, Watkins explained to Blues and Soul contributor Lorez that "Andre and Lisa are still together.... Her court case hasn't come up yet... but we've forgotten about it." (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]. Rison has said he has forgiven Lopes for the blaze and plans to marry her.")
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. Ultimately, changes made for the album included more than just growth in musical style. "The hardest part about coming out this time was thinking about our clothes, because our image was as big as our music," Thomas told Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Constitution. "My challenge," said Reid, who acted as creative director for Crazysexycool, according to Woe's Morgan, "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 skinn the album cover and in videoshan 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 Morgan. 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 become 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." David Sprague, covering the release for Fanfare, argued that "TLC's second album reaffirms that the three members aren't cut from the same designer-showroom cloth as most contemporary dance acts. Every note of Crazysexycool ... is invested with plainspoken approachability that makes TLC sound like libido-conscious girls next door, rather than genetically engineered fantasy objects." Crazysexycool also spawned the hits "Creep" and "Red Light Special" and spent numerous weeks in the pop Top Ten.
The trio seemed bent on shaping its growth with an eye toward the message they send to young women; while remaining uncompromisingly frank about sexualitynsisting that women can make the moves and draw the linesLC still maintained that the most important thing was a young woman's self-esteem and self-determination. Talking with Pendleton, Watkins reiterated her commitment to female autonomy: "Even if I married a rich man, I would never quit and just let him take care of me. We have all met [men], whether they were selling drugs or whatever, with hell-a-money, and we could have been set up a long time ago. But everybody don't want to do it like that. I don't care how many kids I have, my husband could be the richest man in the world, I will still work. I ain't never gonna be no housewife."
Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip (includes "Baby Baby Baby," "What About Your Friends," and "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"), LaFace/Arista, 1992.
Crazysexycool (includes "Creep," "Waterfalls," "Kick Your Game" and "Red Light Special"), LaFace/Arista, 1994.
Atlanta Constitution, November 14, 1994. Billboard, October 1, 1994.
Black Beat, February 1995.
Blues and Soul, December 13-26, 1994.
BRE, December 9, 1994.
Details, March 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, November 18, 1994; December 9, 1994.
Fanfare, November 27, 1994.
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.
People, June 27, 1994; December 5, 1994. Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992.
Time, December 19, 1994.
Vibe, November 1994.
Word Up!, January 1, 1995.
YSB, June/July 1994.
Ondine E. Le Blanc