TLC - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
As one of the biggest contemporary R&B acts of the 1990’s, TLC were nearly as famous for their turbulent personal lives as they were for their no nonsense sexually charged urban R&B. The Atlanta, Georgia trio rose to prominence in the early 90’s on the strength of their flamboyant fashion sense and infectious R&B vocal melodies, appealing equally to hip hop and pop audiences alike, making TLC one of the most successful female R&B groups in history. Yet the fact that TLC sold a remarkable 45 million albums in their decade long career is almost inconsequential compared to the insatiable path of destruction left by their very public personal lives. Indeed, the TLC story reads like overwrought pulp fiction: bankruptcy, highly publicized in-fighting, chronic illness, arrests, high profile romances, drug addiction, and best of all…arson, practically secured TLC their very own tabloid throughout the latter half of the 90’s. So much negative publicity should have sent their career into a downward spiral but the group seemed to have more lives than a cat, bouncing back to the top of the charts almost as often as they made headlines. If anything, TLC not only proved to be successful pop stars and MTV fixtures but also master public relations manipulators. The more bizarre and over-the-top their personal high jinks the more famous the group became and it wasn’t long before TLC the pop stars and TLC the tabloid mainstays were one in the same…and the people loved them for it. Whether they were going bankrupt or using the tabloids as a stage to verbally abuse each other the public hung on every ridiculous publicity stunt TLC dreamt up, arguably, re-enforcing the marriage of paparazzi and pop stars so prevalent (and lucrative) in mainstream music today. Yet the TLC gravy train came to an abrupt halt in 2002 after founding member, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, was killed in a car accident while vacationing in Honduras. The tragedy forced the remaining members to call it a day shortly after, yet TLC’s fantastical legacy lives on.
TLC (aka Tender Loving Care) was formed in 1990 when vocalist Tionne Watkins and rapper Lisa Lopes answered an ad by vocalist Crystal Jones seeking two more members to complete her R&B group, 2nd Nature. The trio quickly signed a management deal with Pebitone, run by former R&B pop sensation Perri “Pebbles” Reid, who changed the group’s name to TLC to correspond with all the members first names (“T”ionne, “L”isa, “C”rystal). Pebbles subsequently secured TLC an audition for LaFace Records and label heads Babyface and L.A. Reid were impressed with Watkins and Lopes but decided to replace Jones with former Damian Dame backup dancer Rozonda Thomas before signing the trio later that year. Since the lineup change interfered with the idea behind the TLC acronym the girls took on the fitting stage names T-Boz (Watkins), Left Eye (Lopes) and Chilli (Thomas) respectively, with Pebbles taking over as their manager. The debut album, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip (1992 LaFace) reflected the overwhelmingly popular new jack swing sound of the early 90’s and the group scored a hit with “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, which also took off on MTV partly due to TLC’s flamboyant fashion sense but mostly because Lopes scandalously wore a condom over her left eye throughout the video as a safe sex statement. Subsequent singles like the R&B ballad “Baby-Baby-Baby” and “What About Your Friends” were also successful but TLC were quickly overshadowed by the contemporary R&B juggernauts Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men near the end of 1992.
Sensing the new jack swing era was coming to a close, TLC replaced the high energy dance tracks with sensual R&B for their sophomore effort, CrazySexyCool (1994 LaFace). Just a few weeks before the album’s release, Lopes made some sensational headlines after she burned down the house of her then boyfriend (and Atlanta Falcon’s wide receiver) Andre Rison during a domestic dispute. Lopes was arrested but ultimately sentenced to five years probation after her lawyer insisted alcohol abuse was to blame. Lopes entered an alcoholism rehabilitation program shortly thereafter. The outrageous arson case brought TLC some much needed publicity that helped launch CrazySexyCool into the commercial stratosphere with the single, “Creep” staying at #1 on the pop charts for 4 consecutive weeks. Subsequent singles “Red Light Special” and “Diggin’ on You” also broke the Top 5 but it was the sophisticated contemporary R&B hit “Waterfalls” that catapulted the trio into mega-stardom. A hit on mainstream radio and MTV, “Waterfalls” spent a remarkable seven weeks at #1 on the pop charts with CrazySexyCool eventually selling 11 million copies and picking up a Grammy Award for Best R&B album.
Despite the album’s overwhelming success all was not well in the TLC camp with the group filing for bankruptcy in 1995, partly due to Lopes rising insurance costs as a result from the arson incident. TLC subsequently filed a lawsuit against LaFace seeking higher royalty payments, which resulted in a counter lawsuit by LaFace and a split between TLC and their manager Pebbles. The group spent the better part of two years settling their financial affairs and resolving their disputes with LaFace, surprisingly re-signing to the label in 1997 under a new contract. Adding insult to injury, Watkins developed sickle cell anemia, a chronic illness that left her too exhausted to perform, severely affecting their live performances. TLC finally entered the studio to begin work on a follow up with longtime producer Dallas Austin, who by this point was dating and had a young son with Thomas. The session came to a grinding halt when TLC claimed Austin’s fee of 4.2 million dollars was exceedingly high. The sessions didn’t resume until early 1998 with the group working on the album for nearly a year. By that summer Lopes had announced her intention to record a solo album while Watkins took time off to act in the Hype Williams film, Belly. By the end of 1998 it had been three years since the last TLC album and rumors began to circulate about the group breaking up. Fanmail finally appeared at the beginning of 1999, and shot straight to the top of the charts on the strength of the sassy, “No Scubs”, which peaked at #1 on the pop charts for four consecutive weeks. The follow up single, “Unpretty”, a treatise on the media’s biased standard of beauty, spent three weeks at #1 with Fanmail moving six million copies and garnering TLC another Grammy for Best R&B Album.
A few weeks before embarking on an international tour in late 1999, TLC hit another rough patch when Watkins and Thomas claimed Lopes was putting her burgeoning solo career ahead of the group. The rift public when the magazine Entertainment Weekly printed a letter from Lopes challenging Watkins and Thomas to a solo album contest that would allow the public to decide which member had the most talent. The issue was quickly resolved and the tour commenced without a hitch although Lopes continued to tout her upcoming solo album to the press. At the dawn of the millennium Watkins married rapper Mac 10, Thomas began working on her own solo album, and Lopes finished her solo debut, Supernova (2001 Arista), although her label never released it domestically in the United States. TLC began sporadically working on their fourth full length with Dallas Austin in 2001. Lopes again made headlines early the following year when she announced her intention to release a second solo album under the name, N.I.N.A. (New Identity Non-Applicable), on Suge Knight’s fledgling Tha Row label. Unfortunately, work on the album never commenced. While vacationing in Honduras that spring, Lopes lost control and flipped her rented SUV. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes succumbed to a head injury sustained in the accident and died on April 25, 2002 at the age of 31. Thomas and Watkins finished the final TLC full length, 3D (2002 LaFace) with producer Dallas Austin despite the fact that Lopez had only completed the vocals to four songs. Unfortunately, 3D was a commercial and critical disappointment selling a meager 2 million copies with only the single, “Girl Talk” breaking the U.S. Top 40. Watkins and Thomas made their final live performance in June 2003 at the annual Zootopia festival, singing against a video back drop of Lopes performing her parts for various songs. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive and the duo decided to continue on as TLC, releasing their first greatest hits compilation, Now and Forever: The Hits (LaFace) in 2003, featuring one new track, “Come Get Some” with guest artists Lil Jon and YoungBloodZ. The album wasn’t released in the United States until 2005, where it stalled after selling a meager 20,000 copies. Although TLC has never officially broken up, both Watkins and Thomas have publicly announced they have no intention of recording a fifth album as TLC.