If it weren’t for a tragic automobile accident eight years ago, the top female music groups today probably would have condoms over their eyes.
From 1990 – 2002, supergroup TLC was just that big and influential.
Destiny’s Child would probably have remained mere children in music. The Spice Girls would never have even been manufactured. Countless female groups, many of them consisting of solo acts today, largely wouldn’t have even entered the business if it weren’t for this trio from Atlanta.
How powerful was the musical juggernaut comprised of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas?
The group’s second album “CrazySexyCool” holds the distinction of being the only album by a female R&B group to be certified diamond (10 million albums sold). The release has sold more than 15 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
If any other group thinks they can surpass that, or even duplicate it– “don’t go chasin’ waterfalls.”
But while today’s female music groups are pretty much far and few between (who, besides the Pussycat Dolls has reached consistent mainstream success today?) the late 1990s and turn of the century saw a host of female groups in black music. As the music business today continues to morph according to the ebb and flow of digital sales, music groups – both male and female – are pretty much islands to themselves–the very opposite of how it used to be.
The environment in which TLC reigned supreme was akin to a musical forest of precious stones, each corner and nook bejeweled with a shining star.
Their contemporaries at the time were R&B heavy-hitters such as SWV, Total, Blaque, Brownstone, 702, Jade, Excape, and even the vocal sirens of En Vogue just to name a few. And while all of these groups were talented, they didn’t have TLC’s crossover appeal. At the time nobody – nobody – had the killer combo of good looks, cool singing and rapping all in one package except for TLC. And the others didn’t have the wild card that was Lisa Lopes.
Lopes was very much the Tupac Shakur of TLC, the rebel, the outlaw of the group.
So the question remains, if Lopes (who would have turned 39 last month) were alive today, would TLC still be on top? Could the group, which only lasted four albums, make it today in an increasingly digital, ringtone-dominated age?
Given the state of the group at the time, probably not.
After the first two albums, “Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip,” and “CrazySexyCool” were churned out in three years, TLC took five years – an eternity today – before returning to the studio to produce their third album “Fanmail.”
The delay was partly due to the girls’ problems but also to contentious negotiations with super producer Dallas Austin, who wanted total creative control.
But inside the group, discontent stirred.
Even on “CrazySexyCool,” Lopes’ raps, which were always delivered in a playful, juvenile voice despite a song’s subject matter, were largely absent. On “Fanmail,” her carefree style was even more subdued and spotty. But this time, Lopes fought back.
While all the girls were dabbling in other interests after “Fanmail” such as acting and movies, Lopes stayed in music. She recorded a rap for former Spice Girl Mel C’s song “Never Be the Same Again.” The song shot to No. 1 across Europe and made Lopes even more defiant at Laface. Then she rapped on Donnell Jones’ song “You Know What’s Up,” which also went to No. 1.
This woman was fire with TLC by as a solo rapper she quickly became a supernova.
Actually even before “Fanmail,” Lopes was very, very close to severing ties with TLC. She forwarded a letter to Vibe Magazine, which said in part:
“I’ve graduated from this era. I cannot stand 100 percent behind this TLC project [Fanmail] and the music that is supposed to represent me.”
As with all music groups, things finally came to a head when Lopes publicly challenged her bandmates.
“I challenge [T-Boz] Tionne ‘Player’ Watkins and [Chilli] Rozonda ‘Hater’ Thomas to an album entitled “The Challenge”… a 3-CD set that contains three solo albums. Each [album]… will be due to the record label by October 1, 2000…I also challenge Dallas ‘The Manipulator’ Austin to produce all of the material and do it at a fraction of his normal rate. As I think about it, I’m sure LaFace would not mind throwing in a $1.5 million dollar prize for the winner.”
“The Challenge” was never accepted by T-Boz and Chilli, but it clearly showed that music groups had a short shelf life, if not with fans then internally among the members.
Just like the Supremes, just like countless other music groups, TLC began to implode.
After the album, which sold more than 6 million copies in the United States, Lopes all but left the group. TLC was back in limbo.
In a lot of ways, TLC had to cease for the other groups, such as Destiny’s Child, to flourish. After TLC’s demise a number of groups popped up with relatives and parents as their managers – a direct result of the audacious bankruptcy filing TLC went through despite having the No.1 album in the country with “CrazySexyCool.”
Mathew Knowles, as Destiny Child’s manager and Beyonce’s father, no doubt studied the pitfalls of TLC before signing the girls to a contract with Columbia Records in 1997.
But TLC taught other things as well. The lasting three members of Destiny’s Child, unlike different girl groups that were plagued with infighting (former members Latavia Robertson and Latoya Luckett did level accusations of favoritism and mistreatment by the Knowles), increasingly shared equal billing and album credits, as evidenced on the balanced production of the group’s finale album, “Destiny Fulfilled.”
Looking back, maybe the one thing missing today from a music industry that uses its talent and spits it out in as little as two years is the one thing that T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye offered: Some TLC.