TLC’s Lasting Influence

by Craig JC

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.

  • C. Shantel

    very good article. i grew up during the time when all of the girl groups that you mentioned were hot, and i actually miss that type music. now days, it’s clearly all about the individual with performers like beyonce, alicia keys and lady gaga dominating the female music scene. you have a few girl groups out there with potential, but it’s very hard for them to really make their voices heard with so much saturation in the music market for individual acts.

  • http://morningrailway.com/ miranda

    I loved TLC and owned all their albums growing up. However, I don’t think they would have lasted. The industry today is over girl groups and boy bands and aside from that, many of the groups fall apart because of ego and because everyone wants to go in a different direction.
    I’ve always wondered why bands (members who play instruments) can survive a lot longer than these supergroups (members just sing). And I’ve boiled it down to the fact that everyone has something to offer. If one plays drums really well and another plays bass really well, that’s bigger than who’s voice one should prefer. And I think that’s what was interesting about TLC. Yes, it had two singers but it had Lopes that made the group dynamic. T-Boz and Chilli would have to have brought something to the table. Which is what makes TLC even more of an influence. How can future groups learn from their mistakes? How can the girl group and boy band movement pick up again and be different from their 90s counterparts? It’s about knowing that each role is very important and that everyone can do something to make the group great.

  • chillchic

    I agree that they were awesome and I was a HUGE fan of theirs as a kid. But I still think Destiny’s Child would have been as big as they were since their 2 biggest albums and all of their #1 hits were released prior to Lefteye’s death. Also, they had long since stopped dressing in the baggy clothes with condoms over their eyes by the late 90s. Two of the members were mothers by then and they had toned down sbstantially. I still believe they had a some good albums left though and it’s sad that they didn’t get to make more. Ultimately though, things wouldn’t be the same because the industry has changed drastically, even since the beginning of the millenium. People would still be willing to see them live, if only to hear them perform their earlier hits.

  • http://www.essenceofsilk.com KarenC

    There songs got me all thru JR high. My inspiration to so many things. God Bless…

  • iolastar

    TLC is my favorite female group ever. I grew up with them, loved their playful, colorful videos. You could genuinely tell in their videos that they had chemistry. You could see the tension in some interviews, but sisters argue and in the end there was nothing but true love. I am so happy for all the memories and great music. The video tribute to Lisa in Turntable is not only a lasting reminder to her, but to TLC as well.

  • http://thethreedolls.blogspot.com 3_Dolls

    TLC was, is, and always will be the greatest group of all time! I love them and appreciate the time they took to include messages that meant something in their music. I really miss Lisa “Left Eye cuz the eye is right” Lopes! For me, she made the group more vibrant and unpredictable. Everyone had a strength in the group and brought something special, and I wish more than anything that that accident didn’t happen and they could still make music–REAL music–to this day!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-Jamison/100000997297252 Michelle Jamison

    Not only do I miss TLC, but I miss R&B female groups period!
    And I am not talking about one of those groups where one or two members are always in the forefront. I’m talking about the groups, where every member had something to offer. The type of group where each member had a different singing range: from the chick who can sing the high notes to the one member who might rap out a verse/she had a hushy singing voice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-Jamison/100000997297252 Michelle Jamison

    *husky

  • http://www.theposhmiss.com ThePoshMiss.com

    Empowerment girl group.

  • ceecee

    Maybe I’m just dreaming, but I would predict their story to be that instead of imploding they banded together and kept on churning hit album after hit album and landed several reality shows on VH1 and MTV.

    I really miss TLC

  • sloane

    i loved the HELL out of left eye, and tlc in general. crazysexycool, was one of the only albums i heard back in those days where pretty much every song was go od, including the interludes. (that reminds me, i need to go find that cd.) i don’t think tlc would’ve been on top now only because many pop acts have a limited self life. but i could be wrong. look at puffy. he’s completely talentless, and he manages to keep himself relevant on the pop charts.

  • sloane

    *i meant, good.

  • sloane

    *and shelf life. typos city.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-Jamison/100000997297252 Michelle Jamison

    @sloane

    I actually miss the R&B scene from the 1990′s. No offense to Trey Songz and ‘em, but there was something special about the music from that period of time, in my opinion. Even though some of those R&B groups were one hit-wonders, but those songs were memorable. I still hear those tunes, every once in a while. Even in those days, R. Kelly was the only singer who was…R. Kelly! LOL! What I mean is, he was the only artist who was coming out with songs like “Bump & Grind” and “Sex Me”. Now, it seems like almost every up-and-coming singer has taken pages out of the “R. Kelly” book of success. Plus, it seems like to me that they (with the exception of a few singers: Anthony Hamilton, Dwele, Bilal and a few others) are trying to gain a male following, by carrying a hip-hop/rap thug persona.

  • http://pertheblog.blogspot.com Tracie

    Makes me wanna start my own girl group! lol

  • rugglebyc

    They are amazing. Thx for giving them their props.

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