Triple X: The Making Of TLC's 'Red Light Special'
Kicking kid-friendly soundtracks to the side, TLC’s sexed-up hit illuminated the bedroom and let their love light shine
The late Teddy Pendergrass might have disagreed, but cutting the lights isn’t necessarily step one to lovemaking. R&B trio TLC added color to intimacy with their headboard rocker “Red Light Special,” which shone the scarlet glow of Amsterdam’s sex booths into the bedrooms of America.
“The first thing I pictured was a red strobe light flashing, and somebody doing stripper moves,” says lead singer Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins. “Whatever tricks there are—that’s my red-light special.”
“It’s a female’s kitty cat,” adds Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, with a blush in her voice. “You know… I’ll give it to you!”
Albeit coyly, TLC had been singing about sex from day one. Yet after the quadruple-platinum 1992 debut Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip, decked with uptempo songs about baggy fashion sensibilities and ride-or-die friends, the Atlanta trinity gleamed with pubescent appeal. Even the forward “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”—its video featuring Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ prophylactic eye patch—didn’t fit any bump-and-grind playlists. So in ’94, when the three ladies huddled up at Los Angeles’ Music Grinder Studios early in the recording of their second album CrazySexyCool, producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was set on raising the temperature. “I was like, ‘Oooh, Kenny, you so nasty!’” T-Boz remembers of first reading the lyrics.
The trio didn’t hold back, as T-Boz’s droning contralto seductively coaches a horizontal partner: “Don't go too fast/Don't go too slow/You've got to let your body flow.” The real mood setter was Babyface’s instrumental, a thick puree of whipping percussion and electric strings. Internet apocrypha credits former Guns N Roses frontman Slash—Chili’s preferred player—for the track’s sinewy guitar line and searing solo. False. “We initially tried to get Ernie Isley on guitar but he wasn’t available,” says Babyface, who instead enlisted studio musician Dwight Sills’s strumming wizardry instead.
The completed record was a no-brainer as a slow-paced chaser to the leadoff infidelity anthem “Creep.” The sultry ballad shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, helping power their sophomore album to sales of more than 11 million units, in the process positioning the threesome as self-assured sexpots. “A lot of fans have told me that their babies were made off of that,” says Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas.
Their newfound seductress roles couldn’t be confined to boom boxes. TLC enlisted fashion photog Matthew Rolston (director of the aforementioned “Creep”) to shoot a fittingly steamy music video that featured a then-unknown 20-year-old Boris Kodjoe playing a shirtless rent-boy in a brothel run by the pimpin’ Left Eye. Yet if the late MC had her way, the entire video concept would’ve turned in a decidedly different direction.
“She wanted the video to be about her vision of the night she burnt down the house!” T-Boz says, referencing Lopes’ torching of then-boyfriend NFL receiver Andre Rison’s mansion. “She was like, ‘We could be in the middle of the field, in the bed making love. And all of a sudden, a fire just shoot up and surround the bed! We could be surrounded by lions and daisies.’”
Left Eye’s vision never came to fruition, yet after the cameras stopped rolling, three increasingly explicit director’s cuts (the kinkiest shows a guitarist pulling down Chilli’s pants) were chopped. Hardly risqué compared to the bootylicious videos of the following decade, “Red Light Special” still reflects the elegant sensuality of the song itself: silk pajamas à la “Creep,” crimson lighting and T-Boz getting her toes licked. Says Chilli, “We went into the studio to make good music, and make sure we could talk about things people could relate to.” Their following single may’ve been called “Waterfalls,” but on this one TLC drenched fans in orgasmic bliss. —Miles Marshall Lewis