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Aaliyah lives the perfect life. To hear her tell it, she wouldn’t change a thing. “This is what I always wanted,” she says of her career. “I breathe to perform, to entertain, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m just a really happy girl right now. I honestly love every aspect of this business. I really do. I feel very fulfilled and complete.”
It’s true that a young woman with a burgeoning career in music and film might as well be ecstatic about her life. In fact, there’s nothing more annoying than hearing some spoiled star whine about the pitfalls of success. So, while Aaliyah’s comments are refreshing, you can’t help but wonder if things sound, well, too good to be true. She speaks like a veteran politician – well prepared and press savvy, like she’s reading from an unseen teleprompter.
Of course, 22-year-old Aaliyah has been preparing for stardom since childhood. And now that she’s made it this far, it’s impossible to determine when she’s in performance mode, or just honestly being herself. A trained actress who is quickly becoming a hot property in Hollywood, Aaliyah has mastered the art of hiding herself from the public. It started back in the day, when she always rocked dark sunglasses. Because her eyes were rarely seen, a rumor quickly spread that she had a lazy or glass eye. She soon took to covering just her left eye with her long, straight, black hair. She hid again when, at 15, reports of her marriage to 25-year-old mentor and producer R. Kelly – the story broke in the December ‘94/January ’95 VIBE – scandalized the R&B world.
"IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE WHEN SHE'S IN PERFORMANCE MODE OR BEING HERSELF. A TRAINED ACTRESS, AALIYAH HAS MASTERED THE ART OF HIDING HERSELF FROM THE PUBLIC."
If you bring up the marriage with her, she sort of changes the subject. And we’re left searching dying for a glimpse inside this intriguing, mysterious woman.
It’s a bustling Thursday evening in May, and Aaliyah is lacing up her clunky bowling shoes at the AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes in New York City. She goes unnoticed by the rowdy, drunken group of Wall Street types in the next lane. Her tight, red sleeveless top and slightly faded blue jeans give more of a girl-riding-the-subway look than girl-on-MTV. She playfully tiptoes to the line and stomps her feet when her ball ends up in the gutter. But somehow you get the feeling that she isn’t particularly interested in rolling strikes either. She barely pays attention to her score, listed under the name Baby Girl. Aaliyah’s entourage – her stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist – are more engaged than she is. The entire scene feels very staged, starring Aaliyah as the around-the-way superstar who’s kicking it with her peoples. “I like the simple things in life,” she insists. “When I have time, I stay home a lot, do things like this or play laser tag. I’ve always been a homebody.” It couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton has been playing her roles well for as long as anyone can remember. All it took was a one-line speaking part as an orphan in her first grade’s production of Annie to convince Aaliyah that performing was her… From ages 8 to 9, she would sing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston songs at weddings around Michigan. A faithful watcher of Star Search, Aaliyah was dying to compete on the show. At 11 years old, she got her shot. She sang “My Funny Valentine,” lost, and cried. Ed McMahon, the host of Star Search, who introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless others, recalls Aaliyah’s performance. “There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage,” he says. “I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”
It wasn’t long before she recovered from her Star Search loss and hit up the stage again. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece on stage to perform with the R&B legend for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas casino. Knight would call Aaliyah out to perform “Home” and then duet with her on “Believe In Yourself.” Soon after, Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, whom he was managing. Kelly ended up writing and producing 15-year-old Aaliyah’s 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her life as a shy schoolgirl from an upper-middle-class neighborhood was officially over.
Not that she cared. Aaliyah is not one of those former child stars who complains of missing out on the innocence of adolescence. So what if she had a full-time bodyguard attending classes with her at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts? She was living her dream, right? Well, sort of. While she enjoys performing and being a celebrity, she doesn’t want the extra strings – like reporters probing her deepest fears and desires – that come with the package. She makes sure to give only the “right” answers, because she wants to hold onto whatever is left of her private life. So she only alludes to her relationship with R. Kelly when she says, “Of course, everybody’s had hard times. I’ve had hard times. I don’t really think I will go into detail as to what it was. But when you go through something so painful, it just helps you become a stronger person.” When asked if she’s ever been in love, she says with a bright smile, “Private life! I don’t want to share that.”
She’s like the Teflon diva, nothing ever sticks to her. After Kelly, rumors linked her romantically to Ginuwine, Jay-Z, and, most recently, the co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. In May, Aaliyah hosted a bash for Dash’s 30th birthday at a New York City club where they were spotted together; one person said they were “inseparable” – he even walked her to the bathroom. “I think rumors are hilarious,” she says. “I don’t pay any attention. It goes in one ear and out the other. When you’re in the business, you hang out with people, and people are like, ‘I wonder, are they seeing each other?’ I never dated Jay. I never dated Ginuwine. Damon and I are very good friends. I’ll keep it at that right now.” It’s hard to believe her when she’s wearing a small platinum and diamond Roc-A-Fella pendant on her neck. She claims that it’s hers and that it’s “just a little symbol of a record” and changes the subject, insisting that she’s briefly dated just two men in her whole life.
Over the course of her career, the only thing Aaliyah has seemed willing to reveal about herself has been her highly touted body. Her slim frame has become a favorite from fashion figures to frat boys. “She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes,” says Andy Hilfiger, who cast Aaliyah in the 1996 Tommy Jeans ad campaign also featuring Mark Ronson and Kidada Jones (daughter of VIBE founder Quincy Jones). The ads showed Aaliyah sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans with a tight tube top. “It created a whole new look,” says Hilfiger. “It was sexy but classic.” By the time the sultry One in A Million hit in 1996, Aaliyah’s sound and look became a lot more mature and darker. Searching for a new style, Aaliyah’s mom suggested her daughter cover her left eye with her hair just like her mom’s favorite classic film actress Veronica Lake. It gave the 18-year-old an enigmatic touch. “She’s got an incredible sense of style, maybe the best of anybody I can think of,” says MTV’s Carson Daly. “She’s really cutting edge, always on step ahead of the curve. [The TRL audience] looks to Aaliyah to figure out what’s hot and what’s new.”
"MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID I HAD SEX APPEAL," AALIYAH SAYS. "EVEN WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, WHEN I WOULD TAKE PICTURES, THERE WAS SOMETHING SEXUAL ABOUT ME. I DO FEEL SEXY FOR SURE. I ENJOY IT."
She doesn’t have the best figure or best voice, but it’s the way she uses what she has that makes her so alluring. “When we dance together, it’s like synchronized swimming,” says Fatima, Aaliyah’s choreographer. “She is naturally sexy without effort.” Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats. “My mother always said that she feels like I always had sex appeal,” Aaliyah says. “Even when I was very young, when I would take pictures, there was something sexual about me. I do feel sexy for sure. I embrace it, and I’m comfortable with it. I enjoy it.”
This confidence, her mastery of her assets, is what landed Aaliyah, who had no previous film experience, a costarring role with Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die. Combining hip hop (the movie also featured DMX) and kung fu, Romeo had the perfect formula for box office success. But the critics tore up the highly remixed Shakespearean plot for both its simplicity and lack of any romantic chemistry between Li and Aaliyah. “This movie needs a screenplay,” critic Roger Ebert wrote.
Still, any were impressed by Aaliyah’s depth. The New York Post heralded her performance, which ranges from crying to killing, as a “revelation.” And as for the absence of sex scenes, Warner Bros. decided to edit them out. “We did a [scene with] Jet and I kissing, and we ended up going with a hug,” Aaliyah says. “I guess they thought it was a little sweeter and left more to the imagination.” Maybe audiences weren’t ready to see one of hip hop’s prized young kittens getting it on with an Asian kung-fu master 16 years her senior.
If moviegoers weren’t ready for interracial heat then, they’d better brace themselves now. In the upcoming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient-Egyptian vampire. Based on a combination of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the movie is slated to show Aaliyah in intimate scenes with her Irish costar, Stuart Townsend. Perhaps what’s more striking than the eroticism of her role is that Aaliyah is the biggest star in the movie. The blockbuster Anne Rice movie Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles boasted Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and a big Hollywood budget. Queen costs $35 million and has no marquee actors. This doesn’t concern Michael Rymer. “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says, referring to 1963’s Cleopatra. “And not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romero Must Die, but people went to see her. This is a really difficult role, and she took on a huge challenge. She worked her ass off for this film."
Aaliyah trained hard for her role, working closely with her acting coach for a month and then another month with a speech coach in New York. While filming in Australia, she worked with a personal trainer because she wore revealing outfits and a stunt coordinator for her flying scenes. “I have to exude power and be regal,” she says of her role as the mother of all vampires. “I love Egypt. I love vampires. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.”
During her four-month shoot, Aaliyah somehow found the time to finish her new self-titled album. She began recording it in 1998 before Romeo. She stopped, wrapped the film, and released the super-catchy number-one single “Try Again” off the soundtrack. She traveled to Australia, shot Queen during the day, and hit the studio at night. The new album focuses more on her voice, bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production. It was never her plan to take five years to follow up the double-platinum success of One In A Million. In between, her infectious 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?” off the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack not only reminded her old fans that she still had it, but introduced her to new fans as well. At the time, “Somebody” was the biggest hit in Aaliyah’s career. She gave us just enough of the tasty appetizer to keep our palates whetted. “When it comes to overexposure, that’s something that I will always be aware of,” she says. “Because I never want that. This is my life, I love it, but it’s important for me to take breaks. Don’t want to overload anybody.”
Aaliyah’s career, like her personal life, is observed in lashes. She comes and goes when she wants. Unlike Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Madonna, who pull the public across the fine line between their private and public lives, Aaliyah puts a velvet rope between hers. While most artists scream for creative control of their songwriting and production, Aaliyah–who modestly refers to herself as an “interpreter”–is primarily interested in performing.
“I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she says. With Hankerson, her uncle, as the CEO of the label she signed to, her mother, Diane Haughton, as her manager, and her cousin Jomo Hankerson as executive producer of her albums, it’s obvious that the marketing, promotion, and sale of Aaliyah is the family’s business. And her father, Michael Haughton, used to comanage her until he fell ill (her family won’t reveal with what). Aaliyah runs every decision by her older brother, Rashad. Her entire world is a tight, closed network, open only to those close to her.
When the people who know her best describe Aaliyah, you would think they were speaking of an angel. Fatima says, “Aaliyah is the sweetest artist I know.” Her best friend of five years, Kidada Jones, uses the words “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected.” And according to Jones and Aaliyah’s mom, she has a great sense of humor. She’s good at imitations, especially of her mother’s deep voice. Aaliyah likes to make prank phone calls with Jones to what she calls “public establishments.” When asked to go into more detail, Aaliyah chooses not to–for personal reasons, of course.
Even when Aaliyah was young, she was private. “She was a very quiet child,” remembers Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, whom Aaliyah says guided her education in high school. “Very polite, personable, conscientious. She knew her goals in life at a very young age.” Her mother attributes it to her daughter’s creativity. “She’s quite a complex young lady,” Haughton says. “She’s always been like that. It’s just a part of the genius of herself.”
As a child, it was apparent that Aaliyah was ahead of her peers. During her audition for acceptance to her high school, Aaliyah sang the aria “Ave Maria” in Italian. She was only 14. With the help of private tutors and independent-study programs, Aaliyah graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Her home life was pet-packed, with ducks, dogs, and iguanas running around her suburban Detroit home. Her exposure to varied cultures has influenced her approach to music. Aaliyah encourages Timbaland to get as creative as he wants when making up her beats. “She always likes to go to the left,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s willing to use those tracks. It wouldn’t be right if she didn’t.”
"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN MYSTERIOUS. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I DON'T KNOW MYSELF...I THINK I'M A BIT OF A VAMPIRE IN REAL LIFE, AND THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I JUST WANT TO BE MYSELF."
After bowling a low 73, Aaliyah decides that she wants to play video games before heading to her Upper West Side apartment to read Harry Potter books. She wants to get as much rest as she can. In a month, she’ll head back to Australia to play Zee in Matrix 2 and 3. After that, she’ll play the lead in the Whitney Houston-produced remake of the '70s film Sparkle, which is still in its embryonic stage. But for tonight, Aaliyah just wants to be a regular girl. She blasts away would-be killers with her pink gun in the hyper-violent Time Crisis II.
When Aaliyah eventually gets shot to death in the game, she decides she’s had enough. “I’ve always been mysterious,” says Aaliyah. “My mother and father always used to ask me, ‘What are you thinking, what’s going on?’ There are times when I don’t understand myself, you know what I mean?” You do understand, and you can’t help but believe every word she says as she continues, “I have black-out shades in my apartment, I push a button, it’s totally dark. I think I’m a bit of a vampire in real life, and there are times when I just want to be myself. I wanna be alone.”
So instead of hiding from the world, maybe all the secrecy is Aaliyah’s way of discovering herself; her way of holding on to what’s true in a hazy world of glitz and imagery. “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree, they do,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Hyun Kim | Cover illustration by Alvaro.
So how you been? Why did you burn down Andre's house? I wanted to tell you to please do good. I hope you know that you're my role model.
Kim Johnson, Milwaukee
It's easy to miss TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes when she turns up, with a small posse of her homegirls, at the cookout celebrating "Player's Ball," the first gold single for the rap group Outkast. The day is mercifully cool and dry—a blessing in Atlanta. It's been raining here for an almost-biblical 40 days. Against a fragrant backdrop of Georgia pine, 2,000 of the city's young black show-biz elite are rocking to performances by Outkast, Usher, Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls), Rampage, and Busta Rhymes.
The abundance of blond, brunette, copper-topped, redboned, olive-toned, cinnamon-stick, caramel, and chocolate-drop beauties swinging at this party explains why northern B-boys' visits to Atlanta tend to end with dreams of planting southern roots. Somewhere amid this sea of females, wearing a black bandanna, baggy black shorts, red Doc Martens, and no makeup, stands a five-foot, one-inch girl who looks a full decade younger than her 23 years. She's not dancing and not talking much.
Lopes's behavior seems unusually subdued, but then again, this is the first time she's been out socially since her recent arrest on felony arson charges. She's reserved, but still determined to exercise her right to be in this mix. Seeing her now, it's hard to imagine this diminutive young lady as the outrageous Left Eye character of TLC's stage shows and videos (so named for wearing glasses with a lens on the right and a condom on the left), or as the hard-drinking, hot-tempered wild woman who's been depicted in the headlines since "the incident," as it's referred to in hushed tones by those who care about her. Others gossip or amuse themselves with jokes about pyros, hiding matches, and Andre Rison's homelessness. (In fact, Lopes's 27-year-old boyfriend, an All-Pro receiver for the Atlanta Falcons, now lives with friends.) Driving a white 1994 Mercedes Benz S420 with the license plate BAD MOON, Lopes is among the last to leave the party. In the driver's seat of the big German car, she looks even tinier, like she can barely see over the steering wheel. "The white Benz," says a friend of Lopes, "that's Andre's car. Lisa always looks like a little girl in that car."
This parting image goes a long way toward confirming what Rison's been saying ever since his $2 million mansion was destroyed by fire in the early morning hours of June 9, 1994. "I can replace a house," he said when the smoke had cleared, "but I can't replace the life I had, or a certain girl." He still loves Lopes, despite the fights, despite the alleged torching and car smashing, despite losing all his clothes and his football trophies in the fire. "After this latest thing, I certainly hope it's over," says Rison's mother, who never approved of his involvement with the rapper. "That girl, she's either going to jail or a mental institution. I mean, her only defense would be insanity, right?"
As intemperate as it looks to outside eyes, the relationship between TLC's leading lady and the NFL star is far from over. Seeing Lopes drive away in her man's car is like the exclamation point on the only statement she made to me about her stormy relationship: "All these people trying to break me and Andre up—that's one reason I try to stay in it, because I want to prove these people wrong. But I've got to learn. If the sh*t ain't right, don't worry about what people think."
It wasn't the pyre, the one that reduced the home Lopes and Rison once shared to memories and cinder, that beckoned me to Atlanta. It was the silence—the eerie way the alleged arson and Lopes's subsequent admittance to an alcohol rehab clinic became mere sound bites. They made nice little tidbits to be broadcast between replays of O.J.'s low-speed freeway chase and the obligatory lip service paid to preventing domestic violence. But that was about all we heard.
A violent altercation between Lopes and Rison last September '93 in the parking lot of a grocery store in the upscale Atlanta suburb of Buckhead was similarly downplayed in the press. According to two passersby, Rison hit Lopes and then fired a 9 mm handgun when they tried to intervene. Lopes apparently lunged at the arresting officer. Both Rison and Lopes denied that she was assaulted, or that the gun was aimed at anything but air, and charges were eventually dropped. But as with Nicole and O.J., the authorities and the media missed the smoke before the fire.
The night of the real fire went like this: Rison stayed out late with friends, came home at 6 a.m. to his star-studded, maximum-security neighborhood, Country Club of the South. Lopes was outside screaming when Rison arrived. "I knew she'd been drinking some," he said afterward. She started hitting him, and he admits slapping her, "not to hurt her but to calm her." Apparently the blow didn't help, nor did sitting on top of her. "I couldn't control her," he said, "so I left. I went on a 20-mile walk." Lisa then marched into a bathroom and lit a piece of cardboard, which somehow set the six-bedroom, five-bath gray stucco mansion on fire. Rison's brother, Reggie Brown, reported seeing Lopes watching the rising flames and shouting, "I don't care anymore!" After smashing up three cars, she fled the scene in the one vehicle left running. "Yo," went the conventional wisdom, "that bi**h is crazy."
Hip hop's "crazy ni**as" make all the headlines. But where is the noise when the multiplatinum rapper happens to be female? When her stage persona is not that of the victimized "I don't give a f**k" gangsta bi**h but of a fun-loving, pro-woman homegirl?
When Lopes joined forces with the mad-talented singers Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas in 1991, the trio damn near led a grassroots womanist revolution, banji-girl style. Featuring T-Boz's cool detachment and sultry vocals, Chilli's sweet balladeering, and Lisa's bold, self-written raps, their debut album, O000000hhh...On the TLC Tip, took on the challenge of cultivating a new strain of black-girl feminism for a generation of young women whose day-to-day reality bears little relation to the doctrines of women's studies classes.
With their ridiculously baggy Day-Glo attire and Lisa's playful display of condoms as fashion accessories, TLC told their female fans that clingy cotton/ Lycra and exposed flesh weren't the only way to be sexy, and that safe sex was nothing to be embarrassed about. O000000hhh...0n the TLC Tip sold 2.7 million copies. Their second, Crazysexycool, is now threatening to blow sh*t up all over again.
Apparently, though, neither Lopes's accomplishments nor her expression of rage is a very sexy topic. There seems to be little or no interest in the circumstances that transformed the strong child-woman who personifies Left Eye onstage into a "crazy bi**h." So I'm in Atlanta to learn about the fire. Not the one that set the huge house aflame, but the one I suspect rages within.
Those who are against her and think she's setting a bad example, being a bad role model, need to check their self before they try to check her and talk about her.
Teashia Peters, San Diego
The offices of LaFace Records are suffused with the newness, power, and potential that seem to typify Atlanta in 1994. Lining the walls are big glossy photographs of Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv DeVoe, and Bobby Brown—just a few of the superstars who have benefited from the production magic of Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and L.A. Reid. Among the three dozen or so gold and platinum records that hang in the corridors, TLC's and Toni Braxton's are the most prominently displayed. Nearly three years ago, it was the former's success that put LaFace Records on the map, helping to make the latter's recent rise possible. Sitting in his tasteful, earth-toned office, with a big blowup of his wife, Pebbles, on the wall, L.A. Reid is about to play the new mixes from the anxiously awaited Crazysexycool. His excitement and pride are palpable.
The last album's air of postpubescence has been replaced by an impressive musical maturity. The blend is more eclectic—richer and thicker. Chili's sweet voice croons ballads that conjure up the tenderness of puppy love and buppie sophistication. TBoz's raspy harmonies are the funk—the voice of the blue-collar sister who works hard during the week, parties her a** 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.
This album is produced by Dallas Austin, Babyface, Jermaine Dupri, Gerald Hall, Organized Noize, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Lisa Lopes—whom Dallas describes as "the one most likely to butt heads with producers." Crazysexycool evokes the spirit of Prince before he became [The Love Symbol]. It's all about dance, music, sex, romance, and a sweaty, brown, full-lipped kinda love. It is, in short, the bomb.
"People have a tendency to see TLC as trendy," says Reid, who serves as creative director on the album. "Like they won't be around for more than a record or two. My challenge 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, to be as important to music as artists like Prince."
There's irony in this reference, since TLC sound, feel, and look like the girl group that His Purpleness always wanted to have. The primary reason for his failure is the essence of the group's success. Prince wanted clay, but TLC could never be the creation of Svengali-esque male producers or record execs.
The genesis of TLC began with a young woman named Crystal, who put word out in Atlanta that she was looking for partners to start a group. She selected Tionne and Lisa, but they found they were more compatible with each other than with Crystal and went off on their own, eventually hooking up with singer/producer Pebbles and then Dallas Austin. Rozonda came along later, and took the name Chilli because the group needed the C.
"LISA," SAYS DALLAS AUSTIN, "HAS ALWAYS BEEN PRETTY MUCH REBELLIOUS-WHATEVER WAS GOING ON."
Though LaFace's production team has exerted a strong influence, credit for both the sound and the image of TLC must ultimately go to the girls themselves. T-Boz says she's proud to know that when she goes onstage, the people are coming to see someone she created. "I only want to be like myself," she says. "Why would I like to be Janet if you've already got a Janet? Why would anyone want to be a TLC? You got the real one." Lisa echoes the sentiment: "TLC didn't look at somebody else and try to copy what they did. We just did what came to mind, what we thought was cool."
Capitalizing on their strong personalities is what helped producer/songwriter Dallas Austin save Crazysexycool from becoming a sophomore slump. Austin, responsible for almost half of the album's tracks, thought that the best way to grow TLC past the cartoonish imagery of their first album was to expose their audience to each member's individual essence.
"I want their audience to really get to know them," says Austin. "Like, Tionne is almost like a guy. I used to know her from the skating rink—she'd be out there yeggin' it up with the gold chains like one of the ni**as. Chilli is a girl. When TLC first started, she wasn't trying to wear jeans because she was a woman. She was into dresses and nice fingernails. And Lisa," he says, "has always been pretty much rebellious—whatever was going on."
Both Austin and the girls of TLC will tell you that few people know them as well as he does. He has written most of their lyrics, including their breakthrough hit, "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," and the new album's first single, "Creep," a throaty little ditty in which Tionne sings about cheating on her man because he's not giving her the attention she needs. "It's my job as a producer to get inside and pull out what's there," says Austin. "A lot of times an artist isn't aware of what's inside. I've got to make them aware of the sides that people wouldn't be checkin' for." Of course, he understands that in the end, it's all about the girls themselves: "I can't add anything that's not already there."
He and the girls have done their jobs well. Crazysexycool is all that and then some. But even amid the excitement, there's the haunting issue of Lisa's legal woes. Reid does little to mask his concern. "The bottom line is 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." He sighs heavily. "It's hard, because in Lisa's head, her relationship is not an abusive relationship but a relationship where something bad happened. That's how she sees it. She has to be allowed to have her own process. All I or any of us can do is support and love her through it."
After almost three days of shopping, eating, talking, and chilling with TLC, I fail to see any visible signs of insane bi**hiness. If someone told you they were family, you'd believe it. They can be simultaneously silly and charming, and more than a little naughty. Watching them walk through a busy mall is a bit like watching them onstage. Tionne and Chilli get rushed for autographs, and they even stage a little impromptu skit: Chilli collapses with feigned illness, Tionne rushes melodramatically to her aid, and just when shoppers are giving up plenty of sympathy, the two of them jump up and break into a goofy tap dance. Lisa's content to watch the mini-show with a hint of a smile.
This is the same TLC who went on the 1992 Hammer/Boyz II Men/Jodeci tour and used the phrase "Pen*s in the room!" as their cue to completely strip any man within grabbing distance; the same group who almost reduced Hammer's dancers to tears when they made a weak attempt at mimicking TLC mid-performance. Onstage, the three of them look like they're at an all-girl slumber party: thinking about men, but partying in the easy way girls sometimes have when guys are absent. They all drink in the attention, as the girls in the audience stand on their chairs, screaming.
Despite their petite statures and dorm-room good looks, TLC are undeniably grown-up: introspective, sensitive, spiritual, and sensual. "Crazysexycool is a word we created to describe what's in every woman," explains Lisa. "Every woman has a crazy side, a sexy side, a cool side. A lot of our producers misunderstood us when we told them the idea—they'd do a crazy song for me, a sexy song for Chilli, and a cool song for Tionne. We had to explain that crazysexycool doesn't just describe us individually, it describes all the parts of every woman."
In a society where the media catalog of black female images tends to be monolithic to the point of insult, TLC demand that young women be allowed to embrace their own complexities and contradictions. But for Lisa, this is not as much a professional crusade as an all-important personal struggle.
"The hardest thing about being in TLC," she says, "is accepting the fact that I am Left Eye. I try to go out and be Lisa—do what Lisa would have done three, four years ago—and it just don't work. I have to act a certain way, according to what people expect. It's not like I can be in Kroger's and get into an argument with my man and not be on the news. So I have to separate the two, know that there is a difference between Left Eye and Lisa."
For all the women of TLC—who've been labeled wild girls from the moment they started singing about how they "need it in the morning or the middle of the night"—the lessons of love have led to their most important and painful battles. "I can't be my loving self with everybody," says Chilli, speaking in a record company conference room about the toughest lesson she ever had to learn. The only true southern belle of the bunch (Tionne is from Iowa and Lisa from Philadelphia), Chilli is gregarious and enchantingly flirtatious.
Though her southern sweetness can be mistaken for naïveté or promiscuity, Chilli, whose singing voice personifies the magic of falling in—and making—love, is now celibate. "I've realized that many of the problems I've had happened because I didn't give myself the chance to know someone, or for them to know me, before doing the chicken wing. Women need to realize that sex is supposed to be something special," she says. "When you meet another girl, in two weeks you're not going to call her your best friend. So if you meet a guy, why in the hell would you give yourself—something so precious—in two or three weeks?"
Tionne agrees that sex is a serious thing. For her, promiscuity now seems like a spiritually, as well as physically, unsafe principle. "It doesn't even have to do with giving yourself too fast," she says softly, tucked in to the security of a baseball cap pulled down low. "You could know a man for eight years and not know him. If he doesn't want you to know him, you never will. Sex is a bond deeper than most people think."
"THERE'S NOWAY IN THE WORLD," LISA SAYS,"THAT I WOULD HAVE INTENTIONALLY STARTED THAT FIRE."
If Chilli's tendency has been to be too open, Tionne's battle has been just the opposite. "There's something funny about me and guys," she says. "Some people say I intimidate guys. I guess the expression on my face is so plain, guys think I'm mean before they even know me." There's the slightest suggestion of a giggle in her voice. "I'm really like a big baby, you know. I can get silly, and I like to play a lot."
Tionne says she believes in commitment, long-term relationships, and waiting before giving up the boots. Her own intimidation thing is not a quality she seems to mind—if it's going to keep the knuckleheads away. "Ni**as that know me, know not to run game on me, because I will go down for my respect. If l don't, who will? I didn't work this hard for one ni**a to come in and disrespect me. I tend not to have problems with men, because they tend to get it." If there's one thing three years of good and bad relationships have taught TLC, it's that they are as free to say no to sex as they are to beg for it.
It's in all this talk about boy/girl things that Lisa begins to speak about how she feels she's been burnt. You can see it in her eyes when she talks about her relationship with Andre, about growing up in Philly, about being the daughter of a father who drank and beat her mother. Her story comes out in spurts, then streams, like water from a faucet that hasn't been turned on in a very long time.
Lisa's family life, revealed through a series of cryptic details, has been rife with instability, violence, and abuse. Her story starts with her now-deceased father, who seems to have shown his love for his multitalented daughter through displays of authoritarianism. "My dad was real strict," she says. "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. He used to make me mad. It was unfair."
Her father saw a formidable range of talents in Lisa from the time she was an infant. "I was walking when I was seven months old, but I looked like I was four months old," she says. "I got a lot of attention early on. I had these big eyes—no whites, all you could see was black. And everyone kept saying, 'You need to do something with this girl.'"
She surprised her parents by teaching herself to play the piano when she was five years old. By the time she was a teenager she'd added fashion design, sewing, decorating, hairstyling, graffiti-style airbrushing, creative writing, music, and rapping to her repertoire. Unfortunately, her domestic life was far from ideal. She'd run away from home several times by her mid-teens. And there was her father's alcoholism. "My father is responsible for my drinking," she now says bitterly. "He gave me my first drink, and my hundredth drink. And we drank for years."
Finally, at 17, guided by dreams of stardom, she followed her then-boyfriend to Atlanta. After three years of keeping herself fed and housed "by any means necessary," Lisa got the call that led to TLC. "People do not know anything about me," she says. "They don't know what I've been through." Three days after "the incident," Lisa turned over to police photos of herself that revealed bruises on her face. "I intentionally did not show anybody my face [at first], because I didn't want them to come up with their own stories of how my face got like that and jump all over Andre's butt," she says. "But after three days, I released some pictures. I talked to the news, and things got quiet."
Anger fills her voice as she continues: "It's so backward. Andre is a hero, especially in Atlanta's eyes. All the media was concerned about was that Andre was wearing somebody else's shoes and that Andre had to drive somebody else's car. Forget the fact that I got my butt beat. But when they saw my face all messed up, they didn't talk about that the way they talked about the house.
"There is no damn way in the world I would have intentionally started that fire," she says through a feisty shell that suggests vulnerability beneath the surface. "I lived in that house for a whole year. I had a year's worth of time invested in that house, that relationship, in all kinds of sh*t. Anybody with common sense should know that there were stories behind what happened. It was not just, 'Lisa came home, burned the house down, and now poor Andre is out of house and home.' Nobody said, `Well, damn, why did she do it? What happened?'"
That's when she confronted the silence that results when society has to risk tarnishing the image of its male heroes. (The male hero in this story, Andre Rison, has repeatedly denied abusing Lopes and declined our requests to comment on his relationship with her.) Equally disturbing to her is the fact that her concerns seem to fall on deaf ears, even in her own camp. Her lawyers' decision to highlight her drinking may be a well-intentioned attempt to keep her out of jail (she faces as much as 20 years if convicted), but she says it disregards her position as a role model to young fans.
Perhaps her lawyers will be able to prevent Lisa from landing behind bars, but only Lisa will be able to end her own imprisonment. Perhaps she will be able to see that her female fans, some of whose letters are excerpted here, need her example too.
Ironically, those who have written her off as just another "crazy bi**h" will probably also help Lisa to survive all of this. She may be the only rapper for whom the phrase "Coming back hard" is more than just hype. Just as joining the group helped her feel good enough about herself to succeed, perhaps throwing herself into Crazysaycool will give her the strength she needs to walk through the fire without getting burned.
"The best way for me to get those people back is to succeed," she says, the determination in her voice filling the room. "I didn't struggle this far to have people tear me down. I came out of some sh*t where it was, like, I didn't know what I was doing. I finally started looking at myself like I'm worth something, and it's because I've accomplished everything people told me I wouldn't. The best way for me to get people back is to come back out even harder."
This article originally appeared in the November 1994 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Joan Morgan | Cover photography by Dah Len
"You know how Jeffrey Katzenberg became Disney? That's what I want to do. Like, how you felt Jeffrey had a passion about Disney—his Mickey Mouse watches, Disney sweatshirt, Disney tie. That's what I'm talking about. I will be at the Motown Cafe. I'll make Motown ties, watches, sweatshirts. I intend to make Motown the black Disney," Andre Harrell says with a smile. "You might as well start calling me Walt."
Harrell, 35, is obviously a man with a plan. Good thing, too. He's stepping into one of the most visible jobs in the entertainment industry: president and CEO of Motown Records. "It's always been a dream of mine to head up Motown," he says.
Yet the lofty position confronts Harrell with a critical challenge. Motown has fallen far from what it once was. Aside from the monumental Boyz II Men, Motown has increasingly become a soundtrack for nostalgia, much more redolent of the past than the present. It's so hard to say good-bye to yesterday, indeed. Harrell, a product of the hip hop generation, knows his job is to introduce Motown—music, television, film, video, animation, and new media—to tomorrow.
A Bronx native, he got his start in the early '8os as half of the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (He was Dr. Jekyll.) After moving over to the business side of the business, he hooked up with rap mogul Russell Simmons and soon landed a top spot at Simmons's company, Rush Communications, where he worked with the likes of Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, and Whodini.
Harrell stepped out on his own in 1986, when he launched his own label, Uptown Entertainment, as part of a joint venture with MCA. At Uptown, Harrell defined a contemporary R&B sound for the hip hop age, bringing the world Guy, Heavy D, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Al B. Sure!, Father MC, and most recently, Soul for Real (with whom he had his first No. 1 pop hit, "Candy Rain"). He produced the 1991 film Strictly Business, and he coproduces the hit Fox series New York Undercover.
Successful as the artists on his label proved to be, Harrell has felt constrained in his efforts to make them pop superstars, both by his arrangement with Uptown's parent company, MCA, and by the troubling racial politics of the music business in general. Moving to Motown, which is now based in Los Angeles and owned by PolyGram, presents Harrell with the opportunity to put at least some of these issues behind him. At Motown, Harrell says, he'll have more people, more prerogative, more punch.
Seated on a couch in the living room of his Upper West Side New York apartment, dressed simply in a black shirt and white slacks, Harrell focused squarely through his blue shades on what must be done. A framed photo of a serious-looking Harrell arm-in-arm with Mickey Mouse sat on an end table.
Clearly a man who enjoys control, Harrell was soft-spoken and intent. He didn't want to be misunderstood. "Am I correct?" he would ask. "Do you follow me?" He leaned forward, and his voice rose with passion as he discussed his frustrations with MCA. Otherwise, he slipped back into the pillows of his sofa and spoke as if he was envisioning his future life in a dream.
Harrell knows he has as much on the line as Motown, if not more. All eyes will be on him. It's one thing to say you would've done something if only you'd gotten the chance. It's quite another to get the chance and have to do it.
"Every record has gotta be right," he said. "I'm trying to sign stars. I'm not gonna have wack-juice on me. Never did, never will."
What has Motown meant to you over the years? When was the first time you knew what it was?
The first true Motown experience I had was when the Jackson 5 were on the Ed Sullivan Show. I think it might've been, like, 1969, '70. They sang "Stand!" and "I Want You Back." I had never seen a black teenager on television—it was incredible. After that, I realized who the Motown artists were. My parents listened to them: the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, the Temptations.
What did the company represent for you?
Motown has always been the epitome of black excellence and artistry. Stevie sang about love in the most sensitive way, as well as telling about the plight of his people. Marvin sang about the plight of his people and his internal fight, but he sang about love in a very sexy way. They were major influences.
Speaking of Stevie Wonder, he made a strong album last year and nothing happened with it. Can Motown sell a Stevie Wonder record in this day and age?
The Four Tops, the Temps, and, especially, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross—these are national treasures. You have to treat them like events. Stevie Wonder, he's someone I would do an Unplugged with. Or a couple of years ago, it was Stevie's 3oth anniversary in show business. You could have gotten Stevie Wonder a television special. We could have had artists pay tribute to him—pop artists, rock artists, R&B artists, rap artists, everybody could have participated. And there's probably no other female, black or white, who's as fabulous as Diana Ross, who epitomizes the glamour and excitement of a star diva.
What about new directions? What makes Motown happen in the '9os?
Motown has to become the lifestyle label for the times that the active record-buying audience—the audience who's 15 to 3o—is living in. One of the ways you do this is by putting out records that are in the groove that that audience is living in. Like if Mary J. Blige was a Motown artist, Motown would have some of her imaging on it. It's that young, hip hop—soul, Generation X energy. Same thing if Jodeci was on the label. Back in the day, Motown talked to everybody in the ghetto—and it talked to the rest of the world too.
"WHEN YOU THINK OF MOTOWN NOW, YOU'RE GONNA THINK OF ANDRE HARRELL. I'M NOT GONNA WORK FOR MOTOWN, I'M GONNA BE MOTOWN."
That sounds like the philosophy you espoused at Uptown.
The thing that [Motown founder] Berry Gordy led the way with is the idea that the label head becomes the image of the label. Myself, I allowed whatever celebrity occurred in my career to happen through the artists. I was so consistent with the kinds of artists who were on my label, after a while, it was, like, "Who's behind all this?" I was behind it.
Going into Motown, my plan is this: When you think of Motown now, you're gonna think of Andre Harrell. I'm not gonna work for Motown, I'm gonna be Motown—in the way I dress, the records I put out, the causes I choose to get involved in, the artists from the past, the artists who are there now, and the artists in the future. Like I lived Uptown Records, I'm gonna live Motown Records.
But you, Russell Simmons, Sean ."Puffy" Combs—and Berry Gordy before you—are entrepreneurs. You're identified with the companies you founded. With this, you're stepping into something—
—that's already existing. I'm gonna be Motown for this generation of young-adult record buyers. Motown was the blueprint. Berry Gordy was the blueprint for what I became.
Were you conflicted about leaving Uptown?
I had tremendous conflict. It was like I was walking away from my works of art. There will never be another Mary J. Blige—it's rare to find a queen. There will never be another Jodeci. There'll never be another Heavy D. But I have to go, because Motown gives me the power I need to go to the next level. I have to make African-American superstars. At Uptown, I was able to make black icons, but they were icons only to black people.
[I was] trying to grow Uptown, to have independence, to be able to say, "This act is getting ready to be a worldwide star, and I'm gonna take all my resources, and we're gonna march to this one beat." I was trying to do that for nine years. Between me and the corporation, I could never get it to happen.
In terms of support from MCA?
I think MCA, after a period, wanted some of these things to happen. For whatever reasons, though, the execution between the two sides never worked. The biggest record I ever had was Jodeci's  Forever My Lady—3 million.
When [Arista president] Clive Davis got in the game, I felt myself shrinking. Once he got in business with LaFace [L.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds] and [Dallas Austin's] Rowdy Records and Puffy [Bad Boy Entertainment], Davis's commitment and his execution were taking those artists where I wanted my artists to go. I wanted Mary J. Blige to sell the 7 million that Toni Braxton did.
Jodeci came to me because I had Al B. Sure! So they figured, "He knows how to do this. We wanna be down with him." They drove 13 hours, sat in my lobby for eight hours just to meet me. Now, I feel like, with Arista being involved with LaFace and the other labels, they sold 7 million Toni Braxtons. They sold 6 million TLCs. I'm, like, if I can't sell these kinds of records, I'm gonna slowly shrink. I was catching heat from my artists, who wanted that kind of stature. I would bring that frustration to MCA, and we couldn't seem to come to terms.
Was the idea, "Well, Andre's doing fine. He's doing a couple of million here, a couple of million there. He's covered. Were gonna invest somewhere else"?
I felt like a figurehead. I had all this energy around me—like, I was the Man. I was the founder and chairman of Uptown Records, a major, culturally influential entertainment company for African-Americans in the '9os. But I didn't feel like the Man, because I couldn't put my finger on the button that would really make it happen. I don't want to be in that position anymore. I need to have more control. I need to be responsible for the big picture. And being at Motown positions me to create a truly black pop company. I got a film division, a television division. I got green-light power for small movies. I don't have to ask anybody.
What are your plans with Gordy?
We're gonna do a series of commercials—print and television. He endorses me. We spoke yesterday for about an hour, and he said, "Any advice I can give you about where we go from here, feel free to call me." We're gonna spend time together and talk about his history with the elder stars. I feel as if I've had a tremendous amount of experience working with stars' drama and ego, but we're talking a whole 'nother level of stars. I've never built a superstar. There're superstars at this house.
How do you build superstars?
If black stars are gonna have a shot at becoming pop stars, it's gonna be because the chairman of the company is committed to them—and because their music is his personal taste. That's what I'm bringing to black music, to black musical stars. Not just their art form but their plight as African-American men and women.
What you're describing is a role that black executives play, but aren't they often frustrated in their attempts to rise at most record companies?
I can't talk about it enough, how few black executives get to control their playing field. Black music is becoming the music of the popular culture. Because of that, companies are repositioning their priorities and trying to get in the game. But as black music becomes more important, there should be more black presidents and black chairmen. As soon as the black executive's artist reaches platinum, suddenly the artist and manager have to deal with the president of the corporation, because he controls the priorities at pop radio. The black executive becomes obsolete. As his music gets bigger his power diminishes. He's more or less told, "Go find the next act and establish it."
It's an emphasis on the creative—
—as opposed to the business. That's why young black executives don't get to become the old chairmen—the wise men who've seen it and done it. They get to stay hot black executives so long as their instincts are hot. But this is a lifestyle business—only a few of us, black or white, are going to be cool enough to have great instincts our whole career.
The black executive is not given the opportunity to become the business and the music. Why not? Why shouldn't he be the one that everybody reports to? When you get an act that sells 5 million—at a major company—the black executive's out of the room. But when there's some sort of problem, the major label looks at the black executive: "Why can't you handle this act?" When the artist hires a violent manager and the violent manager is coming up to the record company, the label's, like, "How did it get to this?" How? Because they [the white executives] couldn't see it coming. Because they re not sensitive to his issues. By then the relationship between the record company and the artist is dysfunctional. And then the black executive gets blamed and fired. But they created the monster.
When I had the artist, I talked to his mother, his girlfriend, his babies' mother with the two children, dealt with his drug counselor, and whatever other dysfunctional Generation X problems he has. He'd call me late at night.
But he feels like they're just businesspeople. And they don't understand. And they might be racist. He's comin' with all that energy. Even if they like him as a person, he still has goo years of issues he has to get over to accept them. And they have a lot of work to do to gain his trust and respect.
So what are your immediate plans?
I will be moving to Beverly Hills. I'll have a house out there for a 12-to-18-month period, and I'll be bicoastal between the New York and L.A. offices. Then I'm moving the company to New York. I'm going to have a satellite office in Atlanta—A&R-oriented. I'm going to build a recording studio in New York, Motown Studios.
Any new musical directions?
The sound I'm going for now is soul. I'm looking for voices that sound like 400 years of slavery and then some. I'm looking for that inspirational, take-us-out-of-our-plight, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Al Green voice. I'm looking to build those kinds of stars now.
What about the younger acts on Motown? Have you met with Boyz II Men?
No. Those meetings will come after I execute the deal. Boyz II Men are the biggest group I've ever seen. I don't know what I'm bringing to the party except to keep them from goin' crazy from the level of success they've had. They probably need a break, a little time out to lead their personal lives. Outside of that, that formula is working. Queen Latifah, I'd like to bring her record sales up to match her celebrity. Zhané I'd like to give a little bit more image. I'm gonna bring Johnny Gill back—he had a fabulous first album. And I'm excited about working with Michael Bivins. He's tremendously talented, and if he and I get together, we can really do some important things.
Are you apprehensive?
I got a lot of work to do. But no problems. Making hits is not a problem. I'll be making some noise real quick. And I ain't gonna stop makin' noise until I'm done.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1995 - Jan. 1996 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Anthony DeCurtis | Header Photography by Dana Lixenberg