Three years ago, TLC's sweet sounds, Day-Glo threads, and condom accessories led the first wave of B-girl feminism. But when Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes burned her football-hero boyfriend's house down she crossed the thin line between love and hate. By Joan Morgan. Photographs by Dah Len
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."