“THREE THE HARD WAY”
The chocolate pop princesses of TLC are still cool, sexy, and craaaaazy,. But will the madness that is superstardom push T-Boz, Chili, or the group’s most volatile member, Left Eye, over the waterfall’s edge? Anthony DeCurtis finds out while sifting through the group’s engaging FanMail.
Fusebox, the elegant restaurant recently opened by R&B mogul L.A. Reid sits discreetly on Piedmont Road in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta’s most fashionable and self-consciously upscale entertainment district. The place is impeccably turned out. Its muted grays and pastels are a study in tasteful reserve, while each accessory – the iron ashtrays with legs, for example – offers a winking acknowledgement that taste is no longer something determined by the matronly strictures of yesterday. Good night, Old South.
The Fusebox is just a short drive from Justin’s, the newly opened Atlanta outpost of Puff Daddy’s New York City eatery and hot spot (Reid also owns a percentage of Atlanta’s Justin’s). That within a few months two young black multimillionaires could kick off happening restaurants in one of Atlanta’s historically most lily-white zones is like a scene from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel A Man in Full (Farrar, Straus & Grioux, 1998), which hilariously describes the shifting racial politics in the land of Gone With the Wind. The rules are changing in the Peach State, and young African-Americans are running the game.
Any changing of the guard presents complications, however, and right now two of the ladies of TLC – Rozonda “Chili” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins – are having a hard time negotiating the complexities of Fusebox’s menu. TLC, of course, record for LaFace, the label that Reid runs with his partner, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and the multiplatinum sales of their albums Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip (1992) and Crazysexycool (1994) are a big reason why Reid has the capital to open a fancy joint like this. And if TLC’s new album, FanMail, sells the way it really, truly should, there may well be Fusebox franchises across the country. Just don’t expect to find the ladies of TLC eating in them.
“I have to congratulate L.A. on his beautiful restaurant,” Chili says, as she examines the menu – blue crab claws with pink garlic dip and marinated fennel salad would be a typical offering – and flashes a sly smile. Translation: This place is gorgeous, but there’s nothing on this menu I could imagine eating. T-Boz, meanwhile, has just deposited a half-eaten shrimp dumpling into her napkin.
“It’s like when we went to L.A.’s house for a barbecue,” says T-Boz. “I was like, ‘Bougie stuff – at a barbecue? Where the hell the hot dogs and hamburgers at?’ Barbecues are ghetto, you know?”
“Can’t even get regular food,” says Chili, while shaking her head, laughing – and longing for French fries. “This is a little too ‘gourmet’ for me. It’s not a dis. It’s just, like, someone who’s used to eating like this probably couldn’t chill at my house – I don’t know how to cook for them! I bet you L.A. doesn’t even know what all this stuff is.”
Whatever the girls think about Fusebox, T-Boz gave the place a blast of free publicity earlier in the day, an unseasonably warm, beautiful Saturday in January. As tracks from their new FanMail boomed out of the CD player of a friend’s Explorer in the restaurant’s parking lot, T-Boz leaped into an ecstatic dance. The traffic on Piedmont was backed up bumper to bumper, and the sight of T-Boz shaking her thing – not to mention the banging sound of “My Life,” a song cowritten by Jermaine Dupri – hardly went unnoticed. Horns started honking, and people laughed, waved, and shouted out. As T-Boz tossed her purple-haired head back and jammed for all under the hot sun to see, it seemed that TLC was ready once again to set the music world on fire.
When Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes enters the private dining room at Fusebox to join T-Boz and Chili, it feels like a whirlwind has just blown through the door. The other girls are hardly slouches in the energy department either, and, like them, Left Eye is petite. Now in their late 20s, all the TLC girls still look absurdly young. But Left Eye moves with real determination, and when she talks her words hit with full force. She doesn’t just show up – she descends upon you.
At the interview, Lopes plays the enthusiastic good soldier – an attitude underscored by her baggy camouflage pants. She’s always been the most explosively rebellious member of the group – the “crazy” of the crazysexycool triad, the veteran of rehab for a drinking problem, the girl who, in 1994, famously burned down the mansion of her then boyfriend, Andre Rison, who was a star receiver for the Atlanta Falcons at the time.
Lopes got off with five years probation for her act of arson, but, at the very least, the experience hasn’t dampened her passion for the Falcons. During the photo shoot for this story, she was riveted by the play-off game with the Minnesota Vikings that, on the strength of a dramatic field goal in overtime, sent the Falcons to the Super Bowl for the first time in the team’s history. “If we win, I’m goin’ out tonight,” she says, staring at the screen with a child’s intensity. “Where the party at?” At one point, she leaped up so abruptly when it looked as if the Falcons’ defense had recovered a Vikings fumble that she had to clutch her halter top to prevent herself from falling out of it.
As TLC struggled through the process of getting FanMail under way and completed (the group declared bankruptcy and fought with LaFace over money and creative control, and producer/songwriter Dallas Austin nearly walked away from the project), Left Eye began work on a solo album with the help of Erick Sermon. Last July she told MTV News that her album would drop before the release of FanMail – one of many news reports during that period that caused dissension in the group. She told a different story at dinner.
“My solo record?” Left Eye repeats when asked about it, as if she’s surprised that it would even come up. “I haven’t started real production on it, so I still have a little bit of time to get down with that. And it’s not going to come out until after the TLC project has run its course.”
Asked about relations among the three group members, Lopes again gives a positive spin. “In my opinion, we have grown even closer today than we were before,” she says. “Whatever good or bad times we have gone through, the fact that we are still together and still a unit and a team – man, that speaks for itself. It’s impossible to go through that much stuff and not be stronger than you were. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we are truly like sisters. If we have a problem we’ll do whatever we have to do to get past it so we can move on.”
“This is how I’ll describe our relationship,” Chili adds ever so gleefully. “Did you see Soul Food? Remember the three sisters? Not their personalities, but just kind of like how you have your little spats, but at the end of the day there is the three. You have that unity.”
“There are plenty of groups that have come out and did whatever they did and have broken up,” Left Eye says. “Especially girls groups. Girls groups tend to break up more because sometimes it’s hard for women to get along. And everybody is like, ‘They’re breaking up over silly stuff.’ That’s not the silly thing to me – to break up. The silly part is that you couldn’t get back together. It’s about working out, because everyone has their differences.”
“Like En Vogue,” Chili says. “I’m for real the biggest En Vogue fan. Dawn should get back in the group, man.”
“Exactly!” Left Eye exclaims. “Work it out.”
“I don’t know what she’s doing,” Chili continues, exasperated by singer Dawn Robinson, who quit En Vogue in 1997. “Whatever she’s doing, she needs to put it on hold – unless she’s having a baby. Outside of that, kill it, get in the group, make that money. It’s different when a group doesn’t have chemistry. But when you cannot replace a member, then, shoo, you need to work that thing out. That’s like with us. We have chemistry. We’re not just three girls thrown together. In my opinion, if one of us is gone, it’s over – until that person comes back. Nobody can take Lisa’s place, or mine, or T-Boz’s.”
So imagine my surprise when, about a week after that interview, TLC’s publicist calls, saying that Lopes would like to speak to me. Ten minutes later, Left Eye was on the phone. “There’s something very important that I want you put in the article,” she says. ”It would mean something to me, so I was wondering if you could quote me on this one. Okay, here we go: I’ve graduated from this era. I cannot stand 100 percent behind this TLC project and the music that is supposed to represent me. This will be my last interview until I can speak freely about the truth and present myself on my solo project.”
Wow. Care to add anything else?
“Well, I’d kinda like to leave it at that.”
It’s a little mysterious. Can you say anything about what’s going on?
“Noooo, not in the midst of things.”
You don’t feel in a position to say what you want to say about your solo project?
“No, not about the solo project. About the TLC project.”
I think that you should say something more so that people can understand where you’re coming from. Leaving it that vague will only cause more speculation than any specific comment you might make.
“I’d rather cause the speculation than a problem at this point.”
Sometimes stories just take off in directions you had no way of anticipating. So what is the current status of TLC? How seriously does Left Eye’s inability to “stand 100 percent behind” FanMail call into question her commitment to the group? How will TLC be able to present itself to the world if one of its members refuses to speak about the new album? How much momentum will her aloofness drain from the impact of one of the most anticipated albums of the year? No one in the group or at LaFace will offer any sort of response to Left Eye’s statement.
So we are left to speculate. FanMail, interestingly enough, is meant to be a gift to the fans who stuck by TLC through the group’s travails. Powered by hits and videos like “Creep,” “Red Light Special,” and of course, “Waterfalls,” Crazysexycool may have been a commercial juggernaut, but it came out almost five years ago. A lot has changed in the world of popular music since then, and one of the most significant changes has been the shriveling of fans’ attention spans and sense of loyalty. As Alanis Morissette has demonstrated, if you’ve had a huge record and been away for a while, finding a way to say “Thank U” to your audience is probably a wise move.
TLC garnered names of fans through letters and e-mail and somehow plans to print as many of those thousands of names on the album itself, as well as on various types of merchandising. At least that seems like the plan – it’s a little hard to understand, not to mention corny.
“Our objective was to dedicate something to the fans,” T-Boz explains. “Left Eye came up with the title, and we made it come together creatively as a group, along with Dallas Austin. It was like, Let’s write and sing one big fan letter. Let’s put fan names on everything – all the singles, the album cover, T-shirts, mugs. Just show our appreciation. Fans will be notified whenever their name appears on whatever object.”
It doesn’t sound like the easiest marketing program to administer – in fact, tracking which names appear on which items and informing fans about it seems all but impossible. But according to Left Eye, successful merchandising is a big part of what TLC hopes to accomplish with FanMail. “This is our third time out,” she says emphatically. “We’ve never had merchandise out on the market. We’ve always wanted to have our own cereal or jigsaw puzzle – something! We’re looking forward to saturating the market with TLC goods. For us to be the trendsetting group that we are in fashion and music, it makes us sick to think that, man, there aren’t even any TLC posters, buttons, none of that.
“Everything that we know in the business we’ve had to learn from mistakes,” Left Eye continues. “No one sat us down and taught us or even said, ‘Go pick up this book and learn for yourself.’ We trusted people. Now we know that, the way contracts are set up, it’s not really made for artists to get rich from selling records – that’s the company’s one shot to make money. The artist is supposed to use that as an outlet to do merchandising and other things that we never took advantage of, because we were too busy sitting in bankruptcy court trying to get a settlement out of LaFace.”
Obviously, part of the static crackling around TLC is about control. They were barely in their 20s when their first album came out, and their personal and professional lives because intertwined in ways they couldn’t possibly understand then. Perri McKissack, better know as Pebbles, helped form TLC and became the group’s manager; she also happened to be married to L.A. Reid, and the group signed to his label, LaFace. TLC’s relationship with Pebbles eventually soured: her marriage to Reid also dissolved, and ensuing business problems between the group and LaFace took some time to resolve.
Later, Austin, who has been extremely instrumental in TLC’s success as a musical director of sorts – writing and producing songs and overseeing the group’s other producers and writers – became romantically involved with Chili; the two now have a son. Despite denials, it’s hard to imagine that Austin’s feud with TLC and Reid about creative control on FanMail wasn’t further complicated by the ultrapersonal politics involved.
“I was really adamant about if I was going to do this project, I have to be in control of the music,” Austin says. “Not just my music, but whatever other music came in. I wanted to do it 100 percent or not at all. After you’ve sold so many records with an act that you’ve worked on, then here we are 14 [million], 15 [million], 20 million records later, it’s like your investment.
“The girls had a certain amount of things they wanted to bring to the table – everybody wants to participate a little more,” he continues. “I was like, ‘I have to do a certain amount of songs.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you, plus this person and that person.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not interested.’ So they started working with Jermaine [Dupri] and other people, and nobody knew what direction to take the group in. So L.A. came back to me and said, ‘Hey, man, let’s just shake hands and make a deal.’ So based on that handshake I started working on the project.”
Reid had his own conflicts with the group and went through his own changes. “I thought I respected them and their creative input and ideas,” he says. “I thought I respected them as individual artists as well as a group. But I had to learn to respect them more,” Reid says. “I always go out and find songs and producers and say, ‘Hey, I think this will work for you.’ There were times when they said, ‘L.A. that’s wonderful, but that’s not what we want to do.’ I would go crazy — ‘What are you talking about? This will be huge. Are we here to win or not?’ And they would say, ‘We are here to win, but you have to respect our point of view.’ That was growth. It took me a minute to just say, Okay. I guess you do know who you are.’”
FanMail is designed to build on the crossover breakthroughs TLC made with Crazysexycool. “Unpretty,” for example, which T-Boz penned, cuts in a rock direction. More dramatically, the ballad “Come on Down,” which was written by hit maker Diane Warren, carries TLC in a completely unpredictable country-pop direction. “We all like all kinds of music,” Chili says. “Like, I love Shania Twain. That ‘You’re Still the One’? I’m mad, ‘cause I was like, Oh, I coulda done that! Oh my God, I coulda just put a little twang-twang to it. ‘Come On Down’ put me in mind of Shania. Dallas produced it, and I love it because it’s so different for me.”
There’s no reason why “Come On Down” shouldn’t be a gigantic hit. In fact, FanMail is crammed with potential hit singles – and sources of controversy. On “Silly Ho” and especially “I’m Good at Being Bad” (formerly titled “Bitch Like Me”), the girls crack up the raunch level. Sure TLC announced as far back as “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” that “I like it when you [sound of kiss]/ Both sets of lips,” and “Creep” and “Red Light Special” set the standard for video eroticism. But on FanMail, they insist that they want “ a 10-inch or bigger/ A lick-it-from-the-back-type nigga.” The only thing that might prevent TLC from having the biggest record of their career is the group’s inability to hold itself together. (Although FanMail debuted No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart – and sold 318,000 units the first week – the group still hadn’t shot a video for the scorching first single, “No Scrubs,” and had reportedly canceled a number of high-profile promotional dates.) Are we here to win or not? That’s the question L.A. Reid asked the girls during the fights over the creation of FanMail. That’s a question they can only answer for themselves.
“I’m so scared,” Chili admits. “I’m always nervous when we come out. This is the one time that we can take advantage of all the opportunities there for us. I’m just like, God, please bless us once more. This time it looks like everything is in the pocket. Does that mean we’re gonna blow up?” Chili asks. Well, as the President might say, it depends on what the meaning of “blow up” is – the term cuts two ways.
Left Eye takes a harder line. Her alcoholic father was a ruthless disciplinarian – you might say abusive, though she doesn’t. Her upbringing taught her fierce lessons, and she’s not letting them go. “I didn’t grow up in the type of household where we could talk about things,” she says. “If I didn’t understand something, it was like, ‘I’m you dad. This is the way it is. Don’t even question it.” I spent so many days in my room – years and years of sorting out my problems conditioned me. So that when things happen, I don’t care how good or bad it is, I can adapt to it. I don’t care if today I’m singing with TLC and we’re selling 20 million records and tomorrow I’m sitting in a jail cell,” she says in no uncertain terms. “Either way, I can love in that situation. It’s not that I would prefer the jail cell over TLC, but, hey, it’s not gonna break me.”