Inspired By Tragedy, TLC Survivors Carry On

Excerpted for

There was a point when Arista considered compiling a TLC greatest-hits package and adding on the new songs that the trio had recorded before the untimely death of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in April. But that notion was tabled.

"When Lisa passed, it was so tragic for all of us," Arista president/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid recalls. "We had already started to record the album. Immediately after the accident, we just kind of left things alone and didn't respond to calls about it. But then this momentum kicked in, inspiring everyone to focus on putting the new album together. They asked me to give them space to work, and I did for a couple of months."

For remaining members Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, there was nothing to discuss. "When the greatest-hits idea was put out there, I said, 'It's not time for that now. I'm not done,'" Watkins recalls. "Nobody knows Lisa better than us girls. She'd have said, 'Girl, you better get out there and finish this.' When you know how someone would act if they were still here ... That's why we had to finish this album and share Lisa's spirit."

The result of Watkins' and Thomas' inspirational momentum is TLC's fourth album, "3D," due Nov. 12. A little more than half of the 13-track album was completed before the car accident in Honduras that left Lopes dead. She already had conceived the title, devised the visuals, and written six songs, including lead single "Girl Talk."

"Obviously, a lot of questions are being asked regarding what this album really is," Arista senior VP of marketing and artist relations Mark Shimmel says. "It really is TLC. We were blessed with some solid participation on Lisa's part before her passing. So we were able to build a legitimate TLC record around the work she left."

"It's the old TLC flavor," Watkins says, "but in the year 2003. It's 'CrazySexyCool' [the group's 1994 album] to the 10th degree. I gave all the T-Boz that Lisa liked about me on this album and the same for Chilli."

Envisioned by Lopes as another look at the three different personalities that comprise TLC, "3D" finds the threesome once again setting their sexy, sassy, girls-just-want-to-have-fun attitude to music while also showing a vulnerable side. The dishy "Girl Talk" -- described by Watkins as "No Scrubs, part two" and peppered with Lopes' signature salty rap -- takes male half-steppers in relationships to task, while the lush "In Your Arms Tonight" calls to mind old-school Prince. "Damaged," one of the six songs Watkins penned, paints a moving picture of a woman who is scared to go forward with a new relationship.

It was also a little scary for Watkins and Thomas going back into the studio after Lopes' death. Both of them would not watch TV -- too much reality. And Watkins would not allow anyone to play Lopes' songs when they worked. "We would psych ourselves up," Thomas says, "telling ourselves Lisa's on the way to the studio or just leaving; we can do this. But I believe she was truly overseeing everything."

Sticking with what Thomas calls "our original formula and adding extra touches," TLC collaborated again with past producers Organized Noize, Dallas Austin, and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. The "extra touches" included teaming up with producers Edmund "Eddie Hustle" Clement ("Girl Talk"), the Neptunes ("In Your Arms Tonight"), Timbaland and Missy Elliott ("Dirty"), and Raphael Saadiq ("So So Dumb"). Rodney Jerkins was brought in for three tracks -- "Hey Hey Hey," "Over Me," and the eloquent, inspirational "Turntable," which was penned by Watkins and is dedicated to Lopes.

"Personally, the song [represents] all the experiences I've been through: sickle cell, 9/11, Lisa's death," says Watkins, who is afflicted with sickle cell anemia. This personal approach is nothing new for Watkins, who penned TLC's No. 1 hit "Unpretty" about female self-image. Of "Turntable," she says, "It's about the fact that good can come after bad. The tables can turn, and I'm living proof. As far as TLC is concerned, it's dedicated to Lisa. But everyone can get something out of it."

With the album and lead single in place, there is still the challenge of marketing the project, which is compounded by the death of one group member and the health situation of another. Rather than focus on the fact that this will be TLC's last studio album as a trio, Arista has devised a marketing plan that celebrates the new album, as well as Lopes' life.

"The interesting thing at Lisa's funeral was how celebratory it was," Shimmel says. "We've taken that sort of energy and are using it to launch a celebration of Lisa and the new project."

But owing to Watkins' ongoing battle with sickle cell and Lopes' absence, touring is not in the offing. Personal appearances are being considered on a case-by-case basis. "I think touring is over," Watkins says. "Chilli and I are just going day to day. If you think too far ahead, you might hurt yourself."

So the question remains: what's in store for the group? Reid says at some point there will be a greatest-hits album. In the meantime, he adds, "We have so much material that didn't get on this album. There are opportunities for us to repackage and create special projects."

One such opportunity is the domestic release of Lopes' aborted solo debut, "Supernova." "I didn't want to release it here," Reid says. "We released it in Europe and didn't have huge success with it. Since then we've gone back, worked on it, and have plans to release it." As for their own pending solo projects, Watkins and Thomas say they have both been concentrating so hard on "3D" that they are not thinking about doing anything else musically just yet.

Outside of that, Watkins and producer Austin have teamed up on a movie production with Overbrook and Warner Bros. The script is based on Jellybean's, the Atlanta skating rink where Watkins, Thomas, and Austin used to hang out. Also, Watkins is still working on her cartoon project, "It's a Fly World."

And while time will tell how popular "3D" will ultimately be, the bottom line for Watkins and Thomas is that the album represents a labor of love. "I'm glad I did this," Watkins says. "I wouldn't change it for the world. We're no different from other people; like everyone else, we got into disagreements. But we loved Lisa more than anything, and it will stay that way, no matter what. She was our girl."

Thomas adds, "She was our sister. And this is what she'd want us to do: Carry on the legacy. Despite the squabbles, we loved each other. And I hope people come away from this album feeling the love between the three of us. There's no breaking up of this group."

Excerpted from the Nov. 9, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the members section.

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