It’s a little surreal -- but also, in 2017, not at all surprising -- to see the biggest-selling girl group of the 1990s (13.6 million albums sold in the United States that decade, according to Nielsen Music) sitting in this bare, converted office on the set of a ballroom dancing reality show. And yet Watkins, 47, and Thomas, 46, seem perfectly happy: two no-filter single moms who, after over two decades of pop-dominating highs and very public lows -- filing for bankruptcy the same year “Waterfalls” hit No. 1; the death of TLC’s third member, rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, in a 2002 car accident -- have nothing left to prove and, clearly, still crack each other up. “We’ve been called the black Laverne and Shirley -- because we’re crazy,” says Thomas with a snicker. “I’m Laverne, right?” asks Watkins. “Because I’m taller?”
Now, after a 15-year wait and a Kickstarter campaign that became the crowdfunding site’s fastest-funded pop project ever, TLC, the duo’s first independent album -- and, the members say, their final recording -- drops June 30. A new TLC record could be written off as a nostalgia play; indeed, this summer the group will join the I Love ’90s: The Party Continues tour with fellow throwback acts like Biz Markie and Naughty by Nature. But the sound that TLC pioneered is more influential than at any point since the ’90s, especially in the slinky sounds and sexy-tomboy styles of nouveau R&B’s current wave of rising stars like Tinashe, Kehlani and Jhené Aiko.
“TLC gave us the whole package,” says Missy Elliott, who collaborated with the group on “Dirty, Dirty” from 2002’s TLC 3D and performed with the duo on Taraji P. Henson’s White Hot Holidays special last year. “Classic songs that will transcend many generations; style and image that made fans like me want to dress like them; and they always have had character that made the world love them. They were real and relatable.”
TLC’s lasting imprint on pop goes far beyond any of its memorably outré fashions or dancefloor jams. Long before the current era of woke pop, TLC made hits with a message. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Katy Perry donated to the group’s Kickstarter.) “The vital part of our sound is political content,” says Watkins. “We talk about things people can relate to, but in a fun, subtle way.” Whether taking on gang violence and the AIDS epidemic in “Waterfalls” or young women’s self-esteem in “Unpretty,” keeping it real was never merely a motto for TLC -- it was a way to move the culture forward. It’s hard to imagine the “Independent Women” attitude of Destiny’s Child -- or, for that matter, the blend of politically engaged pop and “boy, bye” sass on Beyoncé’s Lemonade -- without the likes of TLC’s “No Scrubs” coming along first.
“TLC embodied individuality, feminism and outspoken views,” says longtime fan Alicia Keys, who recently covered “Waterfalls” with her fellow judges on The Voice. “They set a standard for girls and women to be bold, embrace who they are and celebrate their diversity.”
At the height of its career in the ’90s, TLC achieved an unprecedented level of cross-genre stardom. As female groups go, it is arguably still second only to the Spice Girls worldwide. “I remember getting flowers and champagne for being one of the first black artists on MTV,” recalls Watkins. “That was a big deal.” Blending the toughness of hip-hop with the unabashed sexiness of R&B, TLC scored the most Hot 100 top 10 hits of any girl group in the decade, three top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 (including FanMail, No. 1 for five weeks) and four Grammys, including best R&B album for both 1994’s CrazySexyCool and 1999’s FanMail.