“With her sound and my sound, it becomes a TLC record,” says Watkins (left) of singing with Thomas. “We fit in any genre. Even country artists come up to me like, ‘I love ‘No Scrubs’!”
Magazine Feature

TLC's Fierce Comeback: T-Boz and Chilli on Girl-Group Wokeness, L.A. Reid & Instagram Hustle

As the sun sets on the CBS lot in Los Angeles on a recent Tuesday evening, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins -- the remaining members of TLC, the groundbreaking female R&B trio -- stand on an outdoor stage at the season finale of Dancing With the Stars. As they sing a truncated version of the most mega of their megahits, “Waterfalls” (it ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1995), the dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy and his partner, former Glee star Heather Morris, twirl through a seductive rumba. Watkins and Thomas, meanwhile, bounce and snap much as they did in the song’s now-cherished 1995 music video: Watkins wearing her trademark asymmetrical blond bob, Thomas baring her still-enviable abs in a crop top.

Ten minutes later, Thomas whoops with delight as she pilots a golf cart through the lot, longtime manager Bill Diggins in tow. She speeds past OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, who’s sitting on a curb puffing a cigar after his own performance, and over to a dressing room where Watkins is chilling with her 16-year-old daughter, Chase. “Everybody’s saying good stuff,” says Thomas, settling in to check how TLC’s performance went over on social media. More than $12,000 of black diamonds glisten on her fingers as she flicks at her screen. “Not one hater so far on Twitter and Instagram.”

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?”

Tim Roney/Getty Images
From left: Watkins, Lopes and Thomas shortly after the release of their second album, 1994’s CrazySexyCool, which would be RIAA-certified 11-times platinum.

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.

Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images
At the 38th annual Grammy Awards in 1996, TLC won best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal for “Creep” and best R&B album for CrazySexyCool — and also disclosed its bankruptcy: “We are broke as broke can be,” said Thomas after the ceremony.

But all too often, those stunning successes were quickly followed by major setbacks: Within a year of CrazySexyCool’s release, the trio filed for bankruptcy, and while it reemerged victorious with FanMail (4.8 million copies sold), Lopes’ tragic accident came three years later and, shortly after, the comparatively disappointing TLC 3D, which moved 693,000 copies. While Watkins and Thomas continued to perform and tour, they spent the next decade in career limbo. On the 2005 UPN reality competition R U the Girl they searched for a Lopes replacement to no avail -- the winner ended up contributing a guest verse on one track. Watkins, who has lived with sickle cell anemia since childhood (she’s now “good for the most part”) dabbled in film, while Thomas started Chilli’s Crew, a nonprofit dedicated to boosting self-esteem in teenage girls.

But by 2013, TLC seemed primed for a comeback. J. Cole featured the duo on “Crooked Smile,” TLC’s first Hot 100 top 40 appearance in a decade, and that July, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who oversaw much of the group’s early career at LaFace and Arista Records, signed it to Epic Records to record an original single with Ne-Yo for CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a VH1 biopic that became the channel’s highest-rated movie ever. “After that movie came out, we got a whole new generation of fans,” says Watkins. “Little young’uns are like -- ‘What About Your Friends’?! ‘Oh, my God!’ ” In August 2013, Drake called TLC onstage at his OVO Festival, introducing the pair as “legendary.” Over the next year, the group started to perform more, including its first-ever Australian tour.

Ramona Rosales
Thomas (left) and Watkins of TLC photographed May 22 at Cactus Cube Studio in West Hollywood. 

“We’ve always done a lot of things outside the box,” says Thomas, “and we have the freedom to do it with the fans -- involve them in the development of everything.” So in January 2015, Watkins and Thomas launched the Kickstarter for a new record, their first since TLC 3D. “Their die-hard fans are going to support anything they do,” says Kandi Burruss, who co-wrote their smash “No Scrubs.” (Ed Sheeran recently gave Burruss and her co-writers credit on his “Shape of You,” due to a widely noted similarity between his pre-chorus and TLC’s chorus.)

Within 48 hours, the Kickstarter raised $150,000; eventually, the total reached over $430,000. “It’s only the music industry that creates walls that trap artists into these paradigms where you can’t do this or that,” says Ron Fair, a co-executive producer on TLC. “The Kickstarter thing was a tremendous validation that none of that matters anymore.” But getting to the release of TLC, a two-and-a-half-year process, wasn't exactly smooth, as Watkins readily admits. “Child, dealing with writers and producers is like dealing with a whole room of kids,” she says. “Once you finally figure it out, the singing part is cool.”

The resulting record is stacked with uplifting, summer-barbecue-ready tunes like first single “Way Back,” a Watkins co-write featuring Snoop Dogg. But as it always has, TLC also confronts timely subjects in songs like “Perfect Girls,” an “Unpretty”-esque acoustic ballad about how social media perpetuates unrealistic beauty standards -- although Watkins and Thomas describe the issue in a much earthier way than that shopworn description of the song. “You can never say it enough,” says Watkins. “Today, it seems like being a ho is winning, because hoes are winning.” “Yeah, they’re winning,” agrees Thomas. Watkins continues: “All the Instagram models, I’m like, ‘Wow, that girl doesn't really look anything like that.’ These little girls are chasing something they’ll never achieve.” But it’s less that she’s judgmental, and more that she’s pragmatic about their futures. “Whatever your hustle is, go somewhere with it,” she adds. “If you going to be a ho, be a good ho.”

Ramona Rosales
TLC photographed on May 22nd at Cactus Cube Studio in West Hollywood.

Watkins and Thomas know firsthand the value of hustle -- “The barriers we broke down, we worked really, really hard to do that,” says Thomas -- and they want to instill that ethic in their kids, who are their primary focus now. Thomas, who lives in Atlanta, has a 20-year-old son named Tron with Dallas Austin, who produced TLC hits like “Unpretty” and “Creep.” “I’m not into shacking up,” confesses Watkins, who lives in Los Angeles; she was married to rapper Mack 10 for almost four years but recently adopted 2-year-old son Chance on her own.

In the Dancing With the Stars dressing room, she keeps a close eye on daughter Chase, who’s pouting in a corner. After the Manchester Arena bombing the previous night, Watkins has forbidden her from going to a Chris Brown concert that evening. “Would you let your kid attend a show after something like that?” asks Watkins. “We were in a movie theater once and the sirens went off -- we were the first ones out of there.”

It’s clear that for Watkins and Thomas, TLC is family, too. They fantasize about filming a road trip movie together. “We’d dress up and be in different disguises like we’re going to hold up -- not a bank, because we would really go to jail. Like, a gas station,” says Thomas. “That would be so funny!” agrees Watkins. “What if we really went to jail? I think that would be a fun experience.” Thomas: “Listen: I am not going to jail.” “That’s how she used to be with me and Lisa when we’d play pranks,” jibes Watkins.

Lopes’ absence is felt on TLC, although there is one brief interlude crafted using an audio clip of her ripped from the internet. Watkins and Thomas say that Lopes’ estate -- which released a posthumous album, Eye Legacy, in 2009 -- is to blame. “The family, they held onto the other stuff,” says Watkins, as Thomas rolls her eyes. “I guess maybe they wanted money or something. I don’t think she’d be happy that people are trying to hold her vocals hostage.”

Watkins and Thomas have seen the best and the worst of the music industry, and while they’re not bitter, they’re honest in a way that some of today’s big stars, who thrive on an air of opaque mystery, perhaps cannot be. There is, for one, their reaction to Reid’s exit from Epic amid sexual harassment allegations. “I hear more people are coming out saying stuff,” says Watkins, as Thomas buries her face in her hands. “I was surprised he was fired, but [the accusations] didn't come as a surprise. I don’t wish him anything ill. But surprised? No.”

Ramona Rosales
TLC photographed on May 22nd at Cactus Cube Studio in West Hollywood.

Watkins and Thomas are similarly matter-of-fact about their future. “We have a body of music,” says Watkins. “I wouldn't say we’re done as far as performing -- if they call us to do a [Las Vegas] residency, we’ll be there tomorrow.” And though fans speculated that the group might be replacing Lopes with Lil' Mama -- who, after portraying Lopes in the VH1 film, occasionally performed with Watkins and Thomas -- “at this point, this is the new TLC: T-Boz and Chilli and [Lopes’] memory and spirit,” says Thomas.

The legacy they’re focused on now is that of two women who, in their down-to-earth relatability, are still unique among female pop stars -- and an example to them, too. Lady Gaga, says Watkins, broke down in tears when they met a few years ago, thanking Watkins for the way songs like “Unpretty” made her feel like less of an outcast. “We made people feel better, that I know for sure,” says Watkins. “When you Google someone’s name, it matters to me what shows up. Not the lies, but like, did you change lives? Did you do something while you were here?”

“TLC is timeless,” says Elliott. “To watch 5-year-olds at our concerts, singing all the words? It’s awesome,” says Watkins. “Good music is good music. And our music lives on.”

This article originally appeared in the July 1 issue of Billboard.