With a decades-long legacy as one of the best-selling female groups in U.S. history, TLC’s living members T-Boz (née Tionne Watkins) and Chilli (Rozonda Thomas) are excited to kick off their CrazySexyCool Celebration Tour with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, beginning in Albertville, Ala., on Sept. 3. A complete list of tour dates is available online at the official TLC website.
“I love that TLC is the type of group that can rock out with the rappers,” T-Boz says. “I don’t know a lot of girl groups that can go on tour with Snoop Dogg, Nelly or Flo Rida and now Bone Thugs. I think it’s amazing that we’re the prissy tomboys.”
TLC’s 18-city tour — slated to conclude on Oct. 10 in Concord, California — comes 27 years after the release of their all-time classic album, CrazySexyCool. The diamond-certified LP debuted on Nov. 15, 1994 and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, where it charted for 119 weeks. It also spawned four Billboard Hot 100 top 5 hits, including the No. 1s “Creep” and “Waterfalls.” The iconic trio’s third member, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, died at age 30 in a car crash in 2002. “No one can fill Lisa’s shoes,” Chilli says.
Below, four-time Grammy-winners T-Boz and Chilli reveal details to Billboard about their upcoming tour, while opening up about their trailblazing careers and addressing some longstanding rumors.
Will you be paying homage to Lisa on tour? What can fans expect?
T-Boz: We do that on everything we do, always.
Chilli: They can definitely expect to hear songs from CrazySexyCool, because we’re celebrating it. They’re gonna hear a lot of their favorite songs that aren’t singles. We’re working on the set list and we start rehearsals next week. We love what we do until this day.
How did the fans come to start dressing like you on tour?
T-Boz: That’s the fans’ idea. We have some of the best fans, they call themselves the TLC army and they dress like us. Now that some of them have grown up with us and they have children, you’ll see three generations dressed as TLC. It’s amazing.
Chilli: It’s true — even the babies. They’ll come with a black mark under their left eye for Left Eye. It’s always so cute to see.
Looking back, do you feel you had creative freedom under LaFace records? I think at the time, Left Eye might not have felt like her ideas were considered by the label.
T-Boz: You can’t discredit LaFace Records because when it came to songs like “Waterfalls,” at the time Clive Davis didn’t really care for it or see the vision. We as TLC could. Lisa had great handwriting so we wrote this letter begging L.A. [Reid] to put up the money if Arista [Records] didn’t, to give us this one shot to do this amazing video that everybody would love and would bring this song to life — and he said, “Okay.” Then Arista got behind it and was like, “My bad, y’all were right.” The creativity goes along with that because you have to believe in something to put money behind it.
But I wanna clear that up. We had 1,000 percent creativity. That was only one moment in time when Lisa had issues, when she wanted to go solo. It wasn’t that the label was against her — we were under a contract and had an album to turn in. It wasn’t like they didn’t believe in her. L.A. [Reid] put out her solo album and everything. So, it was just the timing.
We always had creativity. We didn’t have A&Rs in our session. We would do the music and turn it into L.A. [Reid]. He gave us the freedom to find ourselves, evolve, grow and figure out who we wanted to be on each album.
The iconic “Waterfalls” music video made TLC the first Black act to win the MTV Video Music Award for video of the year. What’s your favorite memory from filming?
Chilli: We have to always give props to F. Gary Gray, he’s one of the best directors. When we worked with him, the three of us had our vision but he knew how to bring it to life. I [imagined] us in water images performing like in the [1989 James Cameron] movie The Abyss. Tionne had the storylines and Lisa had [imagined] us traveling through space passing planets before we got to earth. He brought the [idea] down to have us come straight from the sky, but that was Lisa’s idea.
My favorite moments were when we were at Universal Studios — it was fun, but it was scary. We were on a platform that wasn’t stable. But when he says “action,” you just have to perform. If you feel your equilibrium is off, you just have to ignore it. I’ll always remember that. It’s the same area where they filmed Jaws. When you go to Universal Studios, when they talk about Jaws, they talk about us. I had no clue until I had taken my son. That was a cute surprise.
T-Boz: They had all kind of scuba divers out there, because T-Boz thought she was gonna fall in the water. I thought I was gonna fall in. That’s why my feet are planted wide and still. You never see my feet move ever. You couldn’t move to the front or back, you could only go side to side. We had to take a boat out there and we had to be up at 4 in the morning. They had to give us Ambien to go to bed at like 8. I was so scared, I’ll never forget. It was like 800 tons of water or something like that. That was hella acting. I think we deserve an Oscar and an Emmy. I was like, “I hope it doesn’t show how scared I am while I’m singing.” I thought I was gonna ruin the video.
At the time you revealed that TLC had gone bankrupt, were you so honest about your experience as a reminder to other artists about the importance of negotiating and evaluating their contracts before signing with a label? Also, how did you bounce back from that?
Chilli: It was publicized, so even if we wanted to keep it a secret, that was not an option. I’m kind of glad it was public, because I believe it opened a lot of artists’ eyes to pay attention to the contracts that you sign. You don’t have to sign your life away and hopefully you won’t sign with anyone who will try to hold you to the contract and be a butthole about it. We didn’t care that people knew, we wanted to make sure we told our side of the story. We signed bad contracts and didn’t have good representation, but we got through it.
Being believers in Christ, during any hardships, we always prayed and stayed hopeful and God blessed us. He took care of us. We got out of that situation and it was so much better after that. It was a lesson learned for us, and hopefully other artists learned as well with us sharing that.
There’s an origin story of TLC that says the group was named after your first names, with “C” for Crystal Jones, who some say it was her idea to start TLC. What really happened?
T-Boz: We can’t give her that much credit. She didn’t start TLC, she started a girl group — it wasn’t TLC. She picked me and Lisa to be in her group. I was doing hair at the time, and Marie Davis, who was our hairstylist for years, was doing Pebbles’ [Perri Arlette Reid] hair, because they had just moved to Atlanta. Me talking junk was like, “Tell Pebbles to holla at us, we’re the jam.” She took us out to eat and the next day, we auditioned. She didn’t like Crystal, so she told me and Lisa basically we had to kick her out. Then there was this beautiful girl [Chilli], she can pick up from here.
Chilli: Keep going, sis.
T-Boz: You’re the beautiful girl. So this beautiful girl was dancing for Damian Dame, another group that was on LaFace Records. She was the perfect height because you had to be short, cute or pretty — she was both. And you had to be petite with meat. We couldn’t find anybody perfect. We had a couple auditions, they were terrible. It was really hard to find somebody who could fit with us.
Chilli: I’ll take it from here. One of my friends was telling me LaFace Records was in town and Damian Dame was looking for dancers. He knew I could dance but didn’t know I could sing. I was like, “Okay cool.” I was in school still and didn’t wanna let him down, but I missed the first audition. He said to promise him I’d go. I wasn’t serious about it, I was like, “Let me just go.”
I auditioned, then I went home and had two messages. One from the boutique store [I applied to] saying she wanted me to work there and one that [LaFace] wanted me to be a dancer. I said, “For some reason, I feel like I’m supposed to do this dancing thing.” She said if it didn’t work out, to come back. When L.A. [Reid] and Babyface came to rehearsals, I just walked up and said “I can sing,” and I sang. I didn’t know what that would do for me. Then Pebbles told me to meet the girls Tionne and Lisa, it was on a Thursday. I don’t know why I remember that detail.
T-Boz: ‘Cause that’s the day your life changed, girl. That’s why you remember.
Chilli: It was like the puzzle was complete — but incomplete, because you had a piece missing. When I met [Tionne and Lisa], it was like, that was it. They had nicknames, T-Boz and Left Eye, and I had to come up with one. We were all throwing out names and I feel like it was Lisa who said “Chilli” and I was like, “That’s it.” Now here we are, T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli. When I met them in the office, we came up with a routine and everything that same night, and auditioned for L.A. [Reid], Babyface and a couple other producers. They could see instantly what we were.
It’s crazy. I’m serious, it was meant to be. It was meant just for the three of us to be together. That’s why no one can ever be replaced in the group. It was meant to be for the three, and now it’s just my sister and I. No one can fill Lisa’s shoes and we never thought about replacing her, ever.
Did anybody ever pressure you to replace Lisa at any point?
Chilli: I wanted to when I saw [Lisa’s boyfriend Andre Rison’s] house burn down. I called Tionne I was like, “She has to go.” I was so mad. Of course, we had those conversations — but it never went past a conversation. I was pissed, I was venting, I was so mad. Because at the time I didn’t know what happened, and Lisa was always getting into little stuff. Remember when I called you, I said, “Tionne, who could it be.” But it started and ended right there.
Was there ever a point when the three of you were seriously considering breaking up?
T-Boz and Chilli: Never. Not one time.
T-Boz: There were times we couldn’t stand each other. I remember one time, Chilli and Lisa were mad at me and we went to Six Flags and they weren’t talking to me. I was like, “So, I’m not talking to them either.” We were going on rides and they would sit together and laugh and act like they were having so much fun and I was over there hot like, “I know that junk ain’t that funny. I know they’re not having that much fun without me.”
Chilli: This whole [bond] with us is deeper than a marriage because married people will get a divorce. We don’t have that option. We’re stuck with each other, and I’m fine about that — because there are times where Tionne and I weren’t checking for Lisa, or they weren’t checking for me, or all three of us were mad at each other. But we never felt like, “Hey, we should break up.”
Do you remember how you reacted the first time you found out you were one of the best-selling American female groups? Does that title mean more to you as Black women?
T-Boz: Oh yes, especially as Black women. It’s amazing. We always used to talk about how hard it is for women to be in the industry and stand out front and be heard. Especially, we would say we have two strikes being Black women. The fact that we can do what we’re doing fully clothed — we may show stomach and stuff but we’re not like, “Hey let me shake my butt and booby cakes everywhere.” We don’t knock anybody else but it just goes to show that without selling pure sex, just being authentic and organic and having great music, you can do it.
I think it gives little girls hope that you can do this too, and you don’t have to be something that you’re not if you don’t feel comfortable. You can also do this too because we’ve done it.
Have you noticed a change in the way women are treated in the industry now vs. in the beginning of your careers? Do you feel women are more respected now?
T-Boz: I know TLC was heard from the beginning, even when people weren’t being heard because we were gonna make you hear us. But I have seen change where there’s more women producers and directors. Women aren’t just sitting back anymore — it’s not a man’s world anymore. Who runs the world? Girls, that’s true. We make babies and everything. We just have to remind everybody like, “Hello, it starts with us.”
Chilli: I wanna piggyback off of that. Yes, I see a change. A lot of times, what happens as we evolve in time with technology and social media — because none of that stuff was around when we came out — is you have these windows of opportunity. When that window opens, it’s like, ‘This is a good time for women and women of color to breakthrough.’ I’m happy to see that women are getting out there and pushing the doors down, because you should. Always be respectful of yourself while you’re doing it, never stoop down to get to the top. Sleeping your way to the top, all that madness has been going on forever and it will continue to go on — but it doesn’t have to be that way and it shouldn’t.
What’s the secret to your longevity?
T-Boz: I think along the years we’ve learned to respectfully agree to disagree and respect one another’s feelings. I never brag, we stay humble — but this is bragging rights. Some people can’t love each other the way we naturally do. That’s how you know it’s meant to be. We became family and we are family, but that is not gonna happen to everybody. That’s why this thing was meant because we’re more than just a group at this point. Even if we were to end, we’re still family. [Our kids] Tron, Chase and Chance are cousins. All girl groups aren’t built like we are. I really love my sister and she knows she loves me.