Sometimes it does seem, sadly, that the golden age of the girl group has been and gone. Our Independent Women and our Survivor sisters in matching camo have all but vanished, PSA’s to Free Our Minds dissipated. Heck, not even a casual and ever-relevant reminder that if you were thinking about being our lovers, you’ve got to get with our friends!
But perhaps the most central girl group to all of much needed life lessons were TLC – the sassy trio to end all trios. When they came out of the gate with their debut album Oooooohhh… On the TLC Tip in February of ‘92, they left an indelible mark on the face of the musical landscape. In between telling us how to avoid a scrub, never being too proud to beg and to never EVER go chasing waterfalls, these girls have seen and experienced it all. Incredible highs, crumbling lows, arson, bankruptcy, life-crippling diseases and sadly a death that left the last two members without the central L to their T and C.
But remaining members Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins are still those kick-ass girls we fell in love with 25 years ago. We pinned them down just before soundcheck for their inaugural show in London for a look at their illustrious careers so far and why, with a new self-titled farewell album, TLC are here for one last musical memo full of the messages we can keep close to our chest for a lifetime.
I read somewhere that this is your FIRST European gig ever. How!?
T-Boz: It was y’alls fault! We were here! We were like – ‘why didn’t we get to perform in London?’. We’ve always wanted to perform here. We’ve done press here, but for some reason it never worked out we don’t know why.
Chilli: We promoted our first album when we first came out in London, but I mean you would think with Crazy, Sexy, Cool and Fanmail…like come on! But, no.
What do you like about London?
T: I like the vibe. It’s almost like New York but cleaner and nicer.
C: Definitely cleaner!
T: And nicer people… Polite. I like the shopping. It’s awesome. My daughter went to Primark. She was like, “MUM! I got all this for seventy-one dollars!” She is IN LOVE. They also have lint rollers with a cover. AMAZING! [Laughs]
So with the new album, you guys did a Kickstarter campaign which was brilliant and excelled what your aim was. Why did you feel like it was right to come back now?
T: I think timing is everything but we were nervous to do a Kickstarter, no lie. Our manager brought it to our attention and the key word I think that kind of got both of us was…
T: And that we could kind of do things our way. We didn’t have to put up with the ways of the label and the politics. And then incorporate the fans who we love because we put their names on the CD cover of Fanmail so we started way back then and entitled the album after them. But this way, if you donated you got to do packages, so any super fan got to either get a personalized voiced note or…
T: We still have to do those!
C: Movie dates and stuff!
Had you talked to labels about coming back in a more traditional route?
C: Here’s the thing. When we first got started, and I guess again, timing was all of that, we were at a situation, or at a label at the time that really did allow us to be free when it came to the creativity part because they saw that it worked. But now as time has changed, everybody feels like you kind of gotta do what’s ‘happening’, or work with whoever because they’re the hottest producer right now. I remember we worked with one of the hottest producers and and we love them to this day, and they are amazing but we had no chemistry. There was no magic. You can’t force it. We don’t care who we work with as long as they’re hungry and they want to work – then we’ll get something amazing out of it. That’s where we didn’t want to get pigeon holed. And then, they have the 360 deals now. Because before, especially artists, if you didn’t make your money from a deal, because you had a shitty deal with the label, then you could go on tour, your merchandise is yours. But like, 360 deals – everything is theirs! They get a piece of every little thing, so that wasn’t appealing to us because of stuff we’ve gone through.
Even though you have a small catalogue compared to most, the albums are quite definitive in what they represent. I wanted to know what they represented at that time to you?
T: I think with Oooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, we were just beginning and finding ourselves. And we’re still the same. We don’t like to be boxed in. I don’t like when people call us an R&B group because we’re not just that. You can’t just sell the numbers we have and just do rhythm and blues. I don’t like when people like Sam Smith or Nick Jonas can put out a song that is clearly R&B and they just call them pop because they’re Caucasian or white… and then because we’re black, we just get called R&B. I think that’s a colour thing, but it should be a music thing. So when we did Oooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, we didn’t know about all the politics of that, we just did what was natural to us. Then we started growing and when we did Crazy Sexy Cool, which to me is still our most iconic, it really put us on the map as. We started to be recognisable, we had a sound, and our fashion was as big as our name, and our routines, all that. You have to figure out what you did the first time, and do it again the second time, but better. So I think we did that with Crazy Sexy Cool.
C: Fanmail… people at that point knew what we were all about, and at the same time that’s when a lot of our fans would send us fan mail, and every blue moon we would call them and say hello before there was caller ID and all that! That’s when we decided to dedicate that album to the fans and it was totally for them. 3D, that was the album where it was like a coming back together. Each of us had a solo deal, not that we were breaking up but we just wanted to venture out on our own, but I remember I saw something on TV I called LA [Reid] and was like we have got to do another record. I was very adamant about that even though he’d hooked everybody up with their solo stuff that we had to do one more album.
T: Like when you know you’re not done yet.
C: But we weren’t done anyway, but it worked out because Lisa’s time was going to be short. I said to LA, ‘you gotta call Lisa- tell her we have to do this one last album’ and shockingly, even though she really wanted to do her solo stuff, she was cool with it. And so that’s the album where we were kind of bringing it back together to put that next record out, and then she passed away. Everything fell in the middle of recording on us, it became a rushed deal at the end because the label – instead of allowing the us the time to grieve – were like ‘we’re gonna put a greatest hits out next week’.
T: In their heads, they gave us, what, a week or two? I think if we were in the right state of mind, we would’ve done things a lot differently. But I don’t cry over spilt milk, it still did good and sold millions and it is what it is. Circumstances were just what they were, and that was our last body of work with her. It just is what it is. I don’t know if it’s one of my favourites, but some great songs came off of it.
So what’s the vibe of the new album?
T: Of course it’s a TLC sound. It’s still talking about subject matters that need to be talked about. Like Perfect Girls speaks on how young girls are chasing something that doesn’t exist. We have have flaws. We all have insecurities. It’s just about seeing life for really what it is. There’s songs like “A MF’er”… I don’t wanna…can we curse here?!
T: A Motherfucker
C: A Motherfucker! [LAUGHS]
T: It speaks on like how we are with men now. Like when we were younger I probably would’ve tried to punch them in the face or something, but now I’m more mature I would just walk away and say ‘you lost a good one… but I’ma call you a motherfucker while I walk out!’.
T: I think there’s something on there for everybody whether it’s a beat or a slow song, we got some baby making songs on there…
C: Yes we do!
T: We got that too. I think we covered everything for someone up in there. Then we even have Sunny which is about life and embracing the good after bad. It’s kind of a tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire because it has all the horns… you remember the essence of what you loved about them and it’s just done in a newer way.
I don’t like when people call us an R&B group because we’re not just that.
It’s funny because we are almost at risk of having a really homogenized sound in music. If you dig deep enough into Soundcloud, there those are artists completely reacting against of that movement. That’s when things get interesting.
T: You get real music. The best type of music to me is organic, that you didn’t try hard or try to fit it, it just naturally is who you are. It’s authentic. It really came from you. I can’t even tell you half the people – I like their song, but if I was standing next to them I wouldn’t even know who they were. That’s a problem.
C: At least she would know the song! I don’t even know the songs. If I was standing next to them…It all kind of sounds the same.
Who do you like?
C: I love Bruno Mars. He stands out. We were just talking about this, he’s doing an old school kinda sound, but because it’s so different to what’s on the radio, it stands out. And the boy can sing! And he can dance! So he is such a great entertainer, I love him.
You talk about issues and have always done that throughout history, in your albums and that has always been important. Do you think it’s as easy to have a political stance with your songs now more than in the 90’s?
C: Absolutely. It’s funny because, in one way, you can say what you wanna say, but you still can’t really say what you want to say, because then people are get mad and come after you and you’re going to get in trouble. People can go to jail, and come back now and have a number one record, or single. It’s almost like doing stuff that is not good is praised. It’s like, ‘cool… ooh you went to jail… you going to write a song about it? You can get signed!’ And not to say that if you’ve made mistakes in your life you shouldn’t be able to live your dream, but I remember a time when that wouldn’t have happened.
I feel like we’ve progressed as a society more where you can have those honest and frank conversations but in our music it seems to be this different thing, but you guys have always done it, even with the new album. I know you were asking the fans for names for the album but you decided to go with TLC?
T: Well some of them were good but some of them were way off, it was ridiculous! I was like some of y’all think way too deep! But I love that they tried.
And it’s your last? Why?
T: Well, I mean we’ve been doing this for a long time. Things are different. The industry is different. You never know what God has planned for you later but as of now, it’s the end. You have to end somewhere at some point and retire.
C: It’s been twenty-five years! [Laughs]
T: Plus think it’s hard to me to make timeless music, that doesn’t just come out your butt like ‘Whoop’. I’ve got another ‘Waterfalls’ or another ‘Unpretty’, those aren’t easy to come by. Timeless music is hard to come by.
And how did you keep Left Eye as part of the album, in terms of recordings, essence, or maybe an energy?
T: There’s an interlude but she lives through our music anyway we because we built this together and then on top of it, throughout our show, she is always apart of the show in some capacity – so you will always feel her energy in some type of way.
C: And its T L C still. Always.
After everything, what advice would you give a new generation of female musicians?
T: I would stick to what I have always said: respect yourself. If you don’t respect yourself, why should I respect you? There’s a lot of stuff out now that is urging you to be a whore. I’m gonna say it the way it is – hoes are winning.
C: Hoes are winning right now. Hoes got TV shows, hoes got cheques. Hoes got commercials. It’s cool to be a hoe right now. They’re making it seem like hoe-ism is life!
And now Instagram is telling you if you have an X amount of followers, you’re a public figure. What does that even mean?
T: I just said that in the last interview. I said, what is a public figure? An instagram model I guess…
C: Everything comes and goes. They better enjoy this 15 minutes. Once instagram is over… I hope they’re investing properly. Please invest and pay your taxes.
T: If you’re gonna be a hoe, please be a smart hoe. Stack your dollars.
C: And pay your taxes!