Interviews

Perfection, Authenticity, and Perseverance Embody TLC's CrazySexyCool

Legends only.
Legends only. Photo by Dennis Leupold
Clinging to your mother's skirt as a young child while shopping at the local Hit or Miss would hardly be considered a pivotal moment in anyone's upbringing. But when you realize it was at that seemingly inconsequential moment that you first heard the opening wah-wahs of TLC's "Waterfalls," it's a root memory that rushes back: the catalyst for a lifetime of pop-music adoration.

Not only did that moment lay the foundation for important lessons in a young mind, but it shaped the trajectory of this music writer's path. And for that, I'm eternally indebted to Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas.

TLC's release of its critically acclaimed sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, on November 15, 1994, stamped the trio as one of the leading voices of a generation, and a band that would change the musical landscape. More than a quarter-century after its release, the album continues to resonate.

In honor of the groundbreaking album, T-Boz and Chilli are hitting the road for the Celebration of CrazySexyCool Tour, alongside Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The tour makes a stop in Miami at the FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park on Monday, September 27.


"We've never done a tour just dedicated to mostly one album," T-Boz tells New Times. "That was our biggest album, so I just hope this whole thing is good vibes, good feelings like we're all at one big backyard barbecue or party together. Like a family reunion. That's what I want it to feel like."

That same familial energy emerges during New Times' conversation with the band. Talking with the women feels as comfortable as sitting in your friend's living room recounting stories with a drink in hand. Except when you are reminiscing with TLC, you're looking back at one of the best-selling American girl groups of all time.

"This is a word that we use when somebody smiles real hard — they say cheesin'," T-Boz says. "We're probably just gonna be showing both sets of teeth — just cheesin'."

Chilli recalls the group's time during the FanMail tour, when the band was supposed to ascend on risers, standing completely still devoid of emotion.

"Tionne and Lisa did it successfully; I couldn't even keep a straight face for three seconds," Chilli remembers. "I was up there smiling and waving — I was grilled cheesin'. So this time people are going to be like, 'Why is T-Boz grilled cheesin' like the entire time she is on the stage?'"

In anticipation of the tour celebrating TLC's landmark album, New Times dives into three dominant characteristics that embodied CrazySexyCool: Perfection, authenticity, and perseverance.

Perfection

As a whole, CrazySexyCool is flawless. From "Waterfalls" to "Creep" to "Red Light Special" and "Diggin' on You," the album is R&B-meets-hip-hop perfection.

Produced mostly by the same group of collaborators from the group's debut, Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip — Dallas Austin, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, and Jermaine Dupri — CrazySexyCool scored two Grammys, for "Best R&B Album" and "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal," plus four nominations. Rolling Stone ranks the LP no. 218 on its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

CrazySexyCool was also an album of many firsts.

TLC was the first girl group ever certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), with CrazySexyCool going 12 times platinum. The band's poignant video for "Waterfalls" garnered top honors in four categories at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, including "Video of the Year," making TLC the first Black act to win the award. And "Creep" was TLC's first single to ever hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In total, CrazySexyCool birthed an astounding four top-five singles.

Beyond the trio's achievements, it was apparent that TLC wouldn't settle for anything less than perfection when it came to CrazySexyCool. In her book, A Sick Life: TLC 'n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage, T-Boz writes that the video for "Creep" had to be shot three times before the women were satisfied they got it right.

It's no secret that Left Eye wasn't keen on the subject matter of the song, which producer Dallas Austin wrote as a solo track for T-Boz based on one of her previous relationships. "Creep" is sung from the point of view of a woman cheating on her unfaithful partner in order to get his attention.

Although she eventually came around, Left Eye protested by putting tape over her mouth and threatened not to participate in the final video shoot after her "anti-Creep" rap was removed.

Authenticity

Since the beginning, TLC has been about spreading positive messages, ranging from safe sex to loving yourself and female empowerment. Chances are, if you were too young to know what a condom was, TLC donning them as accessories in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was probably the first time you'd seen one.


But when it came to CrazySexyCool, often touted by critics as the band's "coming of age" album, the record served as the group's push for authenticity. The trio didn't have anything to prove — they'd been speaking their truths from the get-go — but it was CrazySexyCool that catapulted them to the top.

Released as a single in 1995, "Waterfalls" tackled serious topics such as HIV/AIDS, drugs, and violence, and the band was determined to ensure that the accompanying video got the message across. If not for T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli holding strong in their convictions, the world might not have ever had the chance to see the "Waterfalls" video as we know it.

TLC had a specific idea for the video, but Arista Records founder and president Clive Davis brushed them off. The band instead went into L.A. Reid's office with a handwritten note on a poster board pleading for him to help make the video. If Davis wasn't going to help create their vision from their point of view, T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli were going to find someone who would. Reid fronted the band $1 million, and the rest is history. "Waterfalls" planted its stakes at no. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.

Asked where they got the courage not to succumb to pressure, T-Boz and Chilli don't hesitate to answer: "Mom."

"It started at home, because your foundation is where it starts," T-Boz says. "You see a lot of this cyberbullying and stuff. Like, where the hell are their parents? Because there is no way our mothers would ever let us do half the things that these kids get to do. Our mothers are amazing, and it started there."

TLC made it their mission to bring important issues to the forefront in an approachable way.

"When things are timeless, I think those subjects can come out again and help somebody now," T-Boz explains. "That's the importance to me of having strong, willful content and talking about things that are relatable because stuff like that doesn't have an age or a color, music doesn't have an age at all.

"The stuff that we're talking about is even more so needed today. You can't say it enough. Kids still need to hear these things."

Perseverance

To love TLC is to understand the struggles and hardships the band members endured in their personal and professional lives during the making of CrazySexyCool.

The band fired its longtime manager, Pebbles, owing to financial discrepancies that followed the release of their debut album. Then TLC went back to the studio at the end of 1993 to record CrazySexyCool.

Things did not go smoothly.

Left Eye infamously set fire to her then-boyfriend Andre Rison's home in the summer of 1994, leading to her arrest on first-degree arson charges, court-ordered rehab, and five years of probation. Chilli and T-Boz continued working on the album while Left Eye was away.

The group also faced financial hardships, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995 following CrazySexyCool's successful release.

Asked who was in their corner during those challenging times, T-Boz doesn't hesitate to answer.

"God has always been a prominent factor in our lives and careers." She says with a laugh, "Some stuff we probably can't even tell you how we got through, but we pray a lot, and that's something that we do."

After the cycle for CrazySexyCool, TLC went on hiatus. The band members received so much fan mail during that period that they titled their next album FanMail.

"We really just naturally always just took an extra caring to our fans. Not just thankful because they like our music, but, like, we actually care," Chilli adds.

Perhaps it's that streak of humility that has guaranteed TLC's continued success.

"Here's the thing: You're not above anybody else; we're all the same," Chilli explains. "The only thing that makes us different is we may be more popular than someone else because of the line of work that we do. But as human beings, we all go through the same struggles."

TLC. With Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. 7:30 p.m. Monday, September 27, at FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, 301 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550. Tickets cost $29.50 to $254.25 via livenation.com.
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