“A lot of people thought we were going to be one-hit wonders,” Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, one-third of TLC, told me in 2012. “Even the executives at LaFace [Records] didn’t know if we could do it again, so I’d always be grateful to our fans.” Along with her fem-funk soul sisters Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and the late rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, they’d formed the wondrous TLC in 1991, releasing their debut Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip the following winter.
Soon, the colorfully dressed girl-group was soon blaring from every radio station across the nation.
Managed by Peri “Pebbles” Reid, whose then-husband L.A. Reid co-owned the Atlanta based LaFace Records with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, the TLC girls swiftly went from roller-rinks and burger spots to concert stages and four-star restaurants while managing to save their label in the process. Former LaFace general manager Lamont Boles said in 2012, “Before TLC, we had put out albums from Jermaine Jackson and Damian Dame, but they were flops. If we didn’t have success with our next act, [the parent label] Arista was going to shut LaFace down.”
Coming at a time when new Teddy Riley’s jack swing sound was morphing into DeVante Swing/Puff Daddy/R.Kelly hip-hop soul, Ooooooohhh… was built from the same blueprint that gave pop music Bell Biv DeVoe’s street soul gem Poison and Mary J. Blige’s ruff-neck goddess debut What’s the 411. While Chilli and T-Boz were the Southern charmed singers, Left-Eye was the wild girl rapper from Philly whose spunky style gave the group another dominion that separated them from peers like Brownstone, SWV and Changing Faces.
“The first six radio stations I took the single to refused to play ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,’ because they thought the song was too raunchy,” Boles says. “They would play a naughty song from a boy band like Bell Bev DeVoe, but they wanted TLC to be all roses and chocolates.” Of course, these pretty young thangs promoting the evils of safe sex were obviously a menace.
“People were a little taken aback by their sexual empowerment,” former Billboard editor Janine Conveny recalls. “They were sexy without being half-naked. But this was 1992, before Foxy Brown or Lil’ Kim, so they sent a shockwave through the industry. To me, in terms of girl-groups, TLC was a rock ’n’ roll rebellion.” Since radio was holding out, TLC went after the visual side of music, defining their playful personas in a series of Lionel Martin-directed videos that helped turn the trio into superstars.
“I was blown away by the charisma of the girls,” Martin says. “They were just amazing; personality just burst out of them. Working with them was a real collaboration.” Once radio finally relented, and TLC singles “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “Baby Baby Baby” and “What About Your Friends” were steadily rising on the charts, what had started as a concept a few months before quickly became a sensation, selling over 2.7 million records. “So many girls felt like we were like their sisters,” Chilli said. “We had our own style and we gave them a voice.”
Former Arista Records publicist Audrey LaCatis recalled, “They were so different from everything we had on the label back then. We were working with Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow, and these girls were just so fresh and fun. I remembered being surprised by their image. Lisa was wearing a condom over her eye, which was kind of gimmicky, but it worked for her.”
In those days, hip-hop music wasn’t in regular rotation on many stations, some which chose to play a mix of “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” that deleted Left-Eye’s rhymes. Still, the song was nominated for a Grammy the following year. “They were cartoonish in a way, but they had talent to back them up,” says LaCatis.
Gazing at the TV screen as videos beamed into my room, I loved TLC’s style (which they put together themselves), stance and smiles—and the songs themselves were delirious pop tracks that were fun as well wonderfully produced. “Everything happened so fast,” Chilli said in 2012. “We were living our dream. It was exciting, but it was also intimidating.”
Meanwhile, the press loved the group. “Ultimately, TLC was a combination of talent and mutual familiarity that allowed Dallas Austin and the girls to make hits together,” cultural critic Carol Cooper says. “He was not only open to their ideas, which were always strong and focused. But as they were both familiar with the young party scene in Atlanta at the time, he understood exactly where their best ideas were coming from.”
TLC were sassy, provocative, innovative, ambitious and sexy. They were all that, and producer Dallas Austin helped them sell it on record. Still, I personally wasn’t totally convinced TLC’s talent would last past one joint. Rocking their Cross Colours gear on the covers of Right On! or Word Up while wearing backward caps and oversized shorts, it was easy for me to peg them as overzealous popsters who’d soon fade away.
Three years later, they were back. More mature and a less little-sister cute (in fact, they were fine as cat hair), TLC shed their boxer shorts and baggy jeans for chic, silky, wind-machine blown bathrobes in the video of their sleek new single, “Creep.” Produced by Dallas Austin, “Creep” put the sonic scientist that much closer to his dreams of making tracks as enticing and sexy as the ones his hero Prince created for Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6.
“The sound of those records took you to a different atmosphere, and that’s what I wanted for TLC,” Austin said in 1994, citing the Apollonia 6 track “Blue Limousine” as the track that lit his fire. “I wanted T-Boz to sound like Prince used to sound, but put on her own thing. From the beginning, I made sure that TLC had a distinguished sound, but on CrazySexyCool, I wanted to bring out the Prince side.”
That same year, Austin’s work was developing into an edgier electro soul as heard on the 1994 debuts he produced for Highland Place Mobsters and Joi. Before building his now-legendary recording studio D.A.R.P., the producer had a graffiti-on-the-walls spot called the Soul Shack where he worked on Ooooooohhh… as well as some of their much anticipated follow-up. “CrazySexyCool is a word we created to describe what’s in every woman,” Left Eye explained to writer Joan Morgan in 1994. “It doesn’t just describe us [TLC] individually, it describes all parts of every woman.”
L.A. Reid was determined that TLC “go beyond hip-hop,” as he was fond of saying to the press. It was that phrase that led Reid to reject the original Lionel Martin-directed clip (see below) for “Creep.” Commissioning a splashy Matthew Rolston video that was less “urban” and Madison Avenue commercial chic, when the video debuted on MTV, much to the surprise of a public used to TLC’s tomboy style, they returned as lipstick liberators.
Embracing the text and textures of CrazySexCool was easy. TLC fueled the disc with loads of personality and individual flavor; it didn’t matter that the women didn’t write (with the exception of Left Eye, who wrote her own raps) or produce; they were still telling their own stories. Although Austin contributed “Creep” and the blistering funk of “Case of the Fake People,” the album was essentially an Atlanta collaboration. Producers included Jermaine Dupri, newcomers Organized Noize (who’d produced OutKast’s debut that same year) and label co-owner Babyface, who contributed the school girl crush flirtation “Diggin’ on You” and the grown-woman real of the Isley Brothers-inspired “Red Light Special.”
While the jeep bounce of Jermaine Dupri’s finger-snapping “Kick a Little Game” and “Switch” were dance tracks that sounded like senior prom jams, the king of New York-style production Puff Daddy swooped in with Chucky Thompson (this was when the two were also working on Mary J. Blige’s game changing My Life) and provided the album’s only clunker, a middling remake of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
Although the title CrazySexyCool was Left Eye’s idea, the MC’s contributions to the project were limited because she was in jail for burning down her boyfriend’s house. Still, she did manage to record a fiery rap for the second single “Waterfalls,” Organized Noize’s tour de force that became one of TLC’s most popular songs. “Waterfalls” would go on to earn a Record of the Year nomination from the Grammys and win four MTV Awards for the F. Gary Gray-directed video. Recently covered by show biz veteran Bette Midler, she said recently on The Tonight Show, “How can you not cover TLC? I love them!”
During the making of CrazySexyCool, behind the scenes was just crazy: T-Boz had throat trouble; Chilli and Dallas Austin were having a overemotional love affair; and the trio was slowly finding out that after all the record selling, touring with MC Hammer and television appearances, they were broke as a joke.
“When you hear all the drama that was going on behind the scenes, it’s surprising CrazySexyCool was ever made,” Faith Evans said recently, “but I’m glad it did. It’s one of my favorite albums.” CrazySexyCool would go on to sell over 10 million copies while proving to be a lasting aural document, an iconic playable feast that defined a generation. Twenty years later, it’s still crazy fresh.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.