The 1990s were an expansive time for music as a whole. From wailing guitars to new frontiers in pop music, the 90s saw some of the most iconic music of the century. When TLC came on the scene in the 90s, they never imagined the success that found them, ultimately becoming one of the most successful girl groups in history.
TLC Begins Riding The Wave
Formed in Atlanta, Georgia, and rivaling the biggest talents of the boybands, TLC featured Tionne Watkins, Lisa Lopes, and Rozanda Thomas. Pebbles Reid, the wife of the esteemed pop and hip hop label-head, L.A. Reed, managed the group. Each of the women received nicknames to make up the band’s acronym. Watkins was “T-Boz,” Lopes was “Left Eye,” and Thomas was “Chilli.”
They made their debut album, Oooooooh…On The TLC Tip achieved immediate success. Selling over four million copies in the United States, it was certified as quadruple platinum, and produced three top-charting singles: “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, “Baby-Baby-Baby“, and “What About Your Friends”. The group worked like a well-oiled machine, with each voice complementing the other. Each with their own unique talents, their work displayed tight harmonies and a beautiful collaboration. The album’s colossal success opened up the doors for groups like SWV and Destiny’s Child.
After the album’s success, they released a Christmas single, “Sleigh Ride,” which appeared in Home Alone 2, and a cover of The Time’s “Get It Up,” which they released as a single for the Poetic Justice film.
Additionally, TLC opened for MC Hammer on tour. While this first national tour was an exciting milestone, it came with an unsettling discovery. Lopes and Thomas learned that Watkins battled sickle-cell anemia, and she often fell sick. Watkins eventually ended up hospitalized with her band members at her side. This led to the cancellation of the rest of their tour.
TLC’s Signs of Trouble
At the end of their tour, TLC chose to fire Pebbles Reid. Reid signed the group to a predatory contract, and they asked to be released from her management. While she agreed, she still received a share of the group’s earnings.
Unfortunately, Lisa Lopes found herself in a very tumultuous relationship with football player Andre Rison. When a fight got out of hand, and Lopes set a pair of his shoes on fire, Lopes received a probation sentence and a $10,000 fine.
CrazySexyCool Feelings of Bankruptcy
The release of their second album, CrazySexyCool, provided a brief reprieve from their personal lives. While the album featured less of Lopes, it was still critically acclaimed and sold over 14 million copies worldwide. In the United States, it became a diamond-certified album. CrazySexyCool was a funk infused hip-hop album with smooth production and deep grooves. Rolling Stone Magazine listed it among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Even with all four of the album’s singles charting, and with a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo, TLC found themselves struggling. The group filed for bankruptcy on July 11, 1995.
While they signed a contract with Pebbitone, Pebble Reid’s management company, with fairly common terms, the amount of money they received was much less common. As a matter of fact, they only received 53 cents per album sale, and even less per single. With over 3 million dollars in debt, from medical expenses to legal fees, they filed bankruptcy.
The silver lining in it all is that Pebbitone eventually released TLC from their contract. TLC bought out their name as well, in exchange for continuing to pay a small percentage of their royalties to Pebbitone.
Though TLC’s third album, Fanmail, eventually produced the group’s biggest hit, “No Scrubs,” it did not happen without a few hitches along the way. Producer Dallas Austin wanted full creative control of the project and $4.2 million to work on it. This put the group at a standstill, resulting in the members individually pursuing other work. Thomas appeared in the independent film. HavPlenty. Watkins starred in Belly alongside rappers DMX and Nelly. Lopes hosted MTV’s talent competition, The Cut, which broke Ne-Yo and Anastacia into the music industry.
TLC eventually got back on track, after successfully negotiating with Austin, and released the futuristic pop album, Fanmail. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, and the R.I.A.A. certified the album six times platinum, with over six million copies sold. The group received eight Grammy nominations, winning three: Best R&B Album, Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Additionally, the group received the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year award at the Lady of Soul Awards.
The End of An Era
Lisa Lopes expressed her discontent with the band, claiming that they disregarded her input. She actually challenged the other members of TLC to release three solo albums each in order to see whose would chart the highest. This challenge went unfulfilled, however, and the band eventually settled their feud.
After releasing her solo effort, Supernova, Lopes tragically died in a car accident while filming a documentary in Honduras. This film eventually became The Last Days of Left Eye.
The group released their fourth album, 3D, and went on a hiatus shortly after. 3D went two times platinum and sold over 2 million copies. They performed their final show at Zootopia in 2003, with Lopes posthumously appearing in video footage as the rest of the band performed.
Watkins and Thomas hosted a reality television show, titled “R U The Girl,” which led to fan speculation that they were using the show to find Lopez’s replacement. However, they said that they vowed to never replace Lopes with a new member.
TLC received the Icon Award from the MTV Music Video Awards in Japan in 2013.
Don’t Call It A Comeback: TLC’s Legacy
In 2015, the group announced that they would release one final album as TLC, and they planned to fund it through Kickstarter. Within 48 hours, they surpassed their $140,000 goal. They became the “fastest most-funded pop project in Kickstarter history,” according to Spin.
In the meantime, they toured with 90s heartthrobs, New Kids on the Block and Nelly on The Main Event tour. They later embarked on the I Love The 90s: The Party Continues Tour.
They finally released TLC in 2017. The album’s first single, Way Back, featured Snoop Dogg. The group then toured with Nelly and Flo Rida, and are slated to star in the television documentary, Biography: TLC. Biography: TLC is expected to air in June 2023 on Lifetime and A&E.
TLC‘s time in the spotlight highlighted the good, bad, and ugly of the music industry. Still, even with artist exploitation and personal troubles, they triumphed and paved the way for many more record breaking artists, from Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland to P!nk. Whether they provided the party soundtracks for their listeners or they opened the door for future superstars, TLC’s profound impact on the music industry can still be felt today.