It is officially a new era for TLC. The Grammy-winning girl group known for conscious songwriting and record-breaking sales, went through hell and back after losing member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in 2002 and going broke. Today, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas are back in the recording studio, with plans to take the TLC on the road once again.
In addition to welcoming the new, we’re prepared to celebrate the legacy of one of the greatest musical acts with our upcoming biopic, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. VH1 visited the cast and crew on set in Atlanta earlier this year, and spoke to founding member T-Boz about the decision to put the lives of three women on screen. Read through our conversation below, which touches on T-Boz and Chilli returning to the stage for this weekend’s Mixtape Festival, Left-Eye’s legacy, as well as a call for more meaningful lyrical content across today’s Top 40.
VH1: You and Chilli are consulting producers on the film. How much of a role have you had on production?
Tionne Watkins: We wanted to make this real, so we’ve been hands-on. I choreographed some things for Drew [Sidora]–I used to choreograph things for TLC, so we both came and did routines for the girls. We’re just having fun doing what we do, trying to get them to understand our vibe, and why they need to understand the emotion behind the words: why they were mad, why they were happy, and why they were crying. They need to understand the emotion behind why we felt the way we felt versus just singing the words. All three girls picked that up.
Were you apprehensive about allowing someone into your life like that–sharing a lot of personal experiences in order to make the role more believable?
I’m open. All of my situations have made me who I am. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done, because if I feel ashamed, I’m not going to do it in the first place. It made me the woman I am today, so I’m an open book.
What do you want Lisa’s legacy to be through this film?
I knew Lisa first–she ended up being my cousin because my uncle is married to her mom. We were really, really close. It’s kind of easy because we were together so much. I choreographed routines and trained Lisa personally for hours on end; as long as I could get her to look like she was almost doing what we were doing, that’s good enough for me. She had her own way. If you ever watch the “Creep” video and see how she does the dance versus how I created it, it’s totally different, but it’s cute because it’s her. That’s what I loved about her.
Were there lengthy discussions about how you wanted Lisa to be portrayed?
I feel bad for Lil Mama because Keke [Palmer] has Chilli and Drew has me, so she doesn’t have anyone to talk to her about her character. I talked to her with the others and by herself so she could understand Lisa more. We had amazing chemistry, and it’s funny how great the actresses’ chemistry is together. A lot of people on Twitter said, “Oh, what about this person looking like this?” It’s not just about looks–acting chops are very important. The girls really do look close to us, but most importantly, there’s chemistry.
I got to see some of the costumes while I was on set, and the likeness to your original outfits is really impressive. Were you surprised by any of the looks?
For me, it’s Drew’s T-Boz haircut. When I was looking at the camera I was like, “Oh my God this is crazy.” She really looked like me! I never looked at myself like that and I was like, “I like her hair–it’s really cool!” Her haircuts are the bomb. I love all the clothes, the feel of them. We would sit down with and explain how we wore the Dr. Martens and the three pairs of socks. Everyone did an amazing job: make-up, hair, wardrobe, the set and the backdrops for the videos.
With the film and upcoming tour, are you hoping to introduce yourselves to those who are not familiar with your music?
We have an amazing fan base–I know some people by first name; I’ve seen them my whole 20 years. For me, I hope a ll the generations come. I have 15 and 13-year-olds on Twitter saying how they wish they were in the ’90s living in our era, saying how much they love “No Scrubs” or “Waterfalls.” They’re 13 and I’m like, “How do you know me?!” I find that amazing. I want it all, why not? I’ll take all of the generations.
So many of your classics are conscious songs about real issues–sex, body image, AIDs. What has been your songwriting process?
We talk about relationships–relationships can be between mother, brother, father, son, friend to friend, boyfriend-girlfriend. We talk about things people can relate to and put it into a story. It can have a meaning but it’s not preachy. It comes across [in a way] where you can still jam and dance to it, but you still got something from it.
Which of your songs do you think is the most powerful?
“Waterfalls” spoke to so many people at a time where people needed to feel like somebody was on their side. There was a patient who had contracted HIV and AIDS and they felt like we were standing up and talking for them because no one else would. That’s what we heard from a lot of people. When I wrote “Unpretty,” that’s a personal situation for so many people and it went to No. 1. At the end of the day we feel the same, we all hurt. When you talk about real things, it’s like being on the same level. Women need to be empowered and know that it’s more than walking out with your butt wagging. We know that’s easy, let’s doing something harder.
Having this approach to your music, did you ever have to fight to gain control over the content you were writing about? Was there any pressure from your label?
I don’t say anything I don’t believe or I don’t want to–that’s one thing you can know about me until this day. If it’s my day to stop, then I’ll stop. But before I can perform and be a puppet… that’s what’s wrong with some of these artists today: people give them their songs, their clothes, their attitudes. They didn’t give us anything; we’re authentic. What you see is what you get. That’s what I love about my group: we stand for something.
So if you didn’t feel pressured to fit a certain mold, how did you approach CrazySexyCool? There was a distinct image shift to something more mature than Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip.
It was four years later. I thought, “How can I could incorporate what I did the last time but make it better and grow from there because I am four to five years wiser now?” I was at a different level; I was going into womanhood. You do start transitioning. Basically, that’s what you saw: us growing up, and whoever was there was growing up with us.
Have you been able to see your own influence on any of today’s acts?
I always run into a potential TLC group, but I don’t worry about that stuff. I feel like there’s enough out here for everybody and of course you see people do your stuff here and there, but that’s cool. That just means you’re appreciated and they liked something you did. I don’t ever look at it like, “Oh, man, they stole my stuff.” That happens all the time. When I see my dance and someone else does it that’s an honor. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all, I think it’s great.
What do you think about the music of 2013?
Lyrical content is missing. I love that song “Diamonds” by Rihanna–she wrote the heck out of that song. Even though it wasn’t deep-deep, it was just the melody and the metaphor of shining bright like a diamond; it means something and makes you feel good. That’s needed, especially with the recession. You can never have too many [songs like] “Unpretty” or “Waterfalls,” because people need to be inspired and feel good about themselves. Today is more faddy, like “Let’s do dance” or “Let’s do dubstep.” That’s cool, but I think we’re missing a lot of superstars. There’s a lot of great music, but it’s just not forever, it’s for today.
Do you see this film as an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions people may have, particularly of your group’s later years?
Honestly, the media wasn’t like it is now. People were more respectful and appreciated what you did. They didn’t get into what you’re doing at home or what you cook for your baby–it’s none of their business. We’ve always said we’re not replacing Lisa, but when we did [2005 UPN reality series] R U The Girl? people would say, “So what happened to the third member?” They just read and take in what they want, so you’ll just be losing energy trying to clean up all day. I want people to understand how hard we work and how much we put into this. Our dancing was as big as our image, and our image was as big as our record sales. I hope they understand us as a group. I don’t want to clear up anything, I just want them to understand.
With such increased media scrutiny what do you think about younger acts like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber–two artists that have been in the public eye since they were teenagers–transitioning to adulthood? They’re constantly covered on TV, TMZ, and in various blogs.
People make mistakes–we’re talking about a day in time where people are popping molly or smoking weed. You just have to hope they don’t get lost and don’t go down the wrong well. All of us could, it’s just more in-your-face media-wise now. It was always there for us when we were 19, I just chose not to go that route. It’s really individually on them, and hopefully they have a good platform to grow from, like parents or people around them. I don’t know who Justin or Taylor has but I wish them the best. I like both of them a lot and I think they are very talented. TMZ takes it too far. The only thing true in the article is is your name. You can’t just start talking about people physically–these are humans. People have families and they report their death before… CNN will give you the respect of letting the family know and give in your statement. [TMZ] just puts stuff out whether it’s true or not and adds problems and lies. I don’t respect that. These are real people with hearts and lives, mothers and fathers, it’s just not worth the money to me. But that’s what makes the world go round for a lot of these people, so good luck with that.
Catch T-Boz and Chilli on stage at the Mixtape Festival this weekend in Hershey, PA. VH1’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story premieres in October.
[Photo Credit: Piotr Sikora for VH1; Getty Images]