Representing Atlanta, Georgia, TLC left their mark on the music business in the 1990s with an eclectic fashion that highlighted their mixture of musical styles from R&B, hip-hop, soul, pop, rock, funk, and New Jack Swing. The trio of contralto singer Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, soprano rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and mezzo-soprano singer Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas went on to become one of the most successful girl groups of all time with multi-platinum albums, #1 singles and numerous awards.
The trio formed in the spring of 1991 after being discovered by singer Pebbles, who brought them to LaFace Records. The group initially consisted of Tionne, Lisa and Crystal Jones, who started as 2nd Nature in 1990 but were renamed TLC by Pebbles to reflect their initials. Jones was later replaced by Thomas, who was a backup dancer for Damian Dame and given the nickname “Chilli” to maintain the TLC name. By November 1991, TLC exploded onto the music scene with their debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” while their debut album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip was released on February 25, 1992. “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” along with the follow-up “Baby-Baby-Baby” reached platinum status and were Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s third single “What About Your Friends” was another Top 10 hit that achieved gold status and the song’s remix featured the first appearance from their labelmates OutKast. “Hat 2 Da Back” was the album’s final single and also achieved gold status as the album peaked at #14 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart before it achieved 4x platinum status in the US.
Following the success of their debut album, the group dealt with some adversity, including health issues with T-Boz’s sickle cell anemia causing her to be hospitalized and the group cancelling performances, financial disputes with Pebbles, who had the group signed to a management deal through her company Pebbitone, as well as the infamous June 1994 arson case where a dispute caused Left Eye to burn the mansion of her boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons star wide receiver Andre Rison. Left Eye received five years of probation and had to pay a $10,000 fine before she ended up going to rehab during the production of TLC’s second album.
Despite these setbacks, on November 15, 1994, TLC would go on to release their magnum opus CrazySexyCool, a combination of the descriptions for Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz, respectively. On Halloween, they released the album’s lead single “Creep,” a smooth jam produced by Dallas Austin that would top the Billboard Hot 100 and achieve platinum status. This was followed by the sultry Babyface cut “Red Light Special,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and gold certified. The album’s third single, the socially conscious “Waterfalls,” took the group to the next level as they tackled topics such as drug dealing and HIV/AIDS. It topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks and is certified 5x platinum. The music video cost over a million dollars with its special effects and won four MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year. The album’s final single “Diggin' On You” was a Top 5 hit that achieved gold status. CrazySexyCool peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 and they were the first girl group to achieve diamond status with over 10 million albums sold in the US. They won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album and “Creep” won a Grammy in the Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group category. They also were named the Artist of the Year at the Billboard Music Awards in 1996. Rolling Stone ranked CrazySexyCool #218 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The success of CrazySexyCool uncovered more financial issues for the group, causing them to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995 with more than $3 million in debt due to their management deal with Pebbitone, T-Boz’s medical bills for her hospitalizations, insurance payments for Left Eye’s arson case, and LaFace recouping their expenses. The group was getting paid 56 cents per album to split between the three of them, which resulted in them getting around $50,000 each on a diamond-selling album that could have generated somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million off record sales alone. In 1996, they were able to renegotiate their contract with LaFace, dissolve their Pebbitone management deal with Pebbles and buy the rights to the TLC name from her as well.
The trio released their third album, FanMail, on February 23, 1999. It featured the #1 hit “No Scrubs,” which is 5x platinum and won Grammy Awards in the Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals categories in 2000. The album’s second single “Unpretty” also topped the Billboard Hot 100 and achieved gold status. FanMail debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and went on to reach 6x platinum status while selling over 10 million albums worldwide. FanMail also won a Grammy in the Best R&B Album category.
Left Eye was frustrated by her reduced role in the group, so she ventured out and began recording solo material while challenging T-Boz and Chilli to do the same and let the public decide whose album was the best in a potential 3 CD package. Left Eye released her album Supernova in 2001 but it was only released internationally as the low sales led to its US release being cancelled. While working on an album for Death Row Records as N.I.N.A. and recording for TLC’s fourth album, Left Eye was killed in a car crash in Honduras on April 25, 2002. TLC used recently completed vocals and previously unreleased vocals from Left Eye to finish the 3D album, which was released on November 12, 2002. The album reached double platinum status despite the singles not charting as high as their previous releases.
T-Boz and Chilli carried on as a duo with various performances since Left Eye’s death. In 2005, they starred in the UPN reality show R U the Girl, which many thought was basically an audition to replace Left Eye, but the winner, O'so Krispie, only recorded the song “I Bet” with T-Boz and Chilli. TLC was featured on J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile” in 2013, the same year their biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story aired on VH1. In 2015, the duo started a Kickstarter campaign for $150,000 to fund the production of their fifth album, which they achieved in two days before raising $400,000 in total. The TLC album was released on June 30, 2017.
TLC has left a lasting legacy on music as they stood out from their contemporaries while also being an inspiration for future groups such as Destiny’s Child, Blaque and the Spice Girls. Outside of music, they made appearances in the movie House Party 3 in 1994 and on the sitcom Living Single in 1995. TLC has sold over 60 million albums and are ranked as a Top 3 girl group in terms of success alongside The Supremes and the Spice Girls.