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Concert Preview: TLC

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview: TLC
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With their fifth and final studio album returning them to the spotlight, the best-selling female group in American music history will take the stage as part of "90s Fest" on Saturday night

  • Sumo

I reserve almost all of my singing for the safe and judgment-free confines of my Volkswagen. Because a 41-year-old man belting out the bridge of TLC’s “Red Light Special” in falsetto — with pitch-perfect conviction, I’ll add — is something that really should be enjoyed by an audience of just himself in complete isolation.

While my take remains mercifully unreleased, the definitive version, featuring Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas’ luxurious mezzo-soprano, became TLC’s fifth top 10 single, and helped to propel their sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, to eventually sell 11 million copies and remain on Billboard‘s Top 200 albums chart for nearly two years after its release in November 1994.

I won’t spend a lot of time discussing TLC’s history, because so much of it has been carefully chronicled in documentaries, TV biopics, books – and on their five studio albums. Collectively, Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (who died in a car accident in 2002 while performing missionary work in Honduras) are the best-selling American female music group in history with 65 million records sold worldwide; on a global scale, only the Spice Girls have sold more. They’ve earned four Grammy Awards, five MTV Music Awards, and five Soul Train Awards.

Although they hadn’t completely disappeared from public view since the release of their 2002 album, 3D, the voices of TLC had been conspicuously absent from a pop vernacular in which they were once ubiquitous. Hungry fans rejoiced when Thomas and Watkins emerged in 2015 with an announcement of plans to record what would be TLC’s fifth — and final — studio album. With encouragement from their longtime manager, they launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to financially support the album’s creation, which would be produced and released independently of a major record label. Their fans — which included an impressive roster of celebrity contributors like Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Bette Midler, and New Kids On The Block — responded fervently by donating $400,000 to the campaign. Recording sessions for the album began in June 2015 and concluded in the spring.

On June 30, the highly-anticipated project — simply titled TLC — was released. The set’s first single, “Way Back” is a perfect summer jam with its reclined west coast swagger and staccato synths — not to mention the completely satisfying rap cameo by Snoop Dogg. Second single “Haters” is an anthemic declaration of independence (“so don’t you listen to a word they say/they gonna keep on talkin’ anyway/only thing that matters/that you need to know/you’ll only find it in your heart and soul”). Also generating buzz is the liberating “Perfect Girls” – a pretty ballad co-penned by Watkins that picks up where their transcendent “Unpretty” left off eighteen years prior: (“look in the broken mirror/I see the pieces of my face on the floor/what’s it gonna take not to feel like this anymore?”) The album landed TLC back in the top half of the Billboard 200, and earned them the number one spot on the magazine’s Independent Albums tally.

In support of their new effort, TLC is on tour this summer with 90s Fest — a big-bill concert series that features Thomas and Watkins as headliners along with Sergio, Blackstreet, C+C Music Factory, Saved By The 90s, 17th Floor, and DJ Suga Ray. The tour stops at Columbus Commons’ Bicentennial Stage tonight, with a 4 p.m. start time. TLC is expected to take the stage at approximately 9:45 p.m.

When Thomas and I spoke yesterday on the phone, we discussed TLC’s indelible footprint on pop music and the long-awaited arrival of their first album of new material in 15 years.

The three of you built a legacy for TLC from the very beginning that focused on empowerment and self-worth. Who instilled those messages in you when you were growing up?

“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we were raised by very strong women. Our moms, you know, grandmothers, great-grandmothers — just all strong, like, head-strong, fierce. You know — don’t take no mess from nobody kinda mamas! So, that’ll tend to either be a part of you or the total opposite. I owe that to my mom, and just being honest and keeping it real with things and being your true self. Which is what we’ve always done since day one, you know what I mean? We’ve never copied anybody — we’ve just always been ourselves and trying to push ourselves to that next thing, that next level. Yeah, so I’d say the mamas!”

And you’ve remained true to yourselves and headstrong in your vision of what TLC should be. But knowing some of the struggles you faced in the industry, how did you resolve to do that when you were experiencing interference?

“When someone is trying to steer you in a different direction, or say ‘Hey, do this instead of that,’ you know, it doesn’t feel right. And when it doesn’t feel right, you can’t do it successfully anyway. Because it’s just not who you are and what you believe in. And so that’s where the stubbornness would come in, because all three of us (laughs)…Tionne — T-Boz — is the most stubborn of all of us. And now of just us two. She couldn’t disagree with me — if she did, I’d have to hit her ’cause she lyin’! (laughs)

So, you know, we can get stubborn when it comes to doing something that we don’t really want to do. And so I think that’s maybe helped us stay on the path that we’re supposed to be on, because we can all derail from the tracks, but the point is to get back on it. And I think that’s what we’ve always done. And it’s hard sometimes — it’s been very hard at times. But we’ve overcome those obstacles, thank God.”

And in creating TLC, you finally got to escape the corporate machinery and record an album that was completely on your own terms. Was that liberating and exciting, or was it challenging to shift to a completely different way of making music?

“It’s a combination of all three things you just said. Because when our manager, Bill Diggins, told us about Kickstarter and how it worked, I mean, we were excited. We were, like, ‘Wow! We don’t have to deal with a label or anything!’ And it’s funny because back then, dealing with the label [LaFace Records], L.A. Reid understood the type of group that we were. So he allowed us that freedom to, you know…when we worked with [producer] Dallas [Austin] we kind of learned early on the type of group that we were and the type of stuff we wanted to talk about, and what we stand for. We never derailed from that.

I believe a lot of artists are very talented, but they don’t really get who they are, so they’re easily misled when people say ‘Hey! Work with this producer because they’re the hottest producer right now!’ But just because it’s the hottest producer doesn’t mean you’re gonna have chemistry with that person. You know what I mean? Because we’ve even experienced that before in the studio. And trust me when I tell you that we absolutely love and respect and are fans of Timbaland and Missy [Elliott] — hands down they are two of the greatest of all time. But when we went in the studio record, we didn’t have magic. And I was shocked — I was, like, ‘Whaaaat?!’ (laughs) I couldn’t believe it! I was, like, ‘Yo! This is crazy!’ When you have magic, those are the people you stick with. And once you understand your magic and you work with new people, you don’t derail from that.

When we recorded this new album…we were with all new people. The only person that wasn’t new that we worked with was Marqueze [Etheridge], and he’s the one who wrote “Waterfalls.” But everybody else, we just told them ‘Hey, you know, don’t try to duplicate anything we’ve done because we know what that is, and that’s not gonna work. Just come with your A-game. And whatever that next sound is, as long as we have great lyrical content and my voice and Tionne’s voice, it’s a TLC record.”

You and Tionne have declared definitively that this is the last TLC record. I know you have both vowed to continue as a creative unit, which I think a lot of people will be glad to hear. But what made you both decide that closing the book on recording was the right thing to do?

“Really what made us feel like that is just how music – the business part of it – has changed so much, you know? We come from an era you sold records. Like, people bought CDs, you know what I’m sayin’? And so now, what’s considered a success back in the day – that would be, like, a failure. That’s part of what we’re getting adjusted to. Also, you know, just how radio is – it’s, like, it’s real political. Especially when you don’t have that big machine – the record company – behind you. And a lot of people, I feel, that are running these labels now…sadly, so many labels have gone away from us now because of downloading and stuff like that – the money isn’t there to keep these companies up and running. And a lot of people running them don’t understand the music business, truly. They don’t really get what real music is.

I’m sorry, but I’m…you know, when we were growing up being teenagers and kids in the eighties and stuff like that – you had your ratchet music, too. But it wasn’t all ratchet, you know what I’m sayin’? It was a great combination of things – you had choices. If you wanted to listen to rock, you could go do that…if you wanted to…you know what I mean? Now there aren’t really a lot of options – it’s like this or that. Which has really gotten me more into country music (laughs) because…I’d say country pop – let’s say that. (laughs) I really like it a lot because the other stuff I’m, like, ‘what?! I don’t even understand what they’re saying – what is happening?’ And I love the beat, but lyrically [it’s] just not there and it’s very mediocre.

So with all that…I think everything just kind of comes back around. We’re just in this cycle where the younger generation is excited about the music from the nineties and just how it felt – and all of that, you know? That’s why we’re really excited that we’re out [touring] – and to get that love from the younger generation feels really good.”

You and Tionne both have children. Of all the many things you’ve certainly learned in your careers and your personal lives, what are the lessons or values you’re trying to impart on them?

“What’s important to me, and what’s been important to me from the moment I found out I was pregnant, is to make sure that my son understands that the Creator is God and all things go there first. And to be a good person. I tell him all the time that people will deal with your bad attitude, if you have a bad attitude — if you’re on top, they’ll deal with it. But the moment you’re not anymore, they can’t wait to not talk to you anymore. If you have a humble spirit and you’re a nice person, you know, they may still take your phone calls. It’s not a guarantee, but you have more of a 50-50 chance! (laughs) Someone would still want to deal with you because of your great attitude.

I tell him, too, that whatever your craft is, always practice and become the best that you can possibly be. And don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I think God blesses us all with so many gifts, and one usually stands out more than the others as your passion. But the others are real gifts, too, that you should explore, and I think it’s good people do that. Because you have more than just this one thing in your life to do.”

So speaking of those other gifts, and I’m sure it seems unfathomable because it’s all you’ve ever known, but what if you, Tionne, and Lisa never met and TLC never came to be? What do you think you might be doing with your life now?

“I’d probably be some celebrity chef and with my own TV show or something. (laughs) Either that, because I love cooking, or somewhere in the medical field, you know? I love medicine and…when I say medical field, I mean the holistic side of the world. Because I’m really into that stuff — always have been since I was a little kid. And at first, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but then I found out how long you had to be in school, and in all of those science classes and stuff. And I was, like, ‘Mm-mmm, that’s not gonna work! That’s not gonna work!’ (laughs). That’s where I came to the realization that was not gonna happen! Maybe a pharmacist or something. But just the sight of blood weirds me out, so I couldn’t cut on anybody or do anything like that. But I really do like the field of medicine and just taking care of your body and stuff. So maybe I would have been a nutritionist — I don’t know. Something like that!”

Over 30 years, you must have some wonderful memories of being a part of TLC. What one stands out the most for you?

“I think what sticks out the most is probably when we were in the studio recording our albums. And when we’d be done with a song we’d listen back and be, like, ‘Oh my God! That’s us! That’s you! That’s me!’ We had those kind of moments. And then at photo shoots and shooting videos, we’d be, like ‘We have our own video! This is crazy!’ Because when you have those dreams forever and then it becomes real life, it’s very surreal and you’re just in shock.”

TLC will appear at 90s Fest tonight at Columbus Commons Bicentennial Pavilion, 160 South High Street, Downtown. Tickets are still available at press time – starting at $35 (general admission) plus taxes and fees. Event is outdoors, rain or shine, all ages.

TLC’s self-titled album is available via their official website.

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