One of the most successful R&B groups of the 1990s, the "New Jill Swing" trio TLC officially came together after Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas joined Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in 1991, replacing a short-term original "C" known as Crystal. Under the management and direction of singer/songwriter/producer Pebbles (née Perri McKissack), the sassy young trio was signed to LaFace Records, the Atlanta-based label cofounded by Pebbles' then-husband (and future Arista President) L.A. Reid. Released in 1992, the group's debut, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip (Number 14 Pop, Number Three R&B) gave TLC their first three of many pop Top 10 hits: "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" (Number Six Pop, Number Two R&B), "Baby-Baby-Baby" (Number Two Pop, Number One R&B), and "What About Your Friends" (Number Seven Pop, Number Two R&B). The women's individual personalities were established early on: T-Boz sang the no-nonsense, tough-girl parts, Chilli the pretty passages, and Left Eye — who earned her moniker by wearing a condom taped over the left lens of her spectacles — brought the rap. Lopes also contributed to the songwriting pool alongside heavyweights Babyface, Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri.
In between Ooooooohhh and its follow-up, TLC remained active by appearing in the movie House Party 3 and contributing the Prince-penned "Get It Up" (Number 42 pop; Number 15 R&B, 1993) to the soundtrack of the Janet Jackson/Tupac Shakur film Poetic Justice. Lopes in particular remained in the headlines, thanks to her tumultuous relationship with former Atlanta Falcons football player Andre Rison. In 1994 Lopes was sentenced to five years probation for burning Rison's house to the ground after an argument (they later made up). By the time CrazySexyCool (Number Three Pop, Number Two R&B) was released later that year, however, the focus was back on TLC's music. Introducing a dramatically sexier and more mature TLC, the album went 11 times platinum and spun off the Number One pop hits "Creep" and "Waterfalls," as well as "Red Light Special" (Number Two Pop; Number Three R&B, 1995) and "Diggin' On You" (Number Five Pop; Number Seven R&B, 1995). But in July 1995, in the middle of CrazySexyCool's reign, the group members filed for bankruptcy, claiming they had yet to receive enough money to pay off their debts (particularly Lopes, who owed Lloyd's of London $1.3 million for her damage to her former boyfriend's house).
TLC would wait five years before releasing their next album, but the time away didn't hurt the group's popularity. Released in the spring of 1999, FanMail entered the charts at Number One (beating Eminem's also highly anticipated debut, The Slim Shady LP to the top) and dominated the pop and R&B charts for most of the year. The album's hits included "No Scrubs" and "Unpretty," both of which went to Number One on the pop chart. After the album's chart run, however, another long hiatus seemed inevitable, with Lopes and Thomas both working on solo albums by the end of 2000.
While traveling in Honduras, Lopes flipped the rented SUV that she was driving and died from severe head trauma on April 25th, 2002. T-Boz and Chilli soldiered on, completing 3D, the fourth album they'd been recording with Lopes, and releasing it that same year. Though it reached Number Six and spawned minor hits with "Girl Talk" (Number 28, 2002) and "Damaged" (Number 53, 2003), it was clear the group's best years were behind them. Another trio of young singers, Destiny's Child, featuring future superstar Beyoncé Knowles, had overtaken TLC on the pop charts.
In 2005, a TLC reality show, R U the Girl, aired on the UPN network, but was criticized for what appeared to be the group's hunt for a Lopes replacement. At the end of the series, the winner, Tiffany Baker (a.k.a. O'so Krispie), recorded a new song with T-Boz and Chilli, "I Bet," which appeared on that year's TLC compilation Now & Forever: The Hits. The song failed to chart. In 2007, the group put out a video companion to its greatest-hits collection called Now and Forever: The Video Hits. That year, VH1 aired a documentary on Lopes, The Last Days of Left Eye, which chronicles her final days on a spiritual trip in Honduras.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Watkins defends her cousin on Twitter after police shot him 18 times last Wednesday
Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins talk setting a positive example, carrying on without Left Eye and why their new LP is their last