The last place I ever expected to meet one of the biggest R&B groups of the ’90s was in a bland conference room in New York’s Midtown. But the second Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas enter the room, any hint of sterile formality disappears. Within the first two minutes, we’re all comparing bra sizes.
“You’ve got some big ones,” Chilli playfully says to me. It’s no surprise that there are no boundaries when it comes to TLC―the band has been together for the past 27 years. But not counting two singles dropped in Japan last year, the band hadn’t put out any music since 2003’s 3D, which was the final album to feature TLC’s third member, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Even back then, they recorded separately, but that didn’t make putting their final record as a trio together any easier. “We were still mourning [Lisa’s death] and were forced to finish that album,” T-Boz explains. “That’s what was hard.”
Back in 2015, TLC decided they would release a final, self-titled record―but they wanted to do it right. Instead of working with a label, Chilli and T-Boz took to Kickstarter to fund their final endeavor. Although they were skeptical about it at first, they soon discovered they could make the process interactive by rewarding fans, by doing things like having sleepovers and going to the movies. But mainly, TLC Kickstarted their new album so they could have the freedom of being able to work with whomever they wanted and make whatever music they wanted without the interference of a label.
“The 360 deals are the only ones that record labels are offering, and we didn’t want any part of that,” explains Chilli. “We‘ve already gone down that crazy road of being in ‘not-so-good contracts.’ It’s just somebody [else] getting a piece of everything, and not being a part of promoting it or coming up with the merchandise.” They did want one thing to be clear though from the start, especially when recording with a new team. “We told the new people we worked with, ‘Don’t try to come with what you think a TLC record is or sounds like.’”
For their first comeback single, they released the West Coast, backyard boogie, “Way Back” with Snoop Dogg, a song about the return of old friends you haven’t seen in awhile—though when you do, it’s like they never left. “It’s just a feel-good summer song,” T-Boz says.
Even though they hadn’t made a new record in the past 15 years, TLC toured, had a few reality shows (together and separately), and released their biographical movie CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. The movie, which chronicled the trio’s 20-plus years in the music industry, was a treat to fans who had missed the band being in action—and none of it was made up.
“In the movie, you have three girls between 10 and 25 years old, and two and a half [hours] to tell all those stories within that moment of time, so some stuff you kinda jumble together, but it’s all true,” says T-Boz. It was a chance for TLC to access a new generation of fans and to tell their own story. They even dedicated a song to their fans on their forthcoming record called “Joy Ride.”
“Even with FanMail, we have [our fans’] names on the CD because back then, we weren’t able to answer our fan mail and a lot of it got lost,” explains Chilli. “So [‘Joy Ride’] was our way of getting back to them.”
While they’ve definitely been able to acquire younger listeners through touring and making new music, their name recognition isn’t what it once was. In a profile of Karlie Kloss earlier this year in Love Magazine, the supermodel claimed she was a superfan of Beyoncé because of “Waterfalls.” And in case you were wondering, TLC was totally aware of it.
“I saw that,” T-Boz says. “Somebody sent that to me, and I just started laughing, like, ‘Oh bless you.’” But that does say something about TLC: They’re one-of-a-kind. “There will be other girl groups for sure, but not TLC, because there’s something very unique about us, how we got together, and why,” explains Chilli. “[It’s] those elements that are truly naturally there.”
Although TLC’s eponymous fifth studio album marks the beginning of the end for them, they’re not quite done yet. They’ll be performing during the I Love the 90s: The Party Continues Tour beginning July 7 through September alongside Mark McGrath (of Sugar Ray) and Naughty By Nature. For Chilli and T-Boz, there will always be something missing, but the duo has moved forward—though they do think Left Eye would have loved the record.
“I think she would like ‘Way Back,’” says T-Boz. “I could see her really wanting to rap [on it] with Snoop.” But TLC are used to being a duo at this point in their careers and just want to leave behind a great legacy. “This is the new normal of TLC: It’s just the two of us,” says Chilli.