There’s definitely been more written about the Radiohead song of the same name over the years, but for me it was another early ’90s single called ‘Creep’ that really impacted my life at the time. The video seemed glued to MTV, and featured three proto-feminist tomboys wearing the kind of silk gowns I’d see wee ladies in Glasgow hairdressers’ chairs sporting in a far less alluring way. TLC were a trio who appeared real proof of my mother’s constant advice that you have to make the best of what you’re given. Left Eye, T-Boz and Chilli weren’t your quintessential beauties, in an age where you couldn’t move for pictures of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. They weren’t the best singers either, especially compared to the acts they blazed the way for in the American pop mainstream in years to come. But when they hopped on stage or in the booth, their powerfully confident personalities shone through. The most powerful of those personalities was undeniably that of Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes.
This weekend marks 13 years to the day (April 25, 2002) since Left Eye tragically lost her life in a car accident in Honduras, aged 30. On her casket were lyrics from ‘Waterfalls’, TLC’s biggest single: “Dreams are hopeless aspirations, in hopes of coming true, believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you.” Left Eye wrote that song: a brilliant pop song with a catchiness radio DJs around the world over couldn’t ignore, despite its taboo-tackling lyrics, confronting HIV, the illegal drug trade and other issues mainstream America has a habit of stubbornly ignoring. When Left Eye rapped “For tootin’ caine in your own vein/What a shame/You shoot and aim for someone else’s brain” it was the first time I realised that music could hold the power to educate people worldwide about matters they’d had no experience of.
The Left Eye life lessons continued throughout my adolescence. The female empowerment of 1999 single ‘No Scrubs’ cannot be understated when you’re premenstrual and learning how to navigate the boy versus girl hierarchy of the school playground. “A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly and is also known as a buster/Always talkin’ about what he wants and just sits on his broke ass” was, in my mind, about Tim, the football legend, who only flirted with me when he wanted my trigonometry homework.
Then there was the release of 1999 self-help ballad ‘Unpretty’ at the pivotal age of 13. The first time I heard it was on the school run with two classmates who were foaming at the mouth because US make-up brand ‘M.A.C.’ was name-checked in the chorus. Every girl who was anything at secondary school wore M.A.C. lip gloss and positioned the case craftily on their desks next to a ballpoint pen. As the lyrics came over the stereo (“You can buy your hair if it won’t grow, You can fix your nose if he says so… But if you can’t look inside you, find out who am I too/Be in the position to make me feel so damn unpretty”) I remember thinking – if I grow up to be like one of those TLC ladies, I’m not going to be pressured into spending £11 of hard-saved pocket-money on a tube of M.A.C. lip gloss ever again.
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Of the three members of one of the biggest girl groups of all time, Left-Eye was the least predictable and most controversial. She was the bright flame at the heart of a fiercely influential group of young upstarts, bringing the signature ‘Crazy’ to the ‘Sexy’ of Chilli and ‘Cool’ of T-Boz on the group’s 1994 Grammy-winning second album ‘CrazySexyCool’, with an irresistibly lush flow. She drew attention to safe sex by pinning condoms to her outfits with her band mates, adopted two children from homes wrecked by addiction, constantly crow-barred important topics into her lyrics and set up a charity for underprivileged children in Honduras, where she died.
But she was also troubled. In June 1994, in one of her most talked-about controversies was the burning-down of her then-boyfriend, NFL player Andre Rison’s home. She claimed it was an accident, but the incident raised eyebrows about the potentially abusive relationship that Left-Eye had been subjected too, and also called her own health and unstable background into question. It was her idea to hold Clive Davis, their label head, at gun point when the time came to reclaim the money the band had yet to see from the success of ‘CrazySexyCool’, recruiting friends she’d made in rehab to help storm the Arista offices.
All this only made her more relatable. She was real, so much more than the manufactured pop machine that existed on the same MTV and TOTP channels at the time. Where the Mickey Mouse club might have had multi-million dollar elaborate music videos with thrilling stories created to provide additional edge to their radio pop, Left Eye was experiencing the heist life proper.
Left Eye provoked and pushed creativity, becoming a hugely respected artist in her field, drawing in requests far and wide for work from the biggest pops stars of the day (N*Sync, Melanie C) to progressive hip-hop players (Missy Elliot, Andre 3000). Since her passing, the TLC machine has suffered. One posthumous album, ‘3D’, didn’t get make anywhere near the indent on music buyers the band’s classic albums, ‘CrazySexyCool’ and 1999’s ‘Fanmail’, managed. The remaining members recently started a Kickstarter to fund what they say will be their final album, presumably having been unable to secure a record deal. They’re are due to head out on the road this summer with New Kids On The Block and Nelly as part of The Main Event Tour kicking off on May 1, but nobody is under the impression that the purpose is for anything beyond nostalgia. Left Eye was a force of nature too huge to replace, her absence too tragic to pave over with even the smoothest of R&B licks.
As every TLC song reached its second third, you’d know Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes’ incoming contribution was about to blow you away. But it wasn’t just TLC. There’s a wealth of great Left Eye verses out there. Here are some of her finest moments:
The Block Party
In 2001, Left-Eye released her first and only solo album ‘Supernova’. ‘The Block Party’ was the lead single, produced by Salaam Remi who had worked previously on The Fugees’ ‘The Score’ and would go on to produce Ms Dynamit’s 2002 Mercury-winning debut, ‘A Little Deeper’. The video directed by Hype Williams brought Left-Eye’s colourful, cartoonish vision to life, a funky Sesame Street-style world featuring hop-scotch and pop-locking and nostalgic lines about listening to Run DMC and wearing shell-toe Adidas.
Never Be The Same Again
When the Spice Girls disbanded, “Indie” Spice Melanie Chisholm was one of the first to take a bold leap forward and release her debut solo record ‘Northern Star’. Of the many critically acclaimed tracks was standout single ‘Never Be The Same Again’, a funky, lo-fi R&B hit with an unforgettable rap breakdown from Left-Eye. It wasn’t just a cool, timely collaboration, it allowed for the meeting of two females from the world’s biggest ever girl groups, proving that just because you’re part of the manufactured machine doesn’t mean you can’t break out and do something unique on your own terms. Melanie’s powerful pop vocal rose to the next level as Left-Eye’s karmic rap came in: “But sometimes it seems completely forbidden to discover those feelings that we kept so well hidden… A fine line between fate and destiny, do you believe in the things that were just meant to be?”
U Know What’s Up
Donnell Jones’ popping R&B classic 1999 single is taken to a new dimension by the slick tone set by Left-Eye’s introduction: “Dah-nnell Jonessssssss”. Her addition on any standard R&B track could elevate a crooner to an edgy urban anthem. Two minutes in, she spits a fast, self-aware and comedic rhyme about attracting the opposite sex, being “untouchable”, playing hard to get and staying true to herself: “So if you’re serious I’m curious to see whatchu got, my love is furious cos I believe in blowing up spots…”
‘Not Tonight’ (‘Ladies Night’)
The remake of ‘Ladies Night’ for ’90s movie ‘Nothing To Lose’ features Lil Kim, Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and Angie Martinez is a helluva lot of fun: “This is ladies night, and our rhymes is tight”. It’s also proof positive of the power of Left-Eye when she comes into the frame, blasting all the competition out the water. Not that this is even her intention, but the magnetism of her vocal delivery, attitude and guile outdoes everyone else. “If ya ain’t got the cash to stash suck ma dick, hoes…”
There are few songs on TLC’s seminal ‘Crazy Sexy Cool’ that can trounce the Andre 3000-featuring closing track ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, but for this last pick I have to go with the preceding penultimate album track ‘Switch’. Left-Eye elevates an already irresistibly catchy track about swapping your love interest once you get bored of their daft antics by racing in with her most fun, rhythmically delightful rap ever. It references V8 drinks and Speedy Gonzalez. “I said L to the E to the F to the T to the E to the Y/Because I’m so fly/Bring it back to the E so come and see me/At the hotel motel Holiday Inn/I said if you man starts actin’ up/Switch and take his friend.” Fair play.