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TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ at 25: The inside story of the game-changing R&B classic

Atlanta trio TLC arrived on the scene in 1992, but it was 'CrazySexyCool', their game-changing second album, that cemented their legend, introducing the world to fly girl fashion and swinging brand of message-driven R&B, while doing things no other girl group had done before. T-Boz and Chilli talk to NME about the landmark album as it celebrates its 25th anniversary

“We were all sitting there like, ‘This is terrible’,” says Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, laughing as she recalls the time bandmate Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes turned in her verse for their first Number One single, ‘Creep’. “She basically wrote an anti-‘Creep’ rap. So when it came to shooting the first video we took the rap off of it. And because we did that Lisa put tape on her mouth as a protest so she couldn’t sing the song.”

“And not regular tape,” adds Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. “We’re talking about the grey tape you put on a box at the UPS store, the stuff that can take your skin off. Then we had to go to the trailer and try and talk her into taking it off.”

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According to T-Boz, Left Eye, who tragically died in a car crash in 2002, wasn’t a fan of the subject matter of ‘Creep’. In among the track’s jazzy horns, funky drum kicks and longing synths were lyrics such as: “I’ll never leave him down/ Though I might mess around/ It’s only cause I need some affection,” which she feared her then-boyfriend, NFL wide receiver Andre Rison, might get the wrong idea.

“They had one of those real touchy, jealous-type relationships so she didn’t want him to think that she was cheating,” she explains. “But it had nothing to do with their real relationship, it was actually a personal situation that happened to me.”

Remembering Left Eye and the “cute and weird” ways she would pen her raps, T-Boz says: “She used to go in the bathroom and write in the stall with her little bit of weed. She used to sit there and smoke, and write sideways on the toilet with her feet up on the wall and her back against the stall.” And those raps were an important part of the success of ‘CrazySexyCool’.

“Left Eye basically wrote an anti-‘Creep’ rap because she didn’t like the subject matter. We were all sitting there like, ‘This is terrible…'” – T-Boz

Certified 12-times platinum in the United States and selling over 23 million copies worldwide, the album saw TLC go on to become the first girl group to ever be awarded diamond status by the RIAA. Bagging them a couple of Grammys, they were also first black act ever to win the coveted Video of the Year award at the MTV Video Music Awards for their breakout hit, ‘Waterfalls’.

But more than sales and accolades, ‘CrazySexyCool’ paved the way for the next generation of girl groups. Taking what they had learned from watching those that came before them — such as the likes of SWV, En Vogue and R&B boybands like New Edition and BBD — TLC packaged a fresh new attitude and unique swagger that inspired the next wave of girl power. Some of the fans who grew up listening to the group went on to take centre stage themselves: All Saints, Little Mix and, on a much larger scale, Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls – something Mel C acknowledged in an interview with The Guardian last year.

TLC: (L-R) Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC

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“We had a lot to prove with that second album,” says Chilli. “It established us as a group that was gonna be here for a long time and it proved we weren’t just a fad.”

“And I think it’s doing what we wanted it to do still to this day” T-Boz adds. “It’s just good music that has no age and appeals to everyone, regardless of colour. It doesn’t matter what gender, creed or nationality you are, it’s just great music and that’s what I love about it. It’s timeless.”

Timeless is a certainly a good way to describe ‘CrazySexyCool’, as is, unsurprisingly, the album’s title. Devised by Left Eye, Chilli says the title — which represents the individual personalities of the group (Crazy [Left Eye], Sexy [Chilli], Cool [T-Boz]) — was conceived while on a trip to Europe.

“It’s so funny because when Lisa came up with it I was personally a little upset,” explains Chilli. “I thought Tionne should have been sexy. We all could have played crazy and sexy but I know I’m cool – I’m the cool one. I was confused as to why I would be sexy. I was like, ‘That’s not me, that’s Tionne!’ I just didn’t look at myself like that.”

Laughing, T-Boz says: “Lisa slapped her upside her head and was like, ‘Girl, you better recognise!’”

“I thought Tionne should have been ‘sexy’. We all could have played ‘crazy’ and ‘sexy’ but I know I’m ‘cool’. I’m the cool one!” – Chilli

It was obvious from the moment you first pushed play on ’CrazySexyCool’ just how much of a departure it was from the group’s 1992 debut, ‘Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip’. Pairing ardent grooves and sensual riffs with edgy hip-hop beats and moving away from the popular sounds of new jack swing, they took what Mary J. Blige was doing at the time with her signature brand of hip-hop soul, mixed in some Atlanta swag, and delivered something new and distinctive for listeners to wrap their ears around.

Taking on more serious subject matters than in previous years, the album was a coming-of-age moment for TLC. From AIDS and gang violence to sexuality and romanticism, regardless of the topic there was a newfound confidence and youthful optimism on display across the album’s 16 tracks. In the erotic bounce of ‘Let’s Do It Again’ and ‘Take Our Time’, the trio displayed a more assertive side to their art while proving they were completely comfortable with the more explicit side of self-expression.

TLC
TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ has sold over 23 million copies worldwide.

Teaming up with some of the same producers who worked on their debut album, Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Babyface were on hand to help piece together the instrumental backbone of ‘CrazySexyCool’. Organized Noize, Chucky Thompson and the then-named Puff Daddy rounded out the rest of the production roster.

Puff’s role was to oversee some of the album’s interludes, which at times, be it unintentionally, offered some comic relief. ‘Sexy’ starts off seemingly depicting phone sex before turning into a prank call as Chilli seductively asks Puffy to pass her some tissue… so she can wipe her ass.

“Me and Puff were in the booth together and I was supposed to, you know, talk sexy,” explains Chilli, giggling to herself. “And I had to turn it into something funny because I found it weird talking sexy the whole time. I couldn’t stop laughing so we ended up having to take it in that direction and just make it more like a joke.”

Puffy also produced the only cover on the album, ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. Originally written by Prince, it’s one of the rare occasions that the Purple One granted another artist permission to cover his work.

“Getting permission to do it was actually easier than making the song,” says T-Boz, adding that she couldn’t believe Prince even allowed them to do it.

The album’s signature song, and probably the group’s too (some might argue that ‘No Scrubs’ deserves that honour) is ‘Waterfalls’. Written by Left Eye, Marqueze Etheridge and Organized Noize, with some influence from Paul McCartney (well, maybe), and featuring backing vocals from Cee-Lo Green, it didn’t just tip the album over the edge, it launched it into another stratosphere. Achieving mass international success, it landed on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and stayed there for seven weeks, while also topping charts all over the world, peaking at Number Four in the UK.

Initially claiming that she absolutely knew the song would be a hit, T-Boz then instantly back-pedals. “Actually, no I didn’t,” she says. “I hoped that it would be, but more than that I just hoped that people would understand it because we were talking about some tough situations. I definitely recognised the potential that it had.”

“It was the kinda song that needed a video to make it come alive,” she adds, mentioning the song’s big budget video. Directed by F. Gary Gray and shot in the same lake where Jaws was filmed, ‘Waterfalls’ features the group in liquid form walking on water as they sing about the consequences of the illegal drug trade and the dangers of having unprotected sex.

Chiming in to add that it was “game over” once the music video dropped, Chilli revisits the song’s subject matter. “It was always important for us to talk about things that were really happening,” she explains. “So with AIDS being such a big thing we wanted to bring awareness to it because people were talking about it but they weren’t really talking about it.”

“We wanted to stand up for stuff that was important but do it in a way that was musically fun and not at all preachy,” adds T-Boz.

And while ‘Waterfalls’ might have been the first Number One single ever to mention HIV, it wasn’t the first time TLC openly promoted safe sex. In the video for ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’, a single from their debut album, the girls can be seen wearing unopened condoms as fashion accessories, pinned to pants, braces and tucked inside glasses lenses.

TLC
TLC were the first black act ever to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.

“Sadly, all the stuff we talked about back then, and even on the new album, is still going on today,” says Chilli. “We still have problems with people not using condoms and with safe sex in general. Whether the news wants to talk about it or not, it’s still there.”

Another poignant moment on ‘CrazySexyCool’ is album closer ‘Sumthin Wicked This Way Comes’. Playing like a ‘What’s Going On’ for the hip-hop generation, it features a verse from a young André 3000 recorded before OutKast released their debut album. Chilli remembers hearing his vocals for the first time.

“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh’,” she says, gushingly. “It’s funny because he wasn’t even André 3000 yet but you just knew he was on his way. His voice, it was just so special.”

“He wasn’t even André 3000 yet – but you just knew he was on his way. His voice, it was just so special”
–Chilli, on a certain then-unknown ‘CrazySexyCool’ guest artist

Other songs of note include: ‘Red Light Special’, the seductive slow jam designed to get things going in the bedroom; ‘Diggin’ on You’, the Babyface-produced crush anthem that features arguably the most gorgeous bridge in modern day R&B; and ‘Case of the Fake People’, which the girls both wish they’d released as a single at the time. “I looked at it as our ‘What About Your Friends’ part two,” says Chilli.

As fresh now as it was in 1994, ‘CrazySexyCool’ remains forever in style. Like Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’, Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ or Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’, its prototypical approach to production and unflinching cultural commentary keeps it relevant regardless of era.

Today, TLC are still America’s biggest-selling girl group. T-Boz and Chilli continue to tour – they’ve just announced they’ll be returning to London next year – and in 2017 they released a self-titled album, their first studio album in 15 years. But ‘CrazySexyCool’ will always be that album.

Looking for the best way to describe the album, after throwing out words like “classic” and “game-changing” T-Boz asks if she can call it “torch-worthy”.

“We’re the biggest girl group of all-time in America and we’re still holding the torch, so the album’s torch-worthy.” Can’t argue with that.

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