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TLC Could Have Been The Female Public Enemy (But Pop Had Other Plans)

The first voice heard on TLC’s 1992 debut album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip is that of a random white guy on the Intro, pontificating on the allure of the all-girl trio. “Maybe it’s just one of those Black things that people get into,” he surmises with goofy confidence. “It’s just a fad I think.” He punctuates it with his distaste for their baggy clothes, claiming they “don’t really look like women,” and politely closes with “…but they’re pretty cute.”

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of TLC’s debut, but also 15 years since Left Eye passed away. She would have also turned 46 years old this year on May 27th.

A group like TLC, but more specifically Left Eye, was the most confusing type of woman for the hip-hop landscape. Sexually feminine bragging with masculine confidence was the forte, and from that mold came so many artists both hyper-sexualized yet designed for mainstream consumption. It all started with TLC and a fork in the road that arrived too early for a group who might have pushed even further beyond revolutionary had Left Eye remained at the forefront.

25 years ago, America was at its boiling point. In politics, ’92 is oftentimes referred to as the “Year Of the Woman,” due to an uptick in the number of female elected Senators for the first time in American history. In the middle of the year came the L.A. Riots, following the verdict of the Rodney King trial. But just a few months earlier, on February 25th, TLC dropped their first album. The release was bookended on that date by pop-rock goddess Tori Amos’ debut Little Earthquakes, where she bravely channels her trauma from sexual assault into beautiful music, and ironically the legendary Boogie Down Productions’ final collective release Sex And Violence.

Sexual violence was at a staggering high, clocking in at over 150,000 sexual assaults annually. While the Riot Grrrl movement was well underway—bringing a batch of feminine rock voices into the sphere while detailing those sex crime rates—Hip-Hop was in the midst of a switch-up. The New Jack Swing Era coupled with an escalating interest in the Atlanta hip-hop scene gave birth to acts like Kriss Kross and Another Bad Creation, arguably just offspring of New Edition. Salt-N-Pepa were easing into a poppier comfort zone, as the following year they would drop Very Necessary, the most successful female rap album of that era. Queen Latifah would also drop her socially conscious “U.N.I.T.Y.” in 1993, so 1992 was prime time for a new female act to emerge.

The brainchild of L.A. Reid and his then wife Pebbles, TLC— aka T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli—at first glance looked like they were slapped together for the ultimate kitschy hodgepodge of femininity. Dressed in baggy denim in hues of indigo, orange, red, and green, along with oversized t-shirts from the then infamous Cross Colours (Clothing Without Prejudice) clothing line, TLC commanded eye-popping attention.

Condoms were pinned to their clothes along with neon Band-Aids checkered along their pants. Their de-facto leader Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, wore circular glasses with one lens popped out and replaced with a bright condom. She also wore a giant neon hat and most of the time her pants were unbuttoned and her belt was unbuckled. Their debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” arrived at the close of ’91, but gained momentum once the album dropped. Loosely named after a classic Temptations song, the track flipped the script with mantras of wanting sex whenever TLC needed it—“in the mornin’ or the middle of the night.”

In the video, the girls are dancing with water guns and giant baby pacifiers, as Left Eye does a proud march around a giant room with a live band, boasting about taking the D regardless of size or flaccidity. The song did surprisingly well despite its content. Co-penned by Left Eye and Dallas Austin, it hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. It was also nominated the following year for a Grammy Award for the Best R&B Song. Really though, it was one line of thread woven throughout an entire album of self-expression.

When you stripped away the aesthetics, TLC was the most socially conscious female act of their time. A female Public Enemy in fact, as Left Eye had the double duty of being Flavor Flav and Chuck D, where one moment she was playfully animated and another delivering the hardest bars on the track. At times she even sounded like Chuck D, using her cadence as a flexible instrument with extreme tonal highs and extreme tonal lows.

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Their songs were a mixed bag of meanings. “His Story” was set to the backdrop of the Tawana Brawley rape trial, where TLC waxes philosophical about [white] men’s sides of any story being perceived as the truth. “Depend On Myself” and “Bad By Myself” harbor similar sentiments of independence yet expressed differently. “What About Your Friends” (which would be their third single) was about distrusting friends in the midst of fame. “Something You Wanna Know” is a gentle emasculating anthem, placing the man in the seat usually reserved for a woman as this time she calms his anxieties about her faithfulness. Meanwhile, “Shock Dat Monkey” is all about cheating. “Hat 2 Da Back” (their fourth single) challenges societal norms for how women should dress, and the Left Eye solo track “This Is How It Should Be Done” emphasizes that their fame was far from overnight. “Das Da Way We Like ‘Em” even has all of the girls rapping, a glaring example that Left Eye should be the only one with those privileges. Production came from the likes of then hitmakers Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, and Marley Marl. The LaFace Records project was executive produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface.

However the album didn’t really move units, taking four years to go quadruple Platinum, an easy feat for many of that era to hit way earlier.

As ’92 progressed, things started changing. Censorship trickled in, as condoms on their clothes were replaced with just a bunch of multi-colored Band-Aids. During their performance on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, Left Eyes trades her condom specs for what looks like a giant flower over the lens.

When “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” was performed live, Left Eye’s line “two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it’s saggin’” was often changed to some variation of “2 da back is my hat and my pants keep saggin’.” While Chilli and T-Boz were both the seductive singers of the group, the brunt of the censoring fell upon Left Eye. By April, their second single would be their turning point.

“Baby-Baby-Baby” would become TLC’s meal ticket into the pop world. Reaching #2 on the Hot 100 and topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, the single was sung-only, led by T-Boz and Chilli on the verses and Left Eye pretend-harmonizing. There was still the coy undertone of sexual self-assurance, but it was placed within an overtly romantic context. “If you’re gonna get me off,” T-Boz sang, “ya gotta love me deep.”

The video looked like an episode of A Different World (one of the most popular Black sitcoms at the time), where the girls attended an HBCU and found their boyfriends via #dormlife.

It was cute, but it marked the beginning of the end of what TLC could have become. Sure, “What About Your” friends followed, as did the final single “Hat 2 Da Back,” but by “Baby-Baby-Baby” it felt like a race to the finish for Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip’s life cycle. TLC’s brazen sexual prowess also became a point of contention, as a riddle circulated about them and their peers so eloquently rehashed on the b-side to the Pharcyde’s biggest single “Passin’ Me By” on a song called “Pork”:

I heard ABC and BBD caught HIV from TLC. Is it true? I hope it ain’t because I really had some plans to fuck the shit out of Chilli.

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If TLC and their label had any expedited plans to move them as far away from Hip-Hop as possible, this was certainly the kick in the ass.

Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip was the first and last time TLC was regarded as a Hip-Hop group. From then on they would become an R&B group, as Left Eye’s contributions would gradually be phased out. As time progressed, their rawness and edginess were polished and packaged for a mainstream audience. Perhaps it was the way to go. The primarily sung CrazySexyCool would arrive in 1994, with the chart-topping hit “Waterfalls.” “Waterfalls” became their greatest selling single, but the pricey video would be the catalyst that tipped them into going broke. And sure it carried the same socially conscious spirit of their debut album, but Left Eye’s poignant rap verse that ties together the whole song is oftentimes edited out on the Radio Version. Even by FanMail’s “No Scrubs,” the song carries some message but Left Eye’s verse is an afterthought—tacked onto the music video version.

While the group had moments of both social consciousness and hip-hop awareness checkered throughout their career, their debut was the kickoff. They would never chase those waterfalls again.

Through a history lesson plus a Lifetime biopic, we know how the story of TLC went: bankruptcy, shady label dealings, tumultuous relationships, and the passing of Left Eye in 2002 (ten years after their debut).

Their imprint in music history usually comes with the tagline of a cautionary tale, yet on their debut album they made magic when magic was desperately needed. The block was hot, and TLC rose to the occasion. Ironically, 25 years later, the block is arguably hotter than ever. Perhaps Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip deserves another go’round to remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.