25 years ago, three teenage girls from Atlanta changed Hip-Hop forever. Armed with an unapologetic joy for sex, a bold and colorful sense of style and womanhood, and an infectious charm that only can come from the optimism of youth, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas blindsided a Hip-Hop industry that had increasingly marginalized women’s voices. And in turn, TLC inspired a generation of young girls and artists, an impact can still be heard today.
When TLC signed with Babyface and L.A. Reid’s LaFace Records in August 1991, a formidable task lay ahead of them. 1991 had not been a strong year from women in the Hip-Hop lane that TLC hoped to infiltrate. Queen Latifah’s Nature of a Sista and MC Lyte’s Act Like Ya Know were the only albums in ’91 that dropped from female emcees.
Raunchy lyrics were in full swing at this time, but they were usually confined to albums and not the radio. On their first single, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” which also preceded the album by three months, TLC circumvented radio’s strict censorship rules with wit and lyrics that speak to the diversity and depth of women’s perspective.
So when Chilli decides to be submissive for her lover’s attention (“Cause I ain’t too proud to beg for something that I call my own“), it’s balanced by the declarations Left Eyes makes on demanding sexual satisfaction and dictating how she wants it (“Realize the realism of reality treats/ Us Both the same/ Cause satisfaction is the name of the game… Yeah I like it when you (kiss)/ Both sets of lips/ Ooh on the TLC tip.“). And in a unique twist, Left Eye’s verses gives an early example of body positivity for men in her willingness to accept her lover(s) regardless of their physical shortcomings (“2 inches or a yard rock hard or if it’s saggin’…“).
The song proved to be a perfect introduction. …On the TLC Tip dropped on February 25, boasting production from the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Marley Marl, Babyface, and writing from Left Eye and Dallas Austin. The result was a gumbo blend of Hip-Hop, R&B, funk and sprinkles of New Jack Swing’s frenetic energy.
MEETING OPPRESSION WITH A DEFIANT SMILE
Despite their carefree attitudes, TLC was acutely aware of the confining expectations that patriarchal society has of them. That absurdity is a constant theme in the album via the skits, starting with an intro from a white male who casually dismisses their femininity (“They don’t really look like women…“). In “Intermission II,” it’s T-Boz dealing with a lover who wants to keep her at home while he enjoys the nightlife. The commentary reaches its most serious point on “His Story,” sadly showing that not much has changed for women who seek justice after a sexual assault.
His story over mine his story will be his story
And my story is a waste of time
They’re gonna believe
His story (Yeah, yeah, yeah)
His story (Oww)
They’re gonna believe
THE FUNKY DIVA ALTERNATIVE
Part of the TLC’s success as a group stemmed from their contrast with the multi-platinum phenomenon that was En Vogue. The four-woman ensemble (Dawn Robinson, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis) embraced the sexy diva image and possessed polished vocals that allowed each one to sing lead. They set the tone for the decade with 1990’s platinum Born to Sing, which spawned the classic single “Hold On.” As women in their late 20s and early 30s, they had a maturity to their sex appeal and presentation that TLC wisely did not try to emulate.
Instead, TLC occasionally poked fun at the glamorous diva requirements that had come to be expected of subsequent girl groups. The trio most noticeably did so in the video for “Hat 2 Da Back,” briefly donning black cocktail dresses while championing their love of baggy clothes and baseball caps (“Hat 2 da back I gotta kick my pants down real low/ That’s the kinda girl I am…“). Shots at the diva image can also been seen in the intro for “What About Your Friends.”
A SEAT AT HIP-HOP’S TABLE
…On the TLC Tip proved to be one of the biggest albums of 1992. Although their style and music were rooted in Hip-Hop culture, the message of safe sex, self-love and care-free fun crossed over. The album spanned four singles and eventually went on to sell six million copies. Ironically, Hip-Hop purists were the last group to embrace the trio, likely due to gender bias and their softer presentation in the midst declining militant black nationalism and the emergence of gangsta rap in Hip-Hop. Much to the chagrin of some, the group graced the cover of The Source, back when the publication was the holy grail of Hip-Hop credibility.
Today, TLC stands alone as the best-selling girl group in music history with an estimated 65 million records sold. Their influence can be seen in everyone from pop acts like Britney Spears, to subsequent groups like Destiny Child, and those that deftly blended Hip-Hop and pop like Nicki Minaj.
But never forget the journey began in February 1992 with Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip.
RIP Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes