The Real Red Light Special

Everyone—everyone—knows the words to some TLC songs. And there’s probably no shortage of you who know the Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes rap interlude in “Waterfalls,” (We know you save it for those special dance floor and karaoke occasions.) During the ’90s, TLC dominated the American and world music charts, going on to become the best selling girl group in American modern music. Twenty-five years after their first album hit, surviving members Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins are back on top with the number one independent album in the world, and are taking stages by storm on their “’90s Fest” tour, featuring artists like Blackstreet, C+C Music Factory, and DJ Suga Ray. (614) caught up with Chilli between shows to talk loss, music, and the next generation.

You guys very successfully crowdfunded for this album, including support from other artists (like Katy Perry and The New Kids on the Block) How did independently funding your album change things?

Just the freedom of doing that, and not have to deal with someone at the label and their opinions… it was awesome. We were so surprised that our fans showed up and shelled out the way they did. Even some of our peers contributed; it was really unbelievable. We were so excited to go in and make new music. Not only is this our album, it’s the fans’ album, as well.

Why do you think people want to revisit the ’90s so much?

I think that the music from the ’90s was better music. Everybody talked about something. You had great lyrical content there. And you really had some serious competition. You really had a lot of great artists and a nice variety of music. Even the fashion back then, I think people miss that. This newer, younger generation is into it. Most of my followers, honestly, are young kids. I’ve read their tweets where they say they were born in the wrong era. People love coming and being able to sing along with all the songs that they love and grew up listening to.

Speaking of young people, you have a son who is about 20. What kind of musical tastes have you passed on to him?

When I had my son, it was very important to me to expose him to all different types of music, even contemporary jazz. I wanted him to be a very well-rounded kind of person—when it comes to a lot of things, but definitely music. I love that one of his favorite groups is Kiss. He’s so well-rounded, it’s ridiculous. He even introduced me to a few bands from back in those days that I didn’t even listen to. He definitely has the music gene. It’s definitely in his blood, from me being his mom and Dallas [Austin, music producer] being his father. He really does have the gift—he can sing, he produces, he writes. And he plays the drums! He’s an awesome young man, I’m so proud of him.

If you’re listening for enjoyment only, what are your go-to favorite albums?

I love Seal. I mean, he is one of my all-time favorites. That voice is just mesmerizing… my husband, of course, Michael Jackson [laughs]—that’s my baby. I love him so much, he is greatly missed. I don’t think there’s a Michael Jackson song I don’t like. But “Human Nature” is definitely my favorite. It just makes me feel really happy. And I love some of the ’80s stuff like Duran Duran. Boy! I like to listen to that when I’m in my car and I’m just jammin.’ I can only imagine what the person next to me thinks when they pull up to that red light and look over and see me singing, ’cause I’m so into it! I love Robin Thicke’s second album; there’s so many great songs on that album that I hate didn’t get released.

TLC was really blunt about sex and sexuality. Do you think in the time since your first album came out, that the image of the empowered woman has changed?

I think that there’s a combination of things going on here. ’Cause we’re all about women and empowerment. It still takes a little bit more work from women, period, than it does from men. I do believe that we knocked down some doors for not just women in the music industry, but in everyday life. Having that self-esteem and believing in yourself and knowing that you’re amazing and can do whatever you want to do. The downside, right now, I feel is—in the world, not just in the music industry—being promiscuous is glorified. It’s funny because [T-Boz] always says “Hoes are winnin’ these days.” [laughs]

You guys have said that you will never replace Left Eye. You’re touring and recording as a duo now. How did your recording and creative process change?

Losing a sister is devastating. It is something that we’ll never get over 100 percent, ever. We still love her and miss her dearly. After she first passed away, doing shows and stuff was the most difficult because that was when it was really real, like “Oh my god she’s not here on this stage with us.” It’s been many years since she’s passed, and we’ve been touring, so it’s our new normal. We’re used to it now. When we perform now, it is a celebration of her in this group. Her legacy will live on forever through us. We know she would want us to continue on, and we think she’d be very proud.

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