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The story behind TLC's new album

This weekend, TLC drops a new album. They don’t have to do this. The pop group could have stopped in 2002, when they last released a record, and they would forever be locked into musical history.

Fifteen years ago, TLC was ubiquitous on radio airwaves and MTV’s playlist with hits like “Waterfalls,” “Unpretty,” “No Scrubs” and “Creep.”

But 15 years ago is also when everything changed — suddenly, tragically, and irreversibly. In April 2002, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes died in a car accident in Honduras. That left her group-mates Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas – and their manager, South Buffalo native Bill Diggins – heartbroken and stalled.

TLC’s career went on hold for several years, until the group re-emerged with a 2013 VH1 biopic, “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story.” Then came a comeback tour, which included a 2014 stop in Buffalo, and successful Kickstarter campaign – engineered by Diggins – that raised $430,000 to fund a new album.

From left, TLC member Tionne Watkins, manager Bill Diggins, and TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas take a portrait together. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

I’ve been following Diggins and TLC’s comeback story for the last two years, and will have more to come soon. In the meantime, I want to share this conversation I had with Tionne and Chilli about the new album, which is simply titled “TLC.”

This interview took place in Toronto last fall, with the understanding that I would hold it until closer to the album’s release:

This album has been a few years in the making. Walk me through your decision to do it.

Chilli: I can say that I’ve always been (ready). I was waiting on my sister to jump on board.

Tionne: It was me.

Chilli: It was T-Boz.

Tionne: I think my creativity was blocked ... just because of a lot of stuff going on in life. I think I came around. I just felt better about life. You know what it was? It was my son, honestly.

Tionne, who has a teenage daughter named Chase, adopted a baby boy, Chance, in the summer of 2015.

Tionne: He brought a lot of joy to my life. I think I was just down and depressed a little bit. It’s amazing what miracles and little angels and pure love around you can bring out. So I’ll probably credit Chance for that. We’re going to have to thank him when he grows up.

Chilli: Yeah. (laughs)

From left, TLC members Tionne Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas. (Jenna Schoenefeld for the Buffalo News)

In one sense, TLC’s impressive hit list is tough to top. This album could soar or fail, and TLC will forever remain an iconic pop group. Having little left to prove should lighten the pressure.

Right?

Tionne: I think it puts a lot of pressure, because they expect you to do it again, and it’s like, What if I can’t? It’s pressure. It’s hard. I get nervous as hell when it’s time for the songs to come out. I want everybody to embrace it or feel the way we feel about it.

In a separate conversation, TLC’s manager Diggins pointed out a line from “It’s Sunny:” “Don’t be trippin’ all over your fears.” He suggested the line has a special meaning to Tionne.

Tionne: Don’t sit there and wallow in woe-is-me stuff that happened in your past. Move forward. Face whatever you’re afraid of. Or deal with it.

She sings another line from the song: “First you cry, and then you laugh.”

Chilli: It’s easier said than done, obviously, but I think when you tell yourself something enough, you will start to mimic that.

A hallmark of TLC’s music is the mix of serious and fun messages. Among the most probing songs on the album is “American Gold." Among the lyrics: “I lost some friends, some friends that I didn’t want to … I’ve been in and out of the fire, battling for you … I bleed American gold, on this American soil.”

Chilli, left, and T-Boz of TLC were openers, alongside Nelly, for headliner NKOTB in 2015 in First Niagara Center. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

[PHOTOS: See more shots of TLC from their 2015 Buffalo show]

Tionne: It feels like we went up a big flight of stairs … and we just fell back down to the bottom ... We’re way past slavery days. We even had a black president. Things are supposed to be growing and better.

To see that we’re still stuck, with times like that when you feel unprotected because of the color of your skin, is not a good feeling. I’ve been racially profiled with cops having guns at my head for something I didn’t do.

Tionne said she has been profiled twice. As she begins describing the first incident, which took place while she was driving in her hometown of Atlanta, Chilli seems mildly surprised.

“When was this?” Chilli asked.

“This is when I was a teenager,” Tionne said. “My dad had just bought me my first car. They thought I was doing a gang initiation, but my light switch was broken. I was just trying to turn it back on. That’s when I guess people were turning off and on lights and shooting people. But my light thing was broke. They have five, six, seven cop cars. Twelve cops. I’m all spread out. I’m one little girl by myself.”

The second situation came years later, in 2000, when she was pregnant with her daughter Chase. TLC was among the biggest pop acts in the world. Tionne had finished work in the middle of the night and was driving when she says a cop followed her and pulled her over.

“He’s like, ‘Why are you in this neighborhood? Prove where you live? How can you afford to drive a Porsche, a car like this?’” she said. “It was just wrong. But I'm black, he's white, 3:30 in the morning. That’s where you look at yourself and say, ‘Do I respond like an --- or do I just suck it up and let him demean me, and just take the ‘L’ (loss)? So I took the ‘L.’”

Tionne makes clear: She’s not criticizing all cops. “Somebody has to stand up and weed out the bad ones,” she said, “because every one isn’t bad.”

Tionne (knocking on wood inside her dressing room): I didn’t get shot, but I could have. That could go wrong for anyone. I’m hoping that somehow with songs like “American Gold” there will be some kind of justice, and people just stop being so close-minded to where they’re like, “Oh, it’s not race.” It’s easy to say that when you’re not black and you haven’t experienced it.

Chilli: The purpose of a song like that is to hopefully bring people together... We’re not trying to divide anybody. There’s enough of that going on right now. It’s about coming back together.

Chilli, left, and T-Boz perform with TLC in 2015 at First Niagara Center. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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