When the hip-hop and R&B supergroup TLC went on stage last summer at the MTV Video Music Awards, they got a standing ovation.
But only two members of the trio were there — Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas. They were there to pay a tearful tribute to their bandmate Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who was killed in a car crash in Honduras in April 2002, at the age of 30.
"It's the first time ever that I got a standing ovation and applause not for something I accomplished good in my life, but because it's my group member who passed away," remembers Watkins.
In their first interview since Lopes' death, Watkins and Thomas told Primetime's John Quinones that they will never replace Lopes. "Oh God, no," said Thomas. "We have diehard fans out there and I'm sure they would be very upset if we tried to replace Lisa."
Bringing Girl Power to Hip-Hop
The three were teenagers when they formed TLC in Atlanta in 1992. Lopes came from an impoverished and troubled home in Philadelphia, with little more than a talent for dancing and rapping. In Atlanta, she met Watkins and Thomas, who were also poor, and fatherless.
They were determined to make it big. "I always said that in the beginning. I was like — buck that, man — we're going to be the biggest girl group.... Ain't nobody like TLC," said Thomas.
In less than 10 years on the music scene, the trio would go on to sell more than 27 million records, making TLC the biggest-selling girl group of all time. They won five Grammys, five Soul Train awards and five MTV awards.
TLC's brand of self-confident, independent girl power made them pioneers of hip-hop for young women — and their music crossed over from the inner city streets they had come from to the suburbs.
Their music had a special resonance for girls, according to Emil Wilberkin, editor in chief at Vibe magazine. "They're fun, and they're sassy," he said. "They're kind of like the most popular girls, like you'd want to hang out with them or you'd want to date them."
Letting Men Have It
Their lyrics also had a raunchy streak that raised some eyebrows. On one song, "Girl Talk," they warned men that they had better perform well in the bedroom because otherwise their girlfriends would start "spreadin' the word" about "about the way a brother is hangin'."
On "No Scrubs," from 1999's FanMail, they took aim at men with bad pick-up lines and no money who live at home with their mothers. The trio used to make fun of men because they're "always bragging, just lying," according to Thomas.
"The reason why we got so much flak is because people thought we were underage, and we were adults," she continued, noting that male hip hop stars used similar language "all the time" without being criticized.
Left Eye Was the ‘Crazy’ One
The group's third album was called CrazySexyCool. Thomas was the sexy one and Watkins was cool, but the crazy one was definitely Lopes. The rapper of the group, she stood out from the beginning, with the trademark that gave her her nickname: a condom worn over her left eye to promote safe sex.
She also had the most tumultuous personal life, drinking heavily and sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time. In a drunken jealous rage in 1994, she burned down the $1.3 million mansion she shared with her boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre Rison.