Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Before TLC plays St. Petersburg, Chilli talks Ed Sheeran, Zora Neale Hurston and life after Left Eye

Picture it: Grammy night, 2018. Ed Sheeran walks out to perform his smash single Shape of You, nominated for several awards. Midway through, the song morphs into the two-decade-old hit that sort of inspired it, so much so that Sheeran decided to share Shape of You's authorship with its songwriters.

Out walk the women who sang the song, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, as Shape of You melts into TLC's No Scrubs.

Cool idea, right? Wouldn't that be a great Grammy moment?

For her part, Chilli's on board. There's just one problem she has with the Shape of You/No Scrubs connection.

"I didn't think it sounded anything like No Scrubs," she said with a laugh, by phone from her home in Atlanta. "I listened to it over and over again, and I sing it all the time, and I'm just like, I don't hear it! I think Ed should have reached out to me first and been like, 'Yo, what do you guys think?' before he wrote that check! That was nice of him to do, but I promise you, for the life of me, I can't hear it."

Sheeran may simply have been covering his freckly keister by sharing songwriting credit for his biggest hit to date, but that takes nothing away from whatever influence the chart-topping pop trio may have had on his music. Twenty-five years after TLC's debut album Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip, T-Boz and Chilli are as busy as they've been since the 2002 death of bandmate Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, releasing their final studio album in June and embarking on a series of '90s nostalgia tours, including one that hits Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg on Sept. 10.

"We're always nervous right before a show, always, and still, once we're on that stage, that energy from the crowd really gets us pumped," Chilli said. "We're very blessed to be in the position to still have longevity, that people still want to hear your songs and are even interested in new music, and want new music from you, which is what we've given them,"

Thanks to a string of Top 10 singles between 1992 and 1997 — Creep, Red Light Special, Waterfalls, No Scrubs, Unpretty — TLC was one of the biggest pop and R&B bands on the planet, their popularity helping usher in the tween-pop and girl- and boy-band boom of the late '90s. Openers on their 1999-2000 FanMail Tour included Destiny's Child and Christina Aguilera.

But all of it came with enough baggage to fill several documentaries and biopics — which were, in fact, eventually filmed. There were intraband feuds, a bout with Chapter 11 bankruptcy, serious illnesses and loads of relationship drama. It all came to a head in 2002 when Left Eye, the group's rapper and most combustible personality, was killed in a car accident in Honduras.

"When it happens, you're just discombobulated," Chilli said. "You can't think. All you're doing is hurting. And it's just pain. Pain, pain, pain and nothing else for a while. Then you try to get your thoughts together when the pain subsides a little and you can think. But until that happens, you can't think clearly."

Left Eye's death ground TLC to a halt. Chilli and T-Boz made joint appearances and even a few performances, but also did their own thing. Both took acting and reality show gigs, with Chilli's resume including VH1's celebreality series What Chilli Wants.

"We were just broken in ways that you can't even imagine," Chilli said. "Those times were the hardest times. Through the years, as time has gone on, time does heal, but you're never over something like that 100 percent. It's impossible."

Compared to the rest of their career, TLC's last couple of years have seemed like a breeze. In 2015 they announced they would crowdfund their final studio album on Kickstarter, and they embarked on a tour with New Kids on the Block and Nelly. T-Boz and Chilli both kept acting, with Chilli appearing as Zora Neale Hurston in next month's Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall. It's a small role, but one she describes as "comedic" and "like a firecracker."

"Zora Neale Hurston is one of my mom's favorite writers," she said. "She has her books and everything. She helped me understand who she was as a writer, and then her connection with Langston Hughes, which I didn't know, so it was some history learning right there for me."

TLC's new tour "feels more like a celebration for us, just that we're able to continue this legacy, and (Left Eye's) legacy lives on through us forever, as long as we're performing and alive," she said. (Asked if TLC would ever cede Left Eye's vocals to another rapper, she bristled: "You're going to hear Lisa's voice. It's her, doing her own stuff. We wouldn't have anybody else do that.")

To Chilli, it matters not only that artists like Ed Sheeran are paying homage to TLC's work by crediting No Scrubs' songwriters (if not TLC themselves) on Shape of You. It's meaningful that she's seeing young fans, kids who weren't even born when CrazySexyCool or FanMail came out, coming to shows with all TLC's classic dance moves memorized.

"This last show we had, it was three kids under the age of 9, and they were paying homage to Left Eye with their hairstyles and everything. I promise you, they knew every word to all of our songs," she said. "It almost brought tears to my eyes. It was like, What? This is crazy! It's just such a blessing that our music can resonate like that with anybody. As an artist, that's the stuff you pray for."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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