Sometimes — even when you’re the best-selling girl group of all time — you just gotta manifest that ish. Such was the case when TLC went into the studio to make their game-changing debut, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip, which came out 30 years ago on February 25, 1992. The new jill swing classic — a masterful melange of funk (from the T, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins), hip-hop (from the L, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes) and R&B (from the C, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas) — was one of those albums that came straight outta nowhere, like nothing you’d ever heard (or seen) before.
But these three ladies with attitude weren’t even sure what they should sound like yet when they went into the studio. “We didn’t have a vision at first,” says T-Boz, 51, of the album that would eventually go quadruple platinum. “It was more so trying to figure out what we were gonna be once we got in there.”
However, they already had their trendsetting style down, and through the process they trusted that the music would be — like the line from their debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” said — “on the TLC tip.”
“The one thing I think was apparent was, you know, our style, you know what I mean?” says Chilli, 50. “We had our baggy clothes, like prissy tomboys, and kind of went from there, you know?”
Where they went was all the way up with the hit singles “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “Baby-Baby-Baby” and “What About Your Friends” and a murderer’s row of producers, including Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Marley Marl. Not to mention L.A. Reid and Babyface, who just so happened to be the founders of their Atlanta-based label, LaFace Records. And they had to make every single song count. “Being that it was the first album, we didn’t have, like, the second, third or fourth time to switch out songs. ‘I don’t like this one.’ Whatever we recorded, went on,” says T-Boz.
On the TLC Tip was jump-started with the Austin-produced “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” which was released in November 1991 and crashed the Top 10. “Sampling records was getting big, and we had tons of samples on this track,” says Chilli of the song, which included samples from James Brown (“Escapism”), Kool & the Gang (“Jungle Boogie”), and Sly & the Family Stone (“I Want to Take You Higher”). “When Dallas was putting all that stuff together, we would be off on the side, you know, dancing making routines or whatever. And it was just like a vibe; it was almost like he kind of knew then, ‘Yeah, this is good’ because we were dancing to it.”
But despite the similar titles, the song had nothing to do with the Temptations classic, 1966’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” “That’s funny, I guess you think of that, because that was such a big song for the Temptations, and I love the Temps,” says T-Boz. “But that was not something we were really doing on purpose. It was more like trying to figure out our own thing, honestly.”
A big part of their group statement came in the “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” video which famously saw the trio rocking condoms. That was the stroke of brilliance from the group’s resident rapper Left Eye, who died in a car crash in 2002. “She was at my house, and she went back in the house to get something. And it wasn’t a safety pin and a condom, but a safety pin and a condom was on the dresser for some reason,” says Chilli. “And she grabbed it. And she was just like, ‘This is gonna be how we promote safe sex.’”
Left Eye’s inspired idea set off TLC repping for female sexual empowerment. “I think we stumbled upon that accidentally and then really made something out of it,” said T-Boz. “Because none of us had a problem about Lisa’s rap, which was actually about a real situation about breaking the waterbed with her boyfriend. Those are true lyrics, you know what I’m saying? So when Lisa came up to Chilli one day with a condom on her face, it just kind of made sense. We all were on board. Nobody even thought a second thought about that. It was just us naturally being who we are and being outspoken. People were calling us feminists too, and it wasn’t that we were trying to be that either.”
For the album’s second single, “Baby-Baby-Baby,” TLC got schooled in the ways of smoothed-out R&B from Babyface. “Working with Dallas was one thing and Jermaine was one thing, because they were still new and fresh in the business,” says Chilli. “But Babyface had been around for a long time. And he really knows how to vocally produce you. He’ll have you doing stuff you didn’t even know you could do. He was the best teacher.” And the ladies learned well, resulting in another Top 10 hit.
They kept that Top 10 streak going with the third single, “What About Your Friends,” another Austin-produced joint. “We requested Dallas before we even started, because we grew up around the same hood, and I had known him since I was 14-15 years old,” said T-Boz of the producer who would go on to date Chilli. “So, you know, at the time we were in good hands.”
“What About Your Friends” reminded T-Boz of the 1972 O’Jays classic “Back Stabbers.” And TLC actually shot two videos for the song. “It’s like the two were combined to make the one,” says Chilli. “When you see the video, you can’t really tell, but we can. The first time we shot it, it was just too dark, you know, and it needed to be brightened with more colors and all of that. But you know, we got the job done and did what we had to do. We weren’t, like, complaining or nothing like that. You’re just like, ‘I can’t believe I’m living out my dream.’ The complaints didn’t start yet.”
But if there was one song on Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip that captured their whole vibe, it was “Hat 2 Da Back.” “I think ‘Hat 2 Da Back’ was the essence of us, honestly. That was the glue between ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,’ ‘Baby-Baby-Baby’ and ‘What About Your Friends’ ” says T-Boz. “If you were to describe TLC to this day and how we came on the scene — how we dressed, everything — you’d pick that song. We made it possible for all the prissy tomboys to still be sexy in baggy clothes … To become the best-selling girl group of all time with our clothes on, I think we have a lot to stand on as far as that’s concerned. I think that’s something we should be very proud of.”
And they are still feeling themselves — and all of the love — when they perform those songs in concert 30 years later. “I feel like it is such a blessing to be able to do it,” says Chilli. “And it’s even more of a blessing to be able to look out in the crowd and see the excitement — like, people are really into it. It’s amazing that the songs still stand up. When you hear the music, it’s like you automatically go down some memory lane as to where you were, where you were in college, hanging out with your friends or whatever it is that you were doing. You instantly go there, and we can see because we feel it. We feel that energy.”