TLC, Life without Left Eye (interview)

It’s a rainy October day in Japan. And a downtown subway station bustles with fashionable teenagers. One young woman sports a fire-red kimono with knee-high boots. Her friend wears a purple full-body dress over jeans.

The whole scene speaks with command and color. Giant lettered billboards point commuters toward various destinations. Orange-and-white, orblike lanterns hang from the ceiling. And pictures of cartoon characters are stuck to walls like reward posters for animated missing persons.

It looks like the Japan of movies or dreams. But there’s something a bit off. Maybe it’s the Southern Company building in the near distance or, better yet, the sign across the street, revealing that this is actually just Atlanta’s Civic Center MARTA station in Tokyo drag.

Welcome to the set of TLC’s new video, “Girl Talk.” The song comes from the album “3D,” out Tuesday. This collection marks the group’s first release since the death of member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in April. And, according to remaining TLC-ers Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, 32, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, 31, it signals the end of an era: There will be no more new albums from the group, and no tours.

“It’ll never happen without Lisa,” Watkins says. “It’s either TLC or nothing.”

Backstage, in the parking lot behind the station, it looks like an Army outpost or a refugee camp. There are six trailers, several tents and a lunch truck, where extras line up for beef tenderloin with white wine mushroom sauce and teriyaki swordfish medallions.

The video shoot is a family affair. Watkins’ pigtailed daughter, 2-year-old Chase, wobbles about. And as her husband, D’Mon Rolison, also known as rapper Mack 10, stands near the makeup trailer in a puffy black coat, Watkins comes up to him, grabs him from behind and plants three fast kisses on his mouth.

Nearby, Thomas’ 5-year-old son, Tron, is staring perilously down the steep steps of a trailer. But she scoops him up with the effortlessness she brings to a tricky dance move.

Earlier, when Thomas was filming a choreographed sequence in a parking lot at Spring and Alexander streets, Tron watched, clapping, from the sidelines. Watkins sat near the director’s chair, looking at a TV monitor. “Work, girl!” she yelled, encouraging Thomas on.

This is the kind of camaraderie that has helped the pair through the difficult task of finishing an album and now taping a video without one of TLC’s founding members. And it’s a source of strength they’ll draw on as they continue promoting the project, which almost always entails talking about the loss of Lopes.

“It’s been so tough for them,” says Bill Diggins, their manager. “This is the most nervous I’ve ever seen them. They want so badly for this album to be successful. They want to make Lisa proud of them.”

At a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite in Buckhead, Thomas and Watkins are playing the new album. Thomas watches listeners closely, as if she’s letting them handle a treasured heirloom or a baby chick.

And Watkins will later stop in midconversation, cock her neck as if she’s about to curse somebody out, and snap into a lyric. “Playa, you don’t even dance — what’s up with you,” she sings, in a bit from “Hands Up,” a bitter kiss-off penned by longtime collaborators Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Daryl Simmons. “Hands,” she explains, was inspired by actual events. One night Watkins was out at Charles Disco, a now-defunct Westside Atlanta hot spot, when she eyed her then-boyfriend grinding against some other woman. “I was like, ‘Oh-no-the-hell-he-ain’t,’ ” she says. “See, these TLC songs are for real.”

Indeed, the truthfulness of TLC’s songs is one of the main reasons the trio has moved more than 21 million albums, becoming the biggest-selling female group in history. Formed in Atlanta, TLC jolted the music industry with hits that took a spirited approach to weighty issues. Their 1992 song “What About Your Friends” dealt with intimacy and betrayal; 1995’s “Waterfalls” addressed street violence and AIDS; and 1999’s “Unpretty” tackled the effects of negative body image.

“They’ve always had strong messages,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, president of TLC’s record label, Arista. “They were always coming from a very strong point of view, whether it was a social point of view, a relationship point of view or a strong female point of view.”

The trio also stood out because it embraced the burgeoning sound of early-’90s hip-hop culture, by including a rapper — Lopes — in its ranks.

The new album, “3D,” thumps, sizzles and thrills with the same formula that drives TLC’s best work. “Girl Talk” is a sassy strut. “3D” pumps with the unmistakable rhythms of black marching bands. “Dirty” boasts a schoolyard playground bounce. And “In Your Arms Tonight” is a Prince-like flirtation.

“Some people thought we were going to put out a sad album, but why would we?” Watkins asks. “Lisa wasn’t a sad girl. She was a party girl, so we’ve got a party album. That is her spirit, and that’s how you keep it alive.”

The group had completed more than half the album before Lopes’ death. She even came up with its title, as she had with their previous releases: 1992’s “Ooooooohhh . . . on the TLC Tip,” 1994’s “CrazySexyCool” and 1999’s “Fan Mail.” But unlike in the past, when tensions within the group had threatened to rip it apart, the “3D” recording sessions proceeded uncommonly smoothly. Manager Diggins describes many days in the studio where Watkins and Thomas recorded vocals together while Lopes sat in a candlelit room writing raps.

Lopes — who in 2000 had challenged her groupmates to a battle of the solo albums — seemed remarkably content. She had just finished recording her solo album, “Supernova,” which let her give voice to some deeply personal matters that she couldn’t express in TLC. This had a freeing effect on her, recommitting her to the group.

After Lopes died in an auto crash in Honduras, Watkins and Thomas were naturally more focused on mourning than recording. But a hasty decision by their record company forced them back into the studio. According to Watkins and Thomas, Arista wanted to rush out an expanded “greatest hits” project. The package would have included many of the tracks the trio recorded before Lopes’ death, effectively ending any chance of ever completing the “3D” album as originally intended.

“It would have destroyed everything that the three of us had been working on as a group,” Thomas says.

“The girls thought . . . their career would be over,” says record producer Dallas Austin, who has worked on every TLC album. “They said, ‘Don’t just kill us off like that.’ ”

For the company’s part, Reid disputes those claims: “We wanted a studio album, but we didn’t know how motivated TLC would be. So at that point we discussed a greatest hits album. But we always had conversations about a studio album, and that was always our first choice.”

So Thomas and Watkins hurried back into the studio less than a month after Lopes’ death. “We weren’t even given the chance to grieve over our sister,” Thomas says.

In order to protect their emotions, they established one firm ground rule: All TV sets had to be turned off, so they wouldn’t see Lopes’ oft-displayed image.

“We were kinda in a denial, hoping she was in Honduras or she was working on one of her rap songs in California with Suge,” Watkins says, referring to Suge Knight, owner of Tha Row Records.

“I saw that it was hard for Rozonda,” says rhythm-and-blues singer Usher, who’s dating Thomas. “[It was] the worst. But to reach back in and find the strength to make Lisa proud and continue the legacy of making beautiful music is just like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Other problems affected the recording, too. Thomas and producer Austin, the father of her son, had recently ended a 10-year relationship. And here they were working together in the close confines of a recording studio.

“The breakup was like going through a divorce,” recalls Thomas. “And divorces aren’t nice. They’re very ugly, especially when you have a child involved. Once we started working, it was very difficult for the two of us. It was driving me bananas. He had to deal with the fact that we weren’t together and that I got on with my life. Then it got to a point where I didn’t even want to be in the studio and work. But we found a happy medium. I was like, ‘I’ll come to the studio and record, but he can’t cut my vocals.’ And he was cool with this.”

“It pretty much sucked, to tell you the truth,” Austin says. “I would never do it again.”

According to some producers, Watkins’ health also slowed work on the album. Since birth, she has suffered from sickle cell anemia, a hereditary blood disease that, during flare-ups, causes blinding pain and often necessitates hospitalization. This time, Austin says, Watkins’ illness seemed more prolonged.

“At first it was like she was just having one of her regular things,” he says. “Because sometimes she would go in the hospital and then come back out in a week or so. But this thing just kept on going and going and going and going and going. She was in the hospital for a while, and that was just dampening my spirit because that’s my buddy.”

Watkins, however, says her hospitalization was typical. “Sickle cell is my usual thing,” she explains. “It ain’t nothing. No big deal. I just have ups and downs. But I have a lot of good days, more good than bad. So I’m blessed.”

Rewind to Aug. 29, 2002. It’s the night of the MTV Music Video Awards. And Thomas and Watkins feel more anxious than they’ve ever been before an appearance. This will mark their first time before an audience since Lopes’ death.

“We were so nervous, like stomach hurting and everything,” Thomas remembers. “We knew we couldn’t turn back. We had to go up in front of all of these people as just the two of us and talk about the loss of our sister.”

They wear black dresses customized with pictures of Lopes’ signature left eye. And, while walking onstage to a standing ovation, they hold hands.

“You never think your personal life is going to become a part of your job,” Watkins says. “When we hit that stage, we weren’t getting applause for something we had accomplished or an award we won. People were standing up because we lost Lisa. That wasn’t a good feeling.”

Two months have passed since that awards show. But in many ways, a tougher chapter is just beginning. As the two go about promoting the album, there will be many more moments where they’re forced to bare their feelings about Lopes.

“The forthcoming weeks will be difficult for them,” Diggins acknowledges. “They’ll be doing more TV and dealing with fan reaction. But these girls are courageous.”

Once they’ve finished their commitments for the album, Thomas and Watkins will follow other pursuits. Thomas wants to record with Usher. “It’s going to be like Michael and Janet Jackson, but the ghetto version,” she predicts.

And Watkins plans to focus on penning songs for other acts. “There’s nothing better than sitting on your butt and writing,” she says. “That’s a great job.”

Whatever their future holds, “3D” will always serve as a fitting way to commemorate their years of dramatic highs and lows with Lopes. “They want to honor her [despite] squabbles they’ve had in the past,” says Kyle Young, Lopes’ uncle. “They sincerely love her and miss her, and the album will be the perfect tribute.”

The uptempo set is the musical equivalent of street memorials like getting a tattoo to commemorate a fallen comrade or pouring a little liquor on the ground for the brothers and sisters who aren’t here. It’s a way to incorporate the memory of the dead into everyday life.

The album “conjures all of these different emotions,” Usher says. “I’m sad, I’m inspired and I’m grooving all at the same time.”

“3D” is “something that Lisa wanted, and we had to let that live,” Thomas says. “T-Boz and Chilli had to bring this to life.”

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