Over 65 million records sold worldwide. Nine Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 hits. Five Grammy Awards. The numbers speak volumes when it comes to recounting the thunderous success of TLC, one of the world’s best-selling girl groups in history. The trio — comprising Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes — defined pop culture beginning in the mid-’90s with global hits like “Waterfalls” and “No Scrubs,” signature dance moves and, of course, their undeniable brand of cool. (CrazySexyCool, that is.)
But what’s truly buoyed the girl group to lasting success isn’t sales or awards, but their endlessly loyal fans — which, they say, is exactly why they’re now putting their fifth and final album in the hands of the public.
The group has officially launched a Kickstarter for one last record today, Jan. 19, a decision that TLC stresses was brought about solely due to popular demand. Although acquiring funding without the backing of a major record label might seem risky from afar — or perhaps just a worrying reflection of the band’s current financial status — TLC feels that the crowd-sourcing move is the natural next step in response to the current state of the music industry.
To be fair, developing an online partnership to reach fans worldwide isn’t a new concept. Fifteen years ago, TLC was one of the first major musical acts to partner with MP3.com to distribute a new song (“I Need That”) while promoting their 1999 FanMail Tour, back when the idea of a digital download was a curiosity at best. Fan participation is an established move for them too: inside the liner notes of the tour’s namesake record, FanMail, are the names of hundreds of fans who’d submitted fan letters to the group over the years.
This time, though, the group has found newer, more hands-on ways to include fans in the process, from interactive polls that will help determine which songs should be released to a collection of incentives, ranging from VIP tickets to personalized voicemails to classic outfits and memorabilia from the TLC collection.
In the years since the death of founding member Lisa Lopes in 2002, the duo has solely delivered a string of greatest-hits compilations. This year, however, T-Boz and Chilli are committed to getting back into the booth to record one last TLC studio album, currently due for release at the end of 2015.
TIME spoke with Chilli about the Kickstarter campaign, the group’s ongoing relationship with their fans, the music they’re working on (including a Lady Gaga collaboration) and their hope to further extend the legacy of TLC.
TIME: This is billed as the final TLC album. Who decided that this would be the last album, and why?
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas: It was our decision. We wanted to add to our catalog. We’ve been so blessed to have a great catalog, and songs that people love and want to hear. And with all of the requests from our fans wanting new stuff, it was like, “O.K., let’s do this one more time.”
So it was really because of the fans?
Definitely. I mean, it was our decision to do that one last album. This is something that they want. We definitely always feel passionate about what we do. We love performing, so it’s not like somebody’s dragging us out, like “Come on and do this!” and we didn’t want to do it! [Laughs.] We really want to do it, but they put the icing on top by wanting it from us.
You’re one of the top-selling girl groups in history. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t a major label record. Why isn’t it?
We wanted to continue to stay outside the box. Fifteen years ago, we were really one of the first groups to work with MP3s, as far as a digital record. That was a big deal, and I remember people couldn’t believe we had done something like that successfully. Working with Kickstarter and all of the wonderful things that they’ve done, and their excitement [about] wanting to work with us — you definitely don’t want to work with someone who’s not excited about your project because they’re not going to put their heart, sweat and soul into it like we’re going to do. We knew we wanted to take that avenue. Doing that with them allows us to involve our fans a lot more than what we’ve done in the past. It’s not so new for us, but it’s newer for them, and newer for us to have them so involved. It’s different and exciting.
As a fan of TLC, what would the benefit be of backing the project?
There’s a bajillion. [Laughs.] We had fun coming up with so many ideas. We’re definitely going to do a throwback to FanMail, when we listed so many fans’ names inside of the CD. Remember that? We want to do that again. Because believe it or not, we still get fan mail! With social media, you can send a direct message, or say whatever you want to say to artists. But we still get fan mail, and it’s so amazing to see. Whoever makes a pledge of $5 or more will be able to participate in choosing a song that will have a certain type of remix. We’re hoping that there will be a lot of people that make the pledge. So to kind of narrow it down, we’ll take a poll and have five songs, and if the majority chooses Song 3, that’ll be the song that we choose — that they chose — to do a remix. They’re really, really going to be involved in helping us make this album.
Do you have a promotional strategy beyond Kickstarter to get the music out?
As of right now, what we’re concentrating on is the creative side. We definitely have ideas as far as how we want to get it out there as far as promotion. The fans will be involved in that as well.
Do you worry at all from an outsider standpoint about the perception of going from a label deal to Kickstarter? Were you concerned at all about that?
Not at all. This is so TLC. It goes back to that thing I said: out of the box. That thing we did with MP3.com. It feels more natural to go this way, especially at this point in our career and the way everything is digitally, and how you’re able to connect with your fans a lot easier because of social media. It gives us almost 100% creative control, whereas we didn’t have that much [before]. We had creative control, but it was more constricting.
Because the fans get to say what’s going on the album.
Exactly. We like that way better. [Laughs.]
For years, we’ve heard about rumored recordings — everything from producer Dallas Austin, who produced “Creep” and “Unpretty,” to a song with Lady Gaga. Are those songs that will be considered for the album, or are you starting entirely fresh?
The idea is to start entirely fresh, but we won’t say no to a song that our fans listen to and say, ‘We love it, and we want that record on the album!’ We will definitely take that into consideration. The song that we did with Dallas that Lady Gaga did originally is a great song. It turned out really good. I don’t know. We definitely won’t throw it away.
So the Gaga song is up for consideration for the album?
Definitely. She’s so amazing. We love her. It’s funny because when she first met Tionne [T-Boz], she started crying, and Tionne’s daughter [Chase] was with her — you know, our kids are so used to us, we’re like moms. So when Chase saw Lady Gaga, who she loved so much, crying over her mom, she went, ‘Wow, my mom is really cool!’ [Laughs.] That was such a neat moment. And to hear [Gaga] say that our song “Waterfalls” really helped her to be more confident about herself — both of us aren’t the norm, and that’s great! That’s what makes you special.
You said you’re starting fresh. What’s the subject matter and the sound that you’re exploring?
The best way that we work is going in the studio with the producer and writers and just doing it all from scratch. I remember when we were in the studio with Dallas, he would have a beat going and Lisa and I, if it really got you moving, we would jump up and start dancing and kind of putting a routine together on the spot, which would motivate him even more to kind of keep going because he was watching us. That’s kind of like how we work. We really do build our songs from the ground up. It’s rare that we’ve heard songs that were already put together, that we were like, “O.K., that’s great, we’re going to put our own thing on it.” So we don’t want to mess up that formula. We want to keep it going just like that.
That’s how we create what we call the TLC sound. It’s not necessarily a track. What makes it the TLC sound is Tionne’s voice and my voice together. I think we could do any record in the world. I think we could do a country record. [Laughs.] We touched on that a little bit on FanMail! We did “Come On Down” with Diane Warren. It has that real kind of country feel to it. I had so much fun doing that record.
So basically, you’re saying TLC is going country on this next album.
[Laughs.] We don’t want to box ourselves within any type of genre, you know? Whatever feels good, if it moves us and we like it, we get on it and make it our own. That’s what we do.
Are you working with specific producers? Or are you open to any producers?
There are a lot of the producers we worked with in the past, like Dallas, that we want to be on this project. So, we’re hoping we’ll be able to get him onboard.
Right now, we’re currently putting together our team. We’re going to make that announcement as soon as we get our team together, and it’s looking really good. To your other point about any producer, it’s funny because, you don’t always have that chemistry with everybody. You know what I mean?
You’re not always going to vibe in the studio.
For example, I think that Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis make the best music ever.
You know what I’m saying? Not that they don’t do great music with other people too, because they do, but something is just a little bit more special about that collaboration between those three.
For us, it’s the same thing. We can be in the studio with the hottest producer, but we might not be able to create any magic! It’s not about the hottest. It’s about who we feel we have that connection with, and that’s who we’re going to be working with. We want great product. Trust me, if we don’t give it to them, they’re going to let us know.
Oh, they’re going to let you know.
[Laughs.] And they won’t put any sugar on it! They’re gonna give it to us.
Looking back on the legacy as a whole, is there any song that you would bring back from the discography and make a single today?
You know, it would have to be two songs actually: “Unpretty,” mainly because young girls are always going to have those self-esteem issues, unfortunately. It’s a part of growing up. Guys have it too. I don’t think we can have enough of songs like that to help people.
And “No Scrubs,” sure — because the scrub’s never going to go away. And I think for a little while, we had it under control because no guys in America wanted to ride on the passenger side and talk to a girl. [Laughs.] They’d rather ride in the backseat.
You ruined the passenger side for so many people.
[Laughs.] I know, I know! We would bring that one back as well.
And you’re heading out on the road?
Yes, it’s a U.S. tour. This is our first big U.S. tour in a thousand years! [Laughs.] This is a huge deal for us. We toured Australia this past summer, then to Japan. We go there a lot. We’ve hit those areas and definitely going to continue to do so, but we haven’t been in the U.S. a lot.
Beyond this album, what’s the future of TLC?
I see us, in my mind, on stage. That’s what I see: Performing, doing what we love to do and giving our fans all that they want. Good songs. Great entertainment. And some dance moves so they can go home and learn the routines. Usually, when we’re performing “What About Your Friends” or “Waterfalls” comes on, they all know the dance. It’s like a sea of TLC dancers in the audience! It’s so beautiful to see. I just love it so much.
We always say, like the movie, “TLC is MTB [Meant to Be].” We’re gonna be here forever. We want to create something so amazing with our fans through Kickstarter, so that there’s this new generation of fans. We have 8-year-olds who love our songs! It’s so crazy to me. I love it so much. We want every generation to know a little something about TLC.