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TLC’s Chilli on Kickstarting a Comeback and Making Music in the Age of Twitter

8 minute read

Per their own advice, TLC isn’t chasing waterfalls. They’re sticking to what they’re used to, this time in the form of a new self-titled album. It’s the first new work that the group’s remaining two members, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, have released in 15 years; their last album, 3D, was released just months after third member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes died in a car accident in 2002. Since then, the duo has kept busy, performing in overseas tours and dabbling in everything from reality television (What Chilli Wants and Totally T-Boz) to retail (Chilli has a handbag line, while T-Boz had a boutique).

But some things never change. Just as “No Scrubs” remains a crowd favorite, so too have TLC’s feel-good messages of empowerment and self-confidence carried through to their latest work. Add to the mix their irrepressibly groovy tunes, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. They’ll soon be hitting the stage as headliners for their “I Love the 90s: The Party Continues” tour. And although this may be their last official album, it’s not the end of TLC. Their goal? A Las Vegas residency, much like fellow icons of the 1990s and 2000s Celine Dion, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez.

In the run-up to the new album’s release on June 30, TIME chatted with Chilli — who will appear on the big screen this fall as Zora Neale Hurston in the historical drama Marshallabout the group’s enduring sound and why this album, produced independently with the help of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, matters now.

TIME: Instead of going with a record label, you decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund this album. How did that happen?

Chilli: We loved the fact that we could have freedom of recording the record the way we wanted to, and the fact that we could involve our fans and get their input, coming up with cool rewards for them. When people started contributing, and then some of our peers did too — like Katy Perry, New Kids on the Block, Bette Midler — that was really something when I heard about her! I was like, “What?!” It’s just unbelievable, she’s so legendary. You never know who likes your music, you know what I mean? It really ignited that fire in us to go in and make a great album.

What was important to you in the process of making these songs? What did you want to say in this album?

We wanted to be able to make songs that are very relevant to what’s going on today, but that could also fit into the catalogue that we have. So talking about what’s going on, like cyberbullying and that kind of stuff, is important to us. Like on the song “Haters.”

That track follows in the legacy of messages that TLC has always put out; much of your music is about female empowerment and confidence. Do you think the reception of that message has changed over the years? Is it more important now?

It’s going to be important forever. But I think it’s even more important right now, because when we first came out, you didn’t have social media. There was no Instagram or anything like that where people could hide behind the device and say the nastiest things to you. I want everybody to know that I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, if you’re popular or not: we all have haters. But you have to be resilient. You have to not allow them to have the power over you where you start believing the things they say. That’s why we wanted to put out a song like that.

What’s changed musically for you?

We have a formula that we figured out a long time ago that works for us in our group, and we don’t stray away from that formula. That formula is a great track, great lyrical content. And once you hear our voices, you know it’s a TLC record.

You also have Snoop Dogg featured on this album on your single “Way Back.” What was it like working with him?

We’ve known each other forever, and [have] always been fans of each other’s work. When we finished “Way Back,” all we could hear was Snoop on that record. We just hoped that he was gonna be excited and wanted to be a part of it, and thank goodness he did. He was so professional. He was like, “Whatever y’all need, I love y’all.” We were like, “Wow, that was amazing.”

You’ve said this will be your last album together. Is that true?

We started out saying, “Let’s do this one more time.” We felt really good about it with the support of our fans. Things are so different now [in the business]. But it’s not the end of TLC! Our plan and goal is to secure a residency in Las Vegas.

What’s touring now like, compared to in the past?

The only difference now is that we get to perform our new songs like “Way Back” and new, fun choreography. Because we dance; we get down on stage. We love that stage. We always try to make up a new signature dance for our songs. And we have some challenges: we ask people to put up a video of them doing the dance with a hashtag. It’s been fun to see.

You seem to have really taken to social media; there was a recent Twitter exchange about the lyrics on “Waterfalls” and “No Scrubs” that got written up for your comeback. How often do you respond to fans?

We’ve always been the type of group where we’re very touchable and approachable. When I’m on Twitter, we just talk to people. I call all my Twitter followers my “Twitter babies.” It’s nice to engage with the people that support you so much.

Besides touring internationally, you’ve had some attempts at solo albums. What happened?

When we first got solo deals — all three of us had a solo deal — I was like, we gotta make another TLC record. And I remember reaching out to the girls. That’s how TLC 3D happened [in 2002]. Had I not made that phone call, we would not have had that record. Fanmail [in 1999] would have been our last. After that, the industry really started to change. I don’t come from that world, and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to fit into it at that time. That’s when I had my TV show, What Chilli Wants. That was interesting [laughs].

When you look at the rising stars of tomorrow, do you see anyone that you’re excited about?

When I look at groups, especially girl groups, I would hope that if we are an inspiration, it’s just an inspiration. You should always try to be yourselves, and not anybody else. The person who really sticks out to me so much is Bruno Mars. He’s such a superstar. It’s refreshing to see, because honestly his music is old-school music. It’s still good music. And that’s what you need.

Do you have a favorite track off the new album?

We have this song called “No Introduction;” it’s the first song on the album. It started out as an interlude. But the track was so incredible that I was like, “We gotta turn this into a song.” I love it because it’s breaking it down: we don’t need an introduction. I wouldn’t assume that everybody in the world knows who TLC is, but I think a lot of people do. We worked very hard to kick some doors down, not only for ourselves but for those behind us. And not just girl groups, but groups, period. So I like that one a lot.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com