Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and a team of producers are huddled behind a sprawling control console, bobbing their heads as they listen to a bass-heavy track off TLC’s first album in more than 10 years.
After the music played out, Watkins received notes on which harmonies needed another take. But it could wait. She shuffled down the hall to check on Rozanda “Chili” Thomas’ progress on “Pretty Little Scar,” a song Watkins penned for the mark left behind after a 2006 operation to remove a brain tumor.
Their yet-to-be-titled album is more than a decade in the making, and things are down to the wire: the two have to deliver new material to the label before an evening deadline.
“Some real pressure … right,” Watkins laughed before asking their manager, who is pacing, if the label is nervous.
TLC’s last album, 2002’s “3D,” came just months after the group lost its core -- the flamboyant Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes -- in a car accident. The trio was a dominant force in the 1990s, setting the tone for the era’s R&B with their feisty anthems, bold feminist statements and pure swagger.
But in the years since Lopes’ death, one question lingered: Could there be a TLC without Lopes?
“We’ll never forget her,” Thomas said weeks later in a dressing room at Hollywood Center Studios. “But we are at a point in our careers, and our lives now, where we are able to properly move on to the next phase of TLC.”
Tonight, VH1 will premiere “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” a biopic on the triumphs and tragedies of one of the most successful girl groups in history. Watkins and Thomas served as executive producers, working with director Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) and writer Kate Lanier (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Set It Off”).
A compilation of their work titled “20” hit stores last week and serves as the film’s soundtrack, and marks their 20-year anniversary.
“Timing is everything,” Watkins said of the biopic. “Before Lisa passed, it didn’t come together and I think that was for a reason. It wouldn’t have been the time to do it.”
“I always wanted to tell our story, from the very beginning,” Thomas added. “I felt like it was going to be a movie. I think people will now understand [us].”
Discovered in 1991 by Perri "Pebbles" Reid, TLC helped put Atlanta label LaFace -- founded by famed R&B producers Antonio "L.A." Reid (Perri Reid’s then-husband) and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds -- on the map.
Witty videos and eye-popping garb (e.g. condoms as accessories) turned heads, yet their slinky, empowering jams, such as “Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby, Baby, Baby,” kept the attention. But as the hits poured in, so did the drama.
The trio continuously deflected breakup rumors, Watkins was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia, Lopes torched her boyfriend’s mansion, label battles erupted and while their breakout sophomore record, “CrazySexyCool,” logged massive smashes (“Creep,” “Red Light Special,” “Waterfalls”) and millions of sales, the girls were broke and soon bankrupt.
“[People] remember certain headlines like the fire and the bankruptcy, or whatever,” Thomas said. “Now they are gonna know why all that stuff happened.”
“When I found out Kate Lanier was doing the script, I had to pull over and cry,” Thomas recalled. “It was too much. Lisa and I watched ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ together at the theater and I told her, whoever wrote this, has to write our movie. I really feel like Lisa had a hand in some of this because it was just too crazy.”
The film is bolstered by eerily pitch-perfect performances from Drew Sidora (“The Game”), rapper Lil Mama and Keke Palmer (“Akeelah & the Bee”), who portray Watkins, Lopes and Thomas, respectively.
Watkins and Thomas cast the actresses and taught them their signature dance moves. Album covers were re-created, as were those iconic videos and memorable interviews. And the actresses even donned some of the trio’s original costumes.