In an era when being as bold as you wanna be can be good for business, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, one-rebellious-third of the iconic girl group TLC, might not have seemed like an anomaly among the Rihannas, Katys and Britneys. But back in the early 1990s, you were bound to arch a few eyebrows if your thing was to rock condoms as eye patches and spit verses like, “If I need it in the morning or the middle of the night, I ain’t too proud to beg.”
Philadelphia-born Lisa was just barely out of her teens in 1991, when she joined a trio under the direction of manager Perri “Pebbles” Reid, an R&B singer herself and then-wife of LaFace Records co-founder Antonio “LA” Reid. Left Eye, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas would release their debut album, Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip, the following year. The unlikely uniform was sagging baggy Guess jeans, hats to the back and oversize tees decorated with safe-sex latex, and the sound (mostly courtesy of producer Dallas Austin) was an in-your-face blend of pop, rap and R&B, with some New Jack Swing for good measure. Don’t forget that all that racy talk and those Trojan sunglasses were actually brave messages about the HIV-AIDS epidemic that would eventually give way to Left Eye’s poignant bars on songs like “Waterfalls.”
By the time of her death, 10 years ago today (April 25) at age 30, Left Eye and her groupmates had seemingly locked down every imaginable accolade. Four Grammys and just as many multiplatinum albums, a stream of chart-crushing singles (“No Scrubs,” “Creep”), not to mention the coveted rank of second-best-selling girl group of all time (the Spice Girls sit at #1). But before she was killed in a tragic car accident on a spiritually-minded trip to Honduras, the rapping third of TLC had also weathered her fair share of drama.
With the release in 1994 of the group’s diamond-selling Crazy Sexy Cool, the trio took the opportunity to play on fans’ perception of their particular personas: Georgia girl Chilli brought the sexy, gravelly voiced T-Boz played it cool and Left Eye was “the crazy one.” If these were supposed to be symbolic tags, Lopes perhaps had her own interpretation. Feeling underappreciated, she set fire to a pile of sneakers belonging to NFL boyfriend Andre Rison that ultimately left his Georgia home in flames and the singer in handcuffs. The couple only made more headlines as allegations of cheating and even domestic abuse dogged them. But who could forget the famous Vibe mag cover of the girls dressed in firemens’ clothes and meeting the media maelstrom head-on?
The fiercely independent Lopes took on her label — and then her bandmates. Never mind that 1999′s FanMail (email was kind of a big deal back then!), their third effort together, spawned massive hits like “Scrubs” and the poignant anthem “Unpretty,” Left Eye thought her contributions were being diminished. So she outright challenged Chilli and T-Boz to record solo albums that would be bundled and sold for fans to decide which of the three CDs was best. When that didn’t pan out, Left Eye simply moved on and recorded a solo effort, Supernova, which saw an overseas release but not much traction.
In the end, what fans wanted was TLC: beauty, brains, swagger, and each member exhibited all three qualities in her own way. In Left Eye, who told MTV News in a late-90s interview that she really admired “Cosby Show” actress Lisa Bonet (a.k.a. boho icon Denise Huxtable), girls, in particular, had a model for going your own way. Her indie streak was as pronounced as the football stripe painted beneath her eye, and that’s as much her legacy as the music.