By Brian Jelks - @briansjelks
April 25, 2019 marked the 17th anniversary of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes passing in a fatal car accident at the tender age of 30 in La Ceiba, Honduras. Left Eye was one-third of the R&B super group TLC, most known for being the highest selling American female band in history. She was perceived to be an enigma by the general public as she was considered the “crazy” member of TLC. One day she was writing introspective Billboard-topping hits that brought awareness to social issues like "Waterfalls," and the next she was burning down her ex-boyfriend’s home.
What I think people do not recognize Ms. Lopes enough for are her contributions to music and hip-hop culture as the visionary behind the creative direction of the group. Left Eye was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, and she used TLC as a vehicle to leave her mark in a variety of ways. In honor of Lopes' innovation and the group's tremendous success, it's clear that TLC should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, established in 1983 and located in Cleveland, Ohio was founded by a group of leading figures in the music industry including Atlantic Records cofounder, Ahmet Ertegun and Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. The Hall is dedicated to recognizing and archiving the history of the best known and most influential rock and roll artists of all time.
Lisa and her bandmates in TLC became eligible for the Hall after their debut record, Ooooooo…On the TLC Tip, turned 25 in 2017. The Hall could do itself a service in effort to shed its reputation for being bias to men by considering the band. Of the 159 total inductions in the Performers category in the Hall’s 33 year history, 24 have been a solo female performer or group.
As a female trio, TLC dominated American music sales, sparking great influence in the industry for a decade on many accounts. Their second record, 1994’s CrazySexyCool, became the first album by a female band to reach the RIAA’s Diamond status (ten million units sold). Their 1999-2000 North American jaunt in support of their third album, FanMail, became the highest grossing female concert tour ever up to that point and the accompanying concert film, TLC: Sold Out, became the highest grossing TV special in pay-per-view history at the time. Furthermore, “No Scrubs” became the first song to peak with over 140 million “audience interactions." In other words, in that era, "No Scrubs" became the most played song ever. The commercial success of TLC is obvious, but their cultural and societal influence has never received the recognition it deserves.
Much of that is because we tend to forget how much of an innovator Left Eye truly was.
Lisa was known for promoting safe sex, anti-drug, and HIV/AIDS prevention messages through her writing. She also promoted female empowerment in her song lyrics. In TLC’s debut album, Ooooooo...On the TLC Tip, Left Eye challenged the norm for mainstream subject matter of an all-female group. Lyrics throughout the album projected both obscene aggression and innocence, blending vulgarity with sweetness. The startling effect of these lyrics is on full display in the group’s breakthrough single, “Aint 2 Proud 2 Beg”.
Left Eye envisioned TLC to be the first all-female group to blend hip-hop, R&B, and funk. Chilli was the sweet soprano, T-Boz was the tangy contralto, and Left Eye brought the spicy rap lyrics. Dallas Austin, the band’s producer for the debut album, accomplished an extraordinary achievement when merging conflicting voices set to a huge, complex pattern of rhythms. Left Eye and Austin proved their sound had depth beyond initial impression in "What About Your Friends." This song’s vibrancy nearly jumped through speakers as their voices permeated color and boldness.
Lopes redefined what a female pop star should look like in the early 90s. She designed the outfits for the group and contributed significantly to the TLC’s image. The group’s signature style consisted of bright, baggy clothing resembling that of teenage boys. However, a large part of their posturing was to convince us that, beneath all their tough exterior and genderless appeal, they had young spirits that required tenderness.
Left Eye collaborated primarily with group member, T-Boz on developing TLC’s dance style. She was a tomboyish Army brat, but a naturally silly performer. T-Boz would frequent a local skating rink as a teenager in the College Park district of Atlanta where future producer Dallas Austin and his crew would come to dance. T-Boz was inspired by Austin’s crew as well as other local roller dancers such as her neighbor, Rico Wade. Rico Wade later became a member of prominent production team known as Organized Noize. T-Boz was an unapologetic tomboy as well and adopted much of Wade’s dress, attitude and choreography. Some of the group’s most famous moves were on full display as they stole the show at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, only to be topped by some guy named Michael Jackson.
The three ladies wanted their videos and art work to reflect vibrant ownership of sexuality without succumbing to industry standards. The album cover for Ooooooo…On the TLC Tip promoted femininity and safe sex while group members were fully clothed and in non-form fitting attire. It was Lisa’s idea to place condoms all over their clothes while the band was wrapped in bright colors jumping like kids in a bounce house.
The image of the album cover was a perfect match for the music being fun with a message of sexual responsibility. The debut of Left Eye left the mainstream with a peek into her disturbing and perverse, yet thoughtful sexuality.
Left Eye was a cultural, artistic and musical innovator far beyond her time and nothing short of a creative genius. She was one-third of the highest selling American female band of all time. It is a travesty that she is not more openly and frequently recognized as one of the most influential artists in popular culture. Some of the most notable artists of the past decade that have been influenced by Ms., Lopes and her bandmates include Kehlani, Tinashe, Sevyn Streeter, Beyonce, and Rihanna.
Besides being an incredible artist, Lisa was a philanthropist and humanitarian with a heart as big as her voice. Before she passed, Ms. Lopes was volunteering at a child welfare system in Honduras and offering her relief after Hurricane Mitch. Left Eye bought land in Honduras to start a children’s camp and also had plans to develop a medical and educational non-profit. She was a frequent visitor of children’s hospitals in her home state of Georgia and had plans to visit a refugee camp in Kenya. After her tragic death, Lisa’s family established the Lisa Lopes Foundation to continue her mission of helping underprivileged youth and continue her work in Honduras.
Left Eye lived unapologetically like a rock star on the screen, through the speakers, and in her personal life. In order for her legacy to be cemented with the proper treatment, she deserves to be inducted with the rest of TLC into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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