TLC on How They Decided to Promote Safe Sex on Their Debut Album

This year marks 30 years since TLC jumped onto the music scene with their debut album. Since then, they have been recognized as one of the greatest selling girl groups of all time. Comprised of T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli – they became standouts for their pro-women lyrics, personal style, and their ability to take risks. During their early days, they promoted safe sex by donning condoms across their clothing, with Left Eye rocking one on her eye. As it turns out, them pushing the envelope in that way paid off. 

TLC pose for promotional photo
TLC posed together in The Netherlands in 1992 | Michel Linssen/Redferns

They initially had no idea what their sound would be

TLC was a concept of Pebbles, a singer who had her own mild success who was married to record executive L.A. Reid. She wanted to put together a modern, hip hop and R&B threesome who embodied the style and sound of Atlanta. Pebbles enlisted the help of record producer Dallas Austin to come up with the music, while the group were able to give their input along the way.

In a new interview with ESSENCE Magazine reflecting on the success of their debut album, T-Boz says they were clueless on what their musical identity was at the time. “We didn’t have a vision at first,” she said “It was more so trying to figure out what we were gonna be once we got in there.”

Source: YouTube

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But Chilli says they were definite on one aspect of being performers. “The one thing I think was apparent was, you know, our style, you know what I mean?” Chilli added. “We had our baggy clothes, like prissy tomboys, and kind of went from there, you know?”

Without a major budge, they didn’t have time to make mistakes with songs. “Being that it was the first album, we didn’t have, like, the second, third or fourth time to switch out songs. ‘I don’t like this one.’ Whatever we recorded, went on,” T-Boz said.  “Sampling records was getting big, and we had tons of samples on this track,” Chilli added. “When Dallas was putting all that stuff together, we would be off on the side, you know, dancing making routines or whatever. And it was just like a vibe;  it was almost like he kind of knew then, ‘Yeah, this is good’ because we were dancing to it.”

Promoting safe sex was Left Eye’s idea

Their first single would be “Ain’t 2 Proud to Beg,” a twist on the song of the 1966 song by The Temptations of the same title (“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”). In their version, the group sang about not being shy about asking their lover for sex. 

Before filming the video, they had to come up with a concept. Left Eye surprised them with an idea that would become one of their signature looks. “She was at my house, and she went back in the house to get something. And it wasn’t a safety pin and a condom, but a safety pin and a condom was on the dresser for some reason,” Chilli said. “[Lisa] grabbed it. And she was just like, ‘This is gonna be how we promote safe sex.’”

Source: YouTube

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Audiences loved it and critics praised them for promoting safe sex in a time where the HIV/AIDS crisis was at its peak. But T-Boz insists that wasn’t their full intention.

“I think we stumbled upon that accidentally and then really made something out of it,” T-Boz said. “Because none of us had a problem about Lisa’s rap, which was actually about a real situation about breaking the waterbed with her boyfriend. Those are true lyrics, you know what I’m saying? So when Lisa came up to Chilli one day with a condom on her face, it just kind of made sense. We all were on board. Nobody even thought a second thought about that. It was just us naturally being who we are and being outspoken. People were calling us feminists too, and it wasn’t that we were trying to be that either.”

Their originality paid off majorly

The album, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip, eventually went four times platinum. Other hits from the album included “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Hat 2 Da Back,” and “What About Your Friends.” 

Looking back, T-Boz says she’s happy about being trendsetters for women in the business. “If you were to describe TLC to this day and how we came on the scene — how we dressed, everything — you’d pick that song,” she said. “We made it possible for all the prissy tomboys to still be sexy in baggy clothes…To become the best-selling girl group of all time with our clothes on, I think we have a lot to stand on as far as that’s concerned. I think that’s something we should be very proud of.”

Left Eye died in a car crash in 2002. The group continues to tour in her honor and released a successful VH1 biopic a few years ago on their lives and careers.

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