Few female rappers made the emotional impact on pop culture as Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes. As a founding member of the highly successful and Grammy Award-winning trio TLC, she helped usher in a new breed of hip-hop, which blended rap, R&B, soul, and pop sensibilities. Along with bandmates Tionne 'T-Boz' Watkins and Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas, Lopes shot to fame with the group's 1992 breakout single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg." Promoting positive messages and safe sex, she wore brightly colored outfits and a condom worn over her left eye as a patch. Lopes' rapid delivery of lyrics brought an urban edge to TLC's music, complemented by T-Boz's soulful strut and Chilli's sexy vocals. In 1994, Lopes was arrested after setting fire to her then-boyfriend's house following a violent fight. One of the most infamous moments in music history, it did little to hurt TLC's career. The group blazed to the top of the charts that same year with their landmark sophomore release CrazySexyCool (1994), featuring the hit singles "Creep" and "Waterfalls." TLC won more raves for its third album FanMail (1999), but it unfortunately was the last time the trio ever worked together. Lopes died in 2002 while filming a documentary in Honduras. The news sent shockwaves throughout the music industry, which mourned the loss of a hip-hop powerhouse and trailblazer who was gone too soon.
Lisa Nicole Lopes was born on May 27, 1971 in Philadelphia, PA. The daughter of a U.S. Army serviceman, the future star was raised in several parts of the world. Her family eventually settled in Atlanta, GA, where Lopes found her calling in music. In the early 1990s, she formed the group 2nd Nature with fellow Atlanta resident Crystal Jones and Iowa transplant Tionne Watkins. The group landed an audition with singer Perri 'Pebbles' Reid, who ran the management company Pebbitone. Reid signed the girls and renamed the group TLC, which stood for the first letters of their names. She also set up an audition for TLC at LaFace Records, the label founded by her husband Antonio 'L.A.' Reid and Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds. After TLC signed with LaFace, the label felt Jones was not a good fit for the group and replaced her with singer and back-up dancer Rozonda Thomas. To keep the name TLC, Thomas took the nickname Chilli, while Watkins and Lopes went by T-Boz and Left Eye, respectively.
The group released its debut album Ooooooohhh.On the TLC Tip in 1992. A mixture of rap, R&B, and the popular 90s genre New Jack Swing, TLC delivered a fun, high-energy album that matched the group's youthful personalities. The lead single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," about a young woman's prerogative to demand sex, showcased T-Boz's soulful swagger, Left Eye's eccentric rap style, and Chilli's sultry vocals. The accompanying music video was equally vibrant, a raucous party scene that introduced the world to TLC's signature look made up of baggy, neon-colored clothing and Left Eye's statement accessory - a condom worn as an eye patch that signified the group's promotion of safe sex. Ooooooohhh.On the TLC Tip peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 chart and spawned a string of Top 10 hits, including the ballad "Baby-Baby-Baby" and the girl power anthem "What About Your Friends."
Eventually, the trio decided to take more control of their career, parting ways with manager Pebbles, but remained signed to LaFace Records. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli also dabbled in acting, making their feature film debut in the comedy "House Party 3" (1994). They also contributed to the "Poetic Justice" (1993) soundtrack with the track "Get It Up," written by Prince. While anticipation grew for TLC's follow-up album, Lopes made headlines when she began a tumultuous relationship with NFL player Andre Rison. The couple lived together in Atlanta, where one of their fights eventually led to Lopes destroying Rison's shoes by dousing them with lighter fluid in a bathtub and setting the pile on fire in June 1994. The flames quickly grew and the whole house caught on fire. Lopes was reportedly found guilty of first-degree arson, fined $10,000, and sentenced to five years probation. Ironically, she and Rison reconciled and remained together for another three years.
In 1994, TLC appeared on a memorable cover of VIBE magazine dressed as firefighters, a cheeky nod to Lopes' domestic and legal issues. Later that year, they finally released the landmark album CrazySexyCool, with the album highlighting each of the group's distinct personalities - Left Eye as crazy, Chilli as sexy, and T-Boz as cool. Showing a more sophisticated and mature style however, the group also ditched its day-glow outfits for sleeker, futuristic get-ups. The group's resident rapper even replaced her condom patch with a bold black mark painted under her left eye. Later on, she sported an eyebrow ring on her left brow. Despite an image overhaul, TLC's music and message of female empowerment remained the same. The first single "Creep," a mid-tempo jam about infidelity, topped the Billboard 100, while the sexually charged ballad "Red Light Special" peaked at No. 2. TLC also took on a more socially conscious stance with "Waterfalls," an inspirational track that spent seven weeks at No. 1 and was nominated for two Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. CrazySexyCool went on to become one of the year's top-selling albums and earned TLC a 1996 Grammy for Best R&B Album.
The group's critical and commercial success was short-lived, however, when the trio filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 1995. They reportedly owed $3.5 million, mostly due to Lopes' financial payments stemming from the arson incident and T-Boz's medical bills for sickle-cell anemia. While their albums and singles topped the charts, the girls were also rumored to earn less than $35,000 after taxes, producer fees, and other expenses. The group renegotiated its contract with LaFace Records, which took almost two years until both parties settled and TLC signed under LaFace/Arista. The group released its highly anticipated third album FanMail in 1999, which debuted at the top of the charts largely due to another TLC girl power anthem "No Scrubs." The follow-up single "Unpretty," also a No. 1 hit, drew comparisons to "Waterfalls" for its socially conscious message and catchy chorus. TLC dominated the 2000 Grammy Awards with seven nominations, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. The trio won Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "No Scrubs."
Around this time, rumors began to swirl that TLC was splitting up after Lopes and Chilli both expressed interest in solo projects. The former further fueled rumors of the band's internal conflict when she wrote an open letter to T-Boz and Chilli in Entertainment Weekly, challenging each TLC member to record a solo album for a 3-disc compilation that she titled The Challenge In her letter, Lopes referred to T-Boz as the Player and Chilli as the Hater. She pursued other projects whenever TLC was on hiatus, including hosting the MTV talent competition program "The Cut" (1998), collaborated on records with *NSYNC, Toni Braxton, and Donell Jones, and executive produced the R&B trio Blaque's 1999 debut album under her own Left Eye Productions. She eventually patched up her feud with TLC, but took time to record her solo album Supernova (2001). Sadly, that was the last time Left Eye released music. On April 25, 2002, while traveling in La Ceiba, Honduras to film a documentary, Lopes flipped the SUV she was driving and suffered severe neck injuries and head trauma. The other three passengers were injured, but the rapper was the only one who died from the crash. She was buried in Lithonia, GA the following month. Five years later, the documentary "The Last Days of Left Eye," which chronicled the final weeks of her life leading up to the fatal crash, premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival.
By Candy Cuenco