BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
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Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas shakes hands with an iron grip.
She might only be just over 5 feet tall, but the TLC icon is clearly not easily cowed.
At 43, she is in phenomenal shape and looks at least a decade younger, with unlined skin and a taut frame.
Thomas is wickedly funny in conversation. She’s also thoughtful and thorough as she discusses the final album she and her TLC partner Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins will release by the end of 2015.
The recording of the project will be done with the aid of crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Within days of announcing the project in January, TLC’s goal of $150,000 was reached. With a bit more than a week to go, they're close to the $300,000 mark.
TLC is Atlanta royalty, having spawned here in the ‘90s and rolled out a string of saucy hits including “No Scrubs,” “Unpretty” and “Creep.” With more than 65 million records sold, they’re tagged as the best-selling female group of all time.
Their history, including the tragic 2002 death of member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, was vividly revisited with a 2013 VH1 documentary, “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” which has unveiled their unique combination of R&B, pop and hip-hop to a new generation.
The duo will also embark on a summer tour with New Kids on the Block and Nelly – Thomas says they’ll perform for just under an hour – and swing through Atlanta June 6 at Philips Arena.
During a recent chat at an Atlanta studio, an engaging Thomas discussed why TLC turned to Kickstarter, the musical direction of the new album and how she stays in fighting shape.
Q: What was your reaction to reaching the Kickstarter goal in just a couple of days?
A: It lets us know that people are excited about a new project from TLC. All that love and support means so much to us. We’re really excited because we know the fans want that from us and they get to be a part of it. I don’t think any artist has done this before, but we’re a very outside of the box kind of group.
Q: How did you even get involved with Kickstarter?
A: Our manager Bill Diggins told us about it. They’ve raised over a billion dollars for people’s projects, Spike Lee went there and that was successful. We liked the idea and we felt like it was something fresh, definitely a fresh avenue for us to explore and I’m glad we made that decision. Not only do we have a lot of creative control while in the studio, it’s just a way of becoming a lot more personal with our fans doing it this way.
Q: How did you come up with the ideas for the “rewards”?
A: T-Boz and I were on the phone talking about things fans might want. The sleepovers are all gone now. If Michael Jackson or Sade had done something like this, I would totally want to be involved because it’s different. I know I would have been pledging my butt off to get a sleepover with them!
Everyone who pledges $5 or more will be able to choose which song they want to hear remixed. It’s perfect for us because it’s organic - this is something that we want to do. Signed album covers, phone calls, leaving the voice messages.
Q: When will you have time to fulfill all of these prizes?
A: We’ll just schedule it out. I think it will all happen leading up to the release of the album. There’s so many people and it will take a lot of time, but we’re gonna do it. I have to add that with the sleepover, onesies are required, even for the guys!
Q: What about those who say why not use your own money or go through a major label to put out this album?
A: The fans are the ones asking us for this music and they’ve been consistent with giving us ideas through the years, especially since the movie came out. The little kids who come up to me with their parents, they tell me she saw the movie and watch it again and again…after hearing all of that, that’s why we wanted to go this route. It’s not that we’re using the money for ourselves personally; this is for a project. It feels good to be going in this direction.
Q: What are the plans for the money raised in excess of your goal?
A: The more money that we can raise, the better it will be for the album, especially when it comes to working with different producers. It’s not cheap to make an album, so we want to make sure we have those funds to do those things.
Q: Were you surprised by the Katy Perry donation (the singer made a $5,000 pledge).
A: I was very surprised by Katy Perry. I didn’t know she was a fan! I was surprised by New Kids on the Block (who donated $20,000). They were like, we want to duet! And I love the fact that my niece who is young and working pledged $35. More so than the amount that she pledged says so much to me. It says so much more than dollar signs.
Q: What are you thinking of at this point as far as the music. A lot has changed in the industry since your last album.
A: A lot of the producers we worked with in the past want to be on board, like Dallas Austin, who is like an honorary member of TLC. Going back to the (VH1) movie, all of those songs, these kids are loving it like it’s the first time they’ve heard it, which says the music is timeless. We’re not trying to repeat or recreate what we’ve done already. It’s about moving forward but still keeping that formula that people know and love about TLC. No matter what the beat sounds like, as long as the lyrical content is on some real girl power topics, that’s what we do, just talking about real life issues. There are some things you have to continue to talk about - the “Unprettys,” talking about self-image and bullying. Social media makes it worse today. When I went to school, I got bullied. But no one talked about it outside of school, it was just for those few hours at school each day. So we’re keeping stuff like that in mind. When we go to the studio we like to work from scratch, get a vibe from everybody and vibe from each other.
Q: You’ve said that there really wasn’t any of Lisa’s material left over that you planned to use on the album, but do you feel like her spirit, her aura, still follows TLC?
A: Forever. For-EVER. We couldn’t get rid of it if we wanted to and we don’t want to. I think that’s what been so unique about our group. No one can be replaced in the group, no matter what happened. You can’t just replace a TLC girl and because we love (Lisa) so much we will always honor her in that way, even when we have guest appearances, like with Lil Mama (at the 2013 American Music Awards) and we did something cool with a ballerina (Misty Copeland). At last year’s VH1 “Super Bowl Blitz” concert, we performed and had Misty come out on Lisa’s part and it was such a beautiful moment.
Q: What will you do to represent Lisa on tour?
A: I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re in the beginning of talking about what to do production-wise. We want to get up there and just show out!
Q: How did the tour come about? It’s a fun pairing, and you obviously share a demographic, but some might find it a little quirky.
A: We did a show (in 2013) at the Mixtape Festival (in Pennsylvania) and New Kids on the Block were there with Boyz II Men and Jonas Brothers and they watched our show. We got a phone call not long after that and it was no brainer for us. They have crazy hits and we share that same thing. Once you have surpassed a certain number of sales, we’re all sharing the same fans. That’s why it makes so much sense to me. Nelly has a lot of great songs as well. I think it’s cool.
Q: Any talk about collaborating during the tour?
A: It’s always talk! There’s always talk about it. Hopefully we’ll all be able to do something that makes sense. The one thing I’m looking forward to is doing something with New Kids because they can dance –though they can’t dance better than TLC (laughs)! I told them that!
Q: What is your tour prep?
A: The last big tour was our own tour, the ‘FanMail’ tour in 1999-2000. But this is what I tell people: If you try to stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. When it’s time to do this kind of performance, I don’t have to work extra hard. I don’t play when it comes to that kind of stuff.
Q: What do you do to stay in shape?
A: Pretty much all of my workouts are from Beachbody, I’m a Beachbody coach and I love those workouts. I do them at home - I’m not a gym kind of person - and it works for me. I work out pretty much every day. You’re always gonna have time to brush your teeth, brush your hair, so workouts cannot be any different. Even if it’s just four or five days a week, you’re just conditioning yourself to stay in shape. When you take care of your body, it takes care of you. You can’t compromise that. This is your life.
Q: And you probably make sure to eat right?
A: I’m very aware of my food. I’m always trying to improve in that area. There’s this protein shake called Shakeology offered by Beachbody and they don’t compromise the ingredients. (I drink one) every single day. I do not play with my Shakeology. I stay away from all bad carbs and only do the good ones. I don’t eat pork or a lot of other meats. I eat fish and chicken and turkey…I have the metabolism of a 12-year-old. I don’t like skinny. Skinny is not good. If I don’t work out, I’ll lose weight and I don’t want to do that. Skinny is not cute, ever. I’m petite - with meat. But it’s about being healthy for you. I’m five foot and a half, so I’m supposed to be a small person.
Q: Who out there among the younger artists do you think is carrying that TLC mantle?
A: There are a lot of young artists that I think are really amazing, but no one who has really tapped into the way we delivered our music. To this day, we’re in a lane, a TLC lane. We deliver stuff, but we’re edgy at the same time. We’re not these good little girls talking about ‘don’t have sex.’ We say ‘if you’re gonna do it, use a condom.’ I will say that Taylor Swift is phenomenal and she puts it out there. Honey, let me tell you, she’s gorgeous and I’m sure lot of guys want to date her but I say, don’t mess up ‘cause there’s gonna be a song about you and it’s gonna be No. 1! We’re honest, too, but we kinda try to keep our personal issues personal and talk about other things, like how women feel, so it’s not necessarily so personal for us.
Q: When did T-Boz move west?
A: She left me! It’s been three years now. Of course I miss her. She’s really into film - writing scripts and stuff, so that’s where it’s at. And the weather is a lot better.
Q: So what keeps you here?
A: My family. I really do have a good support system here. If I left, I don’t think everybody would want to come with me! But I love it here as well. I can go to L.A. any time I want to.
Q: How will the logistics work with recording the album and preparing for the tour?
A: We’ll travel back and forth. I can’t wait until we can announce this news that this person I’ve been wanting to work with forever seems like it might finally be a good fit and he’s in L.A., so I’ll probably have to do a little more traveling. But when we’re getting ready for the tour, she comes here because all of our dancers, the band, is here.
Q: Do people still recognize you when you’re out at Whole Foods or wherever?
A: They do, all the time. I get this one all the time – ‘You look JUST like Chilli from TLC” and I’ll be like, “TL-What?” And they’ll say ‘It IS you!”
Q: What’s the plan for the next few months?
A: We’re putting together the team. It’s about getting ready for the tour and this album and my show “Fake Off!” (on TruTV) got picked up for a second season and we start shooting that in February, so my schedule is going to be crazy. But it’s such a blessing. It’s good to be busy.
Q: So is this really going to be the final TLC album?
A: Right now, yeah. We’re so blessed to have such a great catalog. Half the songs we perform on stage aren’t even the songs people love. I asked on Twitter what songs do you want to hear and a lot were great album cuts, like “Kick Your Game,” “Case of the Fake People,” and we’re taking that into consideration.
Q: Does it make you sad to think that this is it?
A: We’re not leaving the music industry. We just want to add to the catalog. I’m just as excited to have new TLC music as the fans; it’s exciting to see what we cook up in the studio. But right now this is the last album for us.