Ten years ago this month the music industry lost one of it’s brightest stars: Lisa Lopes.
Daring, candid, vibrant and unapologetic; Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes was the ‘Crazy’ to Chilli’s ‘Sexy’ and T-Boz’s ‘Cool’ in the Atlantic R&B girl-group that would go on to conquer the music charts and change the way women were seen in a male dominated industry.
As the world was still mourning the loss of R&B superstar Aaliyah in the summer of 2001, initial reactions to the news of the tragic death of ‘Left-Eye’ in Honduras, Central America, was that of disbelief.
Although Lisa’s passing was felt the world over by the millions of fans she had gathered over the ten years she had spent in the group TLC, for Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins and Rozanda ‘Chilli’ Thomas the loss was inconceivable. When speaking to the remaining members of the group last year, they described how initially they believed the news of her death was just another of Lisa’s many ‘practical jokes’.
“Not that long before that she had played a joke like she was missing and I didn’t think it was funny because I was pregnant,” T-Boz remembered, “and this one time I was hoping it was a bad joke again. But it wasn’t, it was true.”
In 1991, Tionne Watkins was living in Atlanta as a hairdresser when she met eighteen-year-old Lisa. “I remember these little big eyes,” Watkins said. “She looked like a deer caught in the headlights, and this little squeaky voice, she looked liked she was about twelve…We got along really well, straight off the bat, we kicked it off immediately. Honestly we were laughing and kicking at it the first day, [it] just kinda happened naturally”. For Lisa, it was Tionne’s strong sense of style that she was really drawn to: “She had the big earrings that were in style, she had the latest hairdo, she had the fly clothes. She was beautiful, real cool.”
This instant bond between the two was the perfect fresh start for the young Lisa, who aged seventeen left her family home in Florida where she had lived with her mother and younger brother and sister. Life growing up in the Lopes family had not been easy: an alcoholic father who was abusive to Lisa’s mother and enforced a military style upbringing had a profound effect on Lisa in many ways.
It was from him that Lisa learnt to find solace from her problems in alcohol. “My father would come over and check on me every weekend and we’d have a case of beer and that was one of the ways I’d get a lot of attention.”
“She really loved her father and had a great deal of respect for him on one side,” Chilli later explained, “but she experienced a lot and I think she kept a lot inside.”
But it was also from him that she inherited her musical talents – her grandfather had been a saxophonist at the Cotton Club, her uncle a world famous hoofer dancer and Ronald Lopes Snr. himself was a talented musician. From a very young age music was a huge part of her life, from church performances to rapping at talent competitions and presenting her own radio shows she was always in the spotlight.
So, along with their friend Crystal, Lisa and Tionne started performing under the name Second Nature and it wasn’t long before they had caught the eye of Pebbles Reid, co-owner of LA Face Records.
From the very beginning of her career in music Lisa wasn’t afraid to do what it took to succeed, no matter whom she upset, as T-Boz recalled: “Even though it was her own group, we kicked Crystal out… It was the funniest thing because I’ll never forget I was like, ‘Lisa, how are we going to tell her?’ She was like, ‘I know how!’ So we’re sitting there and she was like, ‘Girl, we got some good news and some bad news. The good news is Pebbles wants the group. The bad news…girl we don’t want you in the group no more!’ she said, laughing at the memory.
So Crystal was out, and when Pebbles introduced former dancer Rozanda ‘Chilli’ Thomas to the duo, TLC was formed.
“We used to call it the ‘MTB’ thing, ‘Meant To Be’,” T-Boz recalls, “but chemistry’s really important. Even though we are all different we all brought something different to the group.”
One of the things that Lisa certainly brought to the group was her quirky sense of style. When TLC burst onto the music scene in 1992 it was their look that was as pioneering as their sound.
Bursting onto the scene in the United States around the time of the Government’s first AIDS awareness campaign with their day-glo trousers adorned with condoms and a no-nonsense attitude to safe-sex the girls really stood out from the crowd. And although they were clearly continuing the legacy that had been established in the 1960s by acts like The Supremes and The Ronettes there was something about their sound and their image that took them beyond the achievements of contemporaries Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah and Monie Love.
But all their success and critical acclaim did not come without a fight.
“You know it’s hard to have your clothes on and not sell sex, and actually sell albums and have people like you,” T-Boz states. “We stood up for all women and basically said you can still be sexy, it doesn’t matter what you wear, that doesn’t make you… It was really hard at that time to do those things. What’s so easily given now we really, really had to break our backs for you know… And the thing I’m most proud of TLC achieving is standing for what we believe in and staying strong to that, and keeping our clothes on and still becoming the biggest selling girl group without having to soul our bodies or our souls you know, compromising our integrity or our character to do so. I love that.”
Promoting the image of strong women, TLC soon found that they needed to lead by example. In 1994, despite selling eleven million copies of their second album ‘Crazy Sexy Cool’, the conditions of their contract meant that they only earned an approximate $35,000 each after expenses.
What’s more, Lisa’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol and even more unhealthy relationship with American Footballer Andre Rison had led to Lopes being indicted on charges of first-degree arson. Sentenced to five years probation and a $10,000 Lisa seemed to have hit rock bottom, but it was during these times that she penned lyrics for one of the groups’ most famous songs.
“I was in the diversion centre at the time, serving out my sentence,” she told an interviewer. “I got on a two-hour break to go and record in the studio and listen to the song that TLC was working on we called ‘Waterfalls’. On the way I was admiring the trees, the buildings, the sky and I looked up and there was this rainbow and I was like WOW, this place that we live in never meant so much to me.”
Some cynics think that it was the additional publicity created by Lisa’s legal case that shot the group into the limelight, but by 1997 TLC were the biggest female R&B group on the planet, and that didn’t come without a fight or two…even amongst themselves.
“With anything, and anybody in life you’re going to have disagreements, whether you respectfully disagree or you argue it out,” T-Box admits. “You know we never got into a physical fight but yes, we disagreed about a lot of things all the time.”
With three multi-platinum selling albums, several Grammy Awards and chart-topping hits including ‘Waterfalls’, ‘Unpretty’ and ‘No Scrubs’ under their belt by 1999 the group seemed unstoppable. But as the Millennium drew near, other interests and a series of personal conflicts were tearing the group apart. Lisa had developed an interest in holistic medicine and started to spend time in a retreat based in Honduras, Central America, often missing recording sessions as a result.
As you would expect from three feisty women these rifts were not subtle, Lisa never being one afraid to speak her mind. “She would just say something and nobody knew she was going to say it,” Chilli recounts, “just some of the ideas that would come in her mind she would just execute, not always thinking, but you know that was Lisa. And that’s what you just have to love about her because she was as real as they get.”
Outside of the group, Lisa’s unique style and outspoken nature meant that she has developed a following independent of the other girls. So it was no surprise when her solo career proved so successful, topping the UK charts with duets with Donnell Jones and Melanie C.
In 2002 things finally seemed to be back on track for the once wayward Lopes, with her own solo album ‘Supanova’, plans underway to develop a foundation for deprived children in Honduras, and being a new mum to her adopted daughter Snow. But whilst in Honduras filming a documentary of her life she began to feel the presence of a “spirit”.
Her suspicions were strengthened when a car accident led to the death of a ten-year-old local called Bayron Lopez. Lisa was convinced that this ‘spirit’ mistook the young boy for her because they shared the same name.
Only a few weeks later, whilst driving to Sambo Creek with the band Egypt she managed, Lisa lost control of her Jeep and it rolled off the highway. In the early hours of her twenty-sixth birthday Tionne received the news: Lisa was dead.
News quickly spread and her funeral in Georgia was attended by thousands of fans and famous friends including Alicia Keyes, Usher and Missy Elliott.
Following the death of Left-Eye, T-Boz and Chilli announced that they would finish the fourth album which they had already begun recording, but that they would never replace Lisa with another third member.
Although it has been ten years since the death of one of R&B biggest characters, her legacy still lives on through the people she knew and the many more people who grew up with her music.
So, when you download the latest Lady Leshurr track or check out Nicki Minaj’s new crazy look online, just remember that it was the vision of one small woman with big ideas and an even bigger personality that made this all possible.
Words by Jade Hutchinson