By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Though the head-grazing rafters create a less than ideal indoor climate, they work wonders for the Lodge's acoustics. When DJ Ben, in one of his finer moments, stretches out the keyboard intro to Da Brat's "Ghetto Love," it's like hearing a raindrop shattering, then being looped endlessly. The house grows restless as seconds tick away, but Ben's in his own zone, impervious to the whistles and shouts of impatience. After a while, the crowd falls into near silence; heads nod slowly in unison. At exactly the right moment, Ben drops in T-Boz's signature blue-flame vocals: "I had some problems, and no one could seem to solve them . . ." The place goes wild.
It'd be two more years before T-Boz and her own group, TLC, would drop a new record of their own. Tangled in lawsuits, snagged in bankruptcy court, the trio -- poster children for the raw industry deal -- could have penned the old Debarge lyrics that T-Boz, in her Brat-track cameo, had effortlessly made her own. Having redefined the girl group -- part Ronettes, pure hip-hop, the Supremes after the projects went bad -- TLC had to sit out nearly five litigious years while pretenders to their throne (the Spice Girls, the insufferable Britney Spears, an endless barrage of anonymous black-girl groups) bit their style. But none came close to capturing the group's delicate/sturdy mixture of earthiness, street bravado and homegrrrl power.
Anyone who's forgotten just how potent that brew is need only check out the video for the single "No Scrubs," which debuted into heavy rotation on both MTV and BET a month ago. Set on a replica of the spaceship from Michael and Janet's overblown "Scream" video, TLC's minimalist-extravagant clip is a sly parody, glossy comeback and confident reclaiming of position. While Chilli works the wind-machine and oversize swing like a
veteran of the Live! Nude! Girls! circuit (all gyrating hips and come-hither looks), Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (the Ol' Dirty Bastard of the group) clocks in with techno kung fu chops, her eyes alternately defiant and warm, then some unnerving combination of the two. T-Boz, meanwhile, melds jerky, robotic dancing with iconic Michael Jackson moves, throwing in steps lifted straight from the "Scream" video; her neon hair and elaborate makeup mark her as Japanese cyberpunk to Left Eye's warrior geisha and Chilli's classic femme.
Throughout the short, Chilli plays black folks' long-standing good-hair/long-hair fetish with a straight face. When she casually flips her flowing mane to accent the line "'Cause I'm lookin' like class," it's not only a dissertation on the misplaced value that black folk still place on cascading locks, it's also the casually withering dismissal that Janet -- desperately tossing 10 pounds of stitched horsehair -- has been trying to choreograph for years. Left Eye takes that hair obsession and pushes it to an extreme, with falls and wigs twisted into sci-fi Oriental pigtail sculpture. Intercut are shots of a nonmechanized
T-Boz, clad in white miniskirt and halter and matching boots, shimmying inside a high-tech go-go cage, then playing the black-leather tomboy turning cartwheels in the background. Industry buzz before the album's release was that the girls weren't feeling each other, but what makes the video pop from your TV screen is the obvious pleasure they're taking in performing, being in each other's company.
When TLC dropped their debut album, Oooooooh . . .
on the TLC Tip, in 1992, they looked years younger than they were but projected a world-weariness and street-savvy that belied their actual ages. Without playing the ho card, they were unabashedly sexual ("Ain't Too Proud To Beg") while sporting still-raw wounds from past betrayals ("What About Your Friends"). Those two identity poles also grounded their sophomore album, 1994's CrazySexyCool, and flare throughout their latest release, FanMail. From the beginning the group had an energy that's hard to encapsulate. There's something androgynous about it, though it's unquestionably feminine. It's tough but full of humor. A little sad but resilient. Ghetto and multiculti. Their lyrics, while confessional, tap into universal frustrations but stay rooted in both a distinctly feminine consciousness and a radio-hook catchiness. They're survivors the way we all fantasize ourselves to be, having shrugged off victimhood but unashamed of the scars and how we got them, strong and sexy in the knowledge we've acquired, able to laugh if unwilling to forget. Real, in its many configurations. Their lyrics convey all this, but so does their singing: Chilli's sweet but strong R&B stylings; Left Eye's nasal, steely flow; T-Boz's husky rasp. That's why the homo-boys at the Lodge thrilled to the sound of T-Boz's voice; they recognized it as their own -- at least one they aspire to.