You may have seen VH1's TLC biopic last month, called CrazySexyCool. (Here's our review.) Drawing 4.5 million viewers, it was the highest-rated cable movie of 2013, as well as Vh1's biggest film in history.
But while the work, starring real-life musicians Lil Mama as Left Eye, Keke Palmer as Chilli and Drew Sidora as T-Boz, made reference to the group's last days, some items were glossed over, including the solo project Lopes was working on with L.A.'s Death Row Records.
See also: A Brief Rundown of the Bonkers TLC Movie
CrazySexyCool portrays Lopes stepping outside the group to pursue No Limit Records' Master P, a confusing plot element. In real life, Left Eye spent the last four months of her life working to revive gangsta rap powerhouse Death Row Records under a new persona, N.I.N.A. (New Identity Not Applicable). With the music mostly vaulted, and former label CEO Suge Knight rarely speaking publicly, we spoke with Left Eye's last producer Darren Vegas, who explains the part of Lopes' story that is seldom accounted for.
"I had no idea she was even comin' to the label," says Vegas, a Huntington Beach native who was at the helm of production (the position once held by Dr. Dre) at Death Row in 2002. "Her vibe was real cool," he says. "I expected her to be all wild and stuff from what I'd heard, [but] she was real laid back and calm." Recording as N.I.N.A., Lopes bonded with label-mates including Kurupt, Crooked I and Ray J.
"I saw in the movie how she was drinking and all that," Vegas says. "When she was [signed] she didn't drink at all. She was on a cleanse, and she actually got artists at Death Row to do cleansings, as she was back and forth to Honduras."
Once known for unpredictable antics, including burning down the house of one time boyfriend Andre Rison, Lopes reportedly brought incense, candles, and a holistic outlook to Tarzana's Can-Am Studios, the spot famous for Suge Knight orchestrated beat-downs and weapon-brandishing gangsters.
"She just seemed real determined to have the world hear a solo album," says Vegas, who along with Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.'s Monster O, manned the boards during her sessions. "The stuff we were working on, we weren't copying what she had done [with TLC]. We were creating a brand new sound."
Plans included collaborations with David Bowie, N*SYNC and Missy Elliot. "Those were conversations Suge would have had," Vegas says of such deal making. "My job was to stay in the studio, making tracks." He adds that rapper Juvenile was in the studio recording with Lopes, and sessions also featured Dre's longtime percussionist, former P-Funk member Carl "Butch" Small, as well as Tupac's personal engineer Tommy Daugherty.
These sessions, however, led to only a handful of songs. Lopes was back and forth between Los Angeles and Honduras, doing charity work, and less than five months after her signing, she passed away in a car accident during one of these trips to Central America. "It was disbelief," Vegas says of the reaction at Death Row. "At the same time, there were so many deaths around [the label then] that it was almost routine."
As fans and friends mourned, Lopes' last work remained unfinished. While remixed songs and bootlegs have hit the Internet and (reportedly) overseas markets, the producer asserts that not everything has been heard.
In 2009, posthumous Left Eye material surfaced as Eye Legacy. TLC, Missy, and even Lil Mama herself appeared on the album. However, the world has yet to hear all of the music of Lopes' final days.
For a label that has prided itself on cataloging former artists, Death Row only formally released one N.I.N.A. song, 2003's "Too Street 4 TV". However, Vegas says he and Monster were asked to patch together material following Lopes' death. "I certainly finished those records," he says. "There was a lot of red tape at the time."
"We were gonna make a multi-platinum album."
There's been no word on if the music will see the light of day. As for the N.I.N.A. master tracks? "I don't know who has 'em," Vegas says.
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