She was the “crazy” in the CrazySexyCool triple threat trio that was and is TLC, the biggest selling girl group of all time.
A “crazy” that she used to her advantage and made her an immortal presence in the culture which helps to explain why twenty years after her untimely death in Honduras is still painful.
When it came to creativity, consistency, and colorfulness, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was the visual and physical embodiment of those sensibilities and it was that style that made her blend so well with her fellow groupmates, Tionne “TBoz” Watkins and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, because each had their own individual uniqueness that contributed to the groups monumental success that has spanned thirty years.
It seemed from the very beginning that Lisa was destined for greatness.
She was born on May 27, 1971, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to family that relished in all things music. At the age of five, she was playing on a toy keyboard and her father Ronald Lopes, a US Army Sergeant who led with an iron fist in the house, was a versatile musician that played the piano, clarinet, saxophone, and harmonica. Music was in her blood and it was her ticket to success.
In the early 90’s, she moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta with just a keyboard and $700 to her name to make her dreams come true and she arrived at the right moment when Atlanta was starting to become the hotbed for some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B music that would define that decade and established the south as a formidable cultural force. It was there that she met Tionne “TBoz” Watkins and Crystal Jones who were in the process of developing a girl group called 2nd Nature and just by pure happenstance at a local hair salon, they ran into Perri “Pebbles” Reid, who had just launched her own Atlanta based production company Pebbitone, and after hear their sound expressed a desire to sign them.
It was the big break that Lisa was looking for.
Ultimately, after auditioning for Pebbles then husband L.A. Reid and his label LaFace Records that he co-owned with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Crystal was cut from the group and would later be replaced by Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas who was at that time a backup dancer for artists such as Damion Dame. L.A. and Babyface would officially sign them on and Pebbles took on the role as manager.
From the beginning, the chemistry between the three was electric and they began a journey that would change the face for women in hip hop. By the time of the release of their debut album, 1992’s Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, they cultivated an image that was uncompromising, playful, and unapologetically feminist even if they didn’t personally define themselves as such. They spoke to the concerns, desires, and wants of women at a time when the role of women in hip hop were starting to come into their own and defining themselves on their own terms. They went against the grain in every way from their production style to their fashion choices which at that time included wearing condoms on their baggy clothes in promotion of safe sex at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Lisa was very much the creative force behind the operation and it was then that she got the nickname “Left Eye” after Michael Bivins of New Edition would complement her left eye, which was a slightly more slanted then her right eye. She played on that so well that she would accessorize such as wearing a pair of glass with a condom covering her left eye and donning eye black under said eye.
In 1994, TLC had broken away from Pebbles after bitter contract dispute and were on the cusp of changing pop music with full control. At the same time, Lisa had been in a tumultuous relationship with NFL player Andre Rison of the Atlanta Falcons and all came to ahead on the night of June 9, when after a wild night Lisa and Andre fought and in a fit of rage, she threw boxes of Andre’s shoes in their fiber glass bathtub and lit them on fire causing the house to burn to the ground.
The incident was a cause celeb and Lisa was made into a caricature. She was sentenced to rehab to treat alcoholism and issued a $10,000 fine for the fire. It was during her stent in rehab that she reached back into her inner self and gathered new found inspiration that undoubtedly gave TLC’s sophomore album, the incomparable CrazySexyCool, the magic it needed to become one of the most consequential projects in music history selling over 11 million copies.
Most notably, Lisa’s rhyme in the timeless anthem “Waterfalls” was conceived during a ride to the studio in which she saw a rainbow in the sky that compelled her to reflect on her own life.
I seen rainbow yesterday
But too many storms have come and gone
Leavin’ a trace of not on God-given ray
Is it because my life is ten shades of gray
I pray all ten fade away
Seldom praise Him for the sunny days
And like his promise is true
Only my faith can undo
The many chances I blew
To bring my life to anew
Clear blue and unconditional skies
Have dried the tears from my eyes
No more lonely cries
My only bleedin’ hope
Is for the folk who can’t cope
Wit such an endurin’ pain
That it keeps ’em in the pourin’ rain
Who’s to blame
For tootin’ caine in your own vein
What a shame
You shoot and aim for someone else’s brain
You claim the insane
And name this day in time
For fallin prey to crime
I say the system got you victim to your own mind
Dreams are hopeless aspirations
In hopes of comin’ true
Believe in yourself
The rest is up to me and you
After a grueling battle with their record label that forced them to declare bankruptcy, TLC went four years without any new music and it was during that hiatus that Lisa began to charter a new course in her life and to chase away the demons that haunted her since childhood. She would make frequent trips to Honduras seeking spiritual refuge at the Usha Village founded by the controversial herbal guru Dr. Sebi and it was there that she found a renewed sense of self and purpose beyond music.
When it came time to record TLC’s 1999 seminal project FanMail, Lisa began to distance herself from the group as she sought a solo career and such endeavors put her at odds with TBoz and Chilli. Even though they continued to add additional hardware in the form of Grammys, MTV Awards, Billboard Awards, and selling over 9 million copies, some began to question how much longer would TLC be around given Lisa’s growing aloofness.
But no matter what anyone said, TLC was never in any position to break up as the music and their shared passion always brought them together through the good and bad times.
Then came April 25, 2002, TLC was in the midst of recording their fourth album 3D and Lisa took some time to recharge with her family and friends at her beloved Usha Village. While on the way to a creek for a photo shoot, Lisa’s Red Jeep that was carrying eight other passengers, rolled over into a dirt road, rolled end over end, and collided with a couple trees.
Lisa died instantly at 30 years old while the other passengers survived.
The tragedy hit the world hard but nobody was hit harder than her family, friends, TBoz, and Chilli. Life changed instantly for all parties involved and given how close the three were, TBoz and Chilli made it a critical issue to never replace Lisa in any capacity despite constant suggestions from media and fan. After 3D was released in late 2002, it became clear that TLC’s magical run was coming to an end and the healing process began.
At the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, TBoz and Chilli took to the stage to honor their sister.
In the years since, TBoz and Chilli would continue to honor their fallen group member in moving ways such as incorporating her voice and image into their present day live shows and their fifth and final album TLC released in 2017 included some of Lisa’s raps that she was working on at the time of her death and demonstrating that in both life and death a bond can never be broken.
When it comes to her overall legacy, Lisa demonstrated the power of women in hip hop in a world still riddled with sexism but in the context of southern hip hop which is largely associated with male acts such as OutKast, Goodie Mob, Master P, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, and UGK, Lisa is often overshadowed even though she could go toe to toe with the best of them, male or female.
“Lisa Left Eye Lopes is probably one of the most underrated females in southern hip hop” said famed hip hop journalist Charlie Braxton.
“Although she is not technically from the south, her contribution through TLC was a tremendous one.”
Style, substance, and sustainability perfectly encapsulates the impact of Lisa Left Eye Lopes and 20 years from now she will still be fresh in our minds as if she had never ceased.
As TLC would often say it was MTB, Meant to Be.
Rest in Peace Left Eye.
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