How we made TLC's Waterfalls

‘A man held my hand and said: I didn’t kill myself because of you’

Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas, singer

Anything that’s self-destructive, that’s chasing a waterfall. We wanted to make a song with a strong message – about unprotected sex, being promiscuous, and hanging out in the wrong crowd. The messages in Waterfalls hit home. I think that’s why it’s our biggest hit to date.

When it first went to radio, nobody got it. They didn’t understand what we were talking about. It needed the video to bring the words to life. Even I don’t think I really fell in love with the song until I saw it. The moment I did, I knew it would be a hit.

The timing was perfect. Organized Noize produced the track. They’d been working with Outkast and Goodie Mob and that funky, soulful sound that was their signature. CeeLo Green sang backing vocals – way before he was a big star. P Diddy did some interludes on the album, CrazySexyCool, too. But obviously, once our voices got on there, it became a TLC record.

The song made us much more relevant – not just a fun girl group. We were bringing awareness to subjects people were nervous talking about. It was groundbreaking for us: from then on, we were seen as the real deal.

We definitely wanted to be role models. We felt like a lot of females didn’t have other females pulling for them – so every song we put out was a girl-power song. We told it from a woman’s point of view. Women liked that and men respected it.

Aids is still out there. You still have bullying. You still have drugs. But you have to continue to bring awareness so that people can become more responsible and want to do the right things. You can never have too many records like Waterfalls.

Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins, singer

I always loved what you’d call alternative music. Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, Duran Duran, Billy Idol. Bennie and the Jets by Elton John was my thing. I was born in Iowa and moved to Atlanta when I was a child. Every time I tell people I’m from Iowa, they go: “There’s black people there?” I actually have a T-shirt that says: “Yes, there are black people in Iowa.”

I wanted Waterfalls to be our version of alternative music. When I heard an early version, I thought: “My god, this is perfect.” It was so left of what we’d done on our first album. It was amazeballs. When we had finished recording it, we played it for Clive Davies, the big kahuna at the label. He was the boss of Arista, which distributed our label La Face. He didn’t like it. He said it was too deep. He didn’t think people would bump up the street to it.

So went went to LA Reid, who ran LaFace. We bought a giant poster and wrote on it: “Please believe in us, we’ll make the best video ever.” He went against Clive and put up the money. We called in F Gary Gray to direct the video. The first time he showed us the concept – which showed a kid getting killed selling drugs and a guy contracting HIV – we started crying. Aids was an epidemic at the time. Not long after the song came out, I was doing a book-signing and a man came up to me and held my hand. “I didn’t kill myself because of you,” he said. “I felt like nobody understood. But I felt like you guys understood how people can end up in my situation.”

The day before recording, I’d been in a car with Lisa [“Left Eye” Lopes, who was killed in a car accident in 2002]. We saw a beautiful rainbow. That’s how her rap starts: “I seen a rainbow yesterday.” She’d been through a lot with the house burning down, she’d been locked up in the centre for drug and alcohol treatment. That was serious, what she said was real. It was for herself and everyone else who had been down the wrong path, chased the wrong things. And she really did see that rainbow – and it made her feel good about life and remember how precious it is. That song still has meaning 25 years on.

I will never forget the day we filmed that video. I can’t swim. It was 6am and I’m on this little plastic thing in the middle of 80,000 tonnes of water, in the lake where they shot Jaws at Universal Studios. That’s why my feet are planted. I do not move. I was so worried about falling in.

When we showed the video to Clive, he was like: “I knew it would be great!” And we were looking at him like: “What? Hush up!” We eventually fired people and got out of our deal. We were so underpaid. We made a lot of people wealthy. Being a black woman in the industry means you have so much going against you.

I’m not fearful about anything. If I believe in something and want to to talk about it, then that’s what we’re doing. I’m just happy that we were able to succeed in what we set out to do – make a difference.

• TLC headline the Mighty Hoopla festival in Brockwell Park, London, on 3 June.

Contributor

Interviews by Jenny Stevens

The GuardianTramp

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