Most music lovers have heard of how the group TLC became one of the world’s best-selling groups but wound up having to file for bankruptcy as their songs were staples on the radio. Tionne Watkins was one-third of that R&B crossover act that dominated the ’90s and 2000s with their catchy hits: “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Waterfalls” and “No Scrubs.”
Watkins, whose professional name is T-Boz, was a creative influencer in Atlanta — who connected first with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and then with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas to form LaFace Records’ first huge success. But as was the case for many artists in the ’90s, the business wasn’t a friendly one and she spent years trying to settle up bad contracts and deals that when she was too young to know better. At the same time, while she was fighting labels and former managers, the star also was dealing with an autoimmune disease that hindered her from capitalizing on many opportunities to make money.
The Atlanta Influencer
Before getting signed, she was instrumental in helping form one of Atlanta’s most influential musical movements. She was the princess of the Dungeon Family, the crew that gave the world Outkast, G.O.O.D.I.E. Mob, 2 Chainz and the producer collective Organized Noize (made up of Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown).
According to Revolt, T-Boz introduced Brown and Wade one day at LaMonte’s Beauty Supply store. This is the connection that would lead years later to her biggest hit with TLC, “Waterfalls,” and the success and financial security of hip-hop icons like Andre 3000 and Ceelo Green.
T-Boz was playing connector, linking talented people with each other.
In 1991, TLC signed a contract with LaFace, which gave the trio .56 cents per album sold. And that amount had to be split three ways. The contract was even less for every single sold, Beat.com reports.
According to claims made by the group, they signed a management contract with Pebbitone and a recording contract with L.A. Reid’s LaFace Records, two married veterans in the music business, while they allege they were too young to understand what was going on.
The group reportedly was too strapped for cash in the beginning to have secured their own legal representation. This created a perfect opportunity for the agreement to benefit the executives over the artists.
Sources have said the contract they signed gave Pebbles ownership of the name TLC and an allegedly outrageous percentage of their earnings. The group members are said to have never received a copy of their original contract and used the same attorneys and accountants that worked for Pebbles during the time they negotiated their contracts.
To get out of this contract, the ladies had to agree to pay Pebbles $3 million, essentially $1 million per letter of the group’s signature name.
T-Boz said, “I had to pay a million dollars for the letter T.”
“I’m thinking T stands for Tionne; my mother named me that,” she recalled. “Unfortunately, we were caught in the middle of [Pebbles] and L.A.’s divorce, but in the end, it was worth it because we own the name TLC, but it killed me to write that check.”
In a different interview with The Guardian in 2017, she marveled at how she was a millionaire for minutes, saying, “I will never forget the day we were millionaires for literally five minutes because the cheque was written to us and we had to sign it over, back to [Pebbles, their former manager].”
“It’s not personal,” added Watkins, “it’s business. Everyone in this industry has an agenda. Accountants, lawyers, people you think you know will keep running up the bill. You have to watch your back on every corner.”
Eventually, the group was freed from its contract with Pebbitone and renegotiated its deal with LaFace Records. But not after experiencing financial ruin and embarrassment.
As a group, TLC has been extremely successful, making four out of five platinum albums.
Their 1991 debut album, “Oooooh… On the TLC Tip” went four times platinum. The group’s 1994 sophomore album, “CrazySexyCool” went 12 times platinum, and the 1999 third album, “FanMail,” went six times platinum. “3D,” the fourth album, also did well, going platinum. Despite over 23 million albums sold, the group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995, with a debt of $3.5 million, Grunge.com reported.
In addition to each getting less than 30 cents per album sold, the management and label charged them for their airline travel, music videos, clothes, hair, makeup and more, leaving the girls with $50,000 apiece. In fact, though “CrazySexyCool” was their best-selling album, the group became more in debt.
What didn’t help was T-Boz’s inability to consistently tour because she has sickle cell anemia.
In her 2017 memoir, “A Sick Life: TLC ‘n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage,” she spoke about the challenge of being a megastar and dealing with an incurable disease that could at any time strike her with debilitating pain.
T-Boz was diagnosed with the disease when she was seven years old. She once described sickle cell as being a “very excruciating pain” that “feels like somebody is stabbing you over and over again.”
She said, “There are sharp pains in my legs, where I can’t walk. Sometimes I have to learn to walk all over again. It can make a person feel belittled.”
Despite this, the artist has pushed through, venturing into her own solo career and making a mark as an actress in both TV and film. She has starred in “Belly,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Black Dynamite” and “Trollz,” where she was able to do voice acting for an animated character.
The Miracle of CBD
One thing she says helps her work despite dealing with her disease is the use of CBD products to help her live pain-free. Singing the praises of the herb extract, she has said, “I was able to make it through four tours without getting sick.”
T-Boz said in an interview with ESSENCE that it has enhanced her ability to work, saying, “And everybody who’s been on tour with TLC knows that’s astronomical for me, honey because I am known for messing up a tour.”
The star, whose net worth is currently $1. 5 million, has launched a new CBD-based health brand called Tionne Wellness to help spread her miracle balm to others.
“When I’m sick, I use it three times a day,” she said. “It works. I’m not one of those celebs that will take the money and just do an ad for something without knowing,” she said, if a product is legitimate. “It works, and more people need to know about the power of CBD.”
The CBD company is not just healing her body so that she can work, but also is providing a solid revenue stream for her financial freedom.