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TLC ready to move on to the next phase

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Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and a team of producers are huddled behind a sprawling control console, bobbing their heads as they listen to a bass-heavy track off TLC’s first album in more than 10 years.

After the music played out, Watkins received notes on which harmonies needed another take. But it could wait. She shuffled down the hall to check on Rozanda “Chili” Thomas’ progress on “Pretty Little Scar,” a song Watkins penned for the mark left behind after a 2006 operation to remove a brain tumor.

Their yet-to-be-titled album is more than a decade in the making, and things are down to the wire: the two have to deliver new material to the label before an evening deadline.

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“Some real pressure … right,” Watkins laughed before asking their manager, who is pacing, if the label is nervous.

TLC’s last album, 2002’s “3D,” came just months after the group lost its core -- the flamboyant Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes -- in a car accident. The trio was a dominant force in the 1990s, setting the tone for the era’s R&B with their feisty anthems, bold feminist statements and pure swagger.

But in the years since Lopes’ death, one question lingered: Could there be a TLC without Lopes?

“We’ll never forget her,” Thomas said weeks later in a dressing room at Hollywood Center Studios. “But we are at a point in our careers, and our lives now, where we are able to properly move on to the next phase of TLC.”

Tonight, VH1 will premiere “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story,” a biopic on the triumphs and tragedies of one of the most successful girl groups in history. Watkins and Thomas served as executive producers, working with director Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) and writer Kate Lanier (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Set It Off”).

A compilation of their work titled “20” hit stores last week and serves as the film’s soundtrack, and marks their 20-year anniversary.

“Timing is everything,” Watkins said of the biopic. “Before Lisa passed, it didn’t come together and I think that was for a reason. It wouldn’t have been the time to do it.”

“I always wanted to tell our story, from the very beginning,” Thomas added. “I felt like it was going to be a movie. I think people will now understand [us].”

Discovered in 1991 by Perri "Pebbles" Reid, TLC helped put Atlanta label LaFace -- founded by famed R&B producers Antonio "L.A." Reid (Perri Reid’s then-husband) and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds -- on the map.

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Witty videos and eye-popping garb (e.g. condoms as accessories) turned heads, yet their slinky, empowering jams, such as “Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby, Baby, Baby,” kept the attention. But as the hits poured in, so did the drama.

The trio continuously deflected breakup rumors, Watkins was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia, Lopes torched her boyfriend’s mansion, label battles erupted and while their breakout sophomore record, “CrazySexyCool,” logged massive smashes (“Creep,” “Red Light Special,” “Waterfalls”) and millions of sales, the girls were broke and soon bankrupt.

“[People] remember certain headlines like the fire and the bankruptcy, or whatever,” Thomas said. “Now they are gonna know why all that stuff happened.”

“When I found out Kate Lanier was doing the script, I had to pull over and cry,” Thomas recalled. “It was too much. Lisa and I watched ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ together at the theater and I told her, whoever wrote this, has to write our movie. I really feel like Lisa had a hand in some of this because it was just too crazy.”

The film is bolstered by eerily pitch-perfect performances from Drew Sidora (“The Game”), rapper Lil Mama and Keke Palmer (“Akeelah & the Bee”), who portray Watkins, Lopes and Thomas, respectively.

Watkins and Thomas cast the actresses and taught them their signature dance moves. Album covers were re-created, as were those iconic videos and memorable interviews. And the actresses even donned some of the trio’s original costumes.

It’s not all fluff though.

Thomas’ decision to terminate a pregnancy with the group’s frequent producer, Dallas Austin, is depicted (she eventually had a son with him). So is Watkins’ hospitalization, and both still find it trying to watch the scenes that show Lopes’ funeral or the sequences Lil Mama shot that mirror Lopes’ time at a Honduran healing village -- which served as the basis for VH1’s 2007 documentary, “The Last Days of Left Eye.”

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Like their music, Watkins and Thomas are brazen in conversation. Not much is off limits, a rarity for pop’s often controlled, media-savvy stars.

Not everyone is pleased though. As Watkins and Thomas made promo rounds for the film, their former manager, Perri Reid, implied via Twitter that she would pursue legal action “now that the slander continues.”

And L.A. Reid -- who reunited with the group and inked them to a new deal through LaFace/Epic Records after visiting the film’s Atlanta set earlier this year -- declined to comment for this article.

A source close to the group said L.A. Reid had a problem with his possible portrayal in the film and that the issue is “compounded” by Perri Reid’s depiction. TLC’s public fallout with Perri Reid was infamous and they were frank when discussing dealings with their former manager, including purchasing back the ‘TLC’ name for $1 million per letter. [Editor's note: In a 1999 Los Angeles Times article, the Reids cited the nasty legal battle as a factor in their 1996 divorce].

Given their tumultuous history, the women’s renewed relationship with the label is surprising, to say the least.

“You’re always going to disagree about something. It’s a damn record label and he was running it. Of course you’re going to have ups and downs. And just like anybody else, we cuss him out when need be,” Watkins offered. “But it feels natural, like home. It’s a new day and time. We’re putting LaFace back on the map -- again.”

The new album is as much about securing TLC's legacy as it is about stepping into what Watkins calls their "transitional period."

Their longtime manager, Bill Diggins, was on the verge of launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project before L.A. Reid stepped in to do the new deal.

“Everybody knows the stakes are high,” Diggins said. “We all have a lot to lose on this. If we can’t do excellent, let’s not do it. We’re not gonna settle for mediocrity. You give me one hit with TLC and it’s all over.”

Interest is certainly there, and the hip-hop world in particular has already embraced the group's return.

J. Cole recruited TLC for his single “Crooked Smile,” which netted TLC its first Top 10 R&B single since 1999, and Drake recently invited them to perform a surprise set at his annual OVO Festival.

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“I knew how big [‘Crooked Smile’] could be,” Cole said. “When I finally got the hook, I heard TLC singing it because of [their] songs like 'Unpretty' and 'Waterfalls.' I wanted to hear their voices because I was such a big fan. And because those songs were so huge and impactful, but had a message behind them, it made sense.”

TLC recently issued “Meant to Be,” their first single since 2003. The saccharine, Ne-Yo-crafted ballad is the lone new track from the biopic’s soundtrack, “20,” and came from recent sessions that include collaborations with Dallas Austin and Lady Gaga, who penned a track called “P.O.S.H. Life.” They also hope to log studio time with Drake and 2 Chainz.

The album will pay homage to their fallen member; the same goes for live performances. Fans shouldn’t look for unreleased vocals from Lopes on the new record, however. Watkins, Thomas and producers turned to Lopes’ limited-released solo effort, “Supernova,” to pull vocals to complete “3D.”

“First off, there isn’t anything else, as far as her raps,” Thomas said.

“And then you have to think about it, there are conceptual songs with certain subject matters,” Watkins added. “Rappers are deep. Do you think everything [she recorded solo] matched up with what we were doing?”

Over the years Watkins and Thomas have been accused of marginalizing Lopes’ legacy -- especially after a 2005 UPN reality show competition, “R U the Girl,” offered a prize to record and perform a track with them. And rumors that Lil Mama, who performed Lopes’ raps alongside TLC at recent gigs, would become a permanent fixture have incited fans.

The two say they are not -- and never were -- interested in finding a replacement for Lopes. It’s the one topic that gets them the most visibly upset in conversation.

“It's almost offensive,” Watkins said, along with a few unprintable words. “We built this together and we are always gonna have this together. It seems like no matter how much you're saying it, you're still always explaining yourself.”

Whether TLC finds a new generation of fans remains to be seen, but its comeback campaign is forging ahead. Gail Mitchell, a senior writer at Billboard, believes it will stick. “There's enough love and legacy of the time they were together that they can do this,” she said. “A next generation of R&B seems to be tapping into the '90s R&B, which is when TLC was big, so this might be perfect timing.”

Back at the recording studio, Watkins is discussing the new material and what could work as a potential first single. She was partial to a particular track, but a producer was lobbying for another that could hit multiple radio formats. “We had to beg L.A. [Reid] to do a video for ‘Waterfalls,’” she argues. “That was our version of going alternative.”

After another check on Thomas, Watkins slid into a dimly lit booth to take a stab at another song -- an angsty, guitar-driven pop-rock ballad called “Breaking Bad.” 

“If I die before I wake, at least I know I lived for something,” she sang. “If this breath is the last I take, I don’t want it to be for nothing.”

“We’re back on the train now, and just going,” Thomas said. “This movie has opened so many doors for us. We have a new record deal. We’re back with L.A. Reid. It’s amazing how everything is falling into place. We’re just ready for the ride.”

Follow @GerrickKennedy

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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