Carefully avoiding one song fits all; Music: TLC's ever-fresh sound stays distinctively theirs because producer Dallas Austin knows what works for them.


Back when TLC was preparing to record its third album, "Fanmail," Missy Elliott approached the group's management with a new song she wanted the trio to record. L.A. Reid -- the "La" in LaFace Records, TLC's label -- heard the track and immediately knew it would be huge. So he urged the three women to give it a listen.

They did. They liked the song but didn't think it was right for them. So they passed on it.

And even though "Where My Girls At?" went on to become a big hit for the group 702, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas is still glad that TLC stood its ground.

"L.A. was upset with us," she says over the phone from New York, where the group was preparing for its current tour. "He was like, 'The song's a smash!' We were like, 'Yeah, you're absolutely right. But it's the latest sound right now, and we don't want it like TLC is working with who's ever hot. Because that's not it. TLC works with their team. We're not going to leave our team because a producer or a newcomer is real hot and has all the latest hits.

"In the long run, he understood how we felt, and everything was fine," Chilli adds. "But I hope that Missy Elliott is not upset with us, because it was not a dis to her. We just wanted to continue to work with the people that we're used to working with."

TLC's decision wasn't just about loyalty. It was also about identity and the creative chemistry that earned the group nine Top-10 singles (including four No. 1's) in the last seven years. Chilli and her bandmates, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, saw no reason to mess with success.

Besides, says Chilli, TLC doesn't need to chase after the hot sound of the moment when the group has producer Dallas Austin around. "Dallas leads the way," she says. "We depend on Dallas. We put the pressure on Dallas to give us a new sound.

"Not the latest. We don't want the latest. We want the new sound, something that's not happening right now, and he's always been the one to do that."

Dallas delivered, too. "Unpretty," a song he co-wrote with T-Boz, recently topped the charts, while "No Scrubs," which came from Austin discovery Kevin "Shekspere" Briggs, dominated the charts all summer. Clearly, TLC's instincts were on the money.

Of course, what makes a song work for TLC isn't just about the writers, the producers or the groove. It also has to do with what the song is saying.

Chilli cites the Destiny's Child hit "Bills Bills Bills" -- also written and produced by Shekspere -- as an example. "I wouldn't have done that song, because of what the lyrics were saying," she says. "I don't want anybody to pay my bills for me, you know what I'm saying?

"I know in 'No Scrubs,' I say, 'You want to get with me/With no money/Oh no.' I don't mean you have to be rich, but I'm out here working. I'm getting my own thing. You can't be just some broke person that's not doing anything for yourself. You know what I'm saying?

"Fortunately, I'm not in that situation, because Dallas and I have been together for thousands of years," she adds, laughing. "I'm very happy with my relationship.

"But I wouldn't feel comfortable singing those lyrics in 'Bills, Bills, Bills,' " she says. "Although it's a great song -- I think it's wonderful for Destiny's Child. But it's definitely not a song for TLC, and it came from the same producer and writer."

Speaking of "No Scrubs," Chilli mentions that she's amazed by the strong reaction the song provoked. She doesn't mean the women who cheered its dismissal of no-account men who think nothing of leaning out of a car window to try to get a date with the nearest passing female; she means the men who take the song as an attack on masculinity.

Reaction was so strong, in fact, that the tune inspired an answer record, the chest-thumping (and unabashedly sexist) "No Pigeons" by Sporty Thieves -- a record that left Chilli cold.

"What a lot of people didn't understand about 'No Scrubs' is, the song is not a male-bashing song," she says. "TLC is not a male-bashing group. We were just talking about a certain type of guys. That's why, when that 'No Pigeons' song came out, I was like, 'Man, a lot of people really are upset, but that's the wrong reason.'

"So I'd just really like to break that down, that we're not talking about all guys."

In fact, some guys even wrote in to thank the group for finally calling the scrubs on their game. "Because they have friends that are scrubs," she says, and laughs. "The scrubs are riding with them. They're driving their own cars, and their friends are hanging out, trying to talk to the girls.

"But so many guys are like, 'Oh, y'all just dissing. Y'all dissing.' And I'm like, 'Well, we're dissing scrubs. And if you're upset, does that mean you're a scrub?' "

She laughs. "It's like, scrubs were mad all over the place."


Where: Baltimore Arena

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $40.50 and $30.50

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 410-347-2010 for information

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