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Forget the fury; TLC is missing a friend

Times Staff Writer

A button was pushed in error and, just like that, her voice was back in the recording studio, rhyming and reminding. It had been only a few weeks since the death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the unexpected sound of her voice was jolting to the other members of TLC.

“I just lost it there for a little bit,” Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins said of the eerie moment. “It was really hard. We had to go home early. We were already not reading the papers and not watching TV, trying to keep it out of our mind. As if we could do that.”

They had bickered and declared bankruptcy, fought criminal charges, endured medical maladies and been the constant target of rumors. But most of all, TLC made memorable hits with a slinky, dance-floor feminism and sold 14.5 million albums in the United States, a career total that trails only the Dixie Chicks on the tally of pop’s most successful female groups.

Now, though, the end may be near.

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The group’s fourth album, “3D,” arrived in stores last week and is expected to debut in the Top 10 of the pop album charts that will be released today by SoundScan. More than a new chapter, Watkins says “3D” will write the ending of the group’s remarkably volatile career. As Watkins asks: “Can there be a TLC without Lisa?”

The flamboyant Lopes, the resident rapper in TLC’s construct of R&B; and hip-hop, died in April in a car crash in Honduras. That tragedy has closed the book on a group that has been defined for a decade by drama and resilience.

TLC had been in the studio in the weeks before the death of the 30-year-old Lopes, and according to Watkins, the group was in a groove and enjoying each other’s company more than ever. “We’ve been through so much,” Watkins said. “And then for this to happen.... “

Lopes, Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas became TLC in 1991 in Atlanta and a year later gained national attention for the songs “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby, Baby, Baby.” The group would go on to have signature hits with “Waterfalls,” “No Scrubs,” “Unpretty” and “Creep,” but they were constantly rumored to be breaking up amid a series of setbacks and occasional public spats. Lopes pleaded guilty to burning down the home of her boyfriend, Watkins was found to have sickle-cell anemia, and all three claimed to be in dire financial straits despite their huge record sales.

All of that seems trivial now, Watkins said, following the death of “someone who was a sister to me, no matter what we went through or said.”

The pixieish Lopes brought attitude and many of the style concepts that would make TLC a distinctive force in pop with its album titles and themes, music videos and stage fashions. The new album, “3D,” was a Lopes idea -- three members, each bringing a varied voice and talent and each evident in strong relief. Lopes also set the blueprint for the visual imagery for the project.

The album is dedicated to Lopes, and the track “Turntable” is an especially poignant song dedicated to the late rapper. Lopes herself is heard on five tracks. A chunk of her vocal work on the disc was pulled from a stash of solo work she had put together for an album called “Supernova” that was never released in the U.S., and producers including Dallas Austin grafted her voice onto tracks such as “Quickie.”

“She had a lot of stuff laying around and we went through it, and the interesting thing is Lisa is probably on this album more than any other TLC album,” Austin said. “We took pieces of two or three other songs, for instance, and made this one song called ‘Quickie,’ and somehow it all worked. It worked almost like she was there.”

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Austin was joined by a squad of top producers, such as Rodney Jerkins, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and the Neptunes and the result is a wider musical variety than perhaps any other TLC collection. Austin, for one, is also certain it will be the final TLC album.

“I can’t see them going on,” said the producer, who has worked with TLC since its earliest days in the studio. “I used to call them the ‘cats,’ because you could throw them out the 99th floor of a building and they would land on their feet. So many things have happened to them. But they were all there together, but now they won’t go on without that group all together.”

Thomas has says she is intent on finishing up a solo album and, if it is successful, it is easy to imagine TLC calling it quits. Even if “3D” is the final full album of new material, the group will be back next year with a greatest-hits album that will include several tracks finished in the sessions over the past year in Atlanta studios. The labors, Watkins said, were especially difficult after Lopes’ death.

Watkins and Thomas have promoted the album with select public and television appearances -- among them “Total Request Live” on MTV, where hundreds of TLC fans showed up, many sporting a black stripe on their left cheeks, a nod to Lopes’ trademark look. “I think Lisa would be proud of us and this new album,” Watkins said. Fans shouldn’t expect the surviving members of TLC to share their memorializing spirit in live performances, however. “I can’t see us touring or doing anything like that,” Watkins said. “TLC is not what it was and we aren’t going to pretend that is.”

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