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TLC WINS BY DOING IT THEIR WAY R&B VOCAL TRIO MAINTAINS FOCUS ON FASHION, MUSIC AND VISION.

Byline: Fred Shuster Music Writer

What to wear - not what to sing - was among female dance-pop trio TLC's biggest concerns last year.

The multi-Grammy nominated threesome - Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas - left most of the musical decisions to their producers during the making of their third and latest record, "FanMail" (LaFace/Arista).

The album, which spawned the No. 1 singles "No Scrubs" and "UnPretty," was executive produced by Atlanta's LaFace label co-founders Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and super hitmaker Dallas Austin.

"We sat around and worried about what we were gonna wear," said Thomas, who adds that the r&b vocal trio downplayed their overt rap connections since starting in 1992. "Dallas and the guys set the tone."

Filled with tough grooves and melodic jams, "FanMail," is the most personal album the trio has made because it reflects experiences and emotions the group faced in the years since TLC became known around the world, Thomas says.

Among the tracks is "Come on Down," a provocative ballad penned for TLC by award-winning songwriter Diane Warren. The single "Silly Ho" deals with a certain type of female who hasn't found herself, while the album's first smash hit, "No Scrubs" (produced by newcomer Kevin "Shekspere" Briggs and penned by Columbia recording artists Tiny and Candy from Xscape), puts men with no cars, jobs or love lives in their proper places.

TLC - nominated for seven Grammy Awards on Tuesday including album of the year and best pop performance by a duo or group with vocal for the song "Unpretty" - appears tonight with best new artist Grammy nominee Christina Aguilera and Blaque at the Pond in Anaheim.

"We're taking it to the next place in terms of production, artwork, concept and image," boasts Thomas. "We want to be universal with this record. It's for our fans - which is why we called it `FanMail.' But we also want to get it to people who've never heard of us."

The album, which peaked at No. 1 upon release, is on its way back up the albums chart from last week's No. 67, thanks to the well-attended "FanMail" trek.

The groove-flavored title track says thank you to fans for seven years of support.

"You'll never see us copy anyone else," says Watkins. "We're always a little scared when we put out a new record, but we stand firm in what we believe in, and we have our own thoughts which come through in our music."

Production for "FanMail" began in early 1998. But in the years since the 1994 release of TLC's 10-million-selling smash second album, the Grammy-winning "CrazySexyCool," all three women have been busy working on various projects.

But a recent magazine article about the trio suggested things were not as cozy as they seem. In the article, Thomas and Watkins lashed out at Lopes, who they said was a loose cannon whose erratic behavior was dragging the group down.

The magazine said Lopes quit the group prior to the making of "FanMail," temporarily freezing the trio's fortunes.

But when asked about the supposed rift, Thomas just said everyone was doing their own thing prior to the production of the album and the start of the current tour, and everything has been worked out.

"Since the last record, I've become a mother," says Thomas. "And since I don't believe in the nanny thing, I've been spending all my time with my new son. I also did some acting on the side. I was in the film `Hav Plenty,' and I've been working with an acting coach. I turned down quite a few major movie roles because I want it to be right."

TLC first came together as teens in Atlanta, releasing their 1992 debut, "Ooooooohhh...On the TLC Tip," to immediate acclaim, national radio airplay and a No. 14 chart position. "CrazySexyCool," with the hit singles "Waterfalls," "Red Light Special" and "Creep," chugged up to No. 7.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing, though. Shortly before the release of the second record, Lopes was charged with felony arson for setting fire to the house of her then-boyfriend, Andre Rison, a receiver for the Atlanta Falcons football team, in June 1994. She received five years probation and a fine.

Lopes kept busy before the release of "FanMail" by hosting MTV's daily "The Cut" show, while developing her Left Eye production company and working on projects for Sony Music.

"Some groups have tried to take off from where we left off in 1994," Lopes said. "We've heard about record companies who've tried to put together groups just like us, but no one can do it. It's the combinations of our personalities and the chemistry between us that makes TLC what it is."

THE FACTS

--Who: TLC with Christina Aguilera and Blaque.

--Where: Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim.

--When: 7:30 tonight.

--Tickets: $35.50 to $45.50.

--Information: (213) 480-3232.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo: While clothes keep TLC occupied, the group's songs - which can get very personal - are one of their main attractions to fans.

Box: THE FACTS (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 7, 2000
Words:853
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