The Number Ones: TLC’s “Creep”

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In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Ethically and emotionally, “Creep” is a mess. The first #1 hit from the great Atlanta girl group TLC tells the story of a woman who realizes that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Rather than breaking up with him or even confronting him, her response is to cheat on him right back. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins sings about the impulse to keep the relationship going while seeking out some action on the side: “I’ll never leave him down/ Though I might mess around/ It’s only ’cause I need some affection.” In its lyrics, “Creep” presents an untenable situation, and it makes no attempt to resolve that situation. The song gives us an unhappy story that will probably lead to an unhappier ending, but we never hear that part.

None of the members of TLC had a hand in writing “Creep,” though T-Boz later said that the lyrics were inspired by a situation in her own romantic life. The whole TLC saga is its own kind of ethical, emotional mess. It’s the story of three women who came into the music business young and who were ruthlessly exploited by their handlers, to the point where they were barely making any money even when they were one of the most popular groups on the planet. By the time their story was over, one of those three young women hadn’t survived. And yet the actual music that TLC made during their brief run is glorious. TLC left behind a small catalog of gleaming, audacious pop. In their day, TLC sounded futuristic. Today, they’re timeless.

Maybe “Creep” itself represents the TLC story in a nutshell. The lyrics tell of a bleak, depressing, messed-up situation. The music, on the other hand, is sharp and canny and full of life. The three members of TLC weren’t united on whether they should even record “Creep,” but their chemistry burned bright on the track and in the iconic video. Even if the members of TLC didn’t write or produce “Creep,” it’s still a song that nobody else could’ve made.

Like so many of the R&B groups who rose to dominant popularity in the ’90s, TLC first came out of the new jack swing moment, the brief era when rap and dance and R&B fused into one sleek whole. TLC first started off as the brainchild of Ian Burke, an Atlanta producer and manager who worked with groups like Arrested Development. In 1990, Burke had the idea to put together a swaggering, boisterous girl group who might work as a kind of female answer to new jack swing stars Bel Biv DeVoe. At the time, Burke was working with a teenage singer named Crystal Jones, and he wanted to make her the centerpiece of this trio that he envisioned. Burke held auditions, and he found two more singers who could join Jones in the group that he called 2nd Nature.

Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and she moved to Atlanta with her family when she was nine. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes came from Philadelphia, and she headed down to Atlanta when a boyfriend told her of open auditions for this new group. Left Eye could sing, but crucially, she was more of a rapper than a singer, and that’s the role that she played in the group. Once assembled, 2nd Nature went to work making demos with Atlanta producers like Jermaine Dupri, who would soon find huge success with Kris Kross, and Rico Wade, part of the now-legendary Organized Noize production crew.

2nd Nature eventually auditioned for Perri “Pebbles” Reid, an Oakland-born R&B singer who’d made a few major hits in the ’80s and who’d gone on to found Pebbitone, a management and production company. (Pebbles’ highest-charting single, 1988’s “Mercedes Boy,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) At the time, Pebbles was married to LA Reid, the hugely successful R&B producer and songwriter who’d co-founded LaFace Records with Babyface. Pebbles gave 2nd Nature a new name, calling them TLC after the first initials of the members’ first names, and she got them set up at LaFace. Pretty quickly, though, the name became outdated. Crystal Jones, the original centerpiece of TLC, was kicked out of the group, and that chapter remains a bit shadowy. In one version of the story, Jones couldn’t perform as well as T-Boz and Left Eye. In another, Jones wanted to look over the Pebbitone contract before signing it, and Pebbles wouldn’t let that happen. Either way, TLC were a duo by the time they signed with Pebbitone.

In 1991, T-Boz and Left Eye made their on-record debut singing backup on “Sixty Seconds (The Conclusion),” a brief album track from the LaFace R&B duo Damian Dame. Damian Dame only ever made one album. (Their highest-charting single, 1991’s “Exclusivity,” peaked at #42.) A few years after that album’s release, both members of Damian Dame had died — Debra Jean Hurd in a car crash in 1994, Bruce Broadus of colon cancer two years later. One of Damian Dame’s backup dancers was Rozonda Thomas, a young woman from Columbus, Georgia. Pebbles recruited her to become the new third member of TLC.

If TLC were going to keep the same name, Rozonda Thomas needed a nickname that started with C, so Left Eye started calling her Chilli. In this new form, TLC made their debut singing backup on Jemaine Jackson’s 1991 single “Word To The Badd!!,” a diss track aimed at his brother Michael. (“Word To The Badd!!” peaked at #78. Jermaine Jackson’s two highest-charting singles, 1972’s “Daddy’s Home” and 1980’s “Let’s Get Serious,” both peaked at #9. “Daddy’s Home” is a 5, and “Let’s Get Serious” is a 7.)

TLC’s 1992 debut album Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip was a bright little pop explosion. The three members of TLC wore outlandish day-glo clothes; Left Eye famously wore a condom over the left eye of her sunglasses, a safe-sex PSA that was also a ridiculous and indelible fashion statement. Even if the three members of TLC had been assembled by managers and producers, they radiated blissful camaraderie. All three members of the group had distinct voices and personas, but they all fit together beautifully. They seemed like they were great friends with each other, and it was impossible to listen to the album without wanting to be friends with them, too.

TLC were an immediate sensation. Their first single, the joyously horny “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) Shortly thereafter, TLC made it to #2 with the love-song ballad “Baby-Baby-Baby.” (That one is a 7.) “Baby-Baby-Baby” was written and produced by the trio of Daryl Simmons and TLC’s label bosses Babyface and LA Reid, and it was kept out of the top spot by another Babyface/Reid/Simmons production, Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road.” Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip also featured contributions from big-deal rap producers like Jermaine Dupri and Marley Marl, but most of the tracks on the LP, including “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” came from Dallas Austin, an ascendant young songwriter and producer who was based in Atlanta and who was about the same age as all three members of TLC.

Like Chilli, Dallas Austin originally came from Columbus, Georgia. He went way back with Chilli and T-Boz. As a teenager, he’d gotten to know both of them at an Atlanta skating rink, where all three were regulars. Back then, Austin was already starting to find work as a producer, working with groups like Troop and Another Bad Creation. Austin also wrote and produced most of the tracks on Boyz II Men’s hugely successful debut album Cooleyhighharmony. Austin was instrumental in helping define TLC’s sound and image — a giddy and chaotic collage that was closer to straight-up early-’90s rap than it was to new jack swing. After “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby-Baby-Baby,” TLC made it to #7 with “What About Your Friends,” another Dallas Austin track. (It’s an 8.) By then, Austin and Chilli were a couple.

Along with Boyz II Men and Jodeci, TLC were openers on MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit tour. For a little while, T-Boz and Jodeci’s Dalvin DeGrate were a couple, and that relationship may or may not have inspired “Creep.” Left Eye, meanwhile, started dating the star Falcons running back Andre Rison, and that relationship reportedly turned abusive. In 1993, Left Eye filed an assault charge against Rison; witnesses claimed that Rison had hit Left Eye in a grocery store parking lot and then shot a gun in the air. He denied it, the charges were eventually dropped, and Left Eye and Rison stayed together. A year later, after a fight with Rison, Left Eye filled a bathtub full of Rison’s shoes, doused it in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. The whole house burned down. Left Eye pleaded guilty of arson, and she was sentenced to five years of probation. Shortly thereafter, the members of TLC appeared on the cover of Vibe dressed as firefighters. Rison and Left Eye still remained together, off and on, for the rest of Left Eye’s life.

Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip went quadruple platinum, but the members of TLC barely saw any money. They eventually fired Pebbles as their manager, but they remained ensnared in an exploitative contract with Pebbitone. When TLC recorded their 1994 sophomore LP CrazySexyCool, Left Eye wasn’t in the studio much, since she was still going through court-ordered rehab for alcoholism. Dallas Austin had written “Creep” with TLC in mind. For a few months, he hadn’t even decided whether he liked the song, but it remained stuck in his head, and he eventually took it to the group. Left Eye never liked the song, and she refused to rap on it. Later on, she explained her objection: “I wasn’t down with the cheating on your man. For me, it’s ‘be faithful.’ I just didn’t know — is this the kind of message we should be sending out to people?… If a girl’s gonna catch her man cheating — this was my thing — instead of telling her to cheat back, why don’t we tell her to just leave?” Makes sense to me!

And yet “Creep” is a stunning record. Dallas Austin built the beat from a lonely looped-up trumpet blast and the loping beat from Slick Rick’s 1988 single “Hey Young World.” (Slick Rick’s highest-charting single, the 1994 Warren G collab “Behind Bars,” peaked at #87. Another song built on a Slick Rick sample will soon appear in this column.) “Creep” has a deep, warm, jazzy groove that perfectly fits T-Boz’s husky alto. Even the DJ-scratching bits are fully locked-in with that humid midtempo strut.

Unlike many of her ’90s R&B peers, T-Boz never went crazy with vocal runs. Instead, she sings “Creep” with a calm, confident depth. The warmth of T-Boz’s delivery is almost enough to convince you that the response of her “Creep” narrator is entirely reasonable, that it won’t lead to disaster. She slides over the track, describing fucked-up power dynamics with breezy no-big-deal calm: “If he knew the things I did, he couldn’t handle it/ And I choose to keep him protected.” Chilli’s backing vocals tenderly surround T-Boz’s voice, propping her up. “Creep” is jammed with sly little hooks, and T-Boz delivers those hooks with effortless panache. That’s just charisma at work. Only T-Boz could make retaliatory cheating sound cool. It takes a whole lot of pop-music magic to turn a squalid, complicated situation into a four-minute party jam, but TLC had that magic.

Maybe that coolness is why Left Eye didn’t want anything to do with “Creep.” Left Eye pushed against releasing “Creep” as a single, to the point where she threatened to wear tape over her mouth in the video. Eventually, she recorded a verse for Dallas Austin’s DARP Remix of “Creep,” and she used that verse to warn of the dangers of creeping: “Creepin’ is the number one item on the chart/ Rippin’ families apart, the leading cause of a broken heart/ Injuries can be fatal, may infect the prenatal/ HIV is often sleepin’ in a creepin’ cradle.”

In the end, Left Eye didn’t wear tape over her mouth in the “Creep” video — which is good, since the group ended up making three videos for the damn song. The label scrapped their first two stabs at the clip, including one with Boyz II Men director Lionel C. Martin. The third time for the “Creep” video was the charm. Working with Salt-N-Pepa director Matthew Rolston, TLC didn’t dramatize the “Creep” lyrics. Instead, TLC wore silk pajamas — a compromise between the tomboyish style that the group preferred and the sexy lingerie that their label wanted — and hit instantly-iconic synchronized dance moves, looking just as cool as they sounded. Even if you objected to the situation that “Creep” described, you probably still wished you were friends with TLC.

It took months for “Creep” to creep its way up the Hot 100 before it finally became TLC’s first #1 hit. A few days after “Creep” reached #1, CrazySexyCool was certified double platinum. It would go on to sell a whole lot more than two million records. TLC had plenty of hits on deck, and we’ll soon see them in this column again.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the fiery, intense alt-rock “Creep” cover that the Afghan Whigs released in 1996:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s MF DOOM chopping a “Creep” sample into unrecognizable shapes on his 2009 track “Absolutely”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2016, before Spider-Man and Euphoria made her famous, Zendaya released her single “Something New,” a Chris Brown collaboration built from a “Creep” sample. Here’s the “Something New” video:

(“Something New” peaked at #93. Zendaya’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Replay,” peaked at #40. Chris Brown will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great Oakland rapper Kamaiyah sing-rapping over a “Creep” sample on her 2017 mixtape track “Leave Em”:

(Kamaiyah doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of her own, but she got to #62 on the 2016 YG/Drake collaboration “Why You Always Hatin?”)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the outtake from a 2018 Atlanta episode where Donald Glover, LaKeith Stanfield, and Bryan Tyree Henry rock silk pajamas and dance to “Creep,” copying the steps from the video:

(Donald Glover will eventually appear in this column.)



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