It's a thankfully sunny evening in north London, and the man serving me falafel has just heard about TLC for the first time. "VLC?" he asks, when my friend and I tell him who we're headed to see across the road, at Koko. No, TLC, we say again. "They were famous in the 90s," my friend offers, while the man behind the counter pulls up a grainy fan-shot video on YouTube. "This?" Yup. He says nothing else, and only reacts to my attempt at singing the opening of "No Scrubs" with—after a pause—"you have a nice voice."
So, TLC are back. And, by some logic that makes me question the musical taste of 80 percent of people living in Britain in the 90s, this is their first-ever UK live show. Before it starts, I hear at least three other people inside Koko have the "seriously how is this their first gig here?" conversation. That's fair enough: they were, at least in my 90s world, massive. As a trio, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes kicked their way into our living rooms, condom-covered oversized trousers flapping about in the process. Their colorful visuals matched their lyrics, seeing the group shout out one-liners on hard dicks, contraception, cheating and what it meant to be a young, playful and confident woman. They dragged the girl group concept from its 1960s peak to new levels, slapping on layers of brashness, humor, and an unwavering commitment to friendship that set the template for everyone from Destiny's Child to Little Mix. Winning four Grammys in the process didn't hurt either.
If you're in your early twenties now or younger, then none of that may mean much. TLC in 2017 are known more for their big singles—"No Scrubs" a dancefloor crowd pleaser at your shite uni club nights, "Waterfalls" soundtracking the drunken pub singing of a group of women in their late thirties—than their album tracks. They're known for the tragedy of Left Eye's death in 2002, when she was just 30 years old. Depending on how deep into music TV documentaries you went in the 2000s, they're also known for the tangled mess of how their finances were mismanaged, leading to a mid-90s declaration of bankruptcy.
But the TLC I've always recognized felt like one of the the most natural pop groups of the time, though they were as manufactured as any of your 00s faves. They pulled off a version of the pop-urban dynamic that industry svengalis would try to recreate for years afterward, with each member offering up a different appeal. Chilli, a backing dancer-turned-singer and last to join the group, brought sex appeal and mid-range vocals, Left Eye repped for the tomboys with her rap and T-Boz's contralto vocals underpinned it all, giving their early new jack swing a funk-R&B sensibility too. By the time All Saints or Blue came around, that "make sure one of them is willing to rap" formula had hobbled its way across the Atlantic, to varying degrees of success. And perhaps unlike them, TLC made the formula seem effortless.
Now a duo, the worry is they'll have lost so much, both personally and professionally, by appearing without Left Eye. I squeeze my way towards the front of the stage post-falafel. Glancing around the room, there's the sort of mix you might expect: groups of women in their late twenties and early thirties; gaggles of younger punters on their phones and sloshing handfuls of beer in plastic cups as they jostle to the front; couples in their forties and older, nestled close to each other.
Then T-Boz and Chilli appear. Now, I don't know when you last saw a live act that wasn't, like, a relatively new buzzband playing in a bar's downstairs bit or a singer who debuted in 2010, but the difference that 25 years in the game makes is immediately clear. Going from "Diggin' on You" and "What About Your Friends" to "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"—complete with four metallic shell-suited backing dancers—their performance is as tight as the vice grip I notice one guy has his on boyfriend's bum during "Creep."
T-Boz is smiling and projecting her rich-as-ever low vocals into that mic like it's nothing. Chilli has apparently not aged a day, dressed in a crop top and baggy-ish trousers combo that would bring a tear to circa 1997 Shaznay Lewis' eye. And there's a warmth to the entire thing, a sense that the duo know they're being wheeled out one last time before retiring for good, but are doing it because "the people" literally asked for it. Their fifth and final album was crowdfunded in 2015, pulling in donations from Katy Perry and probably your aunt, pooling more than $430,000. Their PR say they sold out arena dates in Japan this year and last. Nostalgia is an incredible motivator, it turns out. And as someone who tried to rap along to their debut as a child (hiding the album from my mum because of all the condoms on the artwork), and stuck with them all the way until 1999's FanMail, I feel that nostalgia like a wobble in my gut.
I'll be honest: the new music isn't great. It's … fine, a contemporary spin on funk and R&B that at times sounds like Earth Wind & Fire's "September"—forthcoming single "Sunny"—mashed up with the sort of female-fronted pop song that would use one of those ubiquitous "HEY!" choruses (recent single "Haters"). But staying on the cutting edge of music in 2017 isn't ultimately the point of TLC, is it? They have their bangers and their slow jams about loving yourself while being true to yourself, and that'll do just fine.
Before the evening's wrapped, they've covered all the bases, from sex straight-talking to 90s dance routines to Chilli actually belting "COME THROUGH MY DOOR / TAKE OFF MY CLOTHES" while sat on the lap of a punter she pulled onstage for a private dance during "Red Light Special". Yes, they play "Waterfalls" and "Unpretty." Yes, for the most part, no one within my line of sight seems to know any of the early tracks played for the true #heads. But TLC rattle through it all like a coconut-oiled machine, smashing together variety show costume changes and dance breaks in a way that feels distinctly Not of This Era. They did it at Goth Beach festival last year and they've done it again here. They've reminded everyone that 15 years away don't mean much when you come back swinging—now, I just have to convince falafel guy.
You can find Tshepo day-dreaming about "Silly Ho" on Twitter.
(All images by Chloe Newman)