TLC's Chilli Talks Kickstarter-Funded Final Album: "We Have to Involve the Fans"

Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas

Rozonda Thomas also talks about whether audio of the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes would be included.

Scrubs better run for the hills — TLC's headed back to the studio.

The legendary group just announced plans for a fifth and final album, to be funded directly by fans.

Yep, TLC's going Kickstarter. Sixteen years ago the group included thousands of fans' names on a pull-out poster in its third album, FanMail. Now, they're offering fans the chance to be even more involved in the process, both creatively and physically. While pledges start at $5, higher fan contributions will get you things like a custom TLC voicemail, signed vinyl, an exercise class with the group's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and even clothing from TLC's vintage videos.

Watch more TLC Recruits Lil Mama to Perform Left Eye's 'Waterfalls' Verse

It might seem surprising that a group with four Hot 100 No. 1 hits, a TV movie (VH1's CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story) that attracted 4.5 million viewers and 65 million records sold worldwide would use Kickstarter for its new album.

But that's if you're looking at things the old-fashioned way. Following successful high-profile crowdfunding campaigns from Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer and more, Kickstarter is starting to look less like a last resort and more like a viable business model (at least for established names).

Billboard chatted with Chilli about the details of the group's Kickstarter campaign, what this "final album" really means for TLC and whether audio of the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes will be part of the album.

Why did you decide to make this album using Kickstarter?

It's a combination of things. Our manager talked to us about Kickstarter long ago, and maybe he was just planting the seeds back then. Also, I got on Twitter later than most. I already had fans asking, "When are you coming back? We need more music!" Then once our biopic came out, the requests were just overwhelming. Fans have even been sending ideas for what they want a new album cover to look like — they get so creative. They have so much love for us, and we thought, "We gotta do this, and we have to involve the fans."

Before Kickstarter, were you talking to labels? Was it that you couldn't agree on terms with them?

That wasn't it at all. We worked with L.A. Reid again when we did the movie — we did a song for the soundtrack ("Meant to Be") and that was a good experience. We had a great time with him. But doing it this way, we have complete creative control. The only people we'll be talking to and asking their opinion is the fans. That's it. Doing stuff outside of the box is what TLC does. We came out of the box already out of the box. If we feel like we're in the box, we'd go crazy. On FanMail, we had thousands of fans' names inside the CD jacket, we dedicated the whole album to our fans, so this is not new to us — at least the fan involvement part. Kickstarter is perfect for us. It wasn't something we heard about and just got to it. We did our research, met with the people at Kickstarter — they are brilliant, and they're excited to work with us. We feel very good about this collaboration.

What kind of incentives are you offering for pledges?

Lots of fun stuff. Everybody knows how T-Boz and I are afraid of the dark, so we have TLC nightlights. And we love our onesies, so we'll have an overnight onesie party with some fans. Plus personal things, like a workout session with me. We have things we can give them — things you can have in your hand — but it's nothing like spending that quality time with fans that love you.

Have you started on the music?

Right now we're working on getting the right team together: The right producers, the right writers. Because we all have to connect with these people and have working chemistry. When you don't have that, you can be in the studio working with the best producers and writers but not get any magic. That's what we're working on and it's looking good so far. People really want some good TLC music again.

Ne-Yo worked with you guys on "Meant to Be" for the biopic. Might he be on the album?

I hope so! We're such huge fans of his work, he's so talented and he totally gets us. We would love to have him come on board. The only thing that would keep him away is his own project, because he's got his stuff out right now. But yeah, if he has the time, that would be awesome.

Anyone else you're hoping to get?

There's quite a few people. Not necessarily big names, because we didn't get our biggest songs from people you knew. When we got with Dallas Austin, he was just getting on. He was kinda like the fourth member of TLC. I've talked to him about this album, and he's very excited. He understands TLC better than most producers could, and he's excited to be working with us as well. He was like, "Count me in!"

So this is a TLC album, but Left Eye is obviously no longer with us. Will she be involved in any way, like unreleased recordings?

You know, when we did the last album, 3D, during the time that she did pass away, the song "Girl Talk" was the only one that her rap was current — she did the rap specifically for that song. Before that, Lisa was working on her solo stuff and she wanted to go in a direction that was different from Left Eye with TLC. And we totally understood, respected and supported her, but a lot of that is different from the type of music that we do. At that time we were searching really hard to find stuff to go with songs we were working on to finish the [3D] album. So to answer your question, probably not, but I'm not going to say "no" because we're open to it. But at the end of the day, everyone knows how much we love our sister. You go to our show, you feel her presence.

And you don't want it to feel forced.

With our fans, they'll know. They know when it's forced and when it's naturally a good thing. Like when the movie came out and people saw how Lil Mama did portraying our sister, the diehard TLC fans, they fell in love with her for doing such a good job. And that's why they were okay with her doing some shows with us and repping Left Eye. So if something authentic can come together like that, we're going to do it.

What about having Lil Mama on the album?

I don't know. I'm not sure, we haven't gone that far as collaborations. Right now we want to get that message out to our fans and say, "Hey, this is what we want to do and we want to do it with you guys. We have a ton of ideas, and we know you have them, because you guys have no problem telling us on Twitter." (Laughs.) I promise you, every single day I go on Twitter and Instagram and see something that blows me away. We still have the love for music; it will forever be in my heart. Being on stage and performing is one of my first loves, and I can't wait to get back out there. But we gotta make sure it's product that you guys love.

So what made you decide this was the final album?

We're so blessed to have an amazing catalog. It's rare to have a catalog that's full of songs that people love and to get an opportunity to add to that, and to say it's the last album. We don't really know what the future holds, but this is so important to us and we want to do it right. We don't want to get out there and lie to anybody, like we're gonna do eight more albums, but this album right here is so important to us. And that's it. If the stars are aligned later and it makes sense to do anther one, we can say, "Hey, we decided to make one more." But now it feels like the final album. And to add to what we have, the songs have to stand up next to the ones you guys love so much. Otherwise, y'all will let us know it's wack if it's wack. (Laughs.)

Is that a lot of pressure?

It is pressure. But we're always very nervous about things — we don't take anything for granted. We want to bring that love and energy and entertainment to our fans. We want them to walk away like, "Wow, you can tell they still love us," because we do. It's not about us going out there and performing for a check — we love what we do. It's important to make sure the product is up to par. Trust me, if the subject matter isn't right, if the tracks aren't jamming, we won't do them. And we gotta make up new TLC dances. I already have a couple in my head. We got new dances, we gotta figure out crazy new outfits -- and we'll be going through this with our fans [on Kickstarter]. For instance, I know for a fact that if Michael Jackson — who happens to be my husband, he's my baby — if I could say I helped him pick out that jacket in "Thriller," I mean come on, that would be crazy. That's something you would remember the rest of your life.

Check out the 19 different pledge rewards and donate to TLC's final album over at Kickstarter.

This story first appeared on billboard.com.

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