In the 1990s, few R&B-oriented record labels held a candle to the success of LaFace. Founded by then-former members of The Deele, Mark “L.A. Reid” Rooney and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, LaFace Records released early ’90s smash hit albums from TLC, Toni Braxton and the near-perfect soundtrack to Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang”.
During its decade of dominance, LaFace saw plenty of glory: TLC became the biggest-selling girl group of all-time; Toni Braxton won back-to-back Grammys; and Usher racked up No. 1 hits almost at will. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that after years of being built up, the label’s roster and accomplices have been brought down by some of the most dramatic moments in R&B history.
Matters of Money
When TLC released their second album, the modern classic CrazySexyCool, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas were ubiquitous mainstays of award shows, video outlets and radio. But in 1995, on their way to selling more than 10 million copies of the disc, the group’s members filed for bankruptcy, alleging they had a bad contract with LaFace and their manager — Pebbles, aka, Perri Reid, wife of L.A. — that netted each of them barely more than $30,000 from CrazySexyCool’s profits. (The case was made that TLC’s financial issues were thanks to Left Eye’s fire incident and T-Boz’s medical bills — more on those later.) The group didn’t seem so crazy in their theory when, just a few years later, Toni Braxton filed for bankruptcy, much for the same reasons as TLC, though they each apparently renegotiated their contracts prior to the release of 2000’s The Heat and 1999’s Fanmail, respectively.
Matters of the Heart
Many of LaFace’s artists could croon perfectly about heartbreak, but there were plenty of inspirations behind the scenes. Prior to the release of TLC’s CrazySexyCool, Left Eye had been dating Atlanta Falcons player Andre Rison. The relationship was rumored to have been abusive. In retaliation, Left Eye allegedly burned some of Rison’s possessions in a bathtub, only to have the fire travel and burn down his mansion. T-Boz didn’t fare much better in the love department, having married Mack 10 in 2000, only to divorce him four years later and obtain a restraining order against the rapper.
Chilli dated producer Dallas Austin for several years and the two have a son together, Tron. Chilli later revealed that several years prior to Tron’s birth, she had been pregnant with another child with Austin, but chose to have an abortion because of her young age and TLC’s forthcoming success. She admitted to regretting the decision, but did have some consolation when she met her estranged father for the first time in 1996 on “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show”. About five years afterward, Chilli began her famed relationship with Usher.
Despite a seven-year age difference, the couple seemed happy, though many questioned how faithful Usher could be to Chilli, especially given his reputation and bravado. The couple broke up in 2003, with Chilli declaring on a radio show months afterward that Usher had committed “the ultimate no-no.” At the time, she didn’t define what that no-no was, but Usher — who’s not shy about using his life as inspiration for his lyrics — put his side of the story on the radio with the aptly named Confessions. It became the biggest R&B record of the decade thanks to fans’ curiosity about what he’d have to say about his relationship with Chilli, which turned out to be not-so-debatable revelations that he had cheated.
Perhaps that was why so many fans were shocked when Usher was so committed when he began dating and then married his stylist Tameka Foster. If 2008’s Here I Stand is any testament, Usher was totally devoted to his relationship with her and to being a father to their two sons, but a little more than a year later and the couple had divorced, with Usher musically returning to his player ways on 2010’s Raymond v. Raymond and Versus.
Divorce also affected other members of the LaFace Cartel, including Pebbles in L.A. Reid (1996), Toni Braxton and Keri Lewis (2009), and Babyface and Tracey Edmonds (2005). Ironically, Tracey would go on to marry Eddie Murphy, though the marriage reportedly wasn’t legitimate and only lasted for 14 days. The most musically intriguing separation came from OutKast’s Andre 3000, who had his share of relationship drama with Neo-Soul singer Erykah Badu. The two had a son together in 1997, but Andre’s alleged beef with Badu’s mother carried over to OutKast’s chastising No. 1 hit, “Ms. Jackson.”
Matters of Life and Death
Toni Braxton waltzed and trotted her way through multiple weeks of “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008, though several diagnoses could have had her down for the count. Braxton had a benign lump removed from her breast and, around the same time, was diagnosed with microvascular angina, a symptom of coronary artery disease. This was added to the existing stress from two years earlier, when Braxton’s second son was diagnosed with autism. As a result of both her and her son’s medical conditions, Braxton has served as a spokesperson for Autism Speaks and the American Heart Association.
T-Boz, who had a life-threatening brain tumor removed just last year, also holds spokesperson duties, but for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America. The disease, a hereditary blood condition that’s mostly found in African Americans, often caused the singer to feel tired and experience tremendous pain during her time touring with TLC. In fact, it’s reported that T-Boz hid the condition from the other members of the group, only to have it discovered early on in their career when several concert dates were missed, canceled or rescheduled due to the disease.
Thankfully, T-Boz survived her ordeals, but not every member of TLC has been as fortunate. After taking a spiritual journey to Honduras in April 2002, Left Eye was involved in a car crash that proved to be deadly. Lopes was killed after the vehicle swerved off the road to avoid another and rolled over several times. Her death came during the recording of TLC’s fourth and final album, 3D.
Though Left Eye’s death is perhaps LaFace’s most famous, its first casualty is perhaps the most eerily tragic. Chilli was recruited to join TLC after serving as a backup dancer for LaFace’s first act to release an album, Damian Dame. Composed of Debra Jean “Deah Dame” Hurd and Bruce Edward “Damian” Broadus, the duo rocked R&B radio with hits such as “Exclusivity” and “Right Down To It.” Sadly, Hurd was killed in a moped accident in 1994 and, exactly two years to the day later, Broadus died of colon cancer. With the trials and tribulations experienced by the LaFace family in such a short span of time, the storied label practically rivals Motown’s legendary roster when it comes to memorable moments in R&B music history.
— Joel Lyons
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Joel Lyons is a New York City-based aficionado of dance, pop and R&B. Experience his appreciation at www.ThatsMyJam.net.