“Waterfalls” is a parable to be wary of chasing after the wrong things; to be cautious of desires and resist temptations. Or more simply, as Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas puts it – anything that is self-destructive is a waterfall. It was written for TLC by production trio Organized Noize and Marqueze Etheridge. Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes wrote the rap, and it became their signature song and a classic.
There are two stories, or episodes in “Waterfalls” – the first is of a young man who looks to earn money from selling drugs only to meet one of the two most likely inevitable endings – and the other is warning to wear a condom – becoming the first ever Number 1 single to discuss HIV. The $1million budget music video clip would drive these two narratives home and also win them the MTV Music Video of the year making TLC the first ever African-American act to win that trophy.
The bassline, courtesy of LaMarquis Jefferson, murmurs and weaves itself through horns that caress rather than stab while guitarist Edward Stroud noodles through a wah-wah pedal. The story-telling verses are carried by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ contralto lead vocal possessing equal measures of slink and rasp and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas’ mezzo-soprano fills out the chorus hooks. In contrast to the cautionary and dark subject matter, sonically “Waterfalls” is comforting and warm. It feels like a mother’s embrace, giving advice with love and without judgement.
Speaking about Waterfalls Marqueze said “What’s one of the most beautiful things in the world but at the same time is one of the most deadliest? And I just thought a waterfall, because it’s wonderful to see but it’s a dangerous force of nature. Just because everything looks good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes’ wasn’t able to spend as much time in the studio as the others for the recording of CrazySexyCool, she was serving out court-ordered rehab having plead guilty to burning down the house of her boyfriend, American football player Andre Rison. Her rap is reflective, Tionne said of it, in a 2018 interview in The Guardian, “it was for herself and everyone else who had been down the wrong path, chased the wrong things” – the day before recording she was in a car with Lisa and they did see a rainbow, “and it made her feel good about life and remember how precious it is.”
Lisa closes her rap with the lines “Dreams are hopeless aspirations, in hopes of coming true, believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you” – these would be engraved on her casket when she passed away seven years later as a victim of a car accident.
- The scenes in the music video with TLC singing while standing on a body of water were shot on a man-made lake 80,000 tonnes of water at Universal Studios where they shot Jaws.
- T-Boz was terrified during the shoot, explaining to The Guardian “I can’t swim. It was 6am and I’m on this little plastic thing in the middle of 80,000 tonnes of water… That’s why my feet are planted. I do not move. I was so worried about falling in.”
- Co-writer Marqueze Ethridge was a friend of Lopes and the Organized Noize trio who worked at the restaurant in a local Marriott hotel. He kept that job even after “Waterfalls” reached #1.
- Organized Noize had their first on-record credit in 1992 for a remix of TLC‘s “What About Your Friends” and that remix featured a rap from a young pair of rappers they were mentoring by the name of Outkast – which was the duo’s first ever recording. Organized Noize and Outkast would go on to record Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), ATLiens (1996), Aquemini (1998) and Stankonia (2000)
- “Waterfalls” contains no samples but Paul McCartney has remarked on the similarity in opening lyrics to his song by the same name from 1980 where he sings “Don’t go jumping waterfalls/ Please keep to the lake/ People who jump waterfalls sometimes can make mistakes.”