David Livingston/Getty; Inset: Kevin Winter/Getty
May 11, 2016 10:45 PM

She don’t want no scrubs – and she doesn’t want any fakers, either.

“It’s kinda sad because a lot of the real artists, the people I look up to, are not here anymore, like Prince – he was the last of many,” TLC’s Tionne ”T-Boz” Watkins tells PEOPLE. “He enforced everything that I do. If it weren’t for Prince or Michael Jackson, I wouldn’t be who I am. They inspired me that much, to create my own character.”

And while the R&B veteran – who will release her memoir, A Sick Life, in September 2017 – celebrates breakouts like Bryson Tiller and consistent chart-toppers, from Beyoncé and Kanye West to Drake, she says none compare to her funky childhood icon.

“He was a genius. People call themselves geniuses, but they’re visionaries. A visionary and a genius are two separate things, and I think some of these artists get it twisted,” she says.

Over the years, Watkins, now 46, grew to enjoy a special bond with the Purple One, who died April 21 at his Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

“Everybody always used to ask, ‘How did you get to redo Prince’s songs? He never clears anybody!’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know!'” recalls Watkins. (TLC recorded a version of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” on their hit CrazySexyCool.)”I know we were his favorite group. He would often tell me I was his favorite. Like, really? You grow up and are like, ‘No way, this is not happening.'”

Watkins says one of her favorite moments with the late icon was when he surprised them at a concert, joining them onstage unannounced.

“One time we were at Madison Square Garden, and I heard Janet [Jackson] and Prince were gonna be there, but I didn’t see them,” she says. “So I’m onstage, and I hear this guitar, and I stopped in my tracks. I was like, ‘Oh my God, if I turn around and it’s Prince ‘ I turn around, and it’s Prince! I almost flew off the stage. It’s like I was 10 years old or something, like, ‘T-Boz, get it together!’ I had to remember where I was because I had lost everything.”

The TLC star, who plans to release new music this year, says she and Prince once had plans to re-release his hit “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

“We were supposed to do it together, but that’s when he quit the industry and put ‘slave’ on his cheek. He told me sorry, that he just couldn’t do the song but it had nothing to do with us and he couldn’t work in the industry,” she says. “He used to fax [label executive] L.A. Reid stuff saying ‘Free TLC.’ He always had our back. It was so funny. He had the best sense of humor.”

Adds Watkins: “He was just so respectful. You just cant believe someone like that is so gracious, so kind and humble. I was such a big fan. He’d make fun of me. We had our own little special relationship. [His death] really hurt me.”

Prince’s cause of death is still undetermined, as toxicology results have yet to be released. However, Minneapolis’ Star Tribune reports the star died with the painkiller Percocet in his system, though it’s unknown whether the drug played a part in his death. Sources previously told PEOPLE Prince did indeed have a history using the prescription medicine.

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