The Number Ones

April 10, 1999

The Number Ones: TLC’s “No Scrubs”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Robert’s mother got uncomfortable whenever Robert would sing “No Scrubs.” Robert was a little boy with autism, and he had a habit of singing every song on the radio in a beautiful, crystalline, slightly unearthly voice. In the summer of 1999, that meant that Robert was singing “No Scrubs” a lot. I knew Robert because I spent a bunch of summers working at a camp for people with disabilities in the Western Maryland mountains. Robert and his mom both stayed at the camp that summer, and Robert’s mother seemed happy when the whole staff would marvel over Robert’s singing voice. But she she did not like it when he sang “No Scrubs.”

One afternoon, Robert’s mom asked me, “Do you know what a scrub means?” This was a rhetorical question. She did not answer it. That question has been lingering in my head for the past 23 years because I knew exactly what “scrub” meant. Everybody did. I knew “scrub” as a basketball-court insult; anyone who bricked a layup was a scrub. But even if I hadn’t had that experience, TLC helpfully defined the word scrub on the very first verse of “No Scrubs”: “A scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta — always talking ’bout what he wants and just sits on his broke ass.” What was ambiguous about that?

Maybe the “No Scrubs” lyrics represent an uncharitable way of looking at people without money, but there’s nothing filthy or degrading about the song. How did Robert’s mom not know that? Ever since, that whole interaction has stood out in my mind as a testament to the ways in which certain parents will always regard the music that their kids like. They’ll always hear something objectionable in a song, no matter how anodyne. It doesn’t matter if the song opens by clearly defining its terms. It doesn’t matter if the song acts as its own Genius annotation page. It still won’t get no love from a certain type of parent. That’s too bad. Robert’s mom was a nice lady, and she was missing out because “No Scrubs” is a great song.

There is a reason to hear “No Scrubs” and get upset, but to acknowledge that, you have to confront the possibility that you are a scrub. When TLC recorded “No Scrubs,” they were the most popular girl group on the planet. Their last album CrazySexyCool had sent two singles to #1, and it had gone diamond. TLC took more than four years to follow that album because they were stuck in a terribly exploitative contract, somehow losing money for every record that they sold. TLC declared bankruptcy in 1995, when their songs were on top of the world, and they renegotiated their deal with their label LaFace. At the time, people reacted with disbelief that a group as popular as TLC could go broke, but nobody ever accused T-Boz, Left Eye, or Chilli of being scrubs.

Before releasing FanMail, the 1999 album that gave us “No Scrubs,” TLC came perilously close to breaking up. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes had already gone through a rough time with her arson conviction and with her court-ordered rehab stint, and she was mad at being left off of TLC’s own records, not even being included on the songs where she didn’t have a rap verse. Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas had a baby with Dallas Austin, the producer who’d overseen TLC’s first two albums, and Austin held up the production of FanMail by demanding a whole lot of money and total creative control.

In the years between albums, the members of TLC thought about what it might be like to go solo or to attempt some kind of public life outside the group. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins released the solo soundtrack single “Touch Myself” in 1996, and it peaked at #40. Left Eye rapped on the all-star remix of Lil Kim’s “Not Tonight,” which peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) Chilli and T-Boz both tried acting — Chilli in a cameo appearance in the indie film Hav Plenty, T-Boz with a pretty big role in Hype Williams’ visually hypnotic Belly. Left Eye started a production company and signed the Atlanta girl group Blaque, who made a couple of big hits. (Blaque’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Bring It All To Me,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)

When TLC started making FanMail, they worked with a whole lot of big-deal producers and songwriters: Dallas Austin, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Babyface, Jermaine Dupri, Diane Warren. But the album’s first single and biggest hit came from a relatively untested team. Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs was a producer who worked at LaFace and who was really just getting started; he hadn’t made a hit yet. She’kspere produced “No Scrubs,” and he co-wrote the song with two former members of a girl group that had made a few hits in the ’90s but who were on the verge of irrelevance.

These days, Kandi Burruss is best-known as one of the long-running stars of the whole Real Housewives universe, and she’s been in that role since 2009. (Those Real Housewives shows, it’s worth pointing out, are on Bravo, not on TLC.) Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, meanwhile, is best-known for being married to T.I. and for being under investigation after dozens of women came forward to accuse T.I. and Cottle of drugging and sexually assaulting them. (T.I. will eventually appear in this column, so we’ll get into that whole story another day.) For much of the ’90s, though, Burruss and Cottle were members of the Atlanta R&B group Xscape. When Burruss and Cottle were both teenagers, Jermaine Dupri discovered Xscape and signed them to his So So Def label, and their 1993 debut single “Just Kickin’ It” peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.)

Xscape never made another song as big as “Just Kickin’ It,” but they landed three more top-10 hits and released three platinum albums. After their 1998 LP Traces Of My Lipstick, LaTocha Scott left the group to start a solo career, and Xscape basically broke up. Burruss and Cottle had plans to start a spinoff duo called KAT, for Kandi And Tiny. They’d never had creative control in Xscape, and they wanted it, so they got to work writing their own songs. After meeting She’kspere, Burruss heard a track that he’d written, which already had lyrics. Burruss thought that she could do better. She drove around listening to the beat, writing down lines about different ex-boyfriends. Pretty soon, she had a first verse and a chorus.

Tameka Cottle thought that Burruss’ song idea was ridiculous and funny, and she and She’kspere helped Burruss finish writing the track. Burruss intended “No Scrubs” to be a KAT song, but when She’kspere played it for Dallas Austin, he wanted it for TLC. Burruss knew that this was an opportunity, and she let the song go. On the “No Scrubs” single, Burruss, Cottle, and regular TLC collaborator Debra Killings all sing backup. KAT never ended up releasing anything.

T-Boz had sung lead on every TLC song before “No Scrubs,” but Dallas Austin thought that Chilli should take the lead vocal for the new single. I’m pretty sure T-Boz’s voice isn’t actually on “No Scrubs” at all. In the album version, Left Eye isn’t on it either. For the single, Left Eye wrote a rap verse, a fun chattery burst of verbiage that’s full of SAT words: “With diamond-like precision, insatiable is what I envision/ Can’t detect acquisition from your friend’s Expedition.” LaFace and Arista sent out versions of “No Scrubs” to different radio stations, since lots of stations still wouldn’t play anything that included rapping. But “No Scrubs” works a lot better with Left Eye’s verse, so I’m happy to report that the video version leaves her verse intact.

TLC’s whole FanMail album is very much a product of its moment, a time that I associate with AOL free-10-hours CD mailers and The Matrix, which opened in theaters a couple of weeks before “No Scrubs” hit #1. TLC didn’t work with Timbaland on FanMail, but they did get heavily into the sleek alien textures and jittery herky-jerk drum programming that Timbaland brought to the R&B mainstream. “No Scrubs” is a gleaming, gorgeous example of that kind of thing. A fluttering acoustic guitar line dissolves into a frantic popping sound. When the beat kicks in, the layers of sound pile up — the humming synth-strings, the stop-start drums, the dancing hi-hat. As a lead singer, Chilli doesn’t have T-Boz’s all-consuming languor, and she doesn’t need it. She just needs to project authority, and she does that beautifully.

“No Scrubs” works so well because it’s direct. There’s no room for interpretation. The members of TLC are sick of hearing pickup lines from chumps, and they spend the song telling the world exactly what they don’t want — deadbeats, guys who look like trash, anyone with the temerity to hang out the side of his best friend’s ride trying to holler at them. On the bridge, Chilli further eliminates ambiguity by calling out anyone who might be listening. If you don’t have a car and you’re walking? If you live at home with your mama? If you have a shorty but you don’t show love? Oh yes, son, she’s talking to you.

“No Scrubs” sits at the intersection of economics and gender politics. It suggests a world where all sex is transactional, where you need to get your bank account to a certain level before you can even think about approaching any of the members of TLC. As defined on “No Scrubs,” the “scrub” category probably came to include a great many of the people who would’ve heard the song, and it probably pissed plenty of people off — enough to inspire the answer-song hit in the Bonus Beats section below. Maybe it’s shitty to musically insult anyone who makes less money than you, but I never heard “No Scrubs” as a vicious song. Instead, it’s playfully aspirational and maybe even motivational. When I heard “No Scrubs,” I wanted to work harder and make more money — not because I wanted to get with anyone in TLC but because I just didn’t want to be a scrub.

A song as forthright as “No Scrubs” can really capture imaginations. The song works on multiple levels. It’s mean but pretty. It disrupts and soothes at the same time. There’s a strange beauty to the way those voices drift over the complicated drum patterns and sparkly chopped-up guitar notes. When the backup singers come together to softly murmur the song’s title again and again, they sound almost mystical. The song represents an insane execution of a simple idea, and it stands as a classic of that spaced-out futuristic circa-Y2K R&B era. At the end of the year, the critics who voted in the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll named “No Scrubs” the #1 single of 1999. (I was too much of a scrub to vote in that one; I didn’t get my first Pazz & Jop ballot until 2004. A year after that, though, I was working at the Voice. See? That “No Scrubs” motivation works.)

“No Scrubs” also got a boost from its Hype Williams video, which makes a futuristic and hypnotic song seem even more futuristic and hypnotic. This was a whole era of R&B videos that took place on what appeared to be spaceships, and the “No Scrubs” video is easily the most iconic of that whole group. The sets are all sparse and angular and geometric, and the members of TLC are the only human beings in the frame. They dance, and Hype does speed tricks with the camera to make their movements seem liquid and alien. The three singers all rock shiny coordinated outfits, and they look incredible. I wish the people of our current future really dressed like that. Instead, we all look like scrubs.

A whole lot of big, important pop songs came out in 1999. A couple of them have already appeared in this column, and more will show up here in the days ahead. But “No Scrubs” feels more present than most of them. Eighteen years after the release of “No Scrubs,” the biggest hit of 2017 had a hook that was so close to “No Scrubs” that the writers of “No Scrubs” were given songwriting credit, and the word “scrub” still has a certain power. In 2017, the surviving members of TLC informed Paul F. Tomkins that their position regarding scrubs had not changed.

TLC’s place in pop history was already secure before “No Scrubs,” but the song showed the kind of magic that could happen when an established group embraced new sounds while keeping its sensibility intact. More hits followed. As songwriters, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Kandi Burruss will appear in this column again. We’ll also see TLC one more time.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 1999, a few months after TLC released “No Scrubs,” the Yonkers rap group Sporty Thievz came out with “No Pigeons,” an answer song that used the “No Scrubs” beat. Sporty Thievz took the position that women should not be calling them scrubs, that they should shut up and go away. “No Pigeons” is ridiculous, and it was all over the radio while “No Scrubs” was still in rotation. Stations would sometimes play the two songs back-to-back as a battle-of-the-sexes thing. Here’s the “No Pigeons” video:

(“No Pigeons” is by far the biggest hit that Sporty Thievz ever released; it peaked at #12.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Meadow and her friend singing along to “No Scrubs” on a 2000 episode of The Sopranos:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the visionary dance producer Todd Edwards chopping “No Scrubs” up into tiny, mesmerizing pieces on his 2006 remix:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s footage of country great Kacey Musgraves leading a full-room “No Scrubs” singalong in a show at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium in 2015:

(Kacey Musgraves’ highest-charting single is 2014’s “Follow Your Arrow,” which peaked at #60.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the slightly baffling, entirely faithful “No Scrubs” cover that Weezer included on 2019’s Teal Album:

At the last pre-pandemic Coachella in 2019, TLC’s Chilli came out onstage to sing “No Scrubs” with Weezer. Here’s the video evidence:

(Weezer’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Beverly Hills,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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