The memories of Sisqo’s breakthrough hit “Thong Song” come flooding back to the 38-year-old like he’s back in the kitchen of his Baltimore County abode, where he penned the undergarment ode with his cousin Marquis “DaKidd” Collins nearly two decades ago at the age of 19. At that point — weeks before he received a mix of beats from producers Tim & Bob to create songs for his 1999 debut, Unleash the Dragon, and years before Billboard would name the “Thong Song” chorus one of the greatest of the 21st century — the Dru Hill frontman did not know what a thong was.
“I had never seen one before,” he tells Billboard. “Apparently none of my friends had actually seen one, before because in 1999, there wasn’t a whole lot of thongs being worn unless it was in some sort of swimsuit ad. I just remembered first seeing one and it was like… you ever seen The Ten Commandments, when Moses went up and his hair was black, and then he came back down and his hair was all silver? That was literally the joke I was making with [my] silver hair. [The thong] was stone tablet-ed into my mind.”
The beat for “Thong Song” was the last of 22 tracks he received from Tim & Bob that initially sampled The Beatles’ 1966 classic “Eleanor Rigby.” To prevent paying Michael Jackson (whose estate previously owned the publishing rights to The Beatles catalog) and a clearance fiasco, Sisqo rewrote the strings section and hired violinists and cellists to tackle the beat. “A lot of people think that those strings on the song is the sample, but it’s live,” he says. “I wrote it enough that it’s nowhere near ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ If you try to play ‘Thong Song’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ together, you can’t even hear the similarities. Trust me, if there was a similarity, Michael Jackson would have been doing the remix to the ‘Thong Song.'” (Fun fact: the song also includes a little snippet of the classical Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composition “Flight of the Bumblebee.”)
Once the production was in place, Sisqo began writing the track. He envisioned himself in the club, seeing a woman with her specific choice of underwear peeking through her dress. “I was basically thinking to myself, What do I feel when I hear this track?” he recalls. “If I was in the club and this track was playing, what is it that I could possibly be looking for? It was almost as if the track itself took on the appearance of whomever this scantily clad woman was with this scandalous dress.”
Specific lines bring up certain memories for the formerly-platinum-haired singer. For “Not just urban, she like the pop / ‘Cause she was livin’ la vida loca,” Sisqo notes that he paid Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” writers in order to reference the 1999 hit. The “Dumps like a truck” lyric was also slang for a woman’s shapely backside, for those still wondering. “Anybody that was trying to make a joke, the context of the lyric does not say anything to the effect of she took a dump like a truck or nothing like that,” he says. “She had dumps like a truck, so that joke is old. Nobody can use it no more. You sound stupid. Stop it.”
For the chorus, Sisqo recalls the time that one of his cousins recounted to him and a bunch of male friends a date he had the night before that ended with the woman handing him her a “thong-th-thong-thong-thong.” Everyone around him doubled over in laughter, but Sisqo heard a perfect hook for his next single. “This is a masterpiece — you can’t just throw something in there,” he says. “And I was like, wait, let me try and see if it works up in there. [sings] I like it when the beat go/ Baby make your booty go/ Girl I know you want to show/ That what? Sing it with me. That thong-th-thong-thong! And everybody said ‘Aw snap!’ and started doing the robot. We were laughing at first like it was a joke, but then later we laughed all the way to the bank.”
While the hook was the last piece of the track to come together, Sisqo says he nearly wrote a second verse but felt it would ruin the track’s club allure. “Words just wouldn’t come for a second verse, because you pretty much would ruin the song if you start to say what happened after she blew your mind with this thong,” he explains. “It’s probably gon’ be like [sings] ‘We walkin’ down the aisle/ Now we gettin’ married.’” He decided to use modulation to make the rest of the song feel like a different verse.
“This is pretty much like my ‘Thriller’ — it’s like a moment in time,” he says of the iconic track. “Granted, I still love writing, I still love creating, but that specific song, within the arsenal of songs I’ve written, is a bit of an anomaly. You can never write another one of those kind of songs.”