Here’s the thing about deadbeat dudes: They’re not going anywhere.
In 500 years, when we’re all living on Mars, the moon or wherever, some guys will still be acting like horny idiots, “hanging out the passenger side of his best friends’ ride,” trying to holler at the ladies in the next spaceship.
That’s bad news for females, but it bodes well for the longevity of “No Scrubs,” the bold and danceable female-empowerment jam that landed TLC atop the Billboard Hot 100 on April 10, 1999, 15 years ago today.
“No Scrubs” held the top spot for four weeks, and as group member Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas tells Billboard.com, she wasn’t at all surprised by the song’s success. The first time she heard the demo, she knew that writers Xscape’s Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Collette were on to something.
“I totally loved it,” Chilli says. “I knew immediately. I went, ‘This is a smash.’ And I was like, ‘I gotta get it.’ There were probably three more cuss words in there, and I was like, ‘Guys, I’m gonna take these out and only leave two in there.’ [Laughs] That’s the only thing I changed. Other than that, I thought it was a great song.”
It was also a unique one. While female R&B singers from Tina Turner to En Vogue had stood up for themselves with pro-lady anthems, “No Scrubs” came with swag. This was a brutal takedown of a certain type of guy: the wannabe baller who runs his mouth like a big shot but still lives at home with his momma. The first verse sums it up nicely: “Always talking about what he wants / And just sits on his broke ass.”
“I think it’s probably a more in-your-face kind of thing,” Chilli says. “I definitely don’t think it’s the first song where females talk about a dude, but we really went in.”
Interestingly, Chilli doesn’t deliver it with a whole lot of venom. In fact, she says, she wound up singing lead precisely because the track called for a certain sweetness that Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins—the other main singer in TLC—wasn’t liable to bring.
“She kind of has her raspy sound,” Chilli says of T-Boz, who she performs with to this day, more than a decade after the 2002 death of TLC’s rapping third member, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. “I come and put the pretty on the song, so to speak. Her voice is edgy. Mine is very angelic. We can tell whose voice will be better for what. … This particular one, it wasn’t even about who’s gonna do it. We knew automatically: Yeah, I got this one. I kind of bring that pop feel. Everyone has their role.”
In addition to having the perfect voice, Chilli felt a personal connection to the lyrics. She remembers being especially moved by a line in the bridge: “If you have a shorty and you don’t show love / Oh yes, son, I’m talking to you.”
“When that song came out, my son was a year old,” Chilli says, referring to Tron, her only child with producer Dallas Austin. “So that’s not cool. If you’re dude, and you’re still living at the crib, at home, and you’re not taking care of your kid, that’s the worst thing ever.”
Of course, a woman need not be a mother to relate to “No Scrubs.” As Chilli puts it, “every woman in America” has had the experience of getting catcalled by a passing car, and when she cut the vocals—bashing out the lead and background parts in a single four- or five-hour session—she didn’t need to focus on any one incident.
“It was so easy to get into because guys do that all the time,” she says. “You’re pulling up at the red light, and you hear the honking and stuff. And, it’s not even the driver. It’s the dude in the passenger seat. [Laughs] For real.”
On the strength of “No Scrubs,” TLC’s third album, “FanMail,” became one of the year’s biggest sellers, proving the trio hadn’t lost any of its mojo in the four years since its massively popular sophomore effort, “CrazySexyCool.” The definitive girl group of the ’90s was ending the decade back on top, and in the spring and summer of 1999, “No Scrubs” was inescapable. Not surprisingly, that put men everywhere on the defensive.
“If I had a dollar for every guy that came up to me to say, ‘I’m not a scrub,’ oh my god, I’d have a billion dollars,” Chilli says.
The tune even inspired an answer track, the bluntly funny, borderline-sexist “No Pigeons,” recorded by the New York rap group Sporty Thievz.
“I thought it was hilarious,” Chilli says of their remake. “It just sounded like some little boys crying. I was like, ‘Oh, they’re such little babies. They can’t take it.'”
Ultimately, “No Pigeons” probably helped “No Scrubs” sell more copies, and Chilli suspects there were plenty of guys vibing to the original—even if it was on the sly.
“To me, it’s one of those songs that guys—especially if you’re a guy’s guy—you like it, but you don’t want anybody to know you like it,” she says. “You can’t help but like it. It’s a great song. A lot of guys, especially the ones who are like, ‘I’m no scrub,’ they’re like, ‘I can jam to it because they’re not talking about me.'”
The universal appeal was due in large part to the production work of Kevin “She’kespeare” Briggs, who’d originally composed the music with a different set of lyrics. With its acoustic guitar riff and sleek space-age feel, “No Scrubs” marked a new direction for TLC, and it sounds nothing like previous hits “Waterfalls,” “Creep,” or “What About Your Friends?”
“I loved all of the little sounds in there,” Chilli says. “Everything was so danceable. Being a dancer, I hear everything. It kind of helps you when you’re putting together a routine [and] catching certain beats. I definitely learned that from Michael Jackson. I hear all the instruments, and I love that.”
“The whole damn thing—the track, the lyrics, everything about the record—I was like, ‘Ooh!” she adds. “That is it.”
As for what’s it these days, Chilli says there’s at least one strong female artist still sticking it to the scrubs: Taylor Swift.
“I love her a lot,” Chilli says. “I just feel sorry for the guys that date her and it doesn’t work out. You’re gonna get talked about [in a song], and it’s probably gonna be a hit.”