TLC’s “No Scrubs” Is Still On Top 20 Years Later
Many girl groups have come and gone, but the world hasn’t seen anything remotely close to the legendary TLC. Comprised of lead singer Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, crooner Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, and the late, wordsmith Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the remarkable, multi-faceted trio was a force to be reckoned with. Presenting an edgy look that deviated from the traditional R&B group, TLC blended singing with rapping and showcased a swag and attitude that allowed each member to shine individually. Achieving notable success with their debut album on L.A. Reid and Babyface’s LaFace Records label. Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip (1992), followed by their classic, best-selling album Crazy, Sexy, Cool (1994), which was certified eleven-times platinum by the RIAA on July 2, 1999, crowned TLC as the best-selling girl group in the country.
Following this success, FanMail (1999) solidified TLC’s rightful place in music history with the release of the now iconic lead single “No Scrubs” which remains a late ‘90s staple. Continuing on with their sex-positive, women empowerment tropes the group is famously known for, “No Scrubs” became a global hit and the groups most commercial record to date.
Equipped with airy remnants of an electronic guitar, the intergalactic, up-tempo record begins with Chilli’s angelic tone. However seconds into the track, the opening lines quickly divert from her sweet approach. “A scrub is a guy that thinks he's fly/ And is also known as a buster / Always talkin' about what he wants / And just sits on his broke a**.” Initially written by LaFace producer Kevin "She’kspere” Briggs, the song was reworked after newly solo members Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle from the R&B group Xscape heard the record. While the duo had hopes of landing the single themselves, LaFace assigned the smash hit to TLC. “We were sitting down, coming up with ideas, and when we wrote, we would always come up with a concept first,” Cottle told Rolling Stone in 2014. “And she (Kandi) had a concept ’cause she had been, like, ‘I wanna talk about a screw-up, a guy that’s a screw-up that doesn’t have their own business in order.’ It came from a previous relationship that she was in. And we took that and wrote about what we call a scrub.”
Playing on a piece of popular Atlanta slang at the time, the word “scrub” would later become equipped in the vocabulary of girls and women worldwide. The track became a voice for women to express their displeasure with less than adequate men who provide nothing but empty pockets, stress, and headaches, and who refused to level up. In the rap version of the song, Left Eye illustrates this fact perfectly, “If you can't spatially expand my horizons / Then that leaves you in a class with scrubs / Neva rising.” “No Scrubs” quickly became a massive success, earning the trio’s third No. 1 single and eighth top 10 records on the Billboard Hot 100. The single went on to stay atop the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and remained in the Top 10 for 17 consecutive weeks.
But why was “No Scrubs” an undeniable hit? It’s simple. It wasn’t your typical girl-group anthem heard in the past, the record was brash and displayed women’s agency and our right to say “no” loudly and boldly. While poetically setting out their demands and expectations from a relationship, the song allows young girls and women to center themselves and deny men who don’t meet the requirements.
Other notable achievements include holding the record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Rhythmic Top 40 (15 weeks) and claiming the title of the second-biggest Hot 100 single in 1999 after Cher’s “Believe.” The iconic music video, directed by the prestigious Hype Williams, follows an Afro-Futuristic, millennium vibe whilst the members are adorned in silver and blue metallic outfits reminiscent of the equally stunning “Scream” music video (1995) by Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, and “What’s It Gonna Be?!” by Busta Rhymes feat. Janet Jackson, which was also directed by Williams months earlier.
Flaunting an enviable, unapologetic attitude that called out unambitious men and all their flaws, “No Scrubs” prompted a clapback parody titled, “No Pigeons” by Yonkers, NY rap group Sporty Thievs. After acquiring the rights to a single titled “No Vultures” by NYC artists Mr. Wood$ and DJ Rhude, Funkmaster Flex gifted the track to Sporty Thievs and opted for “pigeon” over “vulture” in an effort to be less offensive and beget commercial success. Recorded solely as a “male-aimed” response record to TLC’s mega-hit, their bets paid off and landed the group a No. 12 peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 (during the same time “No Scrubs” topped the Hot 100), including a music video with cameos from former Ruff Ryder rapper Eve and Guru from Gang Starr. Ultimately, the satirical record was certified Gold in the U.S by the RIAA in July that same year.
Following the notable structure of “No Scrubs” by the girl group, the members poked and prodded at women who they deemed unfavorable. “A Pigeon is a girl who be walkin' by / My rimmed up blue brand new sparklin' five / Her feet hurt so you know she want a ride / But she frontin' like she can't say hi / What?” In an interview with Billboard in 2014, Chilli thought the remake was “hilarious,” adding, “It just sounded like some little boys crying. I was like, ‘Oh, they’re such little babies. They can’t take it.’” Despite the boisterous attempt to clown women who receive public assistance, wear hair weaves, etc., their toxic attempt at tearing down TLC’s empowerment record may have earned the single more notoriety and royalties. Since “No Pigeons” directly copies the melody, the original songwriters and producer were compensated.
“No Scrubs” arguably set the tone in which many girl groups, most notably Destiny’s Child, have modeled their “women empowerment” anthems after. Featuring striking similarities to “No Scrubs,” “Bug a Boo” and “Bills, Bills, Bills,” co-written by all members of Destiny’s Child, featured Kandi Burruss’ pen and enlisted Kevin "She’kspere” Briggs as a writer and producer. “I need someone to help me out / Instead of a scrub like you / Who don't know what a man's about.” After debuting at No. 84, The Writing’s on the Wall singers took the No. 1 spot five weeks later on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned one nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. In 2017, the record’s melody was utilized in pop singer Ed Sheeran’s No.1 Billboard smash “Shape of You”, which lists Briggs, Cottle, and Burruss in the songwriting credits. Additionally, last month, L.A. alt-rock band Weezer covered the record on their twelfth studio LP Weezer (Teal Album) which sparked notable applause from (TLC member) Chilli on social media, who pushed for a possible collaboration.
Twenty years later, “No Scrubs” continues to resonate with young women around the globe. The song’s core message and quintessential one-liner will be engraved in pop culture forever and will be shouted every time it comes on in the club or on the radio. “I don't want no scrub / A scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me.”