Oh Yes Son, They're Talking To You: 20 Years Of 'No Scrubs'

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on April 4, 2019 4:59 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


In 1998, songwriter Kandi Burruss — on hiatus from her R&B group, Xscape — took a drive around Atlanta with a girlfriend, looking for inspiration. In the car, Burruss was playing tracks she'd gotten from a fellow songwriter, Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, a few days earlier.

"No lyrics, no melody, just the music," Burruss says. "I always like to listen to tracks in my car because I come up with my best ideas when I'm driving."

As Burruss tells it, she and her friend were also trash-talking the guys they were dating at the time. "So I started freestylin' over the track," she says. "And I was just like, 'A scrub is a guy who thinks he's fly, and is also known as a busta / Always talking about what he wants, and just sits on his fat ass.' "

She knew she had something there. For a title, she remembered something she'd scribbled in her songwriting notebook. The phrase "No Scrubs" came from a term popular in Atlanta at the time, slang for a guy with no purpose, no prospects, no couth.

Burruss took her idea to fellow Xscape member Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, who loved the freestyle. Together, they quickly fleshed out the entire song and recorded a demo, thinking they'd keep it for their own upcoming joint project. But once the demo was passed to a few other industry figures, the two were persuaded to sell the song to a bigger group — who would end up running with it.

YouTube

TLC, also from Atlanta, already had its own formula for success. Early hits like "Creep," "Waterfalls" and "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" cultivated an image of being socially aware, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes were known as bold, confident, independent young women. So when "No Scrubs" landed in their court, a few words were changed to suit that image and make the song their own. (Among them, "fat ass" became "broke ass," making clear the group's problem was with men who lacked not just coin, but ambition.)

"No Scrubs" was released Feb. 2, 1999, as the lead single of TLC's third studio album, FanMail. The track locked up the No. 1 position on Billboard's Hot 100 for four weeks and stayed on the chart for months. Chilli Thomas says she knew it would be a hit the first time she heard it, because even though the term was regional, the idea was universal. "A scrub is just a bum guy, you know?" she says. "You don't want to bring him home."

At the time TLC hadn't dropped an album in over four years, but two things helped "No Scrubs" take off commercially. For one, it was bolstered by a dope, futuristic video helmed by director Hype Williams. The visual found the trio in a cruising spaceship and each lady, decked out in a swishy space suit, got the chance to show her individual personality. Chilli remembers the challenges of that now-iconic shoot, in which she performed her verses on a giant swinging platform.

"I was looking at it and it's ginormous — I'm like, 'Who's supposed to get on the swing?' " Chilli says. "I was so intimidated, but eventually, I did it. I mean, I got on there and I got comfortable, and then I got real comfortable." The video would earn TLC a MTV Video Music Award for best group video, beating out the all-male competition in a category that included both 'NSync and the Backstreet Boys at their height.

Second, LaFace Records was smart about marketing the single. "No Scrubs" was released in two versions, one with Left Eye's rap verse and one without. This strategy ensured the song would get airplay on a variety of radio stations, regardless of format.

While some of the most popular late '90s hip-hop and R&B tracks were saturated with misogyny and damsel-in-distress plotlines, Burruss says, "No Scrubs" helped flip the script. "This song almost made it to where guys felt they couldn't ride to an event together anymore," she remembers.

And men weren't just stopping short of carpooling to the club. "No Scrubs" was a wake-up call for guys like Sean Armstrong, aka DJ Face of the radio station Majic 102.3. He remembers hearing the song for the first time at a Baltimore record store and spinning it at D.C.-area clubs when it first came out.

"Guys started checking themselves, like, 'Am I a scrub?,' " Face remembers. "You had to really think: 'I don't really lean out the window, you know, hollerin' at women. I have my own car. I got a job. I'm not a scrub.' Like, you had to take yourself off the list."

Chilli says it's not guys like DJ Face who have to worry. "I always say, the guys getting upset are the scrubs. If you're not a scrub, then ... a hit dog will holler, right?" she laughs. "So, if that's not who you are, then you shouldn't be getting upset."

The feathers of Yonkers, N.Y. rap group Sporty Thievz were so ruffled, the trio released its own response track, "No Pigeons," in May 1999, a month after "No Scrubs" hit No. 1. But even if some perceived "No Pigeons" as a diss to the song's originators, it used the same melody as "No Scrubs" — so Burruss, Briggs and Cottle still got paid.

"That was a check," Burruss says. "I thought it was clever. I love the fact that they flipped the song and gave the male point of view. And plus, we ended up getting all the royalties from it."

YouTube

In the two decades since the song was released, it's never really gone away. In 2017, Ed Sheeran added the songwriters of "No Scrubs" to the credits of his own No. 1 hit, "Shape of You," after some drew comparisons between the two songs' melodies. And it's inspired covers across all genres. British R&B singer Jorja Smith keeps her version stripped down, while country star Kacey Musgraves adds a bit of twang. In January, the four men of Weezer released a rock cover, with all gender pronouns left intact.

But at the end of the day, the original is still popular. On Spotify, "No Scrubs" has over 300 million streams to date. NPR intern Sophie Fouladi was born in the early 2000s and says the song was a hit at her junior prom in Northern Virginia just last spring.

"I thought it was really interesting that a throwback song was something that got everyone really excited," Fouladi says. "There was just screams of recognition from a bunch of girls, and they were pulling each other to the dance floor. These are people who were born after the song was released."

Will Eastman hosts a recurring 90's dance party called "No Scrubs" at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club, and says he knows exactly the response he'll get when he drops the song. "There's an electricity that exists in the room," he says. "You can feel it wash over the crowd, and for that three or four minutes, we're all in it together."

After playing the song for years, Eastman says he finally gets its message: "It's a pop song, it's an R&B song, but there's also a subversive element to 'No Scrubs' which is taken from a position of, 'Look, you are not in charge here. I'm in charge. I have agency here.' That resonates with people.' "

Chilli says she recognized the power of "No Scrubs" back when TLC first recorded it, and she's proud of its legacy. "I feel really happy because I know that — even though you can jam to it, you dance to it — lyrically, I know that the girls are listening, you know? And the guys are, too," she says.

Kandi Burruss agrees. "As women, we go through things every day, all day," she says. "No matter where we go, somebody is gonna try to push up or try to holler at you, and they're not always a gentleman about it. So I feel like this song put it out there ... and it just made women be a little bit more outspoken."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next up, our series, American Anthem. We're going to take you way back to 1999. The place, Atlanta. The song, "No Scrubs." The group, TLC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TLC SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

MARTIN: All you need is that riff to know that that is "No Scrubs," a song uniting women declaring no to disrespectful men. TLC, an all-female R&B group locked up the No. 1 position on Billboard's Hot 100 for four straight weeks. That happened 20 years ago - believe it or not. "No Scrubs" was an instant anthem. Still is today. Sidney Madden from NPR Music has the story.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: In 1998, songwriter Kandi Burruss was living in Atlanta. She was listening to a piece of music in her car given to her by fellow songwriter Kevin She'kspere Briggs.

KANDI BURRUSS: No lyrics. No melody. Just the music.

MADDEN: Kandi was riding around Atlanta with one of her girlfriends.

BURRUSS: And we were talking trash about these two guys that we were dating. And so I started freestyling over the track, and I was just like, (singing) a scrub is a guy that thinks he's fly and is also known as a busta. Always talking about what he wants and just sits on his fat ass.

MADDEN: By this time, Kandi had already thought of the title of "No Scrubs." She'd written it down in a notebook. From there, Kandi, along with fellow songwriter Tameka Tiny Cottle, quickly put the song together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TLC SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

MADDEN: They thought they'd record it, but instead, they ended up selling it to a bigger group, TLC. And TLC ran with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) A scrub is a guy who thinks he's fly and also known as a busta. Always talkin' bout what he wants, and just sits on his broke ass. So no, I don't want your number. No, I don't want to give you mine.

MADDEN: A few words were changed. Among them, fat became broke. It helped to paint the picture of a scrub, a guy with no purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) A scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me.

MADDEN: These tweaks had a lot to do with TLC's image. They were confident, bold, independent women. "No Scrubs" was successful both commercially and culturally. They made a term already popular in Atlanta universal.

ROZONDA CHILLI THOMAS: A scrub is just a bum guy. You know, and just not good. You don't want to bring him home.

MADDEN: That's Rozonda Chilli Thomas. You know, the C in TLC? "No Scrubs" worked for a couple of reasons. For one, the song was propelled by a dope, futuristic video. Second, the marketing was smart. It was released in two versions. One was a straight R&B song, and the other one had a rap verse from TLC's Lisa Left Eye Lopes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

LISA LEFT EYE LOPES: (Rapping) If you can't spatially expand my horizons then it leaves you in a class with scrubs, never rising. I don't find it surprising if you don't have the cheese to please me and bounce from here to the coast of overseas. So let me give you something to think about.

MADDEN: At a time when late-'90s hip-hop and R&B was saturated with misogyny and damsel-in-distress plotlines, Kandi says "No Scrubs" helped to flip the script.

BURRUSS: It almost made - this song almost made it to where guys felt like they couldn't ride to an event together anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Hangin' out the passenger side of his best friend's ride, trying to holler at me.

MADDEN: It was like a wake-up call for guys like Sean Armstrong, aka DJ Face. He remembers playing the song in D.C.-area clubs when it first came out.

SEAN ARMSTRONG: Guys started, like, checking themselves, like, am I a scrub? Like, wait a minute. I'm out here dancing to this - what? And you had to really think. I had to think. You know? I've been in the passenger side. I'm really - (laughter). I haven't - nah, I don't really lean out the window hollering at women. Like, I have my own car. I got a job. No, I'm not a scrub. Like, you had to take yourself off the list.

MADDEN: But Chilli says it's not guys like DJ Face who have to worry.

THOMAS: I always say the guys that are getting upset are the scrubs. If you're not a scrub then - you know, I mean, a hit dog will holler, right? So (laughter), if that's not who you are then you shouldn't be getting upset. (Laughter).

MADDEN: In the two decades since the song was released, it's never really gone away. It's inspired many covers across all genres by men and women. This one's from British R&B singer Jorja Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

JORJA SMITH: (Singing) A scrub is a guy that thinks he's fine but also known as a busta. Always talkin' 'bout what he wants, and just sits on his broke ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) No, I don't want to meet you nowhere. No.

MADDEN: Here's country star Kacey Musgraves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) No, I don't want no scrubs. A scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

WEEZER: (Singing) Hangin' out the passenger side of his best friend's ride.

MADDEN: And this one's by the rock band Weezer.

WEEZER: (Singing) You don't have car, and you're walking. Oh, yes, son, I'm talkin' to you. If you live at home with your mama...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Oh, yes, son, I'm talkin' to you.

MADDEN: At the end of the day, the original is still popular. Sophie Fouladi is currently an NPR intern, and she says the song was a hit at her junior prom just last spring.

SOPHIE FOULADI, BYLINE: There was just screams of recognition from a bunch of girls, and they just were pulling each other to the dance floor. These are people who were born after the song was released. Girls, especially, can relate to, you know, having that kind of struggle with, like, a guy who's not worth their time.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NO SCRUBS" DANCE PARTY)

WILL EASTMAN: So this next song - believe it or not - came out 20 years ago.

MADDEN: D.J. Will Eastman hosts '90s parties like this one at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. In fact, he named his party after the TLC single...

(SOUNDBITE OF TLC SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

MADDEN: ...And he knows what kind of response he'll get when he drops the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) A scrub is a guy that thinks he's fly, also known as a busta.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NO SCRUBS" DANCE PARTY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) A scrub is a guy that thinks he's fly, also known as a busta.

EASTMAN: There's an electricity that exists in the room, and you can feel it wash over the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NO SCRUBS" DANCE PARTY)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) No, I don't want your number. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) No, I don't want to give you mine.

EASTMAN: And for that three or four minutes, we're all in it together.

MADDEN: And after playing it for years, he finally gets its message.

EASTMAN: It's a pop song. It's an R&B song. But there's also a subversive element to "No Scrubs"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Side of his best friend's ride, tryin' to holler at me.

EASTMAN: ...Which is, look, you are not in charge here. I'm in charge. I have agency here. And people - that resonates with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Tryin' to holler at me.

MADDEN: Back when they first recorded "No Scrubs," TLC's Chilli Thomas recognized its power.

THOMAS: I knew it was a girl anthem, hands down.

MADDEN: And she's proud of its legacy.

THOMAS: I feel really happy because even though you can jam to it, you dance, or whatever, I know that the girls are listening and the guys are, too.

MADDEN: Kandi Burress agrees.

BURRUSS: You know, as women, we go through things every day, all day - all day, all day long. No matter where we go, you know, somebody is going to try to push up or trying to holler at you. They're not always a gentleman about it. And so I feel like this song, it definitely just put it out there. We're not with it. We're not feeling it. And it just made women be a little bit more outspoken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) A scrub is...

MADDEN: Sidney Madden, NPR Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Guy that can't get no love from me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.