In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.
TLC- “No Scrubs”
HIT #1: April 10, 1999
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
Imagine being one of the biggest acts in the world. You’re selling tons of albums and landing multiple hit singles yet during that time you file for bankruptcy thanks to being shortchanged by your contract.
That’s where TLC was in 1995. Their latest album CrazySexyCool sold over 11 million copies anchored by their first two #1 hits “Creep” and “Waterfalls.” (Both are obvious 10s!) The group’s mixture of R&B and hip-hop with girl-group harmonies proved to be hugely lucrative during the ‘90s.
Despite all this success, TLC weren’t getting paid a whole lot. Their contract with LaFace Records paid them only 56 cents for each album sold leaving the group in debt as their expenses continued to grow. This led to the group filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the height of their fame.
Their lawsuit with LaFace would be settled over a year later with a new contract but it wasn’t enough to calm other tensions in the group. It would all work out in the end. When TLC finally came back in 1999, they landed one of their biggest hits that was more or less a dig at no good men.
“No Scrubs” came from Kandi Burruss who’d spent much of the ’90s hitting it big as a member of the fellow R&B girl group Xscape with three hit albums and a few Top 10 hits. (Xscape’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Just Kickin’ It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) After the group’s third album, 1998’s Traces of My Lipstick, the group broke up with Burruss and fellow member Tameka “Tiny” Cottle forming their own group KAT.
Looking for inspiration, Burruss spent one day driving around Atlanta listening to a song fellow songwriter She’kspere had sent her wanting to write her own lyrics. While listening to the track, Burruss and a friend began freestyling lyrics trash-talking their ex-boyfriends and how no good they were. Burruss wrote the lyrics down on an envelope and picked the title “No Scrubs” referring to a popular slang used in Atlanta at the time that referred to men as having no purpose, no prospects, and no couth.
Burruss took the song to Cottle and She’kspere who both liked it writing more lyrics and recording a demo together. Initially, “No Scrubs” was meant for Burruss and Cattle’s upcoming group album. They had no intention of giving it away. That changed after She’kspere played the song for TLC’s main producer Dallas Austin and LaFace Records with everyone liking the song and felt that it would be perfect for TLC’s new album so they wound up giving it away.
TLC would take over four years to follow up CrazySexyCool. During the album-making process, the group got offered many songs that became hits for other artists including “…Baby One More Time.” More drama ensured when member Left Eye threatened to leave the group after songs she wrote for the album were rejected working on a solo album before having a change of heart but still wasn’t satisfied with the final product. Add to that, the album was pushed back a few months. Not the conditions that would lead to a hit album.
Except it did. FanMail was released in February 1999 continuing the group’s success becoming a #1 album-hit selling over 10 million copies and going six times platinum in the United States. It wound up as 1999’s #8 best-selling album selling more than Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut but less than Kid Rock’s Devil Without A Cause. To ensure “No Scrubs’” crossover potential, the label released two versions: one with a rap verse from Left Eye and a non-rap version.
In “No Scrubs,” member Chili is calling out no good men while giving us definitions of what a scrub is. She describes a scrub as a guy who thinks he’s cool and can get what he wants even though he’s broke, living with his mom, and isn’t worth a shit. Chili says straight up that she wants nothing to do with this guy by not exchanging numbers, not meeting up with him, and not giving him any of her time. She’s not having any of it.
“No Scrubs” was a major change for the group in Chili singing lead. Their hit songs before usually consisted of T-Boz singing lead, Left Eye doing her rap part, and Chili joining the rest of the girls in harmony. She’kspere was the one who had Chili sing lead as he told Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, “I thought the range would be too high for T-Boz, and I thought it would be a change to have Chili sing lead because I hadn’t heard that and I’ve always been a TLC fan. She was unsure of her singing ability but we spent a night and a half on it and banged it out. We had some resistance from the other girls at one point, but we ended up working it out.”
She’kspere made the right call. Chili brings a bold and defiant style to her singing that’s needed for a song like this. When she sings about not wanting anything to do with this no good guy, you genuinely believe she means what she sings. It also helps that “No Scrubs” is an instant hook machine. The opening acoustic guitar riff, dominant in so much of late ‘90s R&B, gets you hooked right away. The chorus is an fun singalong with a melody so basic that Ed Sheeran wound up interpolating it on his 2017 smash “Shape of You,” a song that’ll eventually appear in my The Ones of the ‘10s column, giving songwriting credits to the “No Scrubs” writers to avoid getting sued.
If there’s one issue I have with the song is that the lines about not being with this guy because he’s broke can almost make the group come across as gold diggers. Calling out no good guys is obviously a good thing but maybe being with a guy who’s not super-wealthy is a good thing for a relationship. Another issue is that on the non-rap version, the song can drag on toward the end with the chorus repeating constantly without anything new to make it interesting. And on the rap version, Left Eye’s part is serviceable but feels tacked on at the last minute and doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the song.
In the Hype Williams directed video for “No Scrubs,” we see the members of TLC in a sleek Y2K-esque space station universe dancing around in various futuristic-looking outfits. It looks super cool. It’s also the only place that plays the rap version. If you look up “No Scrubs” on Spotify or any other streaming or downloading service, you’re going to get the non-rap version at least on the album but does appear on the group’s greatest hits collections. I don’t know how that worked out.
One more thing: “No Scrubs” was the #1 song in America the week one of my closest friends was born. So that’s another thing I like about the song.
In any case, “No Scrubs” helped to continue TLC’s massive ‘90s success becoming 1999’s second-biggest single behind Cher’s “Believe,” the song it knocked out of #1. They’ll be back again as well as Ske’kspere and Burruss both as producer and songwriter respectively.
BONUS BEATS: The rap group Sporty Thievz released their hilarious male response to “No Scrubs” titled “No Pigeons” which lifts the entire beat from “No Scrubs” and wound up peaking at #12, their highest and only-charting single on the Hot 100. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jamie-Lynn Sigler singing along to “No Scrubs” on a 2000 episode of The Sopranos:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kacey Musgraves performing a jaunty pop-country cover of “No Scrubs” during a 2015 concert at England’s Royal Albert Hall:
(Kacey Musgraves has never gotten a Top 10 single. Her highest-charting single, 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” peaked at #60.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Zoe Saldaña performing “No Scrubs” on a 2016 episode of Lip Sync Battle with surviving TLC members T-Boz and Chili:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Avicii and Aloe Blacc interpolated “No Scrubs” on the 2019 track “SOS” released after Avicii’s death and peaked at #68 on the Hot 100. Here it is:
(Avicii’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Wake Me Up” with Aloe Blacc, peaked at #4. It’s an 8. As a lead artist, Aloe Blacc’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “The Man,” peaked at #8. It’s also an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Weezer’s pretty terrible 2019 “No Scrubs” cover:
(Weezer’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Beverly Hills,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)
4 thoughts on “Party Like It’s 1999: TLC’s “No Scrubs””
When you consider radio play, covers/samples, and just plain old impact on cultural lingo, “No Scrubs” is probably the most iconic #1 of the 90s. And yet it’s certainly less iconic than “Paint It Black” for the 60s, “Hotel California” for the 70s, “Billie Jean” for the 80s, and “Lose Yourself” for the 00s. Just another symptom of how the 90s were rather screwed in terms of #1’s, both because SoundScan’s accurate reporting led to #1’s lasting for more weeks and because songs had to have a physical single to even be on the chart for most of the decade (this archaic requirement was lifted at the end of 1998 but didn’t really help much as every 1999 #1 had big physical sales and there wouldn’t be an airplay-only #1 until “Try Again” in 2000).
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Quick question: What do you think of Red Light Special, my favorite TLC song?