The 90s came with some unique trends. Fashion trends like acid wash jeans and overalls. Pop culture trends like Friends and Seinfeld. Electronic trends like Gameboy and the first PlayStation. And finally, the slang. If you were around in the 90s, you’ve likely used the phrases ‘as if!’, ‘talk to the hand!’, ‘no duh!’ or ‘take a chill pill.’ Though one song employed another slang word that became synonymous with the 90s. It’s a word that describes a guy that thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta, who’s always talkin’ ’bout what he wants but just sits on his broke a**.
If you haven’t picked it up yet, that word is scrub.
While several R&B groups like 702, Brandy & Monica, and SWV were doing well commercially, the success and popularity of TLC was unmatched, even dating back to before “No Scrubs.” In 1994, they released their second studio album CrazySexyCool, which featured “Creep” and “Waterfalls.” Both would hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their music helped steer the evolution of R&B, incorporating more melodious Pop hooks.
“No Scrubs” would be the first single from their 1999 album FanMail.
The song was written by producer Kevin Briggs, TLC member Lisa Lopes, and former Xscape members Tameka Cottle and Kandi Burress. Once Xscape disbanded, Burress shifted her focus to production and songwriting. She holds a writing credit on P!nk’s debut single “There You Go” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” the latter of which would earn her the accolade of being the first Black woman to win the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award. Another song that helped her achieve that accolade was “No Scrubs”, which charted at No.1 this week in 1999.
Burress was driving around with a friend one day in 1998. She would often get her best ideas from driving around. While on the road, she listened to samples she received from producer Kevin Briggs, which contained no lyrics, just music. As she was listening, she and her friend were disparaging some of the guys they were dating at the time at which point the lightbulb went off. “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 a**.’ ”
She knew she was on to something.
“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.”
Though the intent was to keep it for her future projects, Burress and co-songwriter Tameka were convinced to sell the song over to a bigger act after writing most of it. At the time TLC was already the most successful R&B group of that era, and since their lyrics represented them as socially conscious, it was a natural fit. Once the song was fully written, a few words were changed (for example, ‘fat a**’ changed to ‘broke a**’) and the rest is history.
The song was officially released on March 23, 1999. It would become TLC’s third No. 1 single and 8th Top 10 single, remaining at the top of the charts for seven weeks. Billboard would recognize it as the No. 2 song of the year behind Cher’s “Believe.” The song won TLC multiple Grammys including Best Rhythm & Blues Song and Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Group.
“No Scrubs” became part of the fabric of pop culture during this era. The word scrub was utilized as a part of everyday conversation to describe males with zero ambition.
Sporty Thievz would go on to release “No Pigeons”, essentially the same concept and instrumentation, though from the male’s perspective. Interestingly, the song performed well on the Hot 100 which would cause a resurgence of the popularity of “No Scrubs” with radio stations, increasing its airplay, which undoubtedly had zero complaints from the songwriters due to the boost in royalties.
On April 25, 2002, group member Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was tragically killed in a car accident in La Ceiba. She was 30.
The remaining two members, Tionne Watkins and Rozonda Thomas would release another album in October of that year called 3D. The album featured some vocals of Lisa’s that were recorded before her death. After an extended hiatus, in 2017, Watkins and Thomas would return with a self-titled album release that would see some success on the Billboard R&B and Hot 200 charts, though its success didn’t match any of the albums in their peak.
As of April 2021, the “No Scrubs” video has over 260 million views on YouTube.
TLC will always be remembered for staying true to their image, style, and presentation. Their lyrics were honest and well represented the world around them at the time. While the 90s music was dominated by Pop artists like Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, TLC maintained their own entity and made sure they stayed that way regardless of what or who was popular around them, which is what makes them truly stand out.