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The instant anthem 'No Scrubs' still resonates today

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A scrub is a guy who thinks he's fly.

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

(Singing) Also known as a busta (ph).

You probably know the rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Vocalizing).

DETROW: "No Scrubs" by TLC spent four straight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 when it came out in 1999. It united women and condemned disrespectful dudes.

ESTRIN: And all this week, to mark the July Fourth holiday, we've been revisiting some of the songs that have become different sorts of American anthems. "No Scrubs" still resonates today. Sidney Madden from NPR Music has this story from 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SIDNEY MADDEN: 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 a**.

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 Tamika Tiny Cottle, quickly put the song together. 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 that thinks he's fly and is also known as a busta, always talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**. 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 THOMAS: A scrub is just a bomb 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 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 it - 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) Hanging 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 haven't really - 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. Nah, 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 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 talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) 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 who can't get no love from me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

WEEZER: (Singing) Holler at me. If you don't have a car, and you're walking, oh, yes, son. I'm talking to you. If you live at home with your mama...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

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

MADDEN: At the end of the day, the original is still popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) Oh no, I don't want no...

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

MADDEN: DJ 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...

(CHEERING)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD AND TLC: (Singing) A scrub is a guy that thinks he's fly who is 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 SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD AND TLC: (Singing) No, I don't want your number. 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," which is, look, you are not in charge here. I'm in charge. I have agency here. And people - that resonates with people.

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 Burruss 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.

MADDEN: Sydney Madden, NPR Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

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

DETROW: That story was part of our American Anthem series. It originally aired in 2019. Tune in tomorrow for another installment as we revisit Curtis Mayfield's 1967 classic, "We're A Winner."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

TLC: (Singing) I don't want your number. No, I don't want to give you mine. And no, I don't want to meet you nowhere. No, I don't want none of your time. No, I don't want no scrub. A scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me, hanging out the passenger side of his best friend's ride trying to holler at me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.