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.
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."
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."