If you think about the defining musical sounds of the 90s you might think about grunge, or maybe the golden age of Britpop or the teen pop explosion of Britney, Christina, Backstreet Boys and N*Sync. Perhaps though, the most enduring and progressive nineties sound was the future R&B that blazed a trail throughout the latter half of the decade.
It was in the midst of this melting point of innovation, idealism and banger after banger that one of the decade’s biggest singles arrived in the final year of the 20th century. Almost exactly 20 years on it’s now time to give TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ its dues as the greatest song of the 90s.
Of course, by 1999 TLC were already legends in the game. The trio of T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli emerged in the early nineties and were immediately caught up in the early decade’s prevailing new jack swing sound popularised by Teddy Riley.
While 1992’s debut album ‘Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip' established the trio at the cutting edge of pop it slightly pales into comparison to what was to come. 1994’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ was a monster. Selling over 23 million copies worldwide it firmly established TLC as one of the biggest groups on the planet.
Things however got a bit sticky after that. Mired in debut due to some bad business deals and and personal travails, the band filed for bankruptcy in 1995. It left the trio in the position of being among the most recognisable and successful pop stars in the world but making comparatively peanuts once the copious lawyers, managers and producers involved got their cut.
It took a few years but never again would TLC be exploited or micro-managed. This was their time and they had a new vision. The vision expressed on 1999’s ‘Fanmail’ was one of a hyper stylised futuristic utopia. At the heart of that utopia is a world where women were no long going to be subservient to weak and needy men. They were no longer going to be controlled or disrespected. The days of saying yes were over and it was time to firmly say “No”.
‘No Scrubs’ is a song that combines much of the incessantly innovative R&B sounds that emerged in the mid to late nineties. Following on from the future shock of Timbaland and Missy and Aaliyah’s peerless electro soul it firmly takes things to the next level. It wasn’t the only song taking that blueprint and running with it though.
Emerging almost concurrently were Destiny’s Child who were making equally progressive R&B with a pop sheen like the stunning ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ plus the numerous other bangers collected on their landmark ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’.
TLC though were different. They had the experience, they had the class but the also had that indefinable magic quality, an alchemy between the three women defined by the wildcard spirit of their fire rapper Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes.
‘Fanmail’ is very much her concept and ‘No Scrubs’ is its centrepiece. Sharing a producer with Destiny’s Child in the shape of Kevin ‘She’kspere’ Briggs, the song is pretty much perfect in every way. From that beautiful acoustic guitar opening to the way that the melody glides over those effortless beats, it packs precision, power and class in an iconic package.
“Girl Power” was a phrase you heard a lot in the 90s but this is real women power. This is the ultimate kiss-off. A great big fuck you to every man who has ever let down, disrespected and disgusted.
The word no is repeated countless times in the song, an indication that now, as the decade reached its end and the millenium approached, artists like TLC were taking their throne and nothing was going to stop them. Of course, songs of empowerment and strength are de-rigeur now but nothing has matched the simple grace and rage of ‘No Scrubs’.
‘No Scrubs’ is both a defining peak and a starting point for a new generation of artists who took TLC’s lead and propelled themselves and their craft to another stratosphere. Rihanna, Beyonce, Gaga and Ariana, they all can take influence from ‘No Scrubs’’ majesty.
The TLC story would end tragically just a few years later with Left Eye’s untimely death (make sure you undoubtedly check out the version of ‘No Scrubs’ with her fire explicit rhyme. Don’t settle for second best) but they left behind a legacy of unmatched style and innovation which still sounds out of this world twenty years on.
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Words: Martyn Young
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