It’s still one of my favorite stories about hearing a song for the first time. When TLC’s “No Scrubs” landed on my desk in January, 1999, I hailed Billboard R&B chart manager Datu Faison into my office to listen together. We had just gotten past the pre-chorus (“No, I don’t want your number/no, I don’t want to give you mine”) to the first “I don’t want no scrubs.” “It’s a smash,” said Faison, who then left and went back to his busy chart day. We were around :35 in to the song.
“No Scrubs” sounded so good in part because the first taste of TLC’s Fanmail album had been “Silly Ho.” Never officially worked as a pop single, “Silly Ho” had not just a provocative lyric and title, but also a busy track that took the rapidly developing Timbaland sound of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” and added, literally, more buzzers and whistles. “Silly Ho” wouldn’t be out of the question as a radio record now, but radio was glad to suddenly have a hit record they could more easily deal with.
A lot of big hits disappear from the radio because the sound associated with them burns out — late-’70s pop/disco, late-’90s teen/pop. When “No Scrubs” faded away, it wasn’t because R&B girl groups had disappeared. It was more because of a glut of girl groups. Just as TLC had upstaged En Vogue (and survived the theft of their sound and naming convention by SWV), Destiny’s Child had taken the spotlight. The CHR doldrum in the early ’00s began with a slew of Destiny’s stepkids, from Dream to early Pink — who began as a one-woman TLC until she got the party started and found her own sound.
For a while, the song that kept TLC on the radio was “Waterfalls.” That song’s horn sample and its comparisons to Chicago somehow made it one of the songs that got played during a period when pop radio was ignoring most R&B hits. It was also the TLC song that Mainstream AC could play. And then, “We’re the Millers” gave it a new place in pop culture for a while.
But a few years ago, “No Scrubs” began testing for some Mainstream AC stations. And why not? Texturally, it wasn’t much different than hearing “Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus & Chaka Khan on an AC station that played the ’80s. Lyrically, I suppose you could have been concerned about the two brief patches of obscured lyrics. But there’s nothing that would be so provocative on today’s pop radio.
“No Scrubs” has become a staple of the new group of stations specializing in throwback R&B and Hip-Hop. And about 10 days ago, I heard it in middays on WHTZ (Z100) New York. There are a couple of midday hours on Z100 where you can hear older gold titles a few songs away from each other, which is probably a column unto itself. When I went to look at monitors, I saw that “No Scrubs” was on Z100 5x a week and on sister WKTU, more known for playing library titles, 11x a week.
In Boston, “No Scrubs” is playing on both hot AC WBMX (Mix 104.1) and rhythmic WJMN (Jam’n 94.5) for a total of nine times a week. (Surprisingly, it’s not on throwback WBQT [Hot 96.9] this week.)
“No Scrubs” isn’t on any classic/greatest-hits stations or adult-hits stations yet. “Waterfalls” is just starting to pop up on a few now, including KOLA Riverside, Calif., usually the first station to tap any ’90s hit. But I don’t think it’s much longer now, at least on adult hits.
“No Scrubs” has had an additional presence on top 40 this year. It’s not hard to find that song’s inspiration in Meghan Trainor singing, “My name is ‘no’/my sign is ‘no’/my number is ‘no.’” And L.A. Reid had a connection to both acts.
“No Scrubs” has easily outlasted “Unpretty,” the follow-up that was supposed to be the mass-appeal song from “Fanmail” along the line of “Waterfalls.” “Unpretty” gets about one-tenth the airplay of “No Scrubs” these days.
Part of why “No Scrubs” sounds good on the radio now is because it is a midtempo record that sounds intense without sounding busy, unlike a lot of today’s midtempo records. TLC arrived in the flurry of sonic aggression that was “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” That song doesn’t endure today.
“No Scrubs” is a reminder that the R&B girl group sound, which was missing for a few years, never needed to go away — just to be updated. Fifth Harmony shows that, too, and I doubt they’ll be alone in the category indefinitely.
Finally, “No Scrubs” also says something about the endurance of ’90s music. Whatever the long-term prospects of the throwback R&B/hip-hop format, this and other tentpole songs (“This Is How We Do It,” “No Diggity”) will stay on the radio. AC programmers think of the ’90s as a lost decade because there’s not much uptempo mainstream pop. But they thought of the ’70s that way once as well.