Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 17, which explores the history of TLC, “No Scrubs,” and the biggest girl groups of the ’90s with Black Girl Songbook host and former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith.
Atlanta’s own TLC are a great candidate for the best girl group of all time; if you go by pure chart success, by sales, inarguably they’re the biggest. By 1999, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas are famous—MTV famous, Grammy famous, Billboard chart famous, and (mostly thanks to Lisa) tabloid famous. Their previous album, 1994’s CrazySexyCool, has at this point been certified diamond. More than 10 million copies sold in America. First female group in history to do so. And yet. And yet. Still, according to “No Scrubs,” TLC are constantly badgered by crap dudes leaning out the shotgun windows of their buddies’ mid-priced SUVs. They are still bombarded by amorous mediocrity. It’s an outrage. Can’t detect acquisition from your friend’s Expedition.
“No Scrubs” was the first single off TLC’s third album, 1999’s FanMail, which debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and sold 6 million copies in America alone. “No Scrubs” was the no. 1 song in America for seven weeks, though by volume, by sales, it’s still not quite TLC’s biggest song ever—that would be “Waterfalls,” off CrazySexyCool. Fantastic song, “Waterfalls.” No offense to “Waterfalls.” But I find myself drawn to the much more frequent TLC songs where they’re at least a little pissed. They had a lot to be pissed about, TLC. For example: selling 10 million copies of one album and still being broke. For example: Chilli’s on-again, off-again relationship with FanMail producer Dallas Austin, who was musically a genius but, if not a scrub, then at least somewhat of a clown, romantically, in Chilli’s opinion. For example: T-Boz struggling with sickle cell anemia, which left her frequently hospitalized. For example: Left Eye’s troubled relationship with star Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison—she said it was an abusive relationship, though the media mostly fixated on the time she burned his house down. “No Scrubs” is, quite specifically, a song about broke, rando dumbasses ineptly flirting with TLC. But as beautiful, as elegant, as seductive as this song about rejecting seduction is, there is an elegant fury radiating from it. TLC didn’t bring baggage to this song. They brought ammunition. And they didn’t waste any of it.
TLC formed in Atlanta in 1990. One way to get their origin story is to watch the VH1 made-for-TV biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a massive-for-VH1 ratings hit in 2013. Lil Mama playing Left Eye and so forth. That movie was executive produced and authorized by T-Boz and Chilli, which, y’know, so much for objectivity, but I still find it illuminating, the way artists see themselves. Or how the artists want you to see them. How they insist on their own story being told. Even when there’s some whitewashing, some scrubbing going on, their truth is just as valuable as whatever the truth might be.
T-Boz was originally from Des Moines, Iowa. I recently read a 1995 interview with Sister 2 Sister magazine in which T-Boz said, “I am from Des Moines and I will say it all day long, never deny where I’m from and proud of it, but Des Moines sucks.” My apologies to those of you from Des Moines. Left Eye was originally from Philadelphia. I don’t want any trouble with Philadelphia. They meet in Atlanta. They form a trio with another aspiring star, Crystal Jones, hoping to combine R&B and rap and the collision of R&B and rap known as New Jack Swing. They audition for a woman named Perri Reid, known professionally as Pebbles, who had a few big ’80s pop hits, including “Mercedes Boy,” which is worth revisiting because “Mercedes Boy” is awesome, and it also gives you some idea of what cutting-edge pop music sounded like in 1987.
Pebbles is, in the early ’90s, married to L.A. Reid, the producer and superstar executive who suggests that TLC—T-Boz, Left Eye, and Crystal—kick out Crystal, who per the movie can’t actually sing or dance. Huh. They kick her out. Rozonda Thomas, then a backup dancer for the R&B duo Damian Dame, joins TLC, taking on the nickname Chilli because it starts with C. The girls sign some contracts without reading them; Pebbles will one day sue both TLC and Viacom, which owns VH1, over her unflattering portrayal in the TLC movie. They settle out of court. The first TLC album, released in 1992, is called Ooooooohhh ... on the TLC Tip.
TLC’s introduction to the wider world—the wider world’s introduction to the star power of Left Eye in particular—is “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” I know in my heart that this is not the best era of TLC, but there is an exuberant chaos to this record that is enormously appealing, in a Public Enemy/Bomb Squad sort of way. All the sirens and ringing phones and clashing drum loops and whatnot. There’s a lot going on; there’s a lot of people involved. TLC are signed to Atlanta’s LaFace Records, co-owned by L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, himself a superstar artist and writer and producer. Big help with the slow jams, one presumes. Both those guys worked on TLC’s record. So did Jermaine Dupri, who in 1992 helped bring the world Kris Kross. So did Dallas Austin, who in 1991, with the help of Michael Bivens from New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe, helped bring the world both Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation. All of these people, all of these artists, all of this music is essential to understanding where TLC came from; have you listened to Another Bad Creation lately? ABC? They were tweens? Their hit song “Iesha” is worth revisiting because “Iesha” is awesome, and it also gives you some idea of what cutting-edge pop music sounded like in 1991.
All of this music is part of TLC but does not begin to define TLC, because T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli are so magnetic that only they can define TLC, sonically and visually. Their early videos are just these explosions of primary colors and outrageous fashion; the baggy pants, the overalls, the Day-Glo paint, Lisa’s giant hat and giant sunglasses, T-Boz’s Flintstones T-shirt, I always quite liked—you could see these women so clearly, even when they were on the radio and you technically could only hear them.
They sounded like your friends. Like they’d never let you down. Like they’d always give it to you straight. Hence the condom. Right. Also, Lisa Lopes is known as “Left Eye” because of the condom affixed to her regular-size glasses, where the left lens should be. Safe sex—the vital, the life-or-death importance of safe sex—is a major theme, arguably the major theme, of the first TLC record, which will eventually sell 4 million copies in the United States alone. (It was striking to me that the two pop groups most outspoken, in song, about safe sex in the early ’90s were TLC and Salt-N-Pepa, who of course just named a whole hit song “Let’s Talk About Sex.”) Lisa’s condom glasses are a provocation, sure, but they’re the furthest thing from empty provocation. This is strikingly wholesome provocation. Put this on, she is saying, with her glasses. As the stakes get higher for TLC, as they sell way more records, as the shock value dials up both on their records and on the news, bear in mind that these are not people content with mere shock value. Their biggest hits are explicitly about something.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.