I haven’t thought much about TLC over the past few years, but news that they funded their next and final album via Kickstarter recently reminded me of all the fire they released during their career. “Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg” is an OG slapper. “What About Your Friends” predicted Drake would get robbed by someone close to him 17 years later (listen to it in reverse). The video for “Creep” injected billions of dollars into the economy via silk pajama sales, and “Red Light Special” is the sexiest record my nine-year old ears ever heard. Revisiting their music now, I‘m convinced nostalgia has little to do with how strong their catalog still is.
Going beyond music, TLC even tackled important social issues. Saying they were “ahead of their time” is cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true. TLC still remains a relevant and important part of pop culture and a looming influence over the cultural resurgence of R&B in the 2010s. But I’ll never forget the time they dunked on my whole life.
The year was 1999. I was 13 years old and almost done with junior high. My acne was clearing up a bit, and I was assured by my orthodontist Dr. Horowitz that my braces would be off in time for my first day of high school. I could feel everything in my young but world-weary life falling into place. Even my school uniform was looking fresh. My tie loosened just so. Short-sleeve dress shirt in January because I was murdering the pull-up bar in gym class. All-black sneakers passing as dress shoes because #BallIsLife (even though I’m talking way before hashtags). In short, I was feeling myself in ways beyond the way 13-year-old boys usually do that.
And then it happened. My little world came crashing down right at the precipice of greatness. I’m not even sure I had heard the song before the first time I was called a “scrub,” but suddenly it was everywhere: “No Scrubs” had landed in Brooklyn, and “No Scrubs” had landed on us, the eighth grade boys of Saint [REDACTED] of [REDACTED].
At this time TLC had been going through ups and downs of their own. They seemingly came scorching out of nowhere with their 4X Platinum debut, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip. Making light work of their second act, they released CrazySexyCool, which sold 11 million copies in the US alone and won two Grammys. Then, at the height of their powers, label issues and a bankruptcy filing stalled their dominance. But now the TLC was back and ready to let the chopper sing against brokeboys around the world.
And sing the chopper did, with plenty of willing eighth grade girls as a chorus. It was a massacre. I think many of us forgot our own names because all we knew now was “scrub.” If the teacher had called for a “scrub” while taking attendance many of us would’ve certainly yelled back “present” off pure reflex. The stress of this new development caused my acne to return with a vengeance. I couldn’t fix my tie right. I asked my mom to cop me some long-sleeved school shirts. Perfectly sculpted boy-arms could not save me in this new reality.
The girls were not with the shits anymore. And how could I blame them? TLC gifted them a scrub checklist and I personally met several of the criteria:
A guy who thinks I’m fly? Check.
Don’t have a car and I’m walking? Check.
Live at home with my momma? Check.
And while I didn’t have a shorty that I neglected to show love to, I did want to get with this girl (Hey, Steph, miss you boo) with no money.
It was confirmed: your boy was a scrub. All the other boys in my class were scrubs too. We coped by pretending to be unbothered even though we were exceedingly bothered. We held lunchtime summits on The Crisis, trying to figure out what we could do to stop the bleeding. Unless the girls suddenly became impressed by our vast knowledge of pro wrestling, we didn’t have many “get cool quick” schemes ready. Some suggested we go on the offensive, and they rejoiced in the release of “No Pigeons” by Sporty Thievez, a catchy but too little too late State of the Scrubs Response from a group that pretty much peaked with this immediately forgotten single. Our little think tank was unproductive, to say the least.
A portrait of the author as a young scrub / Photo courtesy of the author
I began to wonder if I could do anything to un-scrub myself, which was something I never even considered having to face. I was well liked, a great student, and a rotation player on a two-time second place CYO basketball powerhouse. I even won the team's award for "Most Improved Player." “No Scrubs” made these accomplishments totally irrelevant, and my smooth jumper wasn’t going to offer a solution. Looking at my options, it’s not like I could move out of my parents’ house at 13, and, even if I could, my mom would sometimes deep fry the pizza rolls when she was feeling magnanimous. I wasn’t prepared to leave that behind. All I could do was wait for all this to blow over.
Waiting was not easy. The girls in our class were already taller, smarter, and more mature than any of us, as nature intended. Now they were armed with a one-syllable ether for which there was no good comeback. And the insult couldn't just be dismissed as regular eighth grade teasing: It came from the most popular song in the country, a number one single that charted for 28 weeks and won two Grammy Awards. It was brutal. Even when I left school for the day to drown my sorrows in too-hot pizza rolls, it felt like the song was playing in every car and on every boombox on a seemingly infinite loop. There was no escape.
But eventually it did all blow over. I don’t remember a formal peace treaty being signed or anything, but my life felt relatively calm again. It was now almost graduation time and we shifted from waging a pint-sized battle of the sexes to obsessing about what high school would be like and foolishly vowing to stay friends forever. The rest of the world moved on from worrying about scrubs to livin' la vida loca.
Looking back, it was pretty silly to be hurt by a single song about how crappy men can be when almost all the songs I had ever listened to at that point were pretty much “bitches be like” tweets over Casio keyboards and Puff Daddy ad libs. I understand now how necessary “No Scrubs” was then and how 16 years later we’ve made such little progress when it comes to gender equality. I see now how important this song must have been for the girls I went to school with as well as others who felt undervalued, overlooked, and disrespected. But I still can’t help but get a twinge of pure tween humiliation every time I hear those opening guitar strums, a permanent symptom of my Post-Traumatic Scrub Disorder.
Yung Costanza is a guy who thinks he’s (moderately) fly and hasn’t been called a buster in several years. Follow him on Twitter.