At the beginning of the new millennium, a 22-year-old R&B artist with a silver spray-painted Caesar haircut stepped into a Hollywood studio to record his magnum opus: "Thong Song." This song was a simple ode to a particular style of women's underwear, but Sisqo delivered it in way that was somehow both ridiculous and beautiful.
It's now been 20 years since that moment, and hate it or love it, "Thong Song" continues to sell out concerts for Sisqo around the world. It's even been immortalised by Billboard as one of the greatest choruses of the 21st Century. Here in Australia the song has become a staple for Melbourne’s hit radio show RnB Fridays, as well as at house parties across the country.
"Thong Song" has also been the soundtrack to much of my own life, and so I took Sisqo's upcoming Australian tour as an opportunity to get an interview. I've previously heard him say the song arose via something like divine intervention. In a 2017 interview with Billboard he likened his songwriting process to Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai and claimed, “The thong was stone tablet-ed into my mind.”
I wanted to know more.
VICE: Sisqo, tell me the exact moment that the Thong Song came to life?
Sisqo: I went on a date with this young lady, and after the date I'm hanging out; I'm getting to second base. Next thing she takes off whatever clothes she had on. And for the first time in my life I saw a thong—or what was expressed to me as a thong. I didn't know what it was. All I knew was that it was glorious. I was at a loss for words. I was like, “what? What is... what is this? What is that? What is this?” She was like, “you know, like a G-string; a thong,” and I was like “ow! it’s called a thong?” Pretty much, I don't even remember what happened for the rest of that night because I could not wait to get back, you know, like around my friends and tell them of this glorious material that I witnessed.
What did your friends say?
I told my friends “gather around, I’ll tell you a tale.” So all my friends leaned in and huddled around. I explained the whole story and I was like “oh, and then she showed me this thing that she called a thong,” and everyone was like “oh my goodness.”
And then it was like all of a sudden, everybody had something else to do—like “yeah man I got a cake in the oven.” Everybody was basically on a pilgrimage to go and hopefully see this thing that I was telling them about; this thong.
So I go away, and I’m working on a song, and then a friend of mine came back. And man, he seemed like really, really enamoured—really happy about something. He was like “man, I just went out with this girl and guess what she gave me.” I was thinking she gave him some kind of present—and he just went “that thong th-thong thong thong.” For the next day that little melody just kept ringing in my head, and every time I would sing it it made me laugh.
When did you realise that you would use these lyrics?
Tim and Bob (Funktwons) had sent me a CD with a bunch of tracks. When I got to the end of the CD, there was a 30-second snippet of a beat and the " Eleanor Rigby" sample by The Beatles. I immediately called the producers and asked them if they could stretch it into like, you know, three minutes. The beat was rocking, you know, the implementation of the sample with you know, classical sounding violin was really cool. And I had this melody in my head.
At that time, during that part of my career I had stopped writing down music. And I was pretty much just singing right off the top, like kind of freestyling. To this day, some people don't even know that I said the same thing three times. We were figuring out how to write the second verse. I just kind of said, you know, "what if I sang the second verse an octave higher and made it sound as if it was different lyrics."
How did you get around the fact "Eleanor Rigby" was someone else's intellectual property?
Yeah the biggest conundrum we had was the fact that Michael Jackson held the rights to The Beatles catalogue. Now you know, Michael Jackson influenced a lot of us as artists—but I didn’t want to have to pay him for my song. So I was faced with the task of re-writing the Eleanor Rigby Beatles sample because I didn't want to get sued by Michael. So I basically rewrote the string line in the song. And then we hired a cellist and a violinist who played the music in Star Wars.
Does it ever get boring, singing "Thong Song" over 20 years?
Man, every time people hear those violins in the beginning, it's like electric in the air. Everybody gets really pumped. And the energy is just the same throughout the whole world, every time I perform it. Then everybody starts to anticipate the portion of the song when I I get to my signature riff: “say yeahhhhh.” You can just feel the anticipation in the crowd. Everybody is getting like goosebumps. And when I hit it, it’s like the climax in sex. You know, the big pay off at the end. It’s always like, “hurry up and sing 'Thong Song,' so I can go home.” You know, everywhere we play, that same electricity resonates throughout the planet.
Why was the song so theatrical toward the end?
I think that's what makes the song work. I think it's because of the complex simplicity of the record. On the surface it seems pretty simple and, you know, a pretty basic concept. Then when you actually take a listen to the song you realise that it just has so many layers. Being a member of my group Dru Hill, we're basically known for soul things. So anything that's not like a ballad with me crooning was challenging—like when I’m doing the sing-rap thing.
The music video was quite revolutionary too.
We had a lot of red tape, because at the time you couldn't really show that much booty on camera. If you actually look at the video, you really don't see a thong in the first video. Because like, you couldn't even show that. And so in the very first video, every thong that you see from the side or like upside down. And so we slipped past the censors on that. And then it was like the booty revolution.
In the 20 years since Thong Song's release, what has been the most memorable moment for you?
When I was in Cancun for MTV, and just right off the cuff I was like “hey, let's have a thong contest. Let’s see who has the best thong.” So needless to say, everyone that got on stage that night had a thong on. But by the end of the thong contest, those girls were butt naked. And every one of those thong contests ended in the same way. Even Dave Chapelle spoke about it in one of his shows. Who knew it was going to get that wild? I didn’t know it was going to get that wild. That was the first thong contest—but it wouldn’t be the last.
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