A devilish grin flashes across the face of R&B singer Sisqo when he thinks about the first time he laid eyes on the undergarment that inspired his most notorious song.
“I was like, ‘Hey, what’s that?,'” he said. “‘What is that — whatever you’re garnishing — that has me all starry-eyed?'”
Loved by many, reviled by some, “The Thong Song” peaked at No. 3 on Billboard 15 years ago this summer. It would go on to sell millions of albums, invent new slang and become a cultural touchstone for a generation of pop music fans around the globe.
“Every time it starts to get warm, somewhere around the world that song is playing,” Sisqo said. “And it’s always warm somewhere in the world, so it’s constantly playing.”
Born Mark Andrews in Baltimore, Sisqo rose to fame as a member of the R&B group Dru Hill, who took their name from the city’s Druid Hill Park. After Dru Hill’s second album, “Enter the Dru,” went double platinum in the late 1990s, Sisqo began working on his first solo record, “Unleash the Dragon.”
Now 36, Sisqo is sitting at a table in a hotel lobby a few hours before he’s set to perform with Dru Hill at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. He closes his eyes for a moment and remembers the CD of instrumental tracks a group of songwriters sent him more than 15 years ago, and how one section of one song caught his ear.
“Out of everything on the CD that they had given me with all the tracks, the snippet is what stood out,” he said. “I liked the bassline and I liked the beat.”
Over the phone, Sisqo worked with the producers to stretch those 30 seconds into 3 minutes and 30 seconds. The hook was a sample of a string section from Wes Montgomery’s cover of the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” While Sisqo was writing the first verse, his cousin, who they called Kidd, stopped by and started talking about a girl he went on a date with — and the present she’d shown him.
“We were thinking she had actually given him something, and he said, ‘That thong th-th-th-thong,” Sisqo said.
When Sisqo said he was going to put that in the song, his friends laughed and told him it would never work. But that wasn’t the only catchphrase he used. There was another line that Kidd liked to say, about women with large posteriors, that made it into the song and is still said today:
She had dumps like a truck, truck truck
“Later on, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know how sexy that really is,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. But when you put it in the context of what we were talking about. It was basically like she was backing that thing up, like a dump truck — beep, beep beep.”
The genius of “The Thong Song” is its simplicity. There’s only one verse, which Sisqo repeats in different ways.
“Dude it took people a long time to realize, ‘Hey he just said the same thing three times,'” Sisqo said. “It was the same verse. I did it in a lower octave the first verse. Second verse I did it in a higher octave. And then on the little breakdown I did almost a rap, if you will. I can’t rap though. I just kind of talked it. I still have people coming up to me like, ‘Yo, I just realized you said the same thing three times.”
Originally released as a single on New Year’s Eve 1999, “Thong Song” took a few months to climb the charts. In May and June of 2000, it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, just in time for summer. Sisqo had a bigger hit: “Incomplete” would reach No. 1 that year — but that’s not the song people remember him for.
“Thong Song” was nominated for 4 Grammys, and inspired countless other musicians. And the song made some unexpected fans. Bill Clinton’s staff invited Sisqo to a charity event at the White House. Magician David Copperfield started using “Thong Song” in his routine. Michael Jackson even flew Sisqo out to meet him, and told him how much he liked his music.
Sisqo followed up “Unleash the Dragon” with the albums “Return of the Dragon” in 2001 and “Last Dragon” this past February,” but neither could match the cultural phenomenon of his first. Even now, 15 years after it paid homage to the skimpiest of underwear, “Thong Song” is still considered taboo by some.
“I was just talking to “Dancing With the Stars” the other day because they wanted me to be a musical guest because they’re doing a ’90s thing,” he said. “They were like, ‘We don’t know, we don’t know. We have to talk to the producers and see if “Thong Song” is too risque for our audience.’ I was like, ‘Really, still?'”
For that, we might have to wait another 15 years.