Xscape member Kandi Burruss creates the soundtracks of our lives
From Beyoncé to Justin Timberlake, ‘No Scrubs’ to ‘Bills, Bills, Bills,’ this ‘Real Housewife’ should one day be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame
This week, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will join immortals such as Little Richard, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, Dolly Parton, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Garcia, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper and more. This week The Undefeated celebrates future Songwriters Hall of Famers — the ones who make the whole world sing and bop, and even milly rock.
No one got out of the ’90s and the early 2000s without grooving to a Kandi Burruss song — even if they didn’t know it. The infectious singles she’s written have launched superstars and promoted female empowerment (with a backbeat), and her work continues to soundtrack our lives. Burruss’ songwriting skills helped to establish the careers of Beyoncé (1999’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bug a Boo”), Justin Timberlake (2000’s “It Makes Me Ill”), Alicia Keys (2001’s “Jane Doe”), P!nk (2000’s “There You Go”) and even TLC, with the classic 1999 “No Scrubs” (written with Tiny Cottle, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes). Gems, all. And the critically acclaimed “Scrubs” was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys, was a No. 1 pop hit in the United States and a massive success worldwide.
Burruss became famous as a singer in the girl group Xscape in 1992. They had three back-to-back platinum albums — 1993’s Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha, 1995’s Off the Hook and 1998’s Traces of My Lipstick — and scored six Top 10 pop songs, including “Understanding,” “Just Kickin’ It” and “Who Can I Run To.” But here’s what was missing: Burruss’ voice as a songwriter. She never actually wrote for the group back then — Jermaine Dupri guided Xscape’s creative direction — but once Burruss got hold of a pen, she had a brilliant run as one of pop music’s go-to songwriters. Of course now, her fame has grown exponentially because of her turns on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta. But Burruss has been setting pop culture afire long before reality TV cameras started whirring.
How did you transition from being in a girl group to being a songwriter?
When our group first started, I used to make up songs for myself and come up with little ideas. I used to ask Jermaine, ‘Please let me write, or try to write.’ He was starting this thing where maybe he’d have a skeleton of the song … and he’d let us write on a verse or something. So I started coming up with song ideas outside of the group, going to the studio outside of the group … working with different producers. Just trying to work on my craft. And when our group started having problems, and LaTosha decided she wanted to go solo, I told Tameka, we need to do our own thing. So we start working with producers for our demo.
Is that how “No Scrubs” came about?
That was one of the songs we’d done for [Xscape]. Played it for L.A. Reid. L.A loved it and wanted it for TLC. I was like, ‘Let them have it.’ Because, in my mind, we could write more songs, and secondly, I always wanted to write for other artists but didn’t know how. But from there, my songwriting took off. I was able to write for everybody after that.
When did you know “No Scrubs” would be such a major track?
Before the song came out, I saw L.A at some little party. He was like, ‘I’m gonna make this the biggest song of your career!’ I was just happy to hear the song was actually going to be on the album. I didn’t know they were planning on making it the first single. It took off so quickly. It’s a song I love. I loved it when me and Tiny did it. I thought it was a great song.
Take me into the studio. Where did you and Tameka begin?
It was a do-or-die moment. My goal was, I don’t want to be in this position again where my fate is left to somebody else. I was talking to Tiny about how it’s really important for us to write our own music, so when we present it to the label we can show them that we can be our own executive producers. We can have more control over our projects. That was the whole goal of writing … we wanted them to see our vision.
What is your inspiration for songwriting?
My inspiration was always relationships. I used to have this notepad that I’d write titles in. I was always great with melodies, but I knew, if you have a hook with a dope title, something easy to remember, and a subject people can relate to, that was the key to a hit. All those years of watching Jermaine come up with Xscape’s songs, that’s what I picked up. “No Scrubs” was in my notepad because that was a saying we used to dog out ninth-graders in high school — it was the name for underclassmen. But as I got older, me and my friends would call out dudes who weren’t on their s—. They were scrubs. It was just one of the many titles that I had.
How would you characterize your style of writing?
Before everybody started doing the singy-rappy type of style, I remember when I worked with N’Sync — and Justin Timberlake was like, ‘You need to put a name to this! It’s kind of like you’re singing, like you got melody, but you rapping! Maybe you should call it mapping!” He was just saying because it’s a melody and rap. I was like, ‘Um. No!’
You had a big job with Destiny’s Child’s sophomore album, 1999’s The Writing’s On The Wall. The group was looking to mature their sound.
I have five songs on that album. It was by chance that I ended up working with them. I remember [the producer] She’kspere … they flew him down … he flew me down, and I didn’t know how that was going to go. When you have a girls group on the same label, sometimes it can be a little awkward, like, ‘What’s she doing writing on that album?!’ Also, one of the girls was dating one of my ex-boyfriends at the time! Everything worked out fine.
You’ve either worked with new artists or people at very transformative moments in their careers.
Working with someone new, you have the chance to set the tone.
That said, you didn’t shy away from people with massive careers like Mariah Carey. You worked with her on Rainbow (1999).
I loved Mariah … I would love the opportunity to work with her again. I didn’t feel like I really was able to do the best for her. She was really busy … working overseas. We had to send her files. Then she would call me over the phone during her breaks, and we collaborated. We came up with something pretty good, [but] I still would have rather been able to be in the studio with her.
P!nk’s “There You Go” was massive. You had a white girl with a soulful voice who looked like she could be in a grunge band.
I always knew her as this white girl with an urban voice. I was excited to work with her because I knew the label was going to be supportive of her. I wanted to give her something that was dope. It was kind of easy. I just had to give her a hit. Now she [has] transformed into this rock star, which is so much different than where she was when she first started. I’d love to work with her again at this phase.
You helped introduce us to Alicia Keys with the “Jane Doe” track on her debut, 2001’s Songs in A Minor.
The title “Jane Doe” was in my notebook that I keep telling you about. At the time, Michael Mauldin was working with her — and obviously that’s Jermaine’s dad. I really like new artists. I loved the fact that she was a musician and that she produced a lot of her own stuff. I thought that whole thing was dope … that’s something that I envy in a good way: people who can play what they’re thinking. I can come up with the melody of the song and everything in my head, but I can’t play it. I can come up with a whole song and you can just be tapping the table, and I can come up with a whole song around it. Because in my head I hear the music, but I can’t play it. So when I’m around other people that can play and actually put beats together with what they hear in their head, it’s something I wish I could do.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are just now being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Were you surprised to hear that?
What took so long? When you think of superstar writing teams, I mean, they’re at the top of the list. Jam, Babyface, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder. They’re at the top.
What have you learned from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis?
They’re inspiring. Every time I’ve met them, they have kind words.
You come from a world of hip-hop. What does it mean for you that Jay Z is getting inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame?
I think it’s dope. You can’t deny what he’s accomplished with his career. As a rapper, he has done things that other rappers could only dream of doing. It’s well-deserved.
“No Scrubs” has turned into three No. 1’s for me. Do you remember “No Pigeons,” the response to “No Scrubs”? That was No. 1, too. And then, now, Ed Sheeran’s song. For a record to be able to multiply into three hits, thank the Lord! It’s crazy. It does feel good … and I’m appreciative of Sheeran being inspired by “No Scrubs” and including us in his current hit. I admire him as a songwriter. And to know he’s inspired by something that I wrote? It’s dope to me.
What do you hope for your legacy as a songwriter?
I just want to have those songs that when people listen to it they can say, ‘Oh, you know that was a Kandi song!’ Or it makes you feel a certain way, or you play it when you’re going through something. Or … you can remember where you were when you played that record. I hope my songs bring good thoughts to people’s minds.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.