How Missy Elliot changed the face of hip-hop
June 1999: To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve dug through our 40 years-deep back-catalogue to find interviews and profiles with the world’s greatest talents across film, music, fashion and the arts. Over the coming weeks we’ll be posting a selection of these FACE encounters with the best of the best. Creative, resilient and revolutionary: these are our Archive Heroes.
As immortalised in Mark Alesky’s stunning cover photography, in early 1999 they didn’t come any more supa, dupa or flyer than Missy Elliott. That spring, ace FACE writer Sylvia Patterson was in Los Angeles to meet hip-hop’s reigning queen. Elliot was unveiling Da Real World, the follow-up to 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, a best-selling, genre-changing, seven-day wonder. That’s how long it took to record, in the studio of her fellow Virginian and producing/songwriting partner Timbaland.
Da Real World took a whole month and, as Patterson wrote, “is the unsurpassably creative, zenith-defining hip-hop sound of 1999. Missy has just gone and reinvented hip-hop. Again.”
As she tells Patterson: “This is an album for the females. It’s a build-a-self-esteem album, ’cause it’s still a male-dominated world… And I feel like it’s time for us to get our own, set our own boundaries and goals.”
Twenty years and 30 million sales later, Elliott is still twisting, turning and surprising – in August she appeared (alongside Madonna) on The Blessed Madonna’s Dua Lipa remix album track Levitating.
Back in ’99, though, despite already having a songwriting/production catalogue 10 million sales-deep, the 27-year-old was just getting started. And she was taking nothing for granted. “Missy is a proper woman who understands the importance of a fabulous hairdo,” wrote Patterson. “She takes her own salon-sized, helmet-like hairdryer everywhere she goes.”
Which is why she’s sitting under it during her interview with Patterson. All hail Missy.
President Clinton is declaring his country’s role in the Kosovo war “America at its best!”; a doped-up white punk called Fred Durst from “alternative” hip-hop herberts Limp Bizkit is co-hosting auditions for MTV’s You Can Be A VJ, Too! competition; a woman on the Home Shopping Channel is advertising a revolutionary technique where – “for forty naahn-nanny-nan!” – you can “breathe yourself thin…”
Meanwhile, on this April afternoon, inside a recording studio in uptown LA, 27-year-old hip-hop/R&B/soul pioneer Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott is unveiling an album called Da Real World and a single called She’s A Bitch, saying: “To me, a bitch is a female basically knowing what she wants. I want to turn ‘bitch’ into a power word.” One of these people knows what she’s talking about. And it isn’t the one with her lungs in a loop-the-loop.
“A lotta times, we camouflage soooo much that’s goin’ on. If it’s rainin’ outside, we try to pretend it’s sunny. We camouflage that our teenagers go out, smoke weed, have sex, act like it’s not happenin’. In my house – and my mother was a very religious lady – when I went out, I’d get in a circle with my friends an’ be, ‘Shit! Fuck!’ (mimes smoking enormous blunt), just to see what it was like! So I’m givin’ it to you the way it is. How it is in the real world”
– Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott
Missy Elliott glows with gorgeousness. Perfect skin, deep-deep brown almond eyes brimful of warmth and laughter. Lips made for all the sensual thrills you could imagine. Everything about her speaks of geniality, confidence and inner security.
She’s dressed loud in a silky blue white tracksuit, nails long and white, grin big as her guffaw, voice deep and steady and full of ‘y’all’s and ’ dag!’s and the bewitching vernacular of Virginia in the American southeast – Virginnee, cradle of The Waltons.
Right now, Missy is sitting in a leather chair in front of a vast console in Enterprise Studios, Burbank, Southern California. In the recording complex’s wood-panelled main production room there is a four-foot-wide television by the door, a plate of Smartie-topped cookies on top of the console and, perched around a raised section at the back, half-a-dozen TV journalists from Germany, Britain and Japan.
German bloke: “Ur, did you think about having all female guest artists on your alboom?”
Like the world’s least formal conductress, Missy holds aloft one of several sheets of paper scattered over the console – a blob of pink bubblegum stuck to its corner indicates which one to consult. This is the finalised running order for Da Real World, the follow-up to Supa Dupa Fly. Missy’s 1.5 million-selling, genre-changing debut album was written and recorded in seven days in the Portsmouth, Virginia studio of Missy’s collaborator and fellow Virginian, Tim “Timbaland” Moseley.
Da Real World took a whole month – there was a little more pressure on them. By the end of 1996, the songwriting and producing double act had already sold 10 million records, making Missy a 24-year-old millionaire.
But after the 1997 release of their first album as artists, things got bigger still: with Supa Dupa Fly and its breakout singles The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), Sock It 2 Me and Beep Me 911, they redefined the sound of young, Black, urban America – and, consequently, of young, white, suburban America.
At 5’2”, Missy Elliott is comedy short. Her legs are dangling, not quite reaching the floor as she reaches over and presses play on the console. As the first track from Da Real World throbs through the six-foot speakers parked in each corner of the room, she grins and punches the air.
She’s A Bitch – originally the album’s title, but changed to ensure its availability in the tot-friendly K‑Marts of America – is Missy’s personal mission to redefine the word “bitch”. Deep and dark, it is the punchy sound of a young woman tired of male “aggression” being seen as bold and positive when a female’s aggression makes her a negative “bitch”.
“I don’t have a problem being called a bitch if I know what I want, knowhumsayin’?” Missy declares. “I didn’t want to shy away from the word and get scared, ‘cause I’m an edgy person.” To this end, she is attempting to gather recorded opinions on the word “bitch” from Whitney, Lauryn, Lil’ Kim and Kelly Price – “all the females” – for one of three interludes on the finished album.
Elsewhere, other guest stars step up to the mic – among them Da Brat, OutKast’s Big Boi, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, Redman and Eminem. She discovered Eminem “months ago”, through Timbaland’s recommendation. “Dr Dre got this white boy, you gotta hear him, he is off the hook…”
“There’s three things I hate,” mewls Eminem on the track Funky White Boy, “girls, women and bitches… “Furthermore: “They call me Boogie Knight, the stalker that walks awkward /Stick figure with a dick bigger than Mark Wahlberg /Coming from the airport, sluggish /I’m walking on crutches, hit a fucking pregnant bitch in the stomach with luggage…”
And then Missy eventually kills him.
“Eminem, he’s bugged!” she declares, enthusiastically. “One thing I liked about him, he wasn’t tryin’ to act like he was Black. He was just himself. He wasn’t in the studio with his pants hangin’ off, like, ‘Yo, dude. Yo, Missy.’ He was: ‘I want you to hear this… You like it? You sure?’ He really respected whether I thought it was hot or not. I knew he was gonna blow up, he was somethin’ different, this edgy-edgy rapper like a Marilyn Manson on the rap side.”
Da Real World is funky, furious, filthy, intense, beautiful, dark, vivid, bold and funny, swaggering from multi-voiced hip-hop belligerence to beautiful, deepest soul. Gone, mostly, are the endless staccato percussive beats, replaced by a bewildering spectrum of epic-stringed orchestral dynamics, wiggly keyboards, pancreas-boiling basslines and snatches of laughter and jibes from Timbaland (“Uh oh! You done it now! Missy mad!”).
All that, and the sexiest “uh uh uh” sounds ever invented. Da Real World is the unsurpassably creative, zenith-defining hip-hop sound of 1999. Missy Elliott has just gone and reinvented hip-hop. Again. “It’s a step up from the last album, right?” grins Missy. The small Enterprise audience whoops, stunned, impressed, sonically bludgeoned to dust. “Or maybe it’s me that’s buggin’…”
Missy Elliott is unique. She doesn’t sell records through sex, because she doesn’t have to. She comes without a dope-puffin’ entourage – only the big security man Rich and her tour manager, friend and cousin Jamaike. Until very recently, she had no manager. She is a writer, producer and artist, hip-hop’s first female multimedia mogul, releasing her own records on her own label, The Gold Mind Inc, thus ensuring 100 per cent creative control over her sound, lyrics, image and overall vision.
She’ll take corporate cash from Gap commercials (“I love the Gap commercials!”) to build girders for her empire. She doesn’t believe in “false images” of perfection, and has never appeared in a video in the back of a limo swilling champagne up against a billow-shirted loverman.
A proper pop star, Missy understood from the off the importance of the high camp, high concept video. So she is less ass-aloft, fox-force pervstress in thigh-totin’ leatherette boots, more Bootsy Collins-style living cartoon in a fluorescent green jumpsuit and red plastic spectacles.
In Hype Williams’ video for Sock It 2 Me, she became a videogame superhero flying through cyberspace. Missy and Williams – her other key collaborator – had changed the acceptable face of hip-hop forever. It was interesting again. It was funny. Williams’ grand idea for She’s A Bitch remains “a secret”, although its physicality demands, for the first time, that Missy must first see a doctor. And probably – in the wake of Williams’ $2 million epic for Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s What’s It Gonna Be – an accountant, too.
Two days after the first public airing of Da Real World, Missy Elliott is cosied down in suite 487 of the Nikko Hotel, West Hollywood. Missy is a proper woman who understands the importance of a fabulous hairdo. She takes her own salon-sized, helmet-like hairdryer everywhere she goes. Right now, its enormous circular dome swoops over the desk of her suite like an anglepoise lamp from outer space.
Missy sits patiently under it, clasping both sides. Glowing in morning-fresh, made-up perfection, she’s dressed down in a black “mall” T‑shirt, a platinum and diamond crucifix hanging from her neck.
“This is an album for the females,” says Missy, clearly and evenly over the hairdryer’s whirr. “It’s a build-a-self-esteem album, ‘cause it’s still a male-dominated world and a lot of times our self-esteem be very low. We become very dependent on men. And I feel like it’s time for us to get our own, set our own boundaries and goals.”
In 1989, while in her last year in high school in Portsmouth, Missy Elliott and her neighbour Tim Moseley created a group with three friends. They were called Sista and they spent a year winning all the local talent shows .Sista’s break came in 1990, when a tour by swingbeat boy-band Jodeci pitched up in their hometown.
Worming their way backstage, Sista bombarded the boys with enthusiasm. An impressed Devante Swing, Jodeci’s writer producer, engineered a deal with his label for the group who soon became known throughout the record industry as “the female Jodeci”. But by 1994 Missy’s dream was dissolving in the fall-out from Devante and the company’s “creative differences”.
Sista’s debut album, the promising, swingbeat-smooth, harmonised grooves of 4 All The Sistas Around Da World, was never released. Songwriter Missy, approaching 22, was told by a legion of record company executives she would never make it as solo artist because she didn’t fit the mould. Which is to say she was big, and therefore not stereotypically, marketably beautiful.
Depressed, her self-esteem plummeted to “the lowest level. I thought, I just don’t have the look to be an artist.” She abandoned the idea of being a frontwoman in favour of behind-the-scenes songwriting. She began sending demos to “everyone”, just as she’d always done, from the age of 11. One of the recipients, Faith Evans, spread news of a brilliant young writing and producing pair – and they weren’t from rap’s twin power-poles, New York and LA, nor from big metropolitan centres like Chicago or Atlanta. This pair were from Hicksville, Virginia.
Work began to come the way of Missy and Timbaland. Their breakthrough hit was Aaliyah’s lf Your Girl Only Knew, and they went on to write most of her huge 1996 album, One In A Million. They wrote Can We for TLC, had it rejected, then saw it turn into a career-reviving hit for SWV. Then there’s Lil Kim’s Not Tonight, 702’s Steelo, Mariah Carey’s Baby Doll, Janet Jackson’s Go Deep remix, two forthcoming collaborations with Puff Daddy.
Missy guested on swingbeat sensation Gina Thompson’s The Thing That You Do, its highlight the now-signature guffaw which branded Missy forever as the “hee-haw girl”. Then in 1997 came Supa Dupa Fly. Beguilingly inspirational, it created a brand new soundscape of mesmerising slow beats, unfathomably intricate instrumentations, funk-pop swagger, wit, class and a “cack-a-cack-a-cack” trademark vocal.
The weak, exhausted, sample-strewn mire of R&B clichés was obliterated forever. The Beastie Boys’ Mike D declared that the pair had “saved hip-hop”. Thus, in the last 18 months, the entire culture of American hip-hop/R&B has taken their signature themes as a blueprint for success – whether it’s TLC, Jay‑Z or Blackstreet, everyone wants a piece of this post-Supa Dupa Fly soul. Which is why Missy Elliott and Timbaland have bombed their own past and created a new future altogether with Da Real World.
It’s a Black album. A woman’s album. A rap album. Missy Elliott’s “Girl’s Guidelines For A Better Way Of Life”:
– Get paid: financial independence will save your life.
– Get laid: but hands off the married and thereabouts.
– Don’t give a care whether anyone else “thinks you’re cute or not. I been through it myself and had to be strong enough to say: ‘I’m gonna do it anyway.’”
– Believe only in “inner beauty” – everything else is a lie.
They’re sound and simple ideologies based on homestead realities Something solid to believe in. Something recently missing from hip-hop, the once life-defining music she loves.
“It’s losing the meaning,” Missy is saying as she emerges from beneath the hairdryer. Hair fixed in intricate coils, she sits back in her seat, all blink-free, beguiling, impassioned eyes.
“Hip-hop used to be this thing where it was our voice, our expression. And now it’s almost like a game to get on the other side – ‘I gotta get on the pop side!’ We’re not comin’ through like it used to be back in the Run DMC and Whodini days where they didn’t care. They were just doin’ it ’cause they had the love of it.”
In the late-Nineties’ billion-dollar Hip-Hop Business, more celebration is bugled over Puffy’s restaurant franchise than his sonic “revolution” in turning Black R&B into white, universal pop.
“Puffy’s a good business person,” muses Missy, “but when you get that large you do kinda be scared to step away, to go back here.”
You’re not, though.
“Oh no, not me,” she hoots as if the idea had never entered her sphere of reference. Missy, of course, can have her cake and eat it: she can make radical, dark records like Da Real World for herself while writing pop tunes for, say, Mel B. Their hip-pop single I Want You Back was less Mel “buying into” Missy’s cool, more Missy “buying into” Mel’s fame.
“I felt like a little groupie!” Missy guffaws. “This is Scary Spice in the studio!”
Mel, meanwhile, had phoned Missy’s record company and said: “Are you sure she’s got the right person?” Meanwhile Timbaland, the Norman Cook of hip-hop, has just produced Mel’s latest solo endeavour, a cover of Cameo’s Word Up. But it may be the last of its type. “We gotta start pickin’ and choosin’”, he told Missy, “take on somebody who’s already got that credibility so they won’t be using us to rebuild their careers.”
Face photo shoot, Mia House Photographic Studios, Hollywood. 11am.
Today, Missy’s phone leaves her ear only to film her TV interviews, which she does with good grace and advanced professionalism. State of mind of hairdresser China: evangelical (she’s handing out born-again Christian good-news pamphlets, entitled The Mistake, to the assembled).
State of lungs of make-up man Billy B: doomed. (“You know you be a serious cigarette smoker when you got one behind your ear and one on the go already!” Missy jokes.)
Brand of Missy’s make-up: Mac. Brand of today’s lime-green baseball shirt and crotch-to-knees jeanswear: Nappy. Trainers: Green Nike Air. Number of sets of false eyelashes displayed on the dressing-room table: 35.
Value of platinum and diamond jewellery currently being cleaned in a plastic cup half-filled with water and about to be affixed to the fingers, neck and wrists of Missy Elliott: half a million dollars. Probably more.
Back in her hotel, Missy Elliott announces herself “pretty good” at relationships. However, at the notion of her fantasy beau – the horror, the horror! – Michael Jackson, she squeals in ecstasy. “I’m the biggest Michael Jackson groupie ever!” she swoons. “I love him regardless! But I preferred the big nose Michael.”
Sometimes, when she’s seeing someone new, her man will tell her he “has to stop off somewhere”, drive her to a house and leave her in the car. Then half his neighbourhood, primed for this moment, will emerge, staring out of their windows. Other times, men are intimidated.
“They do see me as a threat ’cause I’m financially so independent,” she nods. “I got five cars. They all’s new. Three 1999s and two 1998s. Two big houses. Jewellery. I’m over a millionaire. A lot of my friends, they be like: ‘Well, he gotta have some kinda dough!’ At this point, for me, it’s gotta be about love – but I’m not gonna settle for just anythin’, ’cause I’ve done so much for myself. So now I’m like: ‘Um, so you say your grade point average is what? You plannin’ on bein’ a doctor or what?’ And he’s like: ‘Oh God, she one of those high class bitches.’ Hihihih!”
Melissa Elliott was born in the coastal town of Portsmouth, Virginia on July 1, 1971 to Ronnie and Patricia Elliott. She grew up an only child in an atmosphere of catatonic terror. All through her childhood, she lived with the constant threat of brutal violence. Her father would regularly assault her mother.
“Amazingly, my father never hit me. He’d pull a gun on us, but he never hit me with it. But he put the gun to my mother’s head,” she says, holding up two fingers, point-blank, to her temple.
“Pulled her arm out of the socket, beat her real bad. Very, very, very, very violent. It wasn’t spells of abuse – it was every other day, all day long, constantly. We lived a very, very harsh life of so much fear. I never wanted to go and do the things other little kids did. I had friends that had sleepovers, but I would never wanna go and stay ’cause I didn’t know when I would come home and find my mother dead.”
Ask why they couldn’t get away from him and she lifts a hand, palm upward, in a gesture which says: “That’s the problem, right there.” She considers, evenly, how so many men, to varying degrees, create victims of women. How they demolish the spirit, isolate through fear, leave a woman dependent on the thing that’s killing her.
“It’s this point of becoming dependent,” she says. “My mother felt like she couldn’t make it without him. They cut you off, from all your friends, everyone. That’s how they do it.”
By the age of 11, Missy was writing her own songs and sending demo tapes to her heroes: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Diana Ross and, strangely, the UK’s sub-Jacksons poppets Five Star. Every day, at school, she checked the mailbox for replies. All through adolescence, she believed one of them would come and take her away. She’d stare out of the classroom window and visualise the white stretch limo smoothing along the path, stopping, the window rolling down and Michael Jackson’s white, glittery glove waving out, beckoning her inside.
Inevitably, Missy found herself “breakin’ down, constantly”. So much so that her aunts thought she needed psychiatric help. But Patricia refused to let a doctor make her daughter feel she was “crazy and sick”, refused to sedate her with medication. It was those breakdowns that gave her mother the courage to leave. One day, she told Missy, aged 14, to walk to the bus stop as if she were going to school. Patricia waited until Ronnie drove off to work, then loaded the contents of their home into a U‑Haul truck brought by Missy’s uncles and cousins.
Missy’s last years at school were spent saving lunch money to buy toothpaste and deodorant. Her grades were so bad, they came in at P – dunce level. The teachers, convinced she had a learning disability, made her sit an intelligence test. The results showed she was “a genius”.
Told she wouldn’t now graduate without across-the-board A’s, Missy went home, turned off the TV and phone and began studying. She passed every one of her exams with the requisite A. She refused, however, to go to college. “I knew I’d be wastin’ my mother’s money,” she shrugs, “I was so into doin’ my music.” To this day, says Missy, “I never worked a day in my life. Not even for a hour. So I think… music saved me from bein’ a bum!”
Recently, she has started to worry that her father might “get mad an ’ try and do something now.” Patricia cut the ties a long time ago, but Missy sees him now and again, even giving him money.
Why would you feel obliged to give him anything?
“You know, it’s just… my heart.”
That’s a pretty huge heart.
“Well… ah… yeah,” says Missy, perennial ebullience momentarily fading, as she shifts uncomfortably on the hotel suite’s oversize sofa. “If he asks me for money, I’ll give him some. I’ll be like: ‘Here.’ It’s pretty cold.”
Do you forgive him?
“Um… Right now, I’m not hating him. I haven’t forgotten. No, I don’t forgive him.”
Insecurity and fear – it really is the Devil at work, isn’t it?
(One eyebrow aloft, steely stare) “Yep. Exactly. Eeexaaaactly.”
And defeating this demon has made you something of a freedom fighter, hasn’t it?
(Beams) “Oh yeah. Oh yeah.”
In fact, freedom is exactly what you represent.
(Missy nods, huge smile) “Hmm, hmmn. Yep.”
Interview with The Big Breakfast, Mia House Photographic Studios, Hollywood, 1.30pm. A standard TV interview in which we discover that Missy is slightly miffed that she didn’t receive an invitation to Mel B’s wedding or baby shower.
Australian interviewer woman: “We now need you to do an ID. If you could say: ‘Hi, this is Missy Elliott, this is my new video, it’s sizzling,’ or ‘it sizzles,’ or, ‘Hi, I’m sizzling.’ You’ve got to use that word.”
Missy: “OK. (Transforms instantaneously into previously unseen supa fly hip-hop diva persona) ‘One-two, one-two, y’all’s with Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott right here, prrrrrrt! (from back of tongue) Ck-ck! Poooo! And y’all gonna watch mah video, my new video, and it’s sizzlin’ like bacon, baby, (licks finger) tsssssss! Aye-eeee (wink).’”
Missy Elliott’s story is a modern-day fairy tale. Through the might of her own will, she has triumphed. In stark contrast to the enforced victim mentality of her former life, since 1997 there has been no one telling Melissa Elliott what to do.
She finds the incalculable amounts of money she makes just hilarious. Its main advantage is not to build her empire but to build security for her family first and ultimately herself. Looks after her aunt, her cousins, her friends, gives her godson “toys for days!” Today, she sent her mum out to buy herself diamond earrings. She gave her $30,000 for Christmas.
So far, Gold Mind represents five new artists signed by Missy: 18-year-old hip-hop-soul singer Nicole, TC (“the bad Usher”), female rapper Mocha, young singer/songwriter Torrey Carter and male rapper Danga Mouf. Recently, she got drunk with Whitney Houston, for whom she wrote Oh Yes and In My Business.
Whitney drank her under the table. Is there anything Missy Elliott wants that she doesn’t have?
Missy pauses, hugely, for the very first time, her big, heavily-lashed eyes flitting round her hotel suite. “Nnn… no,” she finally announces. “I’m pretty much blessed with everything that I’ve ever wanted. Pretty much. Yep.”
In 1999, Missy Elliott is a happy person who isn’t pretending to be happy anymore. Where Lauryn Hill floats, sky-high, through the spiritual ether, looking back to a sepia-toned yesteryear, Missy strides across the open ground ahead, each year a new barrier to crumble, a new sound to conceive, a funny joke to tell. They are equal but opposite miseducators.
Do you think you’ve made the world a better place to live in?
“Woooo!” hollers Missy, and rocks in her seat, head flung back, mouth wide open to the point of flip-top cartoonery, teeth everywhere, crucifix jiggling in time to the giggling.
“That’s a deep statement! There’s so much more to go. We gotta clean it up, period. One person couldn’t make it better – the President can’t make it better. It would be nice if I could get on one little mic and everybody over the whole world could listen to what I say and I be like: (bawls) ‘Go an’ hug somebody! Just hug… anybody! Go give to the bums!’ That would be a beautiful thing!”
“Hihihih! But it don’t work like that. I be picturin’ me walkin’ up in shoot-out (holds both arms out in police ‘stop’ gesture): ‘Ey! Why you doin’ this?’ And they be puttin’ their guns down: ‘Oh, we sorry, Missy!’”
There’s a great Eastern philosophical truism which goes: “Save one life and you save the world.”
“Oh yeah? Hey! Well… I’ve probably done that. Yeah. I guess I probably have.”
America at its best. Hip-hop at its best. Bitches at their best. Sometimes, superheroes are for real.