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Missy Elliotts Hip-Hop Transformations

THE BRAND NEW Negro can be an inventive amalgamation of past and future trends which are indigenous to black American style. Generally, the brand new Negrowho is new every decade or sois female, a female who considers her marginal status a kind of freedom and challenging: she takes the tiny she’s been given and transforms it into something complex, outrageous, and, ultimately, fashionable. She actually is outrageous because no-one cares what she doesuntil, that’s, she begins to create money. Missy (Misdemeanor) Elliott, the twenty-five-year-old hip-hop performer who’s energetically redefining the boundaries of rap music, is really a singer, a songwriter, an arranger, a producer, and a talent scout. Half a year ago, few people beyond your music industry had heard about her; half a year from now, it’ll be essential to pretend that youve known about Missy Elliott for a long time. She is the largest and blackest female rap star that Middle America has ever seen. She actually is the most recent incarnation of the brand new Negro.

I first met Missy Elliott last June, in the waiting room at WPGC-FM, a D.C. soul station. She was there to market the release of her dbut solo album, Supa Dupa Fly, and, in characteristic Missy Elliott fashion, she had dressed for the occasionin a red-and-yellow baseball jersey, bright-yellow vinyl overalls, a bright-yellow vinyl jacket, and brown Timberland boots. Her hair was styled in crisp finger waves near her head, like tiny black ribbons, and her fingernails, two inches long, were varnished white. But there is no publicist or receptionist to greet her. On the wall above the reception desk were numerous shabby, poster-size black-and-white photographs of the stations disk jockeys, their hair and teeth celebrity-bright, which did nothing to dispel the forlorn atmosphere. She looked around and reduced the dim room and the stations insufficient amenities to a weary expletive: Damn.

Missy had arrived with three people in tow: her cousin Malik, who’s as tall and lanky as Missy is short and round; Rene McLean, a rap promoter from the Elektra Entertainment Group; and Keisha, a fairly young black woman who’s a third of the lady group Total. As is frequently the case in Missys professional circle, who was promoting whom wasnt initially clear.

WPGC was Missys final guest appearance that day; earlier, she had publicized her album at three record stores and another radio station in the Washington area, and she have been greeted in every those places with considerable fanfare. (Yo, it had been dope, Keisha said, nicotine gum as she smiled her most seductive girl-group smile.) In order to generate a small amount of that excitement at WPGC, Missy dispatched Rene to get Tigger, the host of this program she was likely to appear on. Then she announced that Keisha will be interviewed on Tiggers show, too: less airtime for Supa Dupa Fly, maybe, but more exposure for another Missy project: she had co-produced and co-written several tracks on Totals yet-to-be-released album.

Malik returned with Tigger, and promptly Missy, sitting opposite Keisha in the control booth, was introducing her to WPGCs listening audience. She then took calls from her fanswhom she addressed as Baby, Boo, or Go-Go Headwhile autographing her way by way of a stack of eight-by-ten black-and-white glossies. Even four months agobefore she appeared on David Letterman, prior to the MTV Video Music Awards, before her record went goldMissys unorthodox mixture of personal confidence, professional generosity, and entrepreneurial spirit were in ample evidence. After signing off, Missy discussed the lyrics shed written on her behalf song The Rain, that was already coming to learning to be a hit: About a minute Im discussing weed, another minute Im discussing a manlike that. Nearer to life and nearer to how my mind works. She walked right into a WPGC conference room and sat down, her oversized yellow overalls ballooning up around her. I dont desire to be oh-so-brag-about-it, however the Rain is hot, she said with a shy laugh, her almond-shaped eyes closing up tight. Then she made the comment that could become her mantra in the coming weeks: We give our music a futuristic feel. I dont make music or videos for 1997I really do it for the entire year 2000.

In the nineteen-sixties, when Diana Ross was with the Supremes, she was an excellent New Negro. When she sang, she did a lot more than simply sing: she shrugged her shoulders, bugged her eyes, and bopped her large head on her behalf skinny neck. When she sang Where Did Our Love Go? she looked as if she were having an extremely controlled, elegant freak-out. Then, in the seventies, the Pointer Sisters clunked around in Andrews Sisters wedgies and Ruby Keeler shorts, while waving little American flags and singing riffs from Swanee with significant amounts of energy and irony. In the eighties, the disco diva Grace Jones not merely intoned that she could feel just like a female while looking just like a man but additionally, in her extended video One Man Show, resurrected Dietrichs Blonde Venus ape suit, using its racist overtones. In 1997, Missy Elliott may be the New Negro of hip-hop.

Ladies in rap, its exactly like it ever wasthey come and go, Sharee, a fresh York d.j., explained. Back in your day, in the nineteen-eighties, these were cute and sexy. Now theyre cute and sexy and mad about something. They dont last, since they work one gimmicktheir sex appealand that doesnt last long. Think Marilyn Monroe talking in rhyme, and you also have a fairly good notion of just how most female rappers go. But Missy Elliott have not only avoided the prevailing stereotypes of the music-video industry; she’s spent the previous few months bringing the around to her design of dance, costume, and song. She slowed up rapshe took chances, Jac Benson, a senior producer at MTV, says. She opened the entranceway for other sounds. For Missys lyrics, they’re about her internal worldnot the material world of money, jewels, and menand in her video she’s were able to catapult herself beyond the clichd horny-boy images of girls in Jacuzzis chugalugging champagne. Instead, she’s capitalized on the hip aesthetic that Sly Stone founded in the late nineteen-sixties, when he developed a persona that were able to retain a hard-edged black sound without making white listeners feel hopelessly unhip. Missy explained that she wants her work showing where black individuals are from, and where were going.

In the video The Rain, her hair, which fits her such as a cap, is similar to the marcelled coiffure that Duke Ellington sported in the forties and fifties. In a few shots, she wears an inflated black patent-leather suit and black sunglasses mounted on a rhinestone headpiecea look that the Whitney Museum curator Thelma Golden has referred to as cyber mammy. In another sequence, she moves toward the camera wearing a lime-green outfit and oversized yellow-framed glasses, jerking her arms along and proclaiming, Im supa dupa fly! Missys little dance appears like an accelerated version of Walter Brennans dead bee hop-and-skip walk directly into Have and also have Not. In another shot, her lips and eyes are morphed, or enlarged. Features once made grotesque by racist caricaturists are celebrated by this New Negro: exaggerations of physiognomy are an element of her style.

In another Rain clip, Missy is chantingher warm, rich voice layered contrary to the songs background track, the soul classic I Cant Stand the RainI have the wind/Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/Nine, ten/Begin/I take a seat on hills like Lauryn before rain starts comin down, pourin. Sitting on a near-psychedelic grassy knoll and running her fingers by way of a straight-haired wig shes wearing, shes a caricature of the tiny Bo-Peep white girl. We wished to make fun of the ways record companies make an effort to make black women look white, Missy has said. Fake hair, fake music.

Missy conceived of The Rain video alongside the black music-video director Hype Williams, who in addition has directed the rap stars Busta Rhymes and the late Tupac Shakur. Both Missy and Williams were aware that for most viewers the video would give a way into her music. Videos will be the most effective tool for selling songs, says Gina Harrell, who heads Elektras video-production department. Until they saw the video, radio programmers didnt understand The Rain. She taught people how exactly to proceed to the track. And Hype could grab the core of Missythe performance artist. It had been only after radio programmers and everyone saw Missy dancing that her position as a fresh Negro icon was established. In the end, the theory that its a ten as you can dance to it didnt day American Bandstand. The Rain has inspired a score of imitations since its releasesome of these directed by Hype Williams himself. I needed the video to check avant-garde, so white people could easily get involved with it, too, Missy explained. And when I lose cool points with other rappers cause I dont want my sound and appearance to be about a very important factor, i quickly lose cool points.

Melissa Elliott was created in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1971, 2 yrs before I Cant Stand the Rain was initially recorded and released. Being an only child, Missy, as she was called by her family, amused herself by lining up her dollsBaby Alive, G.I. Joe, whateverand singing in their mind. Her parents marriage was an unhappy one, so when Missy was fourteen they separated. She and her mother have lived together in Portsmouth since.

A solitary and industrious teen-ager, she helped form a singing group with three other neighborhood girls. The groups first name was Fay Z; then it became Sista. Missy always wished to be up there, her mother, who works as a dispatcher at a power company, recalls. As just a little girl, she’d ask me to create home stamps, for several these letters she was writing. The letters will be returned, and Id note that shed written to Diana Ross, and whatnot.

Sista began performing at local talent shows and local colleges, and in 1992 attracted the eye of Devante, an associate of the favorite singing group Jodeci, by waylaying him at a concert. When Devante signed Sista (We’d long-ass weaves, we was chaos, Missy recalls), Missy was twenty. She and another neighborhood friend, Tim Mosley, who passed the name of Timbaland, wrote most of the songs that the group performed. Sista eventually dissolved, but Timbaland and Missy remain partners.

Their songwriting process has been exactly the same for a long time: first, they create the essential tracks (often incorporating samples from soul classics like Pass the Dutchie). Then Ill sit back, Missy says. He might visit the movies, the mall, or something. And I sing the complete song, background and all. The task grows out of a number of musical genresreggae, rap, R. & B. balladsbut its basis and primary influence is soul music, which range from Rick Jamess Super Freak to black-exploitation-movie soundtracks like Curtis Mayfields Superfly. By 1995, Missy and Timbaland were writing songs for the latest acts in R. & B., from Aaliyah to Ginuwine, and were on the way to learning to be a latter-day Ashford and Simpson.

When people say the music business, they mean the producer business, Jac Benson explained. Producers, not artists, will be the ones who really reach control an artists over-all sound and message. And Missy recognized that very early. Unlike most performers, who first battle to succeed as solo artists before they turn to producing, Missy did the reverse. Her experience with Devante ended up being a negative oneSista had made an archive and waited for a long time, in vain, for this to be releasedand she was determined never to repeat it. I didnt desire to you need to be an artist and let another person have all that control over me, she said. I knew I’d need to produce.

Actually, Missys potential as a solo artist and video presence didnt become evident until this past year, when her now signature hee haw rap for Gina Thompsons remix of THE ITEMS You Do was showcased in the video. Ginas song was the ice-cream sundae, the hip-hop impresario Fab Five Freddy explained. Missys rap was the cherry at the top. As opposed to the funky bubblegum ballads shed written for groups like SWV and 702, Missys raps were sharp and strong: the girl was always saying what she wanted, so when and where she wanted it. And Missys visual impact became as captivating since it was unexpected. Shes a full-figured black woman, Freddy continued, and, lets face ita large amount of black women appear to be her. She’s Southern sophistication, a country elegance. But there is also an iconic quality to Missy on video right from the start; Freddy described her because the twenty-first-century incarnation of Aunt Jemima; it feels as though shes putting the complete house to be able.

Following the Thompson video arrived, rap fans began requesting the hee-hee haw-haw girl. Missy says that she was approached by companies from Arista Records to Motown, but they wished to sign her only being an artist, and she refused. Merlin Bobb and Sylvia Rhone, two senior executives at Elektra, decided to give her more. We wished to set her up in a little situation where she could develop her songwriting and producing abilities, Bobb explains, whereas others wished to sign her being an artist and make some fast money. He adds, Missy was shocked when she understood that people were thinking about her business sense. In the summertime of 1996, Elektra decided to subsidize a little label called Gold Mind Records, which Missy now oversees. Bobb says that whenever Missy first joined Elektra she was writing songs for other artists, but that she soon grew confident enough to begin with writing songs for herself. In the spring of 1997, she and Timbaland recorded the music and Missys vocals for Supa Dupa Fly in weekly.

On July 22nd, the video of The Rain was nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards: Best Rap Video, Best Direction in a Video, and Breakthrough Video. The very next day, Supa Dupa Fly went goldNo. 3 on Billboards pop chart, no. 1 on its R. & B. chartthereby reinforcing Elektras belief in Missy as a solid, marketable artist. By mid-August, articles had appeared in the Times, the Washington Post, and the business enterprise portion of the LA Times. By August 20th, Missy had begun focusing on a fresh video of her second single, Sock It 2 Me, with Hype Williams.

This sure beats couples counselling.

Cartoon by Liana Finck

When I saw Missy at the filming of the video, in a cavernous hangar in Long Island City, she was wearing red superhero boots, white tights, and red Pac-Man arms, and she had a large red M emblazoned on her behalf chest: the inspiration because of this video, which also featured Da Brat and Lil Kim, was Japanese superhero animation. This time around, Missy had not been only the videos main attraction but additionally its co-producer. Sock It 2 Me had a nine-hundred-thousand-dollar budget, 1 / 2 of which Missy was personally responsible fora budget that she hoped would make the video harder to rip off visually. (If people gonna copy me this time around, they gonna need to emerge from their pockets, Missy says.) She actually is unlike many performers for the reason that her wit and her sense of character go together with her marketing savvy: her rap on SWVs Can We begins, Me and Timbaland/We got the sh that hits from here / From here to overseas / Where SWV is.

During the day, Missy would consider the playbacksalone, and with whoever else wished to watch. (At one point, the stylist for the shoot, June Ambrose, walked by. Glancing at Missys image on the flickering screen, she remarked, She’s lost her mind, and thats a very important thing.) Missy consulted with Timbaland many times about her performance. She had not been worried about how she looked; rather, she wished to know whether Sock It 2 Me was the right follow-up from what she had done before; she wondered aloud if people could really understand where this Missy thing is certainly going.

Sylvia Rhone, for just one, sees the Sock It 2 Me video moving in the direction of television: No ones really used that Japanimation sort of thing, and I wish to take this video and sell the idea of these characterswhich are played by Missy, Lil Kim, and Bratand execute a real special cartoon. Black folks havent moved into that genre.

Rhone was particularly pleased concerning the coverage that Missy received in the L.A. Times. I’d like white America, that is scared of hip-hop artists, to note that some people are real businesspeople, who command major dollars and a significant consumer base, and also have more vision than simply performing a rap record. Rhone thinks that Missys easygoing manner could be misleading. In the event that you ran into Missy, you’ll say, It is a ghetto girl with ghetto curls, she explained. Within the hee-hee haw-haw, shes among the sharpest businesswomen Ive ever appear against.

And, if Missy wants greater longevity than is normally accorded a rap star, writing and producing under her very own label, Gold Mind, might provide it. Personally i think like, O.K., easily makes it as a singer, then i want to try rapping, Missy explained. If I makes it as a rapper, then i want to try writing. Fine? If I ensure it is as a rap singer and writer, then you will want to make an effort to produce? I dont feel limited at all. Theres that saying God gave you talent, and when you dont utilize it Hell go on it from you. And I usually said, I dont want God ahead down and take my talents away. So, through the use of each one of these talents and achieving success in all of these, Ive always got something to fall back on.

On September 3rd, the night time of the rehearsal for the MTV Video Music Awards, Missy Elliott attained Radio City Music Hall to execute her rap on Lil Kims single Not Tonight, together with the radio personality Angie Martinez; Left Eye, from TLC; and Da Brat. As usual, she was dressed to thrill, and, as usual, she appeared as if nobody else there. Within an industry where, as Missy says, you either gotta be light-skinned or have long hair to fulfill a teen-age boys video notion of an effective vide-ho, Missy Elliott has were able to be another thing altogether. Before her Supa Dupa Fly success, she had the sensation that people may not like me hopping around, she recalls. You wouldnt see me in another of those model magazines unless it had been, like, Healthy Woman. But Im cool.

Lil Kims number was with an Egyptian theme: Lil Kim, Left Eye, and Angie will be dressed up in Nefertiti-like costumes; Da Brat will be dressed as a Roman gladiator. Each of them assembled on the stage and, silhouetted against a big-screen projection of a pyramid, began training various moves with the choreographer. Unlike another participants, Missy will be entering the act from the audience, dressed as herselfas though her fellow-entertainers were her bitches. As the women gyrated and gestured onstage, Missy sat with her cousin Malik, drinking a big bottle of soda and looking apprehensive. This might be her first live television performance. It had been a long way off from singing in hair extensions and Jordache jeans at the neighborhood senior high school in Portsmouth. Billy B., Missys makeup person, have been eavesdropping when her mother beeped her a couple of days earlier: I possibly could hear Missy say, Now, Ma, please dont arrived at the awards. Ill be too nervous to performits the white peoples awards, Ma. Essential.

However when it came time for Missy to walk along the aisle doing her little Walter Brennan dance, her nervousness appeared to vanish. Several MTV workers, publicists, and managers representing other artists moved to seats at the front end of the stage to be able to have an obvious view. Hop-skipping down the aisle toward her sister rappers, Missy carried a mike in a single hand and made flapping gestures with her other, saying, Yo, yo, Kim, you not gonna get me with this song just singing hooks. What I look likePatti LaBelle or something? Then Lil Kim giggled her peroxide giggle as Missy engulfed her in a good embrace.

Every time they ran through Lil Kims number, Missy performed her portion of the song differently. Sometimes she added a supplementary yo, or she made just a little tiki tiki sound between your yos, as an urban voodoo priest bent over a cauldron. Onetime when she said, Oh, just what a night, at the songs conclusion, she conveyed a particular flirtatiousness; another time she conveyed boredom. Unlike nearly all rappers, who make an effort to approximate within their live performances the precise sounds and movements theyve found in their videos for easy audience identification, Missy approaches rapping just how jazz musicians approach jazzas an improvisational musical form. It had been only following the rehearsal was overwhen others had wandered off and she stood alone on that vast and unfamiliar stage, blowing kisses and mouthing Thank yous to a nonexistent audiencethat one remembered how astonishing it had been that this type of newcomer had performed there to begin with.

Seven days later, on September 10th, Missy was in a dressing room on the sixth floor of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, at Broadway and Fifty-third Street, on the point of perform The Rain on the Late Show with David Letterman. Missy had never been on a late-night show before, and, as the invitation was a welcome indication of her recent crossover success, she didn’t have an obvious notion of who, precisely, Letterman was. I never catch the show, she said. What does he do up there?

That afternoon, during Missys pre-taping rehearsal, Lettermans technical staff have been plagued by an identical question: What, exactly, were Missy and her entourage likely to do up there? She was singing with a seven-piece band, but there have been also two dancers, two more rappers, and two backup singers in attendance. Furthermore, Ann Peebles, the girl who first made I Cant Stand the Rain famous, was creating a guest appearance with Missy. They didnt know where you can put the camera, Missys manager, Louise C. West, recalled later.

Quarter-hour before Missy was to surface in front of a live studio audience, Anne Kristoff, her publicist, and Billy B. were waiting beyond your performers dressing room. There is consternation on the proven fact that Missy hadnt announced your final arrange for her performance, and Billy B. was upset along with his client for not giving him enough time he had a need to make her up. (I was promised one hour to accomplish her face, he complained, to no-one specifically. Missys face is my face. I wish to be pleased with it.)

Then Sylvia Rhone stepped off the elevator with Merlin Bobb, and Rhone asked how Missy was and what time she was going on. Now, replied a woman who was simply passing by in the narrow hall. Directly behind her was Missy herself, wearing outsized red leather trousers, a big white T-shirt, and a gold pendant depicting an Afrod woman in silhouette. A sleeveless red leather basketball jersey had the term Supa written on leading and a large purple leather fly stitched on the trunk. She was trailed by Malik, two dancers in purple trousers and tops, and the singers Magoo and Timbaland. Everybody else stepped into line in it, followed Missy in to the elevator, and disappeared, like circus performers pouring right into a tiny joke car.

Downstairs, the non-performing members of Missys entourage sat in the greenroom watching as Letterman introduced the quantity while holding Missys CD ugly. The camera closed in on the facial skin of Ann Peebles singing, Missy, you cant stand the rain, while Missy performed her distinctive shimmy and belted out the lyrics Beep, beep, who got the keys to the jeep, vroom! Rhone was watching the monitor in the greenroom, and her eyes filled up with tears. Shes first got it, shes first got it! she chanted.

By the end of the song, David Letterman kissed Missys hand. Suddenly, the girl who only moments before have been skating in one side of the stage to another and making cats eyes at the audience became modest and subdued. You Missy people keep coming back! Letterman called after her as she and her fellow-performers left the stage. Minutes later, Missy was climbing right into a black stretch limousinewith Magoo, Malik, and Louise in towthat have been waiting beyond your theatre. Clutching her cellular phone, she called her mother: Yo, Ma, watch me tonight on David Letterman. What channel could it be on, yall? Yeah, Ma, Channel 4.

In the coming months, Missy is a presenter at the 1997 MTV Europe Music Awards. She’ll tour England, France, Holland, and Germany to market Supa Dupa Fly. But she’ll also be launching Nicole Ray, a singer from her city, on Gold Mind, and producing four songs on the full total album. At twenty-five, after significantly less than 2 yrs as a producer with Elektra, shes already sounding as an old hand (I love young peoplenot to state that I block old people out. Its that it is possible to develop teenagers). In addition, it could be time, Missy thinks, to break right into the films. I dont want big scenes initially, she told me recently. I wish to work my way up. Sometimes, once you get yourself a heavy role, you cant deliver, and folks are so jealous, theyd end up like, Yo, Missy cant act. But if its something small people will say, Yo, Missy is tight.

Following the Letterman taping, because the limousine moved through the blue twilight, the driver asked Missy the way the show had opted. When he heard that Letterman had kissed her hand, he observed that that has been an indicator of great respector props, as he called it. Which means Lettermans a European, he explained. Those Europeans, they are able to cease to a Negro; Missy, 1 day soon they gonna offer you all of your props.

A youthful version of the article misstated the title and the lyrics of an SWV song.

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