Missy Elliott hit most of our radars with her 1997 debut album Supa Dupa Fly, but her history as a recording artist goes back to the early '90s when she was a member of Fayze and Sista.
As a producer and writer Missy wrote, arranged, and produced for Jodeci, Aaliyah, 702, and Ginuwine, before her debut release. After half a dozen solo albums, Missy has more Platinum albums than any other female Rap artist, and as the first female Rapper in the Song Writers Hall of Fame, she has written songs for Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Destiny’s Child.
Missy recently sat down with Def Jam Records co-founder and producer, Rick Rubin, for the Broken Record Podcast, and spoke about her creative process and her wide-reaching influence.
When Rick Rubin asked Missy what music she is currently listening to, she replied that she isn’t really listening to anything currently, and that when she and her long-time producer, Timbaland, embark on a project, they make it a point not to listen to anything.
“I go into a place of not listening to anything, and that’s how I pretty much started - me and Tim. We were forbidden to listen to other people’s stuff or watch videos.
She said further: “In a crazy way that worked our favor, because we didn’t see or hear, so we ended up creating a sound that we didn’t know that we were creating. We didn’t know what was hot to mimic it. That always worked, we weren’t afraid to try something new because we didn’t know what was hot out there to know if we were going too far or not enough.”
It was my high school friend Magoo who gave me the nickname “Misdemeanor” because he said that it was a crime for someone to possess so many talents
- Missy Elliott
When speaking of the classics, Missy say that she keeps them in rotation, stating: “When people get in my car they feel like it’s the 80s or 90s because I’m gonna always play those joints. The timeless records will always be in my car. I know my little cousins hate it.”
Missy revealed that she grew up in a household where she had the best of both worlds musically, with her father playing R&B, and her mother playing Gospel.
“My father would play Marvin Gaye, Prince, Michae,l then go to Men At Work. I remember 'Whip It' (by Devo), Grace Jones, and all that stuff. It was R&B on one side and Gospel on the other side.”
Missy said further that she learned harmony and feeling listening to her mother’s Gospel music and lyrical content, love & heartache and social commentary from her fathers R&B.
“I truly had the best of both worlds listening to both,” she said. Missy recalled early that she wanted to be a singer, and revealed that when classmates said that they wanted to be teachers and doctors, she was already proclaiming that she wanted to be a superstar.
“I would stand in the mirror and pretend that I was at an award show with Janet and Michael, thanking Madonna for letting me write her new song.”
Missy recalled one of her earliest brushes with the music business — visiting Teddy Riley ‘s Future Studio in Virginia Beach as a teenager with four other girls and auditioning for Teddy. His response was, “I see five of y’all, but I’m only hearing two-part harmony,” and he declined signing them. She also shared the story of being signed to Devante’ from Jodeci’s record label, under Sylvia Rhone, and Sylvia dropping his artists (including Sista), and later signing her as a solo artist.
While signed to Devante, Missy constantly told him about their producer D.J. Timmy Tim who would be known to the world later as Timbaland. Devante responded: “I don’t care who he is, me and Al B. Sure are gonna produce your album.”
She finally convinced Devante to give Tim and Magoo (who introduced Missy and Timbaland) a listen. Missy recalls that it was her high school friend Magoo who have her the nickname “Misdemeanor” because he said that it was a crime for someone to possess so many talents. Missy also shared that Timbaland owned a Casio keyboard complete with dog barking and other sound effects that became a part of his signature beat making. She revealed: “He didn’t even consider himself a producer yet, he just made a beat one day on his Casio and I started rapping to it.”
For So Addictive, Missy’s third Timbaland-produced album, she felt that something was missing, while Tim felt it was solid. She instructed him to go through his keyboard because they needed one more song.
“He got on the [Ensoniq] ASR 10 and started going through the beats and he hit a button and I said that’s it,” Missy said excitedly. “He was going so fast that he couldn’t find the beat again. He finally got back to it, but it was only the guitar sound and a kick, because that’s how he would do stuff, and after I finished rapping he would place the other things around it,” she remembered. The beat that Tim almost misplaced became “Get Ur Freak On,” one of Missy’s most popular and best selling songs.
When speaking of writing Aaliyah’s smash hit “One In A Million,” Missy said that many program directors were reluctant to air it because the unorthodox rhythm was difficult to mix with other songs.
“Although it was so slow, it still made you bounce. Timbaland and Pharrell are amazing like that. Tim played off of feeling. Someone who went to school for music would probably say that his beats were in the wrong key.”
Missy says that spirituality plays a huge role in her music and her life.
"In this industry, if I didn't have some kind of spiritual connection, I don't know how I could have made it. Lots of artists come into this industry thinking they are gonna make a lot of money and be famous and hot forever, then you realize you've been duped. You won't be hot forever, you can always have respect though. The impact and respect will always be there."