New Again: Missy Elliott
Missy Elliott changed the game for women in hip-hop. Before Nicki Minaj, before M.I.A., before Beyoncé struck out on her own, Missy Elliott was spitting lines that rivaled the wit of collaborators like Ludacris and Q-Tip. She burst onto the rap scene with Supa Dupa Fly (1997) and continued her ascent with albums like Miss E… So Addictive (2001), and Under Construction (2002), which featured the club anthem “Work It.” But even beyond her music, she was one of the first to do it all: Alongside musical partner Timbaland, she writes, produces, and sings all her own lines, and releases her material through her own label, The Goldmind, Inc. She’s notoriously independent, and it shows in her original, often eclectic aesthetic both musically and visually (she won the Grammy for short-form music video for “Work It” in 2004).
But Elliott hasn’t released a full-length solo effort since 2005’s The Cookbook. Instead, she’s made numerous guest appearances on tracks by the same women for whom she paved the way in the industry, the likes of Fantasia and Eve. Yesterday, longtime collaborator Timbaland told Rolling Stone the one and only Misdemeanor has something new in the works. “We got the hollow-tip bullet in the gun. We have the game-changer right there,” he said of the first single. “It’s something you ain’t never heard Missy do.”
Timbaland—née Timothy Mosley—hasn’t revealed the timeline for Elliott’s latest, but assures us it’s coming. Meanwhile, we’ve dug out this 1999 interview from the archives, where Missy explains to Michael Musto that she’s shy—no, really!—and talks Whitney Houston and the Jacksons. No matter the subject, from the role of women in music and fashion to comments about her weight, she’s refreshingly blunt, speaking with a candor rivaled only by her lyrics.—Katherine Cusumano
By Michael Musto
There’s no Svengali figure behind Missy Elliott. She’s the Svengali—the writer, the rapper, the singer, the producer, the label head.
Out of the musical fog created by bombastic belters, svelte sirens, and funkless divas, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott has emerged as a human wake-up call, a real-deal bundle of sass and style who does things her way. The pleasingly plumpish star emanates genuine girl power with her distinctly female protestations about the resistance women face when they’re confident and successful (which she is). In ’97, the Portsmouth, Va.-born ex-choir singer, née Melissa, released her smash debut, Supa Dupa Fly, and established herself as a singer-rapper-writer with a welcome penchant for humor and positivity. Since then she’s performed at Lilith Fair, produced the soundtrack for Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998), developed artists for her own record label (Goldmind), and worked with the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. She’s back with the CD Da Real World (Elektra), featuring guest stars Eminem, Aaliyah, and Destiny’s Child, and the single “She’s a Bitch,” an answer to all the name-calling that greets her type of ambition. A more accurate epithet would be the distaff Quincy Jones—she’s a bitch of a talent. And with her unconventional approach and severe distaste for BS, she’s probably da realest girl in da biz right now.
MICHAEL MUSTO: Tell me about your new song, “She’s a Bitch.”
MISSY ELLIOTT: Music is a male-dominated field. Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident. If I’m paying people and they’re not handling my business right, I have to check them. ‘Cause sometimes you’re nice and people don’t jump on what they’re supposed to do, but if you go in there screaming at everybody—”Look, why aren’t my posters up?” or “Why wasn’t my single out on this day?”—then they jump right on it.
MUSTO: A guy wouldn’t have to do all that?
ELLIOTT: For a guy, though, it’s just considered aggressive. You don’t hear people call males bitches. But I’ve heard that people talk that way about Chaka Khan. And Aretha Franklin: If it was cold in the studio, she’d put the mike down and leave. Someone who sees her act like that may say, “She’s a bitch,” but she just means business when she says, “Yo, please have the heat up when I get here.” Of course, nobody’s gonna call her a bitch to her face. But I hear makeup artists all the time saying, “Oh, I had to do such-and-such’s makeup. She’s a bitch.” When it’s just that such-and-such knows how she wants her face. With the new single, a lot of people were like, “Wow, you’re taking a chance with that title.” But it’s really taking off.
MUSTO: This is your second CD. After the big success of the first one, do you have sophomore jitters?
ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah, you’re gonna be nervous dealing with a sophomore, a junior anything. [laughs] There’s always pressure for it to be hotter than the last album, so you critique it harder.
MUSTO: Was it important for you to have a lot of guest stars on this record?
ELLIOTT: I like collaborating, but I felt I should do my first single by myself so people don’t think I’m leaning on other artists to be a success.
MUSTO: I’ve heard it said you want to be a female Quincy Jones.
ELLIOTT: People ask, “What do you think about being called Puff Mommy?” Puff’s a very successful young man, so I don’t have a problem if that’s what they wanna call me. If anybody calls me a female Quincy Jones, that’s way, way complimentary. That’s something I’ll cherish for life.
MUSTO: But are you afraid that focusing on the entrepreneurial aspect won’t leave you enough time for your music?
ELLIOTT: No, because I really enjoy writing and producing for other artists. Some people save their best songs for their own albums. I’d rather give another artist one of my songs. At the end of the day, it still represents me.
MUSTO: What do you feel is your strongest talent—the rapping, the writing?
ELLIOTT: The writing. I’ve always had an imagination and I listen to a lot of different writers. If you listen to my songs, they tell stories. I don’t write in song form, I write almost as if I’m in conversation with somebody. That’s my way of getting something off my chest. The rapping is cool, but my lines aren’t all that fly. People like Biggie Smalls or Jay-Z who say stuff that you have to rewind and listen to twice and be like, “Wow, what made them say that?” or “I would have never thought about saying that”—those are rappers I really look up to. As far as flows, I can give you flows all day.
MUSTO: You produced the soundtrack for Why Do Fools Fall in Love, which had contemporary spins on Frankie Lymon’s music rather than his music itself.
ELLIOTT: Right. Frankie Lymon was hot in his day, but if you put that on the shelf right now, people wouldn’t run out and say, “I have to get the Frankie Lymon soundtrack.”
MUSTO: But why make a movie if you have no confidence in the music it’s based on? The studio seemed a little embarrassed in the way they put out a soundtrack that didn’t have much to do with Frankie.
ELLIOTT: I don’t think they would’ve put up money to even do a movie if they were embarrassed. That’s kinda crazy. If they have money to put out movies they’re embarrassed by, I have a couple of ideas!
MUSTO: Me, too! Did you like the movie?
ELLIOTT: I loved the actors and actresses in it, but the movie didn’t grab me. I think if it had gotten more into the drugs, it would have been more interesting to me. I guess I’m more into thrillers and comedies.
MUSTO: If you had to give out the Missy Elliott award for best movie of the year, what would you pick?
ELLIOTT: The Matrix. That gets five thumbs up. I could see it three more times.
MUSTO: I heard you were the class clown back in your school days.
ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah. I always made people laugh, and everybody wanted me to sit at the table with them. Or during a break we’d be hanging out and people would be like, “Missy, come over here. Look at his shoes,” and they’d know I would start joking. I don’t joke as much as I used to, but I can still be a little comedian every now and then.
MUSTO: Somebody told me you’re actually really shy, but I can see that isn’t true at all.
ELLIOTT: No, I really am. I’m not a party person. You may catch me at a Puffy party every now and then, but I’m not out like that all the time. I’m close to my mother, and I could sit talking on the phone with her all day. Right now it’s just me and you in the room, but if there were five or six other people in here, I’d start getting wheezy and thinking everybody’s staring at me, and then I get like Carrie—”They’re all gonna laugh at you.”
MUSTO: How about when there are 20,000 people out there?
ELLIOTT: I just block everybody out. With six people in here, we’re this close, so they’re looking in my face and it feels like they’re waiting for me to mess up a word or something. People at a concert are farther away, and with the lights I can’t really see their faces.
MUSTO: Do you ever worry about disappointing people who’ve paid a lot of money to see you, or do you have utter confidence when you take the stage?
ELLIOTT: I pretty much have confidence. I’m the type of person who’ll run out into the audience. I’ll be onstage and say, “Stop the music,” and everybody starts screaming ’cause they think I’m leaving. And then the lights shine down on me and I’m in the crowd, so they feel connected to me at that point. When people feel like they can get that close to you, you don’t have to sing or rap a word.
MUSTO: Do you ever take a second to look back and appreciate all the great things that have happened to you?
ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah. I remember in school writing Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson and asking them to come get me out of class. I would imagine then running down the hall and asking my teacher, “Ms. Daniels, can we get Missy out of class? We’re here to see Missy.” My imagination was always wild like that. So when I got a call from Janet, just to hear her say she loved my music, it was like a blessing. It was a dream come true to get a call from Mariah, to get a call from Whitney. Those are major people I’ve always dreamed of working with, and now I’m just waiting on Michael Jackson to call…
MUSTO: What about Latoya? You never wrote Latoya?
ELLIOT: [laughs] No, I didn’t get a chance to write Latoya.
MUSTO: Someone like Whitney just calls to tell you she likes your music?
ELLIOTT: She called me one day and I didn’t believe it was her. When I got off the phone, I screamed so loud. She was so down-to-earth: “What up girl? This is Whitney.” I’m like, “Yeah, right. Whatever. Stop playing.” And then I realized it was her and said, “I love you, I love your music.” She was like, “I wanna do something with you on my album.” Just to hear that come from somebody who’s had the success she’s had, sold the records she has… I would never have thought I could sit in the same room with Whitney and we’d laugh and joke like we’ve known each other for years.
MUSTO: Do people make too much of your plus-size image?
ELLIOTT: Not now, ’cause I’m losing weight. [laughs] But no one has ever, in magazines, made fun of my size. I get healthy women come up to me all the time saying, “I’m so glad you opened up the door for us. I was sick of seeing skinny women on TV.” They respect me for my music—and that’s another blessing from God. ‘Cause it could have been that people were just not having it: “You’re not a one-two, so you need to move over. We want to see the girl who can fit in a bikini, not the girl who gotta have on the shorts and the t-shirt ’cause she don’t want her stomach to show.”
MUSTO: How much weight have you lost?
ELLIOTT: I’ve lost 30-some pounds, but not because I felt like I had to be in that rank with other small females. I wanted to be in good health for my shows ’cause I do a lot of dancing and running around, and I don’t want my heart to fail on me. I go to the gym maybe three days a week, and I do exercises every day—300 hundred crunches, two hundred leg lifts. Sometimes I have to smack my hand ’cause I still have sweets in my cabinet and sometimes I gotta move a Twinkie over to get a protein bar and I’m like, “Maybe just a little piece of this Twinkie won’t hurt me.”
MUSTO: Do you think people are too hard on Calista Flockhart [the actress who play’s TV’s Ally McBeal] for being so thin?
ELLIOTT: I really don’t know her situation. I have a couple friends who are really, really skinny who eat all day long, like football players, and they never gain weight! Meanwhile I’m nibbling some lettuce, you know, or a little piece of chicken meat. So if she can’t help it, I think people should lay off her, but if she’s going to the bathroom and throwing up because she feels like this is the fly look of the year, then she’s bugging.
MUSTO: Everything I’ve read about you is so sickeningly positive. Do you ever get bad press?
ELLIOTT: I’m pretty much a happy person, so it’s kind of hard to write something bad about somebody who doesn’t give off negativity. Every day is not a beautiful day for anybody, but I try to treat all my fans nice and all the interviewers nice. When it comes to people getting in my business, though, I have a problem. When interviewers ask me who I’m sleeping with or if I don’t like such-and-such or what is my sexuality, that’s not beneficial to the world. They need to ask me about stuff that may help readers, like how my father abused my mother for many years. A lot of kids go through that and need to know what they should do.
MUSTO: Too bad, because my next question was going to be, Who do you sleep with? [Elliott laughs] Instead, let me ask this: When you did the Gap commercial, were you at all afraid of over-exposure or getting too corporate?
ELLIOTT: Nah. I mean, shoot, I was happy. I’m getting into commercials, and from commercials, maybe I’ll get into movies. Matter of fact, I hope they call me again. I had a lot of fun. It’s amazing—it took 10 to 12 hours for just that little bit. I told my friends, “Come pick me up, I’ll be finished in an hour.” So an hour passed and I’m still doing the same thing over and over. I commend people who do commercials where they eat cereal or a hamburger. Their stomach must be swollen when they’re done. When I saw the ad, I was like, “OK, that’s hot. So where the other part at? There’s gotta be an extended version.”
MUSTO: A director’s cut. What can you tell me about shooting the “She’s a Bitch” video?
ELLIOTT: I want to keep it a secret, but the director, Hype Williams, tells me that this video will knock any other video off the TV. [laughs] Now if it don’t, he said it, I didn’t. Those are Hype Williams’s words.
MUSTO: His name is Hype. [both laugh] Thank you, Missy.
ELLIOTT: All right, buddy. Be safe.
THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1999 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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