This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Spin.
“Beep-beep / Oooh got the keys to the jeep / Vrrrroomm.” I’m drivin’ to the beach—actually a man-made island inside Palm Beach Ocean Studios in West Palm Beach Florida—for the taping of Lil’ Kim’s video “Not Tonight.” Because many of the women from the single’s all-star lineup—Kim, TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Da Brat, Hot 97’s Angie Martinez, and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott—have brought many of their friends here, the room is brimming with people whose futures are so bright, they gotta wear shades. Indoors. Short skirts and tight pants are second skin to bootays that would have Isaac Newton completely stumped. Meanwhile, Lil’ Cease from Junior M.A.F.I.A. and his crew pass out bottles of Hennessy, Martell, and Baileys.
‘Til ungodly hours, each artist tapes her part, each performance a small revelation. Angie is laid back, almost too much so; Kim is femme fatale; Brat, gangsta bitch; Left Eye, reserved. Elliott, who rhymes and sings the hook—a revise of Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies Night”—is last. She paces the floor, looking down, avoiding eyes, but when her turn comes—”Oh what a night / You should be like Missy ‘steada bein’ like Mike”—this reticence dissipates. She flirts with the camera, her movement like the music; cocky, stop’n’start, losing—then catching—the beat and her balance. Elliott’s act is a sly wink, a rest-assured confidence cast toward onlookers. “Missy be killin’ shiiiii…” a guy says rather excitedly.
On the other side of the room, Da Brat is carefully watching Elliott, as have the others. There is an unspoken friendly competition among all of them and Brat knows it. A Grinch grin spreads slowly across her face and, once the set quiets, she yells threateningly across the room, “Hey! Missy!”
Elliott looks up. Yells back, “Whut?”
Brat laughs. Throws a mo’-power-to-ya fist in the air. “Fuck you, nigga!”
There are reasons 25-year-old Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott commands such respect. Before the take-no-prisoners summer single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and her much-anticipated solo debut Supa Dupa Fly CD, she had already compiled an impressive discography, writing and rapping on songs—hits, smash hits—for folks like Aaliyah, SWV, Ginuwine, 702, Gina Thompson, New Edition, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Total. “I’m not a conceited person. I’m real humble. And I’m shy,” says the woman who won’t sing with anyone in the studio (except the engineer.). “But you give yourself credit. I mean, if somebody tell you you look nice, you say thank you, but it’s obvious in your mind that you done spent hours trying to get dressed and you know: This is hot.”
But just what makes Elliott so hot may not be entirely obvious. She isn’t an exceptional rapper, like Lauryn Hill, nor is she a particularly gifted singer, like Erykah Badu. Missy’s strongest statement is her mere existence. She’s a Redefining Woman in Hip-Hop, along with folks like Hill, Badu, and Queen Latifah, who fearlessly explore their creativity, who refuse to succumb to body-as-bribe, and whose business is well taken care of, thank you. (Elliott has a record label-production company with Elektra called The Gold Mind, Inc.) Her marketing savvy borders on ingenious; in almost every song on which she’s appeared in the last year, she’s managed to incorporate her signature “hee-hee-hee-hee-haoow” giggle as well as her “Supa dupa fly” boast. Little wonder the record debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at No. 3.
All this, and homegirl wasn’t even thinking about making an album.
“Nah,” she says. “People think I did this for the money, but I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable.”
Elliott’s golden touch—from her scene-stealing early appearances on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” (remix) and 702’s “Steelo,” to later work on hits like Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew” and SWV’s “Can We”—is perhaps rivaled in hip-hop/soul circles only by King Midas himself, Sean “Puffy” Combs. Moesha star Brandy wanted in on the Missy action for her new album. Elliott’s Supa production partner and friend of 11 years, Tim “Timbaland” Mosely, has a big-deal record, Welcome to Our World, due out in the fall. When Elliott entitled one song on Supa Dupa Fly “They Don’t Wanna F*** Wit Me,” she had cause.
But this is why I f*** wit’ Missy: Because true to her Portsmouth, Virginia, suth’un-ness, throaty and laid back, sistah says stuff like “I pulls up.” Because she laughs often. Because she says she smokes hay. Because she admits that “Misdemeanor” just sounded fly. (“That’s all. It’s nothing deep.”) Because she knows crossover doesn’t necessarily mean compromise. Because she wears fingahwaves. “I mean, everybody wearin’ tracks, so I just had to do something different. It was either this or the Jheri Curl.” She starts laughing. “And you know it wssn’t gone be no Jheri Curl!”
Really dahling—nevah thought Audrey Hepburn would make it to the Bronx, but here she is now, in the form of Elliott’s trademark Alain Mikli/Breakfast at Tiffany’s-meets-Mad Max shades. Paris, hony. Per usual, colored girls have such a way of glamorizing the ghetto, and the river of Elliott admirers pouring out the doors of Nobody Beats the Wiz and rushing down Fordham Road reveals how the fashion “got” pirates from the “ain’t got” (i.e., Gucci and Chanel have been here before, taking notes). Lime-green pageboys and purple flips; Trunk jewelry and strategically capped gold teeth. Done nails and did hair.
And how proud they are! For hours, while her music plays through the store and Hype Williams-directed video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” is on continuous display (you know, the black Michelin Woman clip), Elliott will sign autographs, Kenya will be the first in line, a paper-sack brown little girl of about 12 with fingahwaves in her hair who will stare at Elliott with a certain awe and half-whisper: “She is so pretty.” Men will flirt, women will shake her hand. Two girls will dramatically wipe their brows to show how the 95 degree heat they’ve braved is affecting them, and sing: “I can’t stand the suuuunn / Against my forehead.”
Mothers will prod their daughters throughout the day, but one babymuvah in particular will assure Elliott: “My baby love you!” Baby is up in arms smiling, her eyes transfixed on Elliott’s video. Muvah is still going. “I love you, girl! You blew up! Wit’ your beautiful eyes. My boyfriend love your eyes. Ohh, let me take a picture.” Muvah blops baby on Elliott’s lap. “I’m nervous!” Muvah continues, snatching baby up. “Wit’ your pretty self! You da bomb! Yo go, girl! Oh, my baby’s crying! She loves your video. She cries when the video goes off.” Baby is not crying, though actually seems disturbed when the video goes off. Elliott smiles at Baby. Coos “Hiiii.” NO response from Baby. Elliott waves at Bay. Nothing. Elliott stands up, gets in front of Baby, jumps around, and waves again. Baby, annoyed that her view is obstructed, waves the woman with the big glasses away.
Listening to Supa Dupa Fly is a little like going off to see the Wizard. Executive Producer Elliott and Producer Timbaland have crafted a hip-hop “sheets of sound,” to crib a Coltrane reference: sleek R&B beats blended with jungle, drum’n’bass, and percussion a la Howad Grimes/Al Jackson on Al Green’s 1972 “I’m Glad You’re Mine.” They sample Jamiroquai’s gorgeous harp from “Morning Glory” as well as cartoons and crickets; bust beat box; and incorporate onomatopoetics like “Owwww! You’re hounding me” or “Whoop! We tag team.” “What people doin’ now with samples, we was doin’ five years ago,” Elliott sayas. “On Supa, there’s none of those tik-kat-tik-kat-tik-katkat beats like on Aaliyah’s One in a Million, beause Tim noticed that people were starting to do that. It’s all good, though.” she continues. “People know where it came from.”
Mostly, though, there’s that undeniable bounce, which is a twist on the Bankhead Bounce danace, which really ain’t nothing that Patti LaBelle hasn’t been doing with her shoulders for years, which really ain’t nothin’ but what happens every Sunday in the black Baptist church when someone catches the Holy Ghost.
Still, in today’s hip-hop world, where merely walking back and forth across the stage and gripping dicks (real and wished) can be the show, capturing the movement of Sunday church is no small feat. “Yeah,” Elliott laments, “today’s [hip-hop concert] is, like, 20 people onstage with you. And everybody’s screamnin’.” No matter: Elliott plans to launch her own arena tour this fall. Stage-show details, for now, are sketchy. When prodded, however, she does reveal this: “I’ll be in that big black suit.”
She looks. Up in the sky. Points to invisible rafters and says, quite seriously: “Probably flyin’.”
The next day I happen upon Elliott and her cousin Malik in the Village, on Broadway. “We just walkin’, smokin’ a li’l weed, you know,” she says, flashing her packed pipe. We say “Aiiight,” I walk on, and five seconds later, I happen upon two black women in tehir early 40s, grabbing a cigarette break. Smiling and leaning out the doorway, they nod toward Elliott and ask, “Was that her?” “Yes,” I say, smiling, watching Elliott’s back. One of the ladies waves her hands in the air and says: “Hooo! The Rain!” The other just bounces.
From the October 1997 issue of Spin Magazine.