Melissa Arnette Elliott was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, a city better-known for its ports and Civil War history than its contributions to hip-hop. But if you’d been watching MTV during the summer of ’97, you might have thought she had come from outer space. Whether she appeared dressed in an inflated bin-bag, riding a metallic horse or battling intergalactic robots, Missy Elliott announced herself as an artist without peers, both visually and musically. 20 years on, she plays an obvious role in the esteemed history of hip-hop, equally well-loved and well-referenced by critics, artists, and the general public. Many female artists in rap music have been unfavourably compared to her over the past decade, for reasons that usually amount to lazy writing, but it is easy to see how she became such a dominant voice in critical circles. Missy Elliott operated in an unusual space in popular music as an artist who was commercially successful yet defiantly alternative. Although she set up a powerful hit-factory in the late 90s/early 00s, Missy’s music rarely set off trends; arguably because few were able to impersonate her. To put it simply, no-one before or after has ever been like Missy Elliott. It’s understandable then that the music press struggles to find a replacement for her.
However, the success of Missy Elliot should not be taken for granted. With a difficult childhood of domestic and sexual abuse, and a plus-size figure, she was an unusual candidate for pop stardom. In fact, her first attempt in the music industry, with girl group Sista, was a disappointment that saw her return home with her debut record left unreleased and her career back at square one. Had she not had the ability to write and produce as well as perform, this might have been the last the public ever heard from Missy Elliott. But after taking some time to regroup, Missy returned to New York with childhood friend Timbaland to write for other artists, most notably for R&B rising star Aaliyah. The success of Aaliyah’s One in a Million and a scene-stealing guest appearance on Gina Thompson’s ‘The Things You Do’ soon caught the attention of Sylvia Rhone, the CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group, who gave her the opportunity to start her own label and produce a debut album. With her recent failures and newfound popularity in mind, Missy set about making a record that would put personality and innovation at the forefront of her sound. The album that she wrote and produced with Timbaland, Supa Dupa Fly, found a sweet spot between ground-breaking production and commercial appeal that few had matched at the time.
Looking back, it can be easy to miss the experimental edge of some of Missy Elliott’s first records; there’s certainly nothing as surprising as the bhangra-meets-D&B of ‘Get Ur Freak On’ in her early discography. The songs on Supa Dupa Fly are unmistakably grounded in hip-hop but when Missy sings over the booming beat on ‘Sock It 2 Me’ or collaborates with Aaliyah on soulful R&B jams like ‘Best Friends’, it’s hard to pin her down to any one genre. Other songs on the album subtly draw influence from the hypnotic bass of dub and UK jungle. It can be easy to accept the success of Missy Elliott 20 years on but even today, it’s rare to see an artist breaking through with a single as minimalist and downright strange as ‘The Rain’. Additionally, it’s even rarer to see an artist pair it with a video that so ruthlessly tears up the rulebook for their genre.
Hip-hop had toyed with surrealism in the years leading up to 1997, particularly through the work of two video directors – Spike Jonze and Hype Williams. The former had recently worked on iconic videos for The Pharcyde and Beastie Boys that helped to push the genre into stranger territory. Meanwhile, the latter had become celebrated as hip-hop’s greatest auteur. With Missy, Williams had finally found an artist whose style and vision could match his creative, hyper-visual style of direction. During the later years of the 90s, only Busta Rhymes could match her when it came to innovation and unpredictability. Missy’s earlier time in the music industry was undeniably a disappointing experience but it also encouraged her to never compromise her personality for her career. Nevertheless, in 1997, ‘The Rain’ was a risk that wasn’t guaranteed to pay off. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like a big thing to see a video like it but that’s because Missy Elliott and artists like her worked hard to repeatedly challenge our expectations of what could and could not be in a hip-hop video.
With its music and its videos, Supa Dupa Fly was a game-changer that taught the following generation of artists that being creatively fearless was more valuable than playing to current trends. Today, an artist like Missy Elliott would be way less surprising than she was 20 years ago. Music looks and sounds a lot more like the vision she dreamt up in 1997 which is arguably a greater achievement than any chart sales or critical acclaim. But Missy’s appearance in the mainstream also had a social impact for women who looked like her, showing many people that there were different ways to be sexy, strong, and successful. In her poem ‘For Colored Girls’, which was featured notably on Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Ashlee Haze speaks about how seeing Missy Elliott on TV inspired her to feel confident with her own appearance, her race, and her gender. At other points, various artists have spoken about how Missy’s work inspired them to get into music or to keep going when they felt like giving up.
Many people have said that Missy Elliott needs to return to music and if she were to produce more songs as good as 2015’s ‘WTF’, I would be excited to see her back. But I’m also aware that simply having her back probably isn’t what the Missy of 1997 would have wanted. Missy Elliott had her time; in the late 90s and 00s, she was a dominant trailblazer, innovating when she could have easily made money rehashing older hits, and now it’s up to new artists to experiment and find their own ways to revolutionise. The music world needs more Missy Elliotts but that doesn’t mean that we need artists that look and sound like her. What we need are artists who look, sound and think differently from those who have come before them and artists who are brave enough to present their vision honestly and without compromise. There will never be another Missy Elliott but so long as there are artists in hip-hop and beyond who are willing to challenge the status-quo, the influence of Supa Dupa Fly will live on.