(Originally published on February 25, 2003 with the title “True icon of hip-hop”)
On television, Missy Elliott is larger than life.
Yes, Missy, she who has been called a hip-hop genius countless times and has worked with big names in the music industry, including Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy, Li’l Kim, Foxy Brown, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, TLC, Beyonce Knowles, Jay Z, Ja Rule and Janet Jackson. She whose trio of albums: “Supa Dupa Fly” (1997), “Da Real World” (1999), “Miss E… So Addictive” (2001) have redefined hip-hop. She with the unforgettable music videos. She who creates songs like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” that you just can’t get out of your head. She whose longtime partnership with Timbaland has made major changes in the hip-hop community. She whose own label, Gold Mind Inc., has given breaks to so many new talents. She whose newest record, “Under Construction,” aims to bring people back to old school hip-hop, not without imparting a very important message that she realized after the tragedy of 9/11 and the untimely passing of Aaliyah and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes—that life is too short.
More girl than goddess
In person, Missy Elliott looks more like a little girl who just wants to have fun rather than the goddess that a lot of people make her to be. But one cannot deny her power. She walks into a room and it just lights up. Her name is called out and people—even the most indifferent ones—scream and holler for her. She yells, “Wassup y’all!” and the cheers that she gets in response make people think she just called out a cure for cancer. Yes, even in person, Missy Elliott is larger than life. But she acts like she doesn’t know it.
That afternoon, journalists from all over Asia-Pacific filled up Singapore’s Zouk for Missy Elliott’s press conference which was hosted by KC Montero. Fans lined up outside the venue in the early afternoon in anticipation of the hip-hop party Missy was throwing after the conference. The wait was worth it. High energy filled the club as Missy and her dancers performed live and break dancers from all over Asia had a showdown. (You should be pleased to know that the group from Manila was one of the most applauded.)
“That was the best party I’ve ever been to!” Warner Philippines’ Anne Poblador said, cheeks still flushed with excitement.
This is Missy Elliott, candid and unedited.
What’s the best thing about being Missy Elliott?
(Right after blowing a big pink bubble) The best thing about being Missy Elliott is I can chew gum in Singapore. I get to take pictures and have fun with people who enjoy my music and get free sneakers, too!
So many other rappers have ventured into acting. Are you interested in that?
Actually, I don’t really want to act. Not yet. But I also said I didn’t want to be an artist. So right now, I just wanna produce movies. And if I had to do that, I want to do drama. You know, that will be a challenge for me because I’m a person who likes to joke and play all the time. It will be a challenge for Missy.
What inspired you to write “Under Construction”?
I got the inspiration for making this album from Aaliyah. She’s someone who opened a door for Missy Elliott. She’s one of the first artists who didn’t care if we have a name or not. She just listened to our music and found new styles that she wanted to use for her second album. We grew very close to her and kinda [became] more like family. And so when I learned about the loss—excuse me, I get kinda choked up talking about this situation—but just knowing that life is so short, I think that knowing that was such a big change.
Even, say, 9/11 was a big change for me, too. How many people went to work early that day and might have had arguments with their families or sister, brother, wife, whatever, husband, and felt like, you know, I’ll deal with this later. But you realize you don’t have till later to say I’m sorry or I love you. That’s what made me change a lot of things about me and that’s why I named it “Under Construction” and just hoping in hip-hop that I can be some kind of positive force and that’s what makes this album old school. ’Coz old school is when we used to have a lot of fun in hip-hop.
Can you describe the old school influences that have shaped your album?
Run DMC, the Beastie Boys record, so many records actually. The 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. There’s a lot of people back then that influenced this album—Run DMC, Salt n Peppa. I think that every hip-hop artist who was back before my time, I enjoyed listening to and it made me realize how far we’ve come in hip-hop, but we still have to pay homage to them because they are the ones who opened the doors.
What’s your favorite song from “Under Construction” and why?
I don’t really have a favorite favorite because I love the whole album. But if I had to pick, I can’t even pick one. I’ll say two. I think one of my favorites is number 7, the clean version of that will be “Coochy Don’t Fail Me Now”—that’s actually the clean title. And then “Can You Hear Me?” is one of my favorite favorites. I did it for Lisa and Aaliyah and I featured TLC on that record. That’s my favorite because it brings the reality to just life in general. We go and party all-day long, we get out and drink some and then we get—I don’t know if I should say this—f—-ed up, whatever. We party all the time but there’s another side to life, and that record kinda pushes that. It’s sad but it’s a reality that life is just as short.
Can you tell us about that Chinese-sounding part in “Work It”?
I wasn’t picking on anyone. I got that from my going to the nail shop. In the States, you go to the Japanese and Chinese nail shops and they do the best nails. And whenever I go in there, I always here them talking and it always sounds the same, like they’re saying “Wan tan taya taya tang-a-tang,” so that’s where I got it from.”
Can you describe your song-writing process?
I could be walking down the street and see somebody arguing about something and come up with ideas like that, or it can be my situation or friends’ relationship problems that I listened to their problems and come up with different song ideas. When I go into the studio ’coz I know that a lot of people wanna know how (Timbaland) and me work, he lays down the beat and I start singing the melody to it, and he’ll start playing different sounds of whatever—baby, cricket, dog, cat, whatever. We go from there. I’m really not a person who writes sitting down. I have to hear some kind of beat first.
What inspires you to continue producing great music?
My fans who stick by Missy Elliott. Sometimes I know we carry far far left. With “Get Ur Freak On,” I was a little nervous thinking oh God, they might think it’s too far left. But when you’ve got fans who support you and support whatever you do and whatever you wanna be, that’s what becomes my inspiration to keep doing the music that I do.
Which artist would you like to collaborate with in the future?
The artist I’d like to collaborate with in the future is Michael Jackson. I wanna make Michael Jackson rap. No babies hanging off the balcony and none of that. (laughter) Nah, I love Michael, I love him. No matter what.
Will you come out with a straight-up R&B album?
I might come out with an R&B album, I don’t know. I’m not the one who really likes singing a lot… jumping around on the stage, you know you gotta be real healthy for that. You gotta be Usher, you know, to be jumping around and singing and all that stuff. I ain’t Michael Jackson, I ain’t Michael Jackson back in 1985. I can move around but I ain’t lost that much weight yet.
Do you like to surprise people?
Yes, I love surprising people, I love doing things and being nervous. I think being nervous is a good thing because it keeps you kinda humble, too. When you stop being nervous, that’s when you probably have to worry. So I worry every time I put out a record even if I think it’s hot, I have a whole world to please, to see if they like it or not. I love being nervous.
How do you feel about the people who copy your style?
In the beginning, I was like, did we do that beat? I was getting confused. But when you mature, you take it as a compliment. And now I take it as a compliment when people mimic or copy because they must have felt there was something innovative about what we did. And it makes me step up my game, because you know, if somebody starts to copy you, you gotta change. So actually, it works.
What do you do with the awards you’ve won?
I send them to my mother’s house and so she has them in one room. Oh gosh, does she brag. No, she doesn’t have to brag, she got the curtains wide open in this one room where people can drive past and see all my plaques. Oh please God, don’t let anybody break into my house and get my Grammys. But I doubt it. We’ve got so many cameras.
Why did you choose Gold Mind as the name of your label?
“I chose Gold Mind as the name of my label because it kinda speaks for itself. You think it’s a
treasure. I hope everything I make turns into gold. I started in this game, that’s what it’s been so far, so let’s pray that it continues to be that gold-platinum, double-platinum.
What advice will you give aspiring artists? Do you have any trade secrets?
First thing is to make sure you’re creative and original in what you do. That should keep you around for a long time. A lot of times you get sidetracked by what’s hot and start to follow somebody else’s lane, but as long as you maintain who you are and keep your creativity, you’ll see that a lot of people want to hear something fresh, something new. And you’ll be around for a while, and the advice I give is continue to do you and you’ll be a leader instead of a follower. And make sure your contract is right because you don’t want to be broke and everybody knows who you are. At least if everybody knows who you are, at least be living okay.”
What criteria do you have when you sign an artist to Gold Mind?
They have to be creative, they have to be original. I have to hear something in them that separates them from anything that you hear on the radio. I want to be able to put their record in the midst of 20 other records that play on the radio and still stick out like a sore thumb. It has to be original, creative and not heard before.
Is there a women’s cause that you support?
Break the Cycle. It’s for females who have been in abusive relationships. I donated a million dollars to this charity. Iman, the model, helped me come up with a lipstick line and we gave all the proceeds to Break the Cycle.
How do you find Singapore so far?
I love Singapore. The first day I was here I shopped till I was on the bus snoring. I love it. The only thing that confuses me is that you can’t walk. Like I was about to just walk across the street and they were like, no, this way, this way. I was scared that I’m gonna beat a hundred times or something. But I love it. I got like 10 pairs of sneakers that I didn’t see in the States. Like this (points to the sneakers she was wearing), I see them in the States but they didn’t have them in this color. And the people are very very kind, very sweet, and you got a lot of hospitality.
Who is the rapper that you respect the most?
I don’t wanna say just one rapper. I respect a lot of rappers. For one, Tupac, who was very just free, what he said, he didn’t try to cater to pop or whatever commercial just to sell records. He gave you what he saw in every day life and what he experienced. The same way with Biggie, I respect him for doing the same thing. You’ve got somebody like Naz who’s very lyrically talented. His new album is amazing. JayZ, I love him. He’s a cocky cocky rapper and he talks slick but that’s what’s fly about JayZ. The newest rapper, the hottest thing out in the States is 50 cent, you know hopefully, I don’t know how soon that’s gonna come over here, but the newest rapper everybody is talking about is under Eminem’s label, and he’s with my management label so we’re on the same team. I’m not just saying this because we’re on the same team but because he’s very very hot. And myself. And all of old hip-hop.
Are you always on the lookout for new artists for Gold Mind? How do you go about discovering fresh talents?
Yes, I’m always on the lookout. So if any of you out there got some tracks, some music, please make it be English ’coz I really wouldn’t know what y’all talking about. If it’s hot, you know, we can make it happen. In the States, there’s a lot of artists that come from overseas that blow. A lot of times, I just meet people out on the streets and they give me a CD or sometimes people just stop me and start rapping and singing or whatever. So, whatever you got, CDs and tracks, let me see it.
Do you think there has been progress for females in your genre which has always been geared towards the male perspective?
I think a lot of progress has been made for females in hip-hop. For one, if they were a little skeptical… you kinda have people like Li’l Kim and Foxy Brown who open that door. And the sexy rappers would come in, too. Salt n Peppa who went from just straight up hip-hop to crossing over, and they opened a door for females in this field. Our force is a lot stronger than it was back then, but then you know you got to give credit to people like Latifah who opened the door for people like Missy Elliott.
Are you happy with where hip-hop is going?
In a sense, yes, and in a sense, no. Yes, I’m very happy with hip-hop right now because it’s so huge. At first, it was very small but now it’s like… I’m talking to Asians—am I saying that right? I don’t wanna say nothing wrong now—I’m like 20 hours away and we’re talking about hip-hop. I don’t think that years ago, we were outside New York talking about hip-hop. I’m happy with that. We’re really like at the level of rock and roll. But back then, it was more of an art. Now it’s beginning to be a paycheck. And that’s why you have people coming in kinda getting this whole thing mixed up. People weren’t getting the checks they are getting now. It was really about art then. I think that’s the only thing that bothers me. People having a lot of different rivalries—unnecessary—it’s almost like they wake up, “Let me be mad at somebody.” And they just start beefing with each other. And there was a time when it was just about us going to the club, we’d be dressed alike, hot sneakers, getting there competing with each other dancing, it was a freedom of expression but not to the point where expression is, “I’m mad at you, I’ll come to kill your whole family.” That’s the only thing that scares me. Where it’s going. But as for the leverage of hip-hop right now, I love it ’coz it’s huge. Every culture—African, Japanese, Chinese, Asians, blacks, whites—is into it now.
What is your ultimate dream for the hip-hop community?
To see all the artists come together that have beat right now on one record. I know you’re all 20 hours away on a plane. But right now hip-hop has a lot of rivalries going on and that’s not what’s hip-hop really stood for back in the day. I know there was probably rivalries back then, but now it’s kinda out-of-hand, and my dream is just to see all hip-hop artists come together on one record.”
Is there anything that you can personally do?
“I want to do this real bad. I’m gonna reach out to a lot of artists that I don’t even know that well or (haven’t) even had a conversation with to see if we can make this happen.”