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Before 'Supa Dupa Fly:' The Rise Of Missy Elliott

By Stereo Williams

IllmaticGet Rich Or Die Tryin.' Doggy Style

If you look at some of the most successful and impactful debut albums in Hip-Hop history, they were preceded by one hell of a run-up. That is, there was something that built and sustained continued buzz for the artist before their debut album hit the streets. Nowadays, a steady diet of headlines and streaming releases can do that for an artist handily; but back before the Web was what it is, you had to hit the right marks to keep people buzzing.

There were some great run-ups to classic debuts, to be sure. Nas had his scene-stealing turn on Main Source's "Live At the BBQ," then a buzzed-about appearance on "Back To the Grill" from MC Serch; it all led to tremendous anticipation for 1994s Illmatic. Of course, Snoop Doggy Dogg's debut on Dr. Dre's single "Deep Cover," and then a star-making showing on The Chronic sent the buzz for Doggy Style to a fever pitch in late 1993. 50 Cent's brash and controversial "How To Rob" laid the groundwork for a game-changing mixtape run in the late 1990s, and it all served as preamble to his Aftermath debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin.' 

These guest appearances, mixtape releases, and one-offs ignited the careers of some of Hip-Hop's biggest stars. But don't sleep:

The run-up to Missy Elliott's platinum-selling debut was dope as fuck

Portsmouth, Virginia natives Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and Timothy "Timbaland" Mosely had come under the mentorship of Devante Swing of Jodeci in the early 1990s. Having worked as writers and prodcuers on projects by Jodeci and other affiliates of Swing's Swing Mob collective, the duo was already involved with the melding of Hip-Hop and R&B, but as the Swing Mob disbanded, Elliott and Mosely were finding their sound. They would re-form the crew as The Superfriends (alongside Ginuwine, Magoo and Playa) as Elliott would suddenly find herself in the spotlight throughout 1996. Missy landed on a handful of noteworthy singles that announced Elliott as a unique new voice in urban music. It effectively set the stage for her 1997 smash debut Supa Dupa Fly and paved the way for her to become an international superstar.

"I always have been an entertainer, whether it’s been joking or performing for people," Missy said to Rolling Stone in 1997. "And I always thought I had a talent, because I could rap and I could sing and I did write. And all the other kids were going to college, but I just felt like I had to do this first, and if it didn’t work, then I would go to college. And I’m not encouraging people not to go, but that’s how strong I felt about me being talented enough to make it in the business."

The first shot in what would be the rise of Missy Elliott was a hit remix. Bad Boy Records impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs got Gina Thompson's single "The Things You Do" and flipped it with the familiar sample of Bob James' "Take Me To Mardi Gras" -- popularized by Run-D.M.C. The track was a fixture on urban radio throughout the summer of 1996, and it featured a verse from then (semi) unknown Missy Elliott. Missy delivered her soon-to-be early signature "Yee-Yee-YOW!" on the song, and it almost single-handedly established Elliott's quirky, fun rapper persona.

“Gina’s song was the ice-cream sundae,” Fab Five Freddy told Hilton Als in 1997. “Missy’s rap was the cherry on top.” 

The success of "The Things You Do" was mirrored by the impact that MIssy's next major appearance would have on radio and video shows across the country. 702 was a trio of singers from Las Vegas, signed to Michael Bivins Biv 10 imprint, a subsidiary of Motown. Originally a quartet consisting of Irish Grinstead and Orish Grinstead, Kameelah Williams, and Lemisha Grinstead, 702 had seen some success in 1995 with "The Lil Games We Play" a steamy duet with the Chicago-based R&B group Subway. Following Orish's departure, the now-trio worked with Elliott on "Steelo." With the Missy-penned song, 702 was set to hit urban radio hard, and the single also featured a guest rap from Missy.

"Steelo" would be a gold-selling smash on the R&B charts, and hit #32 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single was inescapable in August 1996, and being yet another early feature for Missy, it made her voice a mainstay on the radio and her image was becoming a fixture on music video channels. 

It even became the theme song for Nickelodeon's Bill Bellamy vehicle Cousin Skeeter. 

Timbaland and Missy's profiles were about to get a lot more visible.

In late August 1996, Aaliyah's sophomore album One In A Million made it clear that Tim and Missy were the hottest new production team in urban music. Aaliyah had been a major star since 1994, with the release of her debut album Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number. As Missy and Tim's names had grown, the production team was tapped to helm Aaliyah's second album. It was a position that could give them a push into the big time. And this was something that had been on MIssy's mind from the beginning. She always wanted to be able to call her own shots, creatively and from a business standpoint. 

And in teaming with Aaliyah, Missy and Timbaland finally had a superstar to take their sound to the masses in the biggest, most impactful way. Once One In A Million took off, Missy Elliott became a hot commodity. And she was able to push for control in whatever deal she would sign, which was of paramount importance in how she would take the next steps in her career. 

“I didn’t want to just be an artist and let someone else have all that control over me,” she told The New Yorker in 1997. “I knew I would have to produce.”

One In A Million would be a multiplatinum smash for Aaliyah, announcing Timbaland and Missy as hitmakers of the highest order. The singles from the album would dominate urban radio throughout the remainder of 1996 and into 1997. And with all of the success the album was enjoying, Missy was still scoring big guest spots. 

R&B veterans New Edition were enjoying the success of their controversial 1996 Home Again campaign when Missy was tapped to guest on Puff Daddy's remix of the group's track "You Don't Have To Worry." The song was a showcase for notorious N.E. member Bobby Brown and Missy's verse opened the single version. 

'I'ma stick closer to yo' side than a beeper/You won't have to worry 'bout me and you won't miss me like Monifah/P-U-F-F-D-A-double D-Y/You be makin' hits like that old factory/And I/hit you wit' da hee/Hee-hee-hee-hee-how/Hit you wit da hee/This is how I get down, alright?/With Ronnie, Bobby, Johnny, Ricky, and Mike..." 

The "You Don't Have To Worry" remix wouldn't be as big a hit as "Steelo" but it nonetheless was heavily played on urban radio in the fall of 1996. And Missy followed it with her biggest single appearance of the year. Once again a Puffy remix would link Elliott with an established star; this time, MC Lyte. On Puff's remix for Lyte's "Cold Rock A Party," Missy Elliott gave yet another memorable verse and a high-profile video appearance. 

As the "'hee-hee-hee-hee-haw' girl," Missy maintained a consistent presence on urban radio throughout 1996.

That ubiquity, as well as the success she was seeing as s writer/producer, led her into a deal with Elektra; after bids were made by Arista and Motown. It was Elektra's Sylvia Rhone and Merlin Bobb who guaranteed the star a full production deal, which included artist development deals and Elektra agreeing to subsidize Missy's Gold Mind Records. 

It was the Elektra deal that emboldened Elliott to write songs for herself, with she and Mosely recorded her entire debut album in one week in the spring of 1997. 

“I feel like, O.K., if I can make it as a singer, then let me try rapping,” Missy said back in '97. “If I can make it as a rapper, then let me try writing. All right? If I make it as a rap singer and writer, then why not try to produce? I don’t feel limited in any way. There’s that saying ‘God gave you talent, and if you don’t use it He’ll take it away from you.’ And I always said, ‘I don’t want God to come down and take my talents away.’ So, by using all these talents and being successful in all of them, I’ve always got something to fall back on.”