Enterprising Elliott: Missy making it in music
September 20, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- Missy is late. It's 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in August, and despite having an interview that was scheduled weeks ago, she's missing in action.
Ten minutes go by, then 15. Still no sign of her. Finally, her publicist calls. "Sorry for the delay. Missy was talking to Sylvia and got held up. She'll be done in a bit."
The Sylvia in question would be Elektra Records head Sylvia Rhone, one of the only women running a major record label. And the woman who has Rhone's ear is, of course, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. Aside from having one of the most inventive (and least literal) monikers in show business, Elliott is busy transforming herself into a hip-hop mogul, Puff Daddy-style. And that's why she's started being known, simply, as Puff Mommy.
See, aside from her recently released sophomore album "Da Real World," which follows her acclaimed 1997 debut "Supa Dupa Fly," Elliott also runs her own label, The Gold Mind, as part of her production deal with Elektra. In addition to promoting "Da Real World," the musical mother hen is busy producing two artists, the singers TC and Mocha, so her time is much in demand.
"It could be hectic sometimes, when you're being an artist and running a label at the same time," the just-materialized Elliott says. "But there are times when you just have to say that this my time period to work on my stuff, and then you say this is the time to concentrate on my artists."
'Spice on a chicken'
That roster of artists helped propel Elliott to fame and fortune -- albeit behind the scenes, as a writer and producer. She's worked with Whitney Houston, Mel G. (Scary Spice), Aaliyah and Total, and recently remixed songs for Janet Jackson and Paula Cole. Add to that her work on her own two albums, and you can see why Elliott is known for not making sleep much of a priority.
And despite hitting it big recently as a singer, Elliott says she feels most comfortable behind the board, not on stage.
"I never stopped writing or producing," she says. "No matter what I'm doing for myself or someone else, I'm constantly writing and working on other people's albums. During my album, I was working on 702 and some Whitney stuff. I never stopped being a writer and producer. That's my love, right there.
"The tracks get me going. The music is hot. I believe that tracks speak to me. Some tracks make me write certain music, or make me feel sad, or inspire me to write a sad love song. Each track has its feeling to me."
That's why, says Elliott, she and longtime collaborator Tim "Timbaland" Mosley generally stay away from sampling other artists' work. While other studio wizards cut and paste musically with abandon, Elliott tries to whip up her own material.
"I think it's being innovative and very creative to stay away from flat-out sampling somebody else's record," she says. "To me, that doesn't show too much of your creative side, unless you take a little piece and add it, almost like spice on a chicken. These days, I think it's cut down some. At one time, we went through a very sample-heavy mode, but I think people started realizing that the people getting paid were the people they were sampling from."
You only have to scope out the female R&B and hip-hop singers who occupy the Billboard charts to realize that physically, Elliott is a misfit. Unlike the sinewy Deborah Cox, street-tough Mary J. Blige or racy Foxy Brown, Elliott is all big bones and jarringly outlandish clothes. Instead of heels, she clomps around in sneakers. And she first took the stage in outfits such as the cartoonish black garbage bag outfit she made famous in her breakthrough video for 1997's "The Rain."
But Elliott, who has a reputation for shyness and aloofness, says her stage persona is 180 degrees different from Elliott, Real Person.
"When I'm on stage I go into a whole different world," she says. "What makes me shy is when people are right in front of my face. But when you're on stage, people are not right in front of your face, waiting for you to start stuttering or something like that. When I'm on stage I feel the music, embrace the music."
Elliott started to do just that as a child growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia. After her father walked out on Elliott and her mother, Patricia Elliott raised her daughter as a single mom, working a variety of jobs to make ends meet. The two are still close, with Elliott calling her mother her closest confidante. (After recently disclosing that her father abused her mother, Elliott launched Misdemeanor Lipstick with model Iman, David Bowie's wife, with a portion of the proceeds going to Break The Cycle, a non-profit organization combating domestic violence.)
As a child, Elliott sang in the church choir. The shy kid idolized Janet Jackson and dreamed of being a star. She rapped, she wrote, and in 1991, she got her chance as part of the group Sista. The band signed with Elektra, but its album was never released. So Elliott turned to writing and producing, working closely with Timbaland. She hit pay dirt with hits for Jodeci and Aaliyah.
But Elliott wanted more. For one thing, she wanted to have a lasting career in entertainment and ensure that she had a solid stake in the business. That savvy led to her 1996 deal with Elektra, which brought her The Gold Mind. She promptly cranked out a gold record for her first artist, Nicole. And in 1997, still yearning to be famous in her own right, she finally switched gears and decided to try taking over the spotlight.
Enter "Supa Dupa Fly," which ended up going platinum.
"There was no pressure with the first album," she says. "I just wanted to see if it worked, or if it didn't. It just happened to work."
And then some.
The single "The Rain" became a hit, and its Hype Williams-directed video was nominated for three MTV awards. Elliott rode the success of her debut for all it was worth, becoming the first hip-hop star to add some color to the previously homogenous Lilith Fair tour and starring in ad campaigns for Sprite and the Gap.
So the stakes were high when Elliott went to work on her follow-up. She had some pretty big sneakers to fill -- her own.
"I wanted to stay away from the last album," she says. "There was a lot more pressure on me for this album, because the last album did so well. Like, I wanted to make sure that it didn't sound anything like the last album, but I wanted to make sure that it wasn't too far over people's heads, where they didn't understand. I always want to be daring. The one thing I had to be was daring again and to challenge myself."
She says she accomplished that by crafting lyrics she hadn't heard elsewhere, especially on the first single, "She's a Bitch."
"I pretty much just wanted something that was still futuristic and talking about different topics that people hadn't touched before," she says.
"That was important to me, because you get one topic and people attack it in different ways. I wanted to touch subjects that people hadn't spoken about, like having sex with a guy and him denying that he ever had sex with you. Basically, on 'She's a Bitch,' I think that was too scary for people to try to do."
And this time around, a stable of stars traipsed to the studio to guest on Elliott's album. "Da Real World" includes duets with Juvenile, Aaliyah, Da Brat, Beyonce of Destiny's Child, Lady Saw and even one with recent MTV Video Music Award winner Eminem, on the track "Busa Rhyme."
The rapper isn't exactly heralded as a warm and fuzzy kind of guy, but Elliott says she enjoyed working with him.
"I love Eminem," says Missy Elliott. "He comes across one way on a record, when really he's a sweet person. When he came into the studio, he was very much into making sure that me and Timbaland were satisfied with what he had done. He wasn't arrogant at all. He came in very humble and when he sees us, he still gives us that kind of love. He always astonishes me with some of the lines he comes up with."
Funny, that's what is usually said about her.
McLachlan: Lilith Fair not 'white chick folk fest'
MORE MUSIC NEWS:
Mick doesn't want world to know what he makes
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.