Last Friday marked the 20-year anniversary of rapper, dancer and producer Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s debut, Supa Dupa Fly. Originally released July 15, 1997 via The Goldmind and Elektra Records, the record has since been recognized as one of the most revolutionary records in hip-hop and urban music. The six albums Missy Elliott released between 1997 and 2005 were some of the most innovative, daring and wonderfully idiosyncratic of the era, especially with the help of regular producer/partner in crime Timbaland.
Unfortunately, an ongoing battle with the hyperthyroid condition called Graves’ Disease is largely responsible for limiting Elliott’s musical output these days. A couple of one-off singles and two contributions to the Step Up 2: The Streets soundtrack are her only releases this decade. Still, 20 years on from her pioneering debut, here’s a look at 10 times Elliott was truly Supa Dupa Fly.
On a record that featured Missy tackling everything from P-funk to psychedelia, berating Lil Mo for singing like a church girl and audibly hurling some phlegm, it was the inclusion of a straightforward R&B ballad which proved to be the biggest curveball on 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive. With its plucked pizzicato strings, languorous beats and sweetly sung vocals (with a little help from Ginuwine and 702’s Kameelah Williams), it gave Missy the opportunity to show she’s just as accomplished a songwriter as she is a ground-breaking producer. Its accompanying video—dedicated to Missy’s late friend and protégée Aaliyah—only added to the track’s genuine sense of melancholy.
The freaky promo for Da Real World’s first single saw Missy spray paint her head black and don a catsuit, spiked G-string and skull cap combo designed by none other than Marilyn Manson’s tailor. It was a bold and uncompromising look that perfectly matched the no-holds-barred nature of the track itself. Yet, with Timbaland’s minimalistic production—essentially just a hypnotic shuffling beat and some grimy Missy’s words take center stage. “She’s a Bitch” proved how hell hath no fury like an R&B visionary scorned.
Given how everyone from Aloe Blacc to Usher have shamelessly jumped on the EDM bandwagon, it’s hard to believe that at the turn of the century, American R&B stars embracing four-to-the-floor beats was actually something of a novelty. Missy Elliott was one of the few to venture into club territory with this hypnotic, if not exactly subtle, ode to E culture (“take me on the dance floor to feel some ecstasy”). A collaboration with Eve, “4 My People” was already a convincing party anthem before Basement Jaxx got their hands on it. But the British house maestros turned the feel-good vibes up to eleven with a bouncy two-step-tinged remix which almost implored you to “strip off your clothes and take off your socks.”
Missy tried a similar approach for the single release of “Gossip Folks” by recruiting another big-name U.K. dance act to work some magic on a remix. The Fatboy Slim version works well enough as a party-starting house anthem, but it’s the wonderfully jittery original which reigns supreme. A playful, yet scathing riposte to the haters who continually debate her weight and sexuality (“and stop talking bout who I’m sticking and licking, just mad it ain’t yours”), the Under Construction cut finds guest star Ludacris at the top of his game and Missy once again digging deep into her record crate to creative effect. This time around it’s the pioneering “izzle” chant from Frankie Smith’s 1981 funk hit “Double Dutch Bus” that gets the revival treatment. The result is another dizzying old school joint with a touch of new class.
Missy’s first Top 20 hit, the Da Brat collaboration “Sock It 2 Me,” had already hinted that she possessed a melodic vocal style every bit as impressive as her lyrical flow. But the follow-up “Beep Me 911” confirmed it. Indeed, the sweetly-sung tones of guest stars 702 are always welcome, but Missy could quite easily have carried this song entirely on her own. Far from the booty call its title suggests, Da Real World’s second single instead is a break-up anthem in which Missy simply wants an explanation from the cheater for whom she “gave up clubs and parties.” Timbaland’s trademark vocal tics and clickety-click beats are still present, but with Elliott in uncharacteristically vulnerable mode, “Beep Me 911” undoubtedly stands out from the crowd.
It’s a testament to the pure danceable joy of “Lose Control” that even the irritating foghorn chants of Fatman Scoop can’t ruin it. Missy may have made a rare misstep by inviting the novelty hypeman onto The Cookbook’s lead single, but she certainly got everything else right with the mash-up of early-’80s electro classics (Cybotron’s proto-techno anthem “Clear” and Hot Streak’s electro-funk classic “Body Work”), relentless energy and guest appearance from regular cohort Ciara, who pulls double duty as a featherlight vocalist and sassy MC. As always, Elliott patches together all these disparate parts to form one unashamedly manic, yet thrilling retro-futuristic banger. As a track designed to celebrate the power that music can have, it’s only fitting that “Lose Control” could get even the most dancefloor-phobic busting a move.
The video for Missy Elliott’s debut single was one of the most striking and quintessential of the late-‘90s: Just relish in Hype Williams’ signature fish eye cinematography, cameos from Total, Da Brat and Yo-Yo and the gigantic black outfit that looked like an inflatable garbage bag. But with its jerky beats, Timbaland’s vocal ad-libs and ingenious sample of an Ann Peebles soul classic, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” sounded just hypnotic. Of course, Missy had already started to make waves as a hitmaker for the likes of Aaliyah and 702. But this was just the first of many occasions in which she shifted the R&B landscape as a magnetic performer in her own right.
“Why you all n my grill. Can you pay my bills?” On paper, the second single from Da Real World could have been mistaken for any of the good-for-nothing smackdowns that emerged in the wake of TLC’s “No Scrubs.” While “All n My Grill’s” theme may have been familiar, its sound was anything but. There’s the eerie strings that appear to have wandered in from a classic Hitchcock movie, some glorious diva-ish ad-libs from Missy discovery Nicole Wray (who has since performed as Lady and as Lady Wray at the Paste Studio earlier this year). And on the European version, the masterful substitution of Outkast’s Big Boi for Frenchman MC Solaar, whose languid delivery and tongue-twisting wordplay elevated the track to new stylish heights.
Missy was already firmly established as a trailblazer by the time third album Miss E… So Addictive arrived. Still, nothing quite prepared us for the WTF-ness of its lead single. “Get Ur Freak On” was so bizarre (that spitting sound effect), so sonically adventurous, so suitably addictive that it instantly rendered every other track on the radio old-fashioned. Based around a six-note Punjabi riff, “Get Ur Freak On” perfectly melded the sounds of India with U.S. hip-hop, spearheading a mini-wave of similarly multicultural hits (Jay-Z and Panjabi MC’s collaboration, Truth Hurts’ “Addictive”), while also taking random bits and pieces from Germany and Japan. Even 16 years on, “Get Ur Freak On” still sounds like it’s been beamed in from another planet.
The organized chaos of “Get Ur Freak On” established the template for future Missy lead singles, but it was Under Construction’s “Work It” that perfected it. Trumpeting elephants, vocals played in reverse, references to everything from Halle Berry to Kunta Kinte—the unashamedly raunchy ode to Missy’s sexual prowess appears to throw in everything, but the kitchen sink. Yet, the fact that it all comes together attests to Elliott and Timbaland’s masterful production skills. Inspired samples of classic hip-hop anthems from Run-D.M.C. and Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three also proved the pair could once again push the genre forward without forgetting its roots. Peaking at No. 2 on the U.S. Hot 100, “Work It” deservedly remains Missy’s best and biggest hit.