Queen of rap: Missy Elliot

But beneath the posturing, is she really so formidable - or just a nice Baptist girl making

a buck the best way she knows how?

Missy Elliot can laugh now, but at the time it wasn’t so funny. She’s

telling me about the wild bear that came to visit her country house in New

Jersey recently. It wandered up the driveway and made itself at home in the

front yard.
``He trailed the garbage across the yard and then just lay

there, taking it easy,’’ Elliott says with a husky laugh. Her mother called

the police. ``She was, like, `Shoot him!’ which you can’t do, of course.’‘

That bear wasn’t going anywhere. She giggles at the memory.

  Giggly isn’t what you expect from Missy ``Misdemeanor’’ Elliott. Her

fearsome, alpha-female reputation precedes her - this is the woman who in

one of her videos appeared as a towering, 10ft-tall superhero flying

through cyberspace; who performed in a vast, black inflatable

bin-liner-like one-piece with rhinestone headpiece. She’s alongside Madonna

in a Gap ad campaign. She’s put the miseries of childhood with a violent

father behind her - something she’ll talk about now - to become America’s

first black female music mogul, respected queen of the male-dominated

hip-hop world, with her own record label and a reputation as the sharpest

businesswoman in music, as well as the richest woman in rap. She is

endlessly innovative, and the winner of numerous awards. Wealthy, talented,

in control - big, scary diva is what you expect.

  The Missy Elliott who sits smiling in front of me, however, is calm and

sunny with a mellow, unassuming demeanour; she’s 30, but looks about 19,

and she speaks with a gentle, languid Southern twang. And she’s tiny: 5ft

tall. When her minder, a giant of a man, comes in with her coffee, she

looks pocket-sized beside him. She lost around four stone a couple of years

back, not, she stresses, to conform to the industry’s expectations (she was

rejected as a solo artist early in her career because of her size), but for

health reasons. Her small frame seems almost weighed down by the huge,

diamond-encrusted crucifix around her neck, the chunky charm bracelet

jangling around her small wrist.

  As it turned out, of course, she proved the industry resoundingly wrong.

When she and her songwriting partner Tim ``Timbaland’’ Mosely wrote a hit

for the late Aaliyah in 1996, suddenly attitudes changed - those who had

dismissed Elliott as too fat to make it as a solo singer in the

bootylicious world of hip-hop began making her offers. Stung by their

previous rejections, she held tight, eventually signing for Elektra, which

offered her her own label, Gold Mind Inc, with full creative control. What

sets her apart from other rappers, male and female, is her daring and

musicality - and the fact that, unlike most, she and Timbaland produce all

of their own material.

  Her 1997 debut album Supa Dupa Fly, with its futuristic style and

off-kilter beats, threw away the hip-hop rule book. The follow up album,

though not as talked about, sold well too, and the multi-platinum Miss E .

. . So Addictive, in 2001, was another huge hit, with its Indian

influences - not immediately understood but later widely influential - and

the massively successful single Get Ur Freak On. Last year’s Under

Construction was another triumph, and she and Timbaland changed the game

again, eschewed the sparse beats and returned to the old school, steeping

their new sound with 1980s references. Along the way, she has written for

Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and worked with Eminem,

Nelly Furtado, and Destiny’s Child.

  Not one to rest on her laurels, Elliott has now completed her fifth

album with Timbaland, This Is Not A Test, and is in Puerto Rico to launch

it. Earlier that day she played a few tracks to assembled journalists on

the rickety CD player in the hotel suite (``Puerto Rico is a beautiful

place, but the PA systems here are crazy,’’ she said apologetically as she

fiddled with the buttons). It looks set to be another hit: there’s a strong

dancehall influence on tracks such as Keep It Moving, featuring the

Jamaican artist Elephant Man, while the single Pass That Dutch is

powerfully bass-driven and beat orientated; elsewhere, the gospel singers

the Clark Sisters feature.

  The album also picks up on the old school influences of its predecessor

(the album’s introductory track borrows lyrics from the Sugarhill Gang)

harking back to a more innocent time in rap - hip-hop now is much more of a

tense affair, there’s always some kind of beef between rival rappers, not

to mention the odd shooting. Elliott has been outspoken about the

pointlessness of it all in the past. ``I miss old hip-hop like hell,’’ she

says. ``Before, you only had one Public Enemy and one Rakim and one Salt

‘N’ Pepa. Now people have got the formula and some of them are just doing

it for the cheque. It’s kind of watered down. And it was more positive

before, with artists coming together to make records with a positive

message. I don’t know if that could happen now, there’s so much animosity

and tension and anger with each other.’’ One track - Wake Up, featuring

Jay-Z - questions the values of modern hip-hop culture. ``We’re told that

to be fly you gotta have a fly car, the rims on your wheels, the fly

jewels, and that to work a regular job and make legal money is uncool. But

this record is saying if you’re fly, you’re fly, you don’t need those

accessories.’‘

Elliott is not averse to a bit of bling herself, of course - she says

herself that she spends millions of dollars on jewellery. (Very hip-hop, by

the way, that she should appear in an ad campaign for a thoroughly

establishment jeweller’s festooned in diamonds, over the caption ``Garrard

& Co . . . by special appointment to Missy Elliott’‘.) The fact is, she is

happy to belong to the hip-hop fraternity, and will only go so far in

questioning it. It’s a thin line, worthy isn’t a good look in hip-hop. She

says she’s not one to preach because it can ``scare kids away’‘, and

although she’s aware that as an entertainer you become a role model, and

tries to ``say stuff’’ with her music, she adds swiftly, ``but I got some

fun tracks, too, that’s gonna still make you dance’‘.

  Considering the early rejections she suffered because of her appearance,

she is surprisingly sanguine about sexism in hip-hop. The inflatable

bin-liner look that she donned on the Rain video was generally interpreted

as an anti-industry statement about the portrayal of women in rap, but

Elliott says that she did it ``out ta fun’’ because it was a cute idea. She

has no argument with the kind of ho-and-bitch language used by many male

rappers. The Elliott policy is to rise above it. ``In the South we always

say, `If you know you didn’t do something, then why start flaming up about

it?’ ‘’ She shrugs, ``So the way I look at it is, I don’t consider myself a

`ho’, and if I say `bitch’ I’m gonna take it and switch it to my way.’’ The

rest she dismisses as bravado. ``You get people who rap about stuff that

they don’t do all day long. Half those guys, you hear them on the radio and

then you meet them and you’re like `Wow, they’re so sweet.’ A lot of times

it’s just talking. Eminem [with whom she worked before he was well known]

might rap about jumping out of a window and into a car and driving away,

but I know if I jump out this window I ain’t going to get very far. You can

kind of distinguish.’‘

It’s no wonder Elliott holds dear her place in hip-hop’s aristocracy. As

she puts it: ``I dreamed it too much, so when I got here I was, like, I

ain’t gonna let this go.’’ This is Elliott’s fifth album in six years. The

woman is a grafter. She hasn’t had a holiday since she began her career.

``I always feel the need to work as if I don’t have a deal, because that’s

what’s going to keep me around for a long time.’’ Everything she knows, she

learned from her mother, ``not depending on people, working hard - she was

always determined not to fail.’’ And not a day goes by, she says, when she

doesn’t think about the times she used to sing in the back yard as a child,

or the times they had to put away the bread so the mice wouldn’t get it.

``Now I’m owning four houses and eight cars,’’ she says, her eyes widening,

and she’s able to take care of her mother, who used to sing, but gave it up

to raise her daughter. ``It’s almost like I work to see her happiness.’‘

Elliott and her mother, Patricia, have been through a great deal together.

Born Melissa Elliott in Portsmouth, Virginia, the young Missy knew from the

age of four she wanted to be a performer. She’d always reply ``superstar’‘

when asked at school what she wanted to do when she grew up, though she

doesn’t think they took her seriously at the time, she was always the

``class clown’‘.

But it’s true, she says, ``I never saw anything else,

never dreamed of doing anything else.’’ Her determination was fuelled by

the situation she found herself in - her father beat her mother just about

every day. ``My father was very abusive, and it was hard for my mother at

first to leave because we had depended on him for so long. Sometimes you

kind of get adjusted to getting that beating.’’ He hit his daughter once,

too, and she was terrified of him. Once he pulled a gun on them both. She

would never stay over at a friend’s house because she was scared she would

come home and find her mother dead.

  While her father was still a marine, the family lived for a while in the

coastal town of Jacksonville, North Carolina, in a mobile home community,

and that was where she felt she belonged. She would sing Jackson 5 songs

for neighbours and do concerts in her bedroom for her dolls. She enjoyed

school for the friendships she formed, but had little interest in school

work, though when she was sent for an IQ test she was classified way above

average, and was made to jump two years ahead of her class. Away from her

friends, she found herself increasingly isolated.

  It was then that her father left the marines, and the family moved back

to Virginia, where they lived in a vermin-infested shack. Elliott remembers

sending letters and tapes to her heroes Michael and Janet Jackson in the

hope they might come and rescue her. They never replied. The violence

against her mother got worse, and in her teens Missy was reaching breaking

point. She used to come home from school every day, shut herself in her

room and cry all night. Eventually, when she turned 14, relatives persuaded

her mother that they had to leave. When her father was out one day, a truck

turned up at the house and her uncles, aunts and cousins loaded it up with

the family possessions - they left her father with a fork, a spoon and a

blanket. It was a scary time. He didn’t try to track them down; today,

daughter and father occasionally talk, but she hasn’t forgiven him. ``When

we left, my mother realised how strong she was on her own, and it made me

strong. It took her leaving to realise.’‘

Things started to come together after that. They moved back to Portsmouth,

and it was there that the singer-producer Devante took an interest in the

group Sista that Missy formed with some girlfriends and her neighbour and

songwriting partner Timbaland. Sista didn’t survive, but she and Timbaland

were noticed. That’s when things took off.

  Growing up in that kind of atmosphere must have left its mark.

Practically, it had one effect: in 1999, Missy Elliott launched a lipstick

called Misdemeanor, the proceeds to go to Break The Cycle, an organisation

for the survivors of domestic violence. More personally - ``You know what

it does,’’ she says. ``It makes me not take a man’s shit.’’ She has female

friends who take ``a lot of stuff’’ from their boyfriends. ``They’re cussed

at, they can’t go nowhere, they have to move when the guy says move.’’ If

you get to a certain point in your career, she says, and have been by

yourself, it gets hard when somebody comes in and tries to tell you what to

do. ``With half my friends, the guy ain’t paying the bills either,’’ she

says, bemused. ``And I’m, like, `Wow, there’s no way in the world I can do

that,’ because I watched my mother have to escape from that. It can’t be

them telling me what to do, that’s not gonna work. If I find somebody,

we’re going to have to meet each other half way.’’ No wonder, she muses,

women such as Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry have trouble in love.

``They’re women who have everything, and then if somebody comes along and

tries to tell them what to do . . . ‘’ she laughs her infectious laugh,

``they’ll probably be, like, `Are you crazy? I’m J-Lo!’ ‘’

She’s not in a relationship at the moment, she says. ``No, I’m a

flirtatious person, I’ll flirt all day long, but it really is hard to get

into that when I’m so into the music and I’m in the studio all day long,

and all night sometimes. That’s not an exaggeration. The only person I

could probably date right now is the engineer.’‘Her main home is in Miami,

where she works, and despite the list of famous friends - Janet Jackson,

Mary J Blige, Lil’ Kim - she’s not much of a party person. She spends a lot

of time with her family and godchildren (she says she’s still recovering

from looking after her one-year-old godson, who is ``going through a phase

at the moment, he drove me nuts!’‘). Life has worked out well. ``I can’t

complain. I think when you get to a certain point you shouldn’t complain,

because there’s so many people who would kill to get to this point. So,

yeah, I’m happy. I’m tired, too, but I’m happy.’’ Elliott was brought up,

and remains, a Baptist. ``That most definitely plays a part in who I am and

how I handle things. I try not to be cruel to people, I know there’s a

karma, and I’m constantly thinking of my blessings. I live and die by being

a Baptist. If I can’t go to church on a Sunday, I’ll get a tape by the

Clark Sisters and slide it in for the day.’‘

After their recent work together on the Gap commercial, Madonna took

Elliott to her house, sat her down and talked about ``how she got to where

she’s at’‘, and ways ``to have peace of mind in this business’‘. She

introduced her to her ``spiritual adviser’‘, who gave her a kabbalah red

string to wear around her wrist, which is believed to absorb negative

energy and protect your aura. This might sounds like a rather patronising

scenario, particularly given Elliott’s own well-established religious

beliefs, and it was reported at the time that there was tension between the

two, but Elliott is full of praise for Madonna - she found her ``very

serious about what she does’‘. When the two rehearsed for their performance

at MTV’s awards ceremony, Madonna was keen to make sure that it wasn’t just

good, but great. ``She ain’t going to let things be half done,’’ says

Elliott admiringly.

  There’s something about her still of the starstruck kid who sent off

letters to the Jacksons. Arguably, it was Madonna who gained more, in

terms of credibility, from the association with the hipper-than-hip Missy

Elliott, but, Elliott maintains that the TV commercial and the live

performance with Madonna were possibly the highest spot in her career so

far. Likewise, she looks back on the times she has worked with stars like

Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Mick Jagger as her big

moments. ``These are people you don’t normally get within breathing

distance of, or even within turn-pike distance. To be in the same room as

them, and hear them say,`I love your music,’ that is a big event.’‘

Some were surprised when Elliott took the job for Gap - why would a woman

so famous for innovation, so adventurous and fiercely individualistic, want

to be associated with a rather bland multi-national? Well, sometimes you

value the things you saw little of when growing up, and symbols of

conventional success become precious. Security, a firm sense of your place

in the world, mainstream acceptance, fitting in, and, of course, economic

independence - not the path of a rebel, but sweet all the same.

  As for that wild bear in her front yard in New Jersey - even when the

police turned on their sirens and started throwing stones at him, he still

wasn’t budging. Missy Elliott laughs and shakes her head. ``I said, `You

know what, bear, you can have this house. I’m moving, you can stay here.’

‘’ Maybe not so bold and unyielding, after all.—COPYRIGHT: GUARDIAN NEWSPAPERS LIMITED 2003

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