Music Sermon: Missy Elliott's Underrated Songwriting Genius
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.
Since stealing the show from Katy Perry for the most-watched Super Bowl halftime performance ever in 2015, Missy Elliott has been enjoying a renewal, a renaissance, a resurgence, a reinvigoration…all the “re”s. And deservedly so.The Virginia native is one of the most innovative and groundbreaking artists of our time, and now a new generation of fans has joined the old heads in eager anticipation for the musical magic the Supa Dupa Fly one is cooking up in the studio for her new album.
Fans have been giving Missy her proverbial flowers en masse for the last year especially, including a wide-spread lobbying campaign to have her game-changing, mind-bending, budget-breaking videos recognized and celebrated, finally, with the MTV VMA’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.
While Missy is indeed a visual storyteller bar-none, her ability to create a story behind the soundboard as a songwriter and producer remains under-acknowledged. Last week, Missy became the first female rapper to be nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If she is one of the six new members inducted in June 2019, she’ll be the third rapper ever to join the ranks, following Jay-Z (2017) and Jermaine Dupri (2018). Eligibility for the honor kicks in 20 years after a songwriter’s first credits, and for the last two decades, Missy has somewhat quietly stockpiled an impressive file of receipts.If you google Missy Elliott’s writing/production discography, you’ll be rewarded with the equivalent of fifteen standard 8 1/2-by-11-sized pages of work. There are titles and projects that fans are familiar with, but also many that would surprise all but die-hard Missy stans. But if you know Missy’s story, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.
Even though Missy had a previous life as part of the Devante Swing-signed girl group Sista, it was her writing and producing that put her on the map. During her tumultuous time with Swing Mob, she co-wrote and/or produced songs for former Hi-Five frontman Tony Thomspon, child star Jason Weaver, Jodeci’s The Show The After Party The Hotel album and others – sometimes credited, sometimes not.
When she left the collective, her attorney, Louise West, encouraged her to continue pursuing the writing path. That led to behind the scenes work with Bad Boy, including vocal/verse arrangements for “All About the Benjamins.” Sheek shared the story with DJ Cipha Sounds earlier this year of The LOX walking into the studio with Puff as new Bad Boy artists, only to be bossed around by a then-unknown Missy.
“Me, Kiss, and Styles walked in the room and there was this girl in there, and they was listening to that beat... She was asking me (what do you think of this beat); she was talking to me like she knew me. ‘Yo, let me hear you rap to that.’ I’m like, ‘First of all, who are you?’ She’s dancing and sh*t. She’s making beatboxing noises. So, I did my first verse…Styles did something; she was like, ‘Eh.’” Styles’ verse famously did not make the final track, and it was Missy’s call. “Jada did a verse to it. And then she was like, ‘You gonna go here. You gonna go here. Y’all two, you and Kiss, gonna write Puff’s verse.’ I’m like ‘What the f**k?’ Then she just walked off, beatboxing. Later on… that was Missy Elliott…But we didn’t know that was her. She put the whole ‘Benjamins’ together.”
Missy’s energy was off-putting for the young Yonkers rappers, but those who work with her say the innate talent for arrangement is one of her superpowers. Her current A&R at Atlantic Records, Jeffrey Sledge, has worked with artists who are also great writers/producers his entire career, including Q-Tip and R. Kelly, but says of Missy: “She has one of the greatest ears of anyone I know. She’ll listen to playback and point out the smallest thing that no one else would hear; ‘No, we should take that out. This should be different.’ She’s able to quickly figure out what will work for different artists and find the vibe. She’s really an A&R on the low.”
Diddy then tapped Missy for a guest feature on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” remix, resulting in the “He He He Haw” heard ‘round the music world. A star was born. She thanked him publicly over the summer via Instagram, sharing a clip where he also praised her as one of his favorite producers, saying, “As a producer, she has a talent to create music that you feel spiritually and emotionally. And it’s really sexy and sensual, in a sense.” When Diddy says your sh*t is sexy, your sh*t is forreal sexy.
Angelique Miles, the former publishing executive that signed Missy and Timbaland to their deals at Warner Chappell, agrees. “Lyrically she’s witty and she’s relatable, but it really goes back to old school-style songwriting,” Miles says when asked what makes Missy a great creative. “Songwriting today is very literal, and not poetic. Missy’s a poet. ‘Baby you don’t know what you do to me…’ those first lines of “One In a Million” are romantic.”
Miles signed Missy based on the success of “The Things You Do” plus her work with 702’s debut album No Doubt, including “Steelo.” It was an extremely limited body of work to base a deal on, but Miles rolled the dice on both Missy and Timbaland (she signed Timbaland based solely on “Pony,” which wasn’t yet a single), and it paid off. Missy did not yet have a record deal, but she and Tim now had unprecedented admin deals for new writers at the time, allowing them to retain control of their copyright and receive all their royalties on the back end, rather than taking a large advance on the front end. And very soon, there was a lot of money.
Missy told SPIN magazine in 1997, “I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable.”
Miles described it a little more directly: “Huge checks.”With One in a Million, Missy’s career catapulted out of the stratosphere, still without yet having released her own music.
For many, One in a Million is about the pairing of Aaliyah and Timbaland, with Missy there as just part of the Superfriends collective. However, it was Missy and Timbaland as a team that sold Barry Hankerson and Aaliyah on the partnership for her sophomore album. And Missy wrote on almost every single, complimenting Tim’s production with lyrics that felt incredibly familiar – like something you’d said in conversation, or written in your diary - and yet like nothing else in music at the time. In his book The Emperor of Sound, Timbaland described Missy’s writing as in-the-know, juicy, Peyton Place-style storytelling. “You feel like she knows what’s going on behind all of the closed doors, what women say they want, what they really want, and the lengths they’d go through for Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.”
By the time Missy was finally preparing her solo album, she was one-half of the hottest songwriting and production team in music. She and Timbaland were everywhere, and she became legendary for her larger-than-life features and clever, infectious hooks on outside projects. But she was also writing, arranging and/or producing much of what she was featured on.
SWV’s “Can We:” co-writer and co-producer along with Timbaland. Total’s “Trippin:” co-writer and co-producer (she also was an executive producer on the entire Kima, Kisha & Pam album). The massive hit “Lady Marmalade” remake featuring Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim: co-produced with Rockwilder. And that’s only songs she’s featured on in some way. “Missy’s worked with all the top female artists of the last 20 years,” says Sledge. Indeed, the roster runs like a who’s who for the 90s and 00s: Aaliyah, Mariah, Whitney, Janet, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Monica, Trina, Mary J., Ciara, Fantasia, Jazmine Sullivan, even gospel great Karen Clark Sheard. That’s not including the artists she signed directly to her Goldmind imprint with Elektra Records, Nicole Wray, and Tweet.
You were sometimes hearing Missy and didn’t even realize it. Through Mya’s “My Love is Like…Wo;” through Fantasia’s “Free Yourself;” through Monica’s “So Gone;” through Jazmine Sullivan’s “Need U Bad.” Once you realize she’s behind the track, however, you can pinpoint certain signatures in the vocals.
With her own music, Missy is still described by many who work with her as “shy,” both in and outside of the studio. No one knows exactly how she creates, because she’s never let anyone see her write or record vocals. Not even Timbaland. “No one’s seen it,” says Sledge. “She’ll listen to the track, take it home, and come back with it done. I couldn’t tell you her creative process.”
While not quite pulling the curtain all the way back, Missy’s been sharing snippets and sneak peeks of the new material she’s working on through social media, and often shares stories of the tracks she wrote and produced, both the hits and the lesser-knowns. She’s also happily stepping up to receive her praise and accolades, realizing that this level of relevance at this stage in her career is rare. It’s safe to say the shy, quiet artist is not staying humble for her second act. Keep them receipts coming, Missy!