MISSY IN ACTION

MISSY (MISDEMEANOUR) ELLIOTT, the 25-year-old hip-hop performer who is energetically redefining the boundaries of rap music, is a singer, songwriter, arranger, producer and talent scout. Six months ago, few people outside the music industry had heard of her; six months from now, it will be necessary to pretend that you've known about Missy Elliott for years. She is the biggest and blackest female rap star Middle America has ever seen. She is the latest incarnation of an American phenomenon: what US magazines like to call the "New Negro".

Generally, the New Negro - who is "new" every decade or so - is female, a woman who considers her marginal status a form of freedom and a challenge. She takes the little she has been given and transforms it into something complex, outrageous, and, ultimately, fashionable. She is outrageous, because no one cares what she does - until she begins to make money. This year, Missy Elliott is the New Negro of hip-hop.

I first met Missy last year, in the waiting room at WPGC-FM, a Washington DC soul station. She was there to promote the release of her debut solo album, Supa Dupa Fly, and, in characteristic Missy Elliott fashion, she had dressed for the occasion - in a red-and-yellow baseball jersey, bright- yellow vinyl overalls and jacket, and brown Timberland boots. Her hair was styled in crisp finger-waves close to her head, like tiny black ribbons, and her fingernails, two inches long, were varnished white. But there was no publicist or receptionist to greet her. She looked around and reduced the dim room and the station's lack of amenities to a weary expletive: "Damn".

Missy had arrived with three people in tow: her cousin Malik, who is as tall and lanky as Missy is short and round; Rene McLean, a rap promoter from the Elektra Entertainment Group; and Keisha, a pretty young black woman who is a third of the girl group, Total. As is often the case in Missy's professional circle, exactly who was promoting whom wasn't initially clear.

EARLIER THAT DAY, Missy had publicised her album at three record stores and another radio station, and she had been greeted in all those places with considerable fanfare. ("Yo, it was dope," Keisha said, chewing gum as she smiled her most seductive girl-group smile.) In an effort to generate a little of that excitement at WPGC, Missy dispatched Rene to find Tigger, the host of the programme she was supposed to appear on. He soon appeared, and in short order, Missy, sitting opposite Keisha in the control booth, was introducing her to WPGC's listening audience. She then took calls from her fans, whom she addressed as Baby, Boo, or Go-Go Head - while autographing her way through a stack of eight-by-ten black-and-white glossies. Even then - before she appeared on David Letterman, before the MTV Video Music Awards, before her record went gold - Missy's unorthodox blend of personal confidence, professional generosity and entrepreneurial spirit were in ample evidence.

After signing off, she talked about the lyrics she'd written for her song, "The Rain", which was already on its way to becoming a hit: "One minute I'm talking about weed, the next minute I'm talking about a man - like that. Closer to life and closer to how my mind works." She walked into a WPGC conference room and sat down, her oversized yellow overalls ballooning up around her. "I don't want to be oh-so-brag about it, but 'The Rain' is hot," she said with a shy laugh, her almond-shaped eyes closing up tight. Then she made the comment that would become her mantra in the coming weeks: "We give our music a futuristic feel. I don't make music or videos for now - I do it for 2000."

"WOMEN IN RAP, it's the same as it ever was - they come and go," Sharee, a New York DJ, told me. "Back in the 1980s, they were cute and sexy. Now they're cute and sexy and mad about something. They don't last, because they work one gimmick - their sex appeal - and that doesn't last long. Think Marilyn Monroe talking in rhyme, and you have a pretty good idea of the way most female rappers go." But Missy Elliott has not only avoided the stereotypes of the music-video industry; she has spent the last few months bringing the industry round to her style of dance, costume, and song.

"She slowed down rap - she took chances," Jac Benson, a senior producer at MTV, says. "She opened the door for other sounds." As for Missy's lyrics, they are about her internal world - not the material world of money, jewels, and men - and in her video she has managed to catapult herself beyond the cliched horny-boy images of girls in Jacuzzis chugalugging champagne. Instead, she has capitalised on the hip aesthetic that Sly Stone founded in the late 1960s, when he developed a persona that managed to retain a hard-edged black sound without making white listeners feel hopelessly unhip. Missy told me that she wants her work to show "where black folks are from, and where we're going".

Her hair, which fits her like a cap, is reminiscent of the marcelled coiffure that Duke Ellington sported in the 1940s. In some shots, she wears an inflated black patent-leather suit and sunglasses attached to a rhinestone headpiece. Her dance looks like an accelerated version of Walter Brennan's "dead bee" hop-and-skip walk in To Have and Have Not. In another shot, her lips and eyes are "morphed", or enlarged. She celebrates features once made grotesque by racist caricaturists.

In another clip, she's a caricature of the Little-Bo-Peep white girl running her fingers through a straight-haired wig. "We wanted to make fun of the way record companies try to make black women look white," Missy said. "Fake hair, fake music."

Missy was aware that for many viewers, the video would provide a way into her music. "Videos are the most valuable tool for selling songs," says Gina Harrell, who heads Elektra's video-production department. "Until they saw the video, radio programmers didn't understand 'The Rain'. She taught people how to move to the track. And Hype Williams [the music-video director] was able to pull out the core of Missy, the performance artist."

"The Rain" has inspired a score of imitations since its release, some of them directed by Hype himself. "I wanted the video to look avant-garde, so white people could get into it, too," Missy told me. "And if I lose cool points with other rappers 'cause I don't want my sound and look to be about one thing, then I lose cool points."

Melissa Elliott was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1972, a year before "I Can't Stand the Rain" was first recorded and released. As an only child, Missy, as she was called by her family, amused herself by lining up her dolls - "Baby Alive, GI Joe, whatever" - and singing to them. Her parents' marriage was an unhappy one, and when Missy was 14, they separated. She and her mother have lived in Portsmouth ever since.

A solitary and industrious teenager, she helped form a singing group with three other neighbourhood girls, Sista. "Missy always wanted to be up there," her mother, who works as a dispatcher at an electric company, recalls. "As a little girl, she would ask me to bring home stamps for all these letters she was writing. The letters would be returned, and I'd see that she'd written to Diana Ross and whatnot."

SISTA BEGAN PERFORMING at local talent shows and local colleges, and in 1992 attracted the attention of Devante, a member of the popular singing group Jodeci, by waylaying him at a concert. When Devante signed Sista ("We had long-ass weaves, we was a mess"), Missy was 20 and writing her songs with another friend, Tim Mosley, who went by the name of Timbaland.

Their songwriting process has been the same for years: first, they create the basic tracks, often incorporating samples from soul classics. "Then I'll sit down," Missy says. "He may go to the movies, the mall or something. And I sing the whole song, background and all." The work grows out of a variety of genres - reggae, rap, R&B ballads - but its primary influence is soul music, ranging from Rick James's "Super Freak" to black exploitation-movie sound- tracks like Curtis Mayfield's 'Superfly".

"When people say the music business, they mean the producer business," Jac Benson told me. "Producers, not artists, are the ones who really get to control an artist's overall sound and message." And Missy recognised that very early. Unlike most performers, who first struggle to succeed as solo artists before they turn to producing, Missy did the reverse. Her experience with Devante turned out to be a bad one - Sista had made a record and then waited for years, in vain, for it to be released - and she was determined not to repeat it. "I didn't want to just be an artist and let someone else have all that control over me," she said. "I knew I would have to produce."

In fact, Missy's potential as a solo artist and video presence didn't become evident until last year, when her now-signature "hee haw" rap for Gina Thompson's remix of "The Things You Do" was showcased in the video. "Gina's song was the ice-cream sundae," the hip-hop impresario Fab Five Freddy told me. "Missy's rap was the cherry on top." It was sharp and strong: the woman said what she wants, and when and where she wants it. And Missy's visual impact proved to be as captivating as it was unexpected. "She's a full-figured black woman," Freddy continued, "and, let's face it - a lot of black women look like her. She has Southern sophistication, a country elegance ... It feels like she's putting the whole house in order."

After the Thompson video came out, rap fans began asking for the "hee- hee haw-haw" girl. Missy says that she was approached by companies from Arista Records to Motown, but that they wanted to sign her only as an artist, and she refused. Merlin Bobb and Sylvia Rhone, two senior executives at Elektra, agreed to give her more. "We wanted to set her up in a small situation where she could develop her songwriting and producing abilities," Bobb explains. "She was shocked when she understood that we were interested in her business sense."

In the summer of 1996, Elektra agreed to subsidise a small label called Gold Mind Records, which Missy now oversees. Bobb says that when Missy first joined Elektra she was writing songs for other artists, but that she soon grew confident enough to begin writing songs for herself. In the spring of 1997, she and Timbaland recorded the music and Missy's vocals for "Supa Dupa Fly" in a week.

Last July, the "The Rain" video was nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards: Best Rap Video, Best Direction in a Video, and Breakthrough Video. The next day, "Supa Dupa Fly" went gold-No 3 on Billboard's pop chart, and No 1 on its R&B chart - thereby reinforcing Elektra's belief in Missy as a strong, marketable artist. By mid-August, articles had appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the business section of the Los Angeles Times. By August, Missy had begun working on a new video of her second single, "Sock It 2 Me".

When I saw Missy at the filming of the video, in a cavernous hangar in Long Island City, she was wearing red superhero boots, white tights, and red Pac Man arms, and she had a big red "M" emblazoned on her chest: the inspiration for this video, which also featured Brat and Lil' Kim, was Japanese superhero animation. This time, Missy was not only the video's main attraction but also its co-producer. "Sock It 2 Me" had a $900,000 budget - a budget that she hoped would make the video harder to rip off visually. ("If people gonna copy me this time, they gonna have to come out of their pockets.")

Throughout the day, Missy would look at the playbacks. She wasn't concerned with how she looked; rather, she wanted to know whether "Sock It 2 Me" was a suitable follow-up to what she had done before; she wondered out loud if people could "really understand where this Missy thing is going".

SYLVIA RHONE, for one, sees the "Sock It 2 Me" video going in the direction of TV. "No one's really used that 'Japanimation' kind of thing, and I want to take this video and try to sell the concept of these characters and do a real special cartoon. Black folks haven't moved into that genre." Rhone was particularly pleased about the coverage that Missy received in the LA Times. "I want white America, which is scared of hip-hop artists, to see that some of us are real business people, who command major dollars and a major consumer base, and have more vision than just doing a rap record." Rhone thinks that Missy's easy-going manner can be misleading. "If you ran into Missy, you would say, 'This is a ghetto girl with ghetto curls'," she told me. "Underneath the 'hee-hee haw-haw', she's one of the sharpest businesswomen I've ever come up against."

And, if Missy wants greater longevity than is usually accorded a rap star, writing and producing under her own label, Gold Mind, may provide it. "I feel like, OK, if I can make it as a singer, then let me try rapping," she told me. "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 say, '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."

On the night of the rehearsal for last year's MTV Video Music Awards, Missy Elliott arrived at Radio City Music Hall to perform her rap on Lil' Kim's single "Not Tonight", along with the radio personality Angie Martinez, Left Eye from TLC, and Da Brat. As usual, she was dressed to thrill, and, as usual, she looked like no one else there. In an industry where, as Missy says, "You either gotta be light-skinned or have long hair" to satisfy a teenage boy's video idea of a proper "vide-ho", Missy Elliott has managed to be something else altogether.

Lil' Kim's number was to have an Egyptian theme: Lil' Kim, Left Eye, and Angie would be dressed in Nefertiti-like costumes, Da Brat would be dressed as a Roman gladiator. Unlike the other participants, Missy would be entering the act from the audience, dressed as herself - as though her fellow-entertainers were her bitches.

Hop-skipping down the aisle towards her sister rappers, Missy carried a mike in one hand and made flapping gestures with her other, saying, "Yo, Yo, Kim, you not gonna get me on this song just singing hooks. What I look like - Patti LaBelle or something?" Then Lil' Kim giggled her peroxide giggle as Missy engulfed her in a tight embrace. Unlike most rappers, who try to approximate in their live performances the exact sounds and movements they've used in their videos for easy audience-identification, Missy approaches rapping the way jazz musicians approach jazz - as an improvisational musical form.

A week later, Missy was in a dressing room on the sixth floor of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, at Broadway and 53rd Street, getting ready to perform "The Rain" on the Late Show with David Letterman. Missy had never been on a late-night show before, and, while the invitation was a welcome indication of her recent crossover success, she did not have a clear idea of who, precisely, Letterman was. "I never catch the show," she said. "What does he do up there?"

That afternoon, during Missy's pre-taping rehearsal, Letterman's technical staff had been plagued by a similar question: what, exactly, were Missy and her entourage planning to do up there? She was singing with a seven- piece band, but there were also two dancers, two more rappers, and two back-up singers in attendance. In addition, Ann Peebles, the woman who first made "I Can't Stand the Rain" famous, was making a guest appearance with Missy. "They didn't know where to put the camera," Missy's manager, Louise C West, recalled later.

Fifteen minutes before Missy was to appear in front of a live studio audience, her publicist and Billy B were waiting outside her dressing room. There was consternation over the fact that Missy hadn't announced a final plan for her performance, and Billy B was upset with his client for not giving him the time he needed to make her up. ("I was promised an hour to do her face," he complained. "Missy's face is my face. I want to be proud of it.")

Then someone asked what time Missy was going on. "Now," replied a young woman who was passing by in the narrow hall. Right behind her was Missy herself, wearing outsized red leather trousers, a large white T-shirt, and a gold pendant depicting an Afro'd woman in silhouette. A sleeveless red leather basketball jersey had the word "Supa" written on the front and a big purple leather fly stitched on the back.

She was trailed by Malik, two dancers in purple trousers and tops, and the singers Magoo and Timbaland. Everyone else stepped into line behind them, followed Missy into the elevator, and disappeared, like circus performers pouring into a tiny joke car.

Downstairs, her entourage sat in the green room watching as Letterman introduced the number while holding Missy's CD upside-down. The camera closed in on the face of Peebles singing, "Missy, you can't stand the rain," while Missy performed her shimmy and belted out the lyrics "Beep, beep, who got the keys to the jeep, vroom!"

At the end of the song, Letterman kissed Missy's hand. Suddenly, the woman who only moments before had been skating from one side of the stage to the other and making cat's eyes at the audience became modest and subdued. "You Missy people come back!" Letterman called after her as she and her band left the stage. Minutes later, Missy was climbing into a black stretch limousine - with Magoo, Malik and Louise in tow. Clutching her cell phone, she called her mother: "Yo, Ma, watch me tonight on David Letterman. What channel is it on, y'all? Yeah, Ma, Channel 4."

As the limousine moved away, the driver asked Missy how the show had gone. When he heard that Letterman had kissed her hand, he observed that that was a sign of great respect - or "props", as he called it. "That means Letterman's a European," he explained. "Those Europeans, they can give it up to a Negro; Missy, one day soon they gonna give you all your props."

Hilton Als. This article was originally published in the 'New Yorker'.

'Beep Me 911' (East West) is out on 23 Mar.

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