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How To Make It: Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott is one of the most celebrated artists in hip hop’s history. 

She pioneered a sound that became the staple of a decade. One of the most prolific songwriters of the late-90’s and early-00’s hip hop and R&B scene, she generously offered her genius to artists such as Aaliyah and Jodeci, as well as an extensive catalogue of her own music.

Illustrious as that may be, Melissa Elliott’s life didn’t begin with the magic she later found.

Melissa’s father was a violent man. There had been years of physical and emotional pain, inflicted countlessly and carelessly. Try as she might to find a sense of normalcy for her child, Melissa’s mother Patricia was seeing the effect this was having on her daughter.

When Patricia discovered that Melissa wouldn’t stay at a friend’s house out of fear that she’d come home and find her mother dead, a switch flipped. 

By the mid-1980s, Patricia decided that enough was enough. 

She took her daughter on what she told her husband was a bus joyride, and that was that. They fled to Portsmouth, Virginia, in search of a new life. 

Not long into finding a new school, Melissa became a natural class clown. From singing in church choirs and creating skits as a child to show family members, she already had an innate performative nature that was amplified at the joy of others.

Singing, dancing, making jokes, and playing pranks. Whatever she could do to form bonds with friends, eager to feel like she belonged. While she continued to show little-to-no interest in schoolwork, state intelligence tests would show her intelligence greatly exceeded the schools expectation of her. 

She was promptly moved up two grades, suddenly surrounded by strangers. Feeling isolated, she decided that flunking was the only plausible way to get back to familiar faces. So she did, and felt an overwhelming sense of happiness when returning to her former class. Through what could be described as a turbulent experience with secondary education, Melissa managed to graduate from Manor High School in 1990.

Fresh out of high school in early ‘91, she formed an all-female R&B group known as Fayze, with friends La’Shawn Shellman, Chonita Coleman, and Radiah Scott. She recruited childhood friend Timothy Mosley – who would later become known to the world as Timbaland – to assist with production and help them get a demo together. 

Later that year, Fayze was invited to come backstage at a Jodeci concert. At the time, Jodeci were one of the world’s most prominent R&B groups – considered the antithesis of the clean-cut, wholesome Boyz II Men. One of the group’s members, DeVanté Swing, heard Fayze singing Jodeci songs acapella in one of the green rooms. A record producer himself, Swing was instantly convinced of the group’s trajectory. As if out of a movie, they

were relocated to New York City, signing with Elektra Records through Swing’s ‘Swing Mob’ imprint. They were renamed Sista under Swing’s advice. 

This became their life for the foreseeable future. The entire Swing Mob roster lived in a two-story house in New York, often working on new Jodeci material or their own projects. Among earning credits on Jodeci and Raven-Symoné records, Missy and Timbaland also produced Sista’s debut album, ‘4 All the Sistas Around da World’.

By the end of 1995, Swing Mob had folded. Despite this, Missy and Timbaland remained close collaborators. As well as the debut Sista record, the pair produced for 702, Total, S.W.V., and most notably, Aaliyah – including her critically acclaimed album ‘One in a Million’. 

Missy’s solo career officially began as a featured vocalist, rapping on Sean’ Puffy’ Combs remix to Gina Thompson’s ‘The Things That You Do’ (the video for which featured cameo appearances by Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy).  

Combs was hoping to sign Missy to his record label, Bad Boy Entertainment. Instead, she took a leaf out of his book and created her own imprint under Elektra Entertainment, known as The Goldmind Inc.

By this point, Missy and Timbaland were well into working on Missy’s solo project. Many of the sessions that took place from the end of 1995 onward worked towards what would become her debut album, ‘Supa Dupa Fly.’ 

Through all the collaborations, the pair finished Missy’s debut album, and it was released in mid-1997. Its lead single, ‘The Rain,’ was a blowout success, leading the album to become certified Platinum.

From there, it was all on. Although much darker than her debut, Missy’s sophomore album ‘Da Real World’ (1999) generated just as much success. The remix of her single ‘Hot Boyz’ (feat Nas, Eve & Q-Tip) broke the record for most weeks at number 1 on the US R&B chart and spent 18 weeks at number 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. 

Missy’s third album ‘Miss E…So Addictive’ came in May of 2001. It debuted at number two in the United States on the Billboard charts, selling over 250,000 copies in its first week. This birthed the pop hits ‘One Minute Man’ featuring rapper Ludacris and Trina and ‘Get Ur Freak On.’ 

(Fun fact: ‘Get Ur Freak On’ just this month had its 20th anniversary. They grow up so fast.)

Missy’s fourth album brought her back to her roots. Along with Timbaland, the album’s core was driven by old-school rap and funk samples. Notable examples include Run-D.M.C.’s ‘Peter Piper’ and Frankie Smith’s ‘Double Dutch Bus.’ 

And so in 2002, ‘Under Construction’ was released. To this day, this is still the best-selling album by a female rap artist. The album would receive nominations for Best Rap Album and Album of the Year at the 2003 Grammy Awards. 

Keen to capitalize on ‘Under Construction’ momentum, Elektra Records pressured Missy into releasing another album soon after. The singles ‘Pass That Dutch’ and ‘I’m Really Hot’ climbed the urban charts, but not quite at the rate of previous releases. 

‘This Is Not a Test!’ came out in November of 2003. Overall, the record wasn’t received as well as its successors – but did go on to become certified Platinum in the United States. Missy has since stated that “the album came out extremely too quickly for me. I didn’t want it to come out when it did.”

In her next release, conscious of staying true to what she felt was right for her music, Missy wanted to give fans something unexpected. For the first time in her career, she worked with producers other than Timbaland. 

Her sixth studio album ‘The Cookbook’ came out in July of 2005, featuring the lead single ‘Lose Control’. The album debuted at number 2 on the United States Billboard charts, and critics heavily recognized her work on the album. Elliott received 5 Grammy Award nominations in 2005, including one for Best Rap Album.

After the release of her first Greatest Hits album’ Respect M.E.’ in 2006, Missy went on to dive deeper into songwriting and production for other artists, taking a well-needed step back from the limelight. 

Elliott’s production earned her a Billboard number 1’s on Keyshia Cole’s ‘Let It Go’ in 2007, Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘Need U Bad’ in 2008, and Monica’s ‘Everything to Me’ in 2010. 

There is so much more to say about her career – a plethora of charting releases, accolades, and highlights. 

Beyond any statistic or award, however, is where her biggest presence was felt. Missy Elliott delivered a culture shift. Her style of songwriting and production is imprinted on the hip hop and R&B sound at the turn of the century. Music of that era would quite literally not be the same without her impact. While one could never truly measure that, it’s incredible to speculate at.

Having said that, we thought we’d finish off by laying out Missy’s accolades. Seeing them all together is nothing short of astonishing.

  • 4 Grammy Awards
  • 8 MTV Video Music Awards
  • 2 American Music Awards
  • 6 BET Awards
  • Billboard Women in Music Award for Innovation. 
  • An honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music 
  • Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Music Pioneer Award at the United Nations in 2019 for her achievements as a leader in music.