missy elliott exclusive: rap's returning queen sounds off on 'wtf'
We catch up with hip hop's returning queen about the state of the music industry, her impact on popular culture and working with Pharrell.
Perhaps you first stumbled across Missy Elliott via 1997's iconic The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly] video. Maybe you were one of those tweeting about the 'hot new female rapper' who appeared onstage with Katy Perry at this year's Superbowl. Either way, your first impression of Melissa Elliott would have been -- should have been -- immediate, mind-blowing, brilliant. Dispensing with any sort of pre-existing or accepted ideas of what artistry is and what it looks like, Miss Misdemeanour has been at the forefront of offering an progressive alternative to notions of beauty, femininity and creativity since her debut nearly twenty years ago.
She has rejected the idea of convention sonically, lyrically and visually and, during a time where artists love to bare all -- physically and metaphorically -- Missy stands as a singular icon and iconoclast. She never took her clothes off, she never slagged anyone off, she went out of her way to avoid attention (see: the time she let Britney take one for the team at the 2003 VMA's). She hasn't put her name to any and every brand (apart from Adidas, a label she clearly genuinely loves). You won't see her name on a bottle of booze, a book or bedsheets (although we'd buy them all immediately, obvs). Instead, Missy has quietly propelled music in many, many directions many, many times, whether through her own records, or as a writer and producer for artists such as Mariah, Little Mix, Mel B, Lil Kim, Aaliyah, Ciara and Tweet.
But she's been quiet of late. Apart from two low-key Timbaland tracks in 2012, her last official release was 2005's The Cookbook, which featured the almighty Lose Control, as well as appearances from M.I.A. and Mary J Blige, and production from Pharrell, a longtime friend who also hails from Virginia. Then the Superbowl happened and all hell broke loose. We were reminded (not that we needed reminding), not just how important Elliott was, but still is. Here she was performing to 118.5 million people, in a Wang cap, trademark hooped earrings and that brilliantly delightful grin plastered across her face, tearing it up with The Rain, Hot Boyz, Get Ya Freak On and Lose Control, transporting us back to a time before Instagram, before selfies, before memes.
Since Feb 7, 2015, there has been something in the water -- a Missy-sized shift in the air. She began to tease a collaboration with Skateboard P back in Feb, but things went a little quiet until early October when it was announced she's collab'd with Janet Jackson on BURNITUP! Finally, on Thursday, she dropped the WTF (Where They From) video (which has 10.5m views and counting), and the internet began to melt. With references to both 1997 and 2097, WTF is a triumphant return with a track that manages, in true Missy style, to reflect fondly on the past while ruminating firmly on the future. The video has already seen numerous news stories and a number of think pieces, as people praise the Segway studded, puppet-laden clip. Creative on WTF, Missy tells i-D, began back in March 2015. That's how seriously she takes her visual aesthetic and that's how little she was prepared to rush her return.
"I needed a break," Missy admitted, during a short but sweet phone call to i-D on Friday. In this exclusive interview with the rapper, producer and writer, Missy tells i-D how she messed up her weave with nerves before WTF dropped, why she (quite literally) bleeds for her art and why we all need to thank Pharrell for her return to rap…
Missy! Whereabouts in the world are you right?
I'm in New York, where the horns blow, where people got places to be. I'm here!
How have you felt about the reactions so far to WTF?
I'm so humbly grateful. The night before it came out, I felt like a child waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. When I tell you I was having anxiety and everything! I just hoped everyone liked the video once it came out. I thank god and I thank Pharrell, and Dave Meyers and Hi-Hat. Without them, it couldn't have been possible.
You haven't dropped a project of your own since 2005's Cookbook. Was the pressure greater because it had been so long?
Oh the pressure was definitely more! When me and Tim put out those records [9th Inning and Triple Threat], you know, we just put them out, that's why we never put a video out. But this time the pressure was really on because I knew I had shot a video so now it wasn't just about, 'Are they gonna like the record'. I knew that people know me for my videos and so the expectation from those who grew up on my music was high. My goodness. I swear to God, I felt like I sweated out my tracks the night before the video dropped! My weave was messed up waiting for this video to come out!
So why now? And how much did the Katy Perry Superbowl performance affect your decision to return as a solo artist?
I can't remember where I was, but my manager called me and said 'Would you like to do the Superbowl'? I was sat there looking at the phone like 'Did she just say the Superbowl'? I felt like, who turns down the Superbowl but then, why would I be doing the Superbowl at this point? I don't have anything out, but I'll do it. She said 'Katy Perry wants to speak to you, she wants you to perform with you'. I immediately thought that she would want me to perform Last Friday the record that we did together. So when me and Katy got on the phone, she said she was a fan of my work and that she wanted me to perform, but to perform three of my records. First of all, I can't thank her enough. A thousand thank you's wouldn't be enough. She allowed me to perform my records, on her set and she said 'If you have a new record, you should perform it, this is the time to perform it'. At the time I had some records but I didn't feel as strong about them. I said I'd rather go out there and give them the classics. She was like 'Are you sure, this will have a huge amount of viewers'. She really gave it over to me, but I decided to do the old classics. I've performed for some of the biggest crowds but the Superbowl has to be the scariest moment - besides waiting for this video to drop (laughs). That was a nervous moment for me.
But why now? Is the record part of a bigger Missy project to come?
Well, Pharrell hit me. He had hit me before the Superbowl, we had performed at the BET awards [in 2014], and after the Superbowl, he hit me up like 'Yo, what are you doing?' I was basically in the house cleaning! I had gone back to my normal life. I was in the house vacuuming, walking my dogs -- after the Superbowl, I'm just acting normal. He said 'I'm not trying to push you, but people miss you. Do you see what happened out there? Have you seen the charts'? I think I was still in shock. It still hadn't registered. He was like 'I want to get in the studio with you.' Who turns down Pharrell? He flew me to LA and he put me up and we got in the studio and he said 'Yo! I got this crazy beat'. You know, Pharrell, he's very zen, very yoga, he's such a sweetheart. But this time, he was straight from the hood, like 'Yo, I got this crazy record for you, I already wrote my rap, I gotta get your bars now'. So he played it and once he played it, it was like 'Oh my goodness' He said 'I know you gon' kill it'. I said, 'Well, let me take it home and live with it'. When something is so hot, I don't want to just jump on it right away, I want to take it home and make sure I give it my best shot. He said 'Listen, just remember who you are. You've always been fun and animated and you have always made people want to dance. Look in the mirror so you can know who you are. It's time. It's your time.' That's how it happened. Once we did the record, I knew it was time to shoot a video. The puppet idea I had seen somebody do on the street. I held onto that idea for five years because I didn't have a record that matched that idea. So I showed Pharrell the clip I had, and he said 'You know you got to do a video for this'. Believe it or not, we have been making this video since March. The puppets themselves took two and a half, to three months to make. It was very detailed. We had people from StarTrak working on this video, so it was a lot.
What's the concept of the video?
It started with the puppets. The facepaint came from my make-up artist. The box scene came from Dave and the way that facepaint turns around is another Dave creation. We collectively knew it had to have some kind of iconic outfit. We all came up with the glass outfit, which was the hardest thing to wear because it was really cut up glass so I was bleeding and everything! I was so agitated but I had to get it done.
You really suffered for your art…
Well, every video I have suffered. I was bloody and bloodied. There was blood everywhere!
There's a line in WTF that says 'Don't give up when people doubt you' and you mentioned it took Pharrell to enforce upon you the impact you've had on popular culture. Did you lose your confidence? Did you feel that you no longer had it in you to continue to make music?
Oh most definitely. Definitely. I never stopped recording, but I went through a period where… the one thing that a lot of people don't know is that for as long as I've been as artist, I've been a writer and a producer. So I've had to write and produce for other artists and then maintain my sound and myself as an artist. So all that time, I was doing Missy and also making sure I was giving all of these other artists a different sound too. That was hard for me. At first it wasn't but then when it started piling up on a plate, it was tough. A lot of people don't do this. You can count on a couple of hands probably how many artists also produce and write, both for themselves and for others and are able to be successful at both things. So I needed a break. But in that break I felt like I lost time. Then I ended up getting sick [Missy was diagnosed with Graves Disease in 2011] but then, yeah, it was a time where I felt like 'Do I still have it'? Especially when you see a whole new slew, a whole new generation of kids, come through and the music is not like how it was. I felt like, 'How do I fit in'? I'm battling. But then I never fit in! The whole time, I've never fit in! But it was still that battle. Do people still want to hear something creative and risky at this point? People might not be accepting of your music. So I battled that and I thank god for somebody like Pharrell who stayed in my ear. For him, at that time, Happy was everywhere, he didn't have to share anything with me. He said to me, 'You call me any time you feel like that, because I have went through that same thing in my life and I want to make sure I pull you up. I've been there and I know what that feels like'.
What do you think of the state of the music industry in 2015? There's some very big personalities making a lot of noise: Adele, Rihanna, Kanye, Justin, Miley, Taylor. What are your thoughts on the current climate as a whole?
I think the music industry, it's a lot of great artists out there. I must say that. Adele, she's most definitely killing the right now. I understand someone like a Rihanna. She's a superstar, I get it. Beyoncé, well she's from our era, and she's beyond that! What I love about Kanye is that he doesn't fit the mold either. He does what he feels. People might look at him like, 'Kanye at it again', but I can respect the fact and I can tell when he does his music it's not 'I'm doing what's hot right now'. That's what I felt in the studio. So I can appreciate artists like that. People, I think they are fiending for more of that, that's why Adele could take that rest and come back. That's how it used to be. She's shown people that when you've got talent, those solid fans will wait for you. So, yeah, it's a lot of great stuff out there.
Get WTF here
Text Hattie Collins