Missy Elliott, Musical Trailblazer and Video Pioneer, on Working Her Way to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame

·11-min read

Missy Elliott is an artist with few peers or precedents — a wildly innovative singer-songwriter-producer and music video pioneer whose work has cast a long shadow over the past quarter century. Almost immediately from their arrival in the mid-1990s, she and longtime collaborator Timbaland reshaped the sound of hip-hop. They made songs out of pings and bips and bloops (both vocal and electronic) that quickly became part of the foundation of virtually all that followed: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “Work It,” “Lose Control,” “Get Ur Freak on,” along with hits for Aaliyah, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé (solo and with Destiny’s Child), Mary J. Blige, TLC, Monica, and more than a hundred features, guest appearances and others.

Elliott has won four Grammys and sold more than 30 million records worldwide, and her mind-melting, shape-shifting videos, first with director Hype Williams and then (and since) with Dave Meyers, are so closely associated with her songs that conceptually and visually one can draw a straight line between her work and Lil Nas X’s run of eye-popping videos this year. And while her accomplishments rank among those of any contemporary musician, she’s been a pioneer for female artists in particular, proving by pioneering example that women can write, perform and produce records as well as any man: Born and raised near Virginia Beach, Va., she was the first of a formidable crew of local talent — including not just Timbaland but Pharrell Williams, Pusha T and others — to break through.

More from Variety

Yet after a monumentally prolific decade of work, she stepped back, partially due to a battle with the autoimmune disorder Graves’ disease. But her music was so ahead of its time that for the past 15-ish years, she’s been here without really being here, making appearances both high-profile (the 2015 Super Bowl with Katy Perry) and lower-profile (recent collabs with newer artists including Kierra Sheard and Kayla Nicole), while dropping singles/videos of her own every couple of years. In many ways, she’s living the dream she worked so hard for by only doing what she wants to. One-off gigs at a festival, an Alexander Wang launch or a Warner Music Grammy party? Sure! Being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame or the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Hell yes.

Ironically, this rare interview, celebrating her Walk of Fame induction on Nov. 8, took place while Elliott, 50, was suffering from torn meniscus in both knees — “I’ve had problems with them for a while, and I went hiking with some friends and I guess I was trying to show them that I could do it!,” she laughs. But she was friendly, funny and gracious with every word.

Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will be unveiled at 11:30 a.m. PT on Nov. 8 at 6212 Hollywood Blvd.

When did your musical talent first begin to show?

I’ve had this in me since I was little, little. My mother was a singer, she used to be in a group and would sing locally around Virginia. We lived at the end of this road — my father was in the military — and I used to stand at the end of it, singing into a hairbrush. I would sing about anything: animals, insects, and when cars would come past and honk their horns I would sing louder. If I wasn’t singing I was dancing, and when we had family functions my family would beg me to get on the table and do something. I would say “No, I don’t wanna,” but once they got me on the table, hours later, the night would be over and they would be packin’ up all the food and I’m still on the table, dancing and singing (laughter).

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Not the first one, but maybe one of the first that wasn’t about ants and stuff (laughing), was called “First Move.” When I first started, I would just make up melodies in my head and write them down, then when I started getting with producers I would take those songs and put them over their beats; freshman year of high school I met a guy named Eric and I would record at his house. Later I used a Dictaphone, but now I sing into my phone.

Between you and Timbaland and Pharrell and Pusha T and the Clipse and others, it’s incredible how many of you came from the same part of Virginia.

It’s amazing to see, because in meeting Tim and then knowing that Pharrell and Tim were in a group with Pusha’s brother, it’s just funny how we all came full circle — and even though we all come from there, we all have different sounds; it’s not like there’s a “Virginia sound.” There’s so much talent there.

How did you and Timbaland first meet?

Through [rapper] Magoo. One day he just said “I’ve got a friend, DJ Timmy Tim,” and we went to Tim’s house. He had a little Casio keyboard and was just playing around, and I started to sing and then I started to rap, and everybody in the room was like “Wooooah! This is crazy!” After that, I found myself at his house doing music every day.

When was this?

A little before the end of high school, I think, because I still remember having to get home and not be late, and I remember his father kicking us out (laughter).

Did you always want to be a solo artist?

No! I was afraid! I love being in a group because the pressure isn’t on one person — it probably don’t seem like it, but I’m super, super shy. Once I was no longer in the group, instead of being an artist I wanted a record label. By that time I had done some [prominent] features, and Sylvia Rhone [then-CEO of Elektra Records] said “We’ll give a label if you give us an album.” So I went to Tim and said “Let’s hurry up and do this album so they can give me my label,” and we finished [the million-plus-selling “Supa Dupa Fly”] in two weeks!

You don’t seem shy at all.

I’m really, really, really shy. When people meet me, it’s like I can turn off and turn on — same as when I hit the stage, it’s like a light switch.

Were there any female role models you had as a songwriter-producer? It’s hard to think of many before you, even Valerie Simpson worked with her husband [Nickolas Ashford] at Motown.

Also Patrice Rushen and Angela Winbush. But there’s also a lot of women who probably had a lot of say [in the studio] — like Aretha might have said, “Hey, I don’t necessarily have to touch [equipment],” but she was probably saying to do this and put that here. There’s so many women who spend all those hours doing that and don’t get the credit, but I think when people hear about them and myself, it allows that door to be open for more women, because there are so many out there.

You’ve also always been on top of your business, savvy with publishing and producing and writing for other artists and owning your Goldmind label. Who were your mentors there?

I always credit my mother as being the top mentor, but also being around Puffy, because he actually was the first to put me on a record — which was Gina Thompson. And let’s give it up for Sylvia [Rhone] — strong woman! Also, [longtime manager and “Love and Hip-Hop” creator] Mona Scott and [the late] Chris Lightly — rest in peace — coming in and being my managers and advising.

How did your gibberish hooks come about, on songs like “Izzy Izzy Ah” and “Gossip Folks” and “Work It”?

Well, “Gossip Folks” was a sample, but “Work It” was a mistake. When the engineer played it there was something with the Pro Tools [studio equipment] and I was like, “Wait, what was that?” He said, “I’m gonna fix it” because he thought I was about to snap on him like he messed up (laughing). But I was like “No! don’t erase that! Take it forward, flip it and reverse it — keep that there and I’m going to rap a hook around it.”

You were so prolific for so many years, but since then you’ve slowed down. Was it because of your health or were there other reasons too?

My health was most definitely a big factor, but also, people don’t understand how hard it is to maintain so many hats: being the artist yourself and then writing or producing for another artist and making sure [the two roles] don’t clash. I just felt like I needed to refresh, like a computer, before I crashed. Thankfully, the music we’ve done was so futuristic that it doesn’t feel dated, it has stood the test of time, and those records continue to be out there.

The extent of your influence shows in the women you’ve collaborated with over the past 25 years, from Lil Kim and Da Brat and Beyonce to Lizzo and Ariana Grande today.

I love working with new artists because that keeps me refreshed, they’re so talented, all of them, and they inspire me: What’s next? What’s next for me? These girls are out there doing their thing and I’m grateful to be a part of their journey.

When you’re writing for another artist, do you write specifically for them?

A lot of times I have. The Ariana song was a record for me and she liked it. But for the most part, anybody that I do a record for, I try to cater it to them — and when I say “cater,” I don’t really mean …. I still try to make them come out of what’s the norm of what’s predictable for them. Like, I just did a song with Ari Lennox and I was like, “Look, I know I could give you the safe, but I wanna give you something that is totally unexpected. Let’s reach!” It could work or not, but let’s just test the waters. That’s how we came in — thank God it worked, but I would hate to not try it and have somebody else do it.

It’s hard to think of a higher compliment than Katy Perry sharing the stage with you at the Super Bowl.

A friend of hers had seen a show that I did [at a 2014 H&M launch for] Alexander Wang, and she reached out and said “I would love for you to do the Super Bowl with me.” I’m thinking she’s probably going to ask me to rap on the song that I did with her, “Last Friday,” so I’m like, “Okay, cool.” But then she said, “I want you to do three of your own records,” and I was like “Wwwwwwait, of my own?” “Yeah!” I was like wow, because for the Super Bowl people usually come out and do their feature and then go, because the artist is [the focus]. And when we got into rehearsal I was like, “She really got me here!” She asked, “Do you have any new songs? If you do, I’m telling you, this is the time to put it out!” But I said I wanted to do older songs and she said, “It’s about you, go ahead!” I’m forever grateful, because she allowed me to share that stage with her for a good mess of time.

What have you been working on lately?

Believe it or not, I record every day — I’ve been doing it for so long, I’d feel crazy not doing it. I’ve had like three vacations in my whole career and even then I was trying to rush to get back and record. But I’m mostly focusing on other artists right now.

I think your fans would love to hear more from you, because you drop a song and then —

I go into hiding! (laughs) I know. But I am actually… I never want to say I’m working on something because then my fans are like, okay, so when’s it coming out? But I am working on my stuff, and it’s not going to be an EP, it’ll be longer than that.

Anything you’d like to say about receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

Just that I am grateful and thankful. When you get to this place in your career, when you get to be amongst so many stars, it’s a blessing. Even when people might think I’d taken off, I was still working constantly and never had the chance to realize what I’ve done to get me to this place. So I am thankful that I’m here, and to everyone who thought I can be amongst these stars, I am grateful for sure.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting