It's been raining cats and dogs for three days now, but sitting
in a hotel room in Jamaica with Missy Elliott, you don't care any
more. The 33-year-old, famous for her weird, filthy, dark, intense,
funny tunes such as Get Ur Freak On, is here in Montego Bay to
promote her sixth album, The Cookbook, and it's the 'funny' bit of
the equation that's getting the better of her.
She has a warm, mellifluous chuckle, and her black eyes sparkle as
she tells of her life as 'class clown' in high school back in her
hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia.
'I gotta be jokin', I gotta be playin', I gotta be in the hallways
- yes.' Her Southern twang means that 'yes' comes out as 'yey-ass'.
'If I ask to go to the restroom, I end up at the cafeteria in
someone else's lunch period. I've done stuff like spit in my
English teacher's coffee.'
She chuckles and her face glows as she recalls the day in high
school when she recited a piece of poetry in a rap style. 'I got
somebody to come up and start beat boxing, and everybody was like,
"Missy rapped The Old Raven!" It was a big deal.'
You sense that she's still as drawn to taboo things as she was as
a child, and it is this thirst for new knowledge that's been
instrumental in elevating her to her current position of hip-hop
Her first public performances came when she was seven and she got
up on the trash cans in front of her house to 'sing these made-up
records about roaches and crickets and people would drive past and
honk their horns'. When not singing on trashcans, she'd write
letters to Janet and Michael Jackson, hoping they'd turn up at her
house in a limo to rescue her.
They never did, but she got a break anyway in 1989, when she had
the balls to do an impromptu backstage performance in front of
famous producer Devante Swing when he came to Virginia with swing
beat boyband Jodeci. Missy and her musical partner, Timberland,
ended up producing records for the likes of Mariah Carey, Janet
Jackson and Aaliyah. Then, in 1997, she brought out her
1.5million-selling debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. It was an unexpected
hit at a time when music industry bosses believed being a Spice
Girl was about as 'out there' as female musicians could
commercially afford to go.
While the childhood was undoubtedly colourful, it was also
hellish. Missy was sexually abused when she was 16-years-old and
was subjected to regular intervals of violence. Interestingly,
she's keener to talk about her mother's battering - and how her
mother's decision to eventually leave her father made Missy a
stronger person - than she is about the sexual abuse.
'I listen to people's conversations to
get song ideas, and I'm like, "Wow, this is what goes on in
people's houses when the doors are closed!"'
She admits that it's weird how she's religious, yet she writes
about sex all the time. 'Twisted' is the word she uses. 'I'm not
supposed to be talking about this, but every time I write, this is
what comes to mind. I kind of question, you know, from being a
child, being molested, and I don't know if that - and I've talked
to my friends about it - if that plays a part in it. I mean, I
really don't know.'
She turns her obsession into a positive thing, though, and says
sex is a subject that helps her get through writer's block. The
notorious song Toyz was the result of a conversation with a stylist
'My friend was doing somebody's video, and they wanted a bunch of
girls in skimpy clothes, so she went to this sex shop, and she was
like, "You're not gonna believe the stuff that's in this
She goes into her second level of Missy-laugh - up a gear from the
warm, mellifluous giggle into a kind of guttural staccato, like the
naughty cartoon dog from Dastardly and Mutley.
'One of my other friends was telling me he got some video tapes
from out the sex store, and he stumbled across a snuff tape, where
they were doin' the craziest things, like using the bathroom on
each other - oh, my God!'
She admits that she delights in being a snapper-up of unconsidered
trifles: 'I sit around with friends and listen to people's
conversations just to get song ideas, and I'm like, "Wow, this is
what goes on in people houses when the doors are closed!" Like, "If
your co-worker knew that you thought like this", so I guess I'm
And what of her own dark secrets? When I ask her what she makes of
the rumours that she's a lesbian, she doesn't flinch. She keeps eye
contact and only slightly avoids the question by talking again
about that troubled childhood - she's currently working with
Paramount to direct a story of her difficult youth - 'I think
people are sometimes intimidated when you're strong like that. And
for me, I just feel like, I had a mother that was a single parent.
At first she was very dependent on my father - I mean very.
Everything was like, "I can't do this without him", and when we
left him, she became very strong. I picked up so much of her ways.
When people see how strong I am, and there's not a man around, it's
like, "Ok, what's she doin'?" But I'm never bothered by it. It's
just like, I'm gonna still be strong.'
And if you had a relationship with a woman would you admit to it?
'Yeah. I feel like, love is love. When you're growing up,
everybody's always, "You not supposed to do this, you not supposed
to do that", but I feel like no sin is greater than another, and if
you say God is love, then that's what it is. If I was in love, then
I'd just have to be like, "Hey, world".'
I mean I would never say what I would never do. When I was 15 I
would have said I would have never tried weed so you know…never say
But in the here and now, the press have picked up on what they
deem as clues to her Sapphic potential. There are the clichéd
tomboy pointers: the ownership of 3000 pairs of sneakers, her
addiction to bubble gum (an opened pack of water melon Bubblicious
sits on the hotel table), and having a bed shaped like a car in her
Miami home. Missy is never seen with any obvious boyfriends, and
seems to prefer the company of women. She's best friends with Lil'
Kim, for instance, and advised her to wear the famous one-breast
dress that she donned one scandalous night on the red carpet. Missy
apparently told Lil' Kim that she shouldn't be afraid to show off
such great breasts.
In a new musical talent show that she fronts, called The Road To
Stardom and shown in the UK on Trouble, she's flanked constantly by
three hot dancer chicks in leather boots, and Jessica, the winner,
now signed to Missy's label along with a string of other female
artists such as the boyish, tuff-looking Tweet, That word is never
used, of course.
Jessica's a black girl with a beautiful voice from an impoverished
background in Chicago. She goes around in wife-beaters and cut-offs
for the duration of the three days of this publicity tour in
Jamaica. Missy says she's here 'to learn the ropes' about the music
'I had a lot of people email hits with like, 'We love Jessica',
and that helped me understand that there're a lot of people out
there that just won't judge your appearance.'
Her liberal attitudes were put to the test the night of the MTV
Awards when Madonna famously kissed Britney Spears on stage. It
was, apparently, all a set-up. 'Madonna's very serious about her
stage performance. Even at rehearsal, it's like full out. So, each
time it was the kiss - and we probably did that rehearsal 15 or 20
times. All I was thinking was, "Oh, my God, my Momma's gonna watch
this, and all the church people gonna call her up".'
She brings up her Momma a lot. She, Patricia, deals with her
finances and keeps Missy on her toes. 'I just bought a Yorkie dog
the other night. And I'm nervous, like, "Ma". She's like, "Yes?"
I'm like, "Guess what, I just bought a Yorkie, and it was 36
hundred". She's like, "Oh, my God, what are you doing!"'
She reflects that money, or 'paper' as she calls it, is 'a funny
thing', although she's managed to make a massive joke out of it,
picking up the multimillion dollar Gap campaign and now creating
her own brand of Fly-Girl sportswear in conjunction with Adidas,
called Respect Me.
The best thing about paper, says Missy, is that it conveys the
illusion of confidence, which, she points out, has never come
naturally to her. 'When you walk into a room, you can't walk in
there seeming weak, even if you feel it inside. You have to display
that you're a very strong person, and then watch how people around
you begin to believe that you're strong.'
Something that does come naturally to her is honesty. The air of
absolute authenticity she exudes has been the lure for fans and
advertising people alike since she hit the big time as an unashamed
size 22, prancing around in an inflatable PVC cat suit in the video
for The Rain. She didn't lose five stone through vanity, but
through lust for life - doctors told her she'd die of high blood
pressure if she didn't.
When, the night before this interview, Missy Elliot bounces
exuberantly - all five-foot-two of her - into a room of the Ritz
Carlton, where selected international journalists have been
listening to a sneak preview of the new album, she apologises with
child-like glee for her woozy speech, but she's been trying 'one of
those Jamaican Brownies!' It's now eleven in the morning, and she's
drinking an orange Lose Control cocktail- named after one of the
new songs on the album. The Cookbook is inspired by the innocent
days of old-school hip-hop and filled with tunes which jump
seamlessly from the romantic to the horny to the plain-weird horny.
Lose Control, for instance, is a fabulous concoction that sounds as
if instrumentals are being performed by psychotic mice.
Her liveliness is always tempered with thoughtfulness, and this is
reflected in the hand-written letter she gives all of us when we've
listened to the album preview. In the high-spirited letter, penned
in black biro and dotted with random capital letters and haphazard
grammar, she writes that Jamaica is special for her because she was
here when she heard of Aaliyah's death. Missy credits the singer,
who would have been bigger than Beyoncé had she been alive today,
on all her albums.
She finishes the letter with characteristically open sentiments:
'Sorry it's raining. If I could do magic, I'd clap and the sun
would come out. But I can only do music, so I guess we'll have to
party in the rain, people! Love, Missy Elliott.'
This interview first appeared in DIVA magazine,