Missy “Misdemeanour” Elliott
They Made Magic

These pen portraits build up into a gallery of special people. These people have made unique contributions to popular culture. Some of the stories will be fairly familiar, and some may seem slightly strange. There are some glaring omissions, and some odd inclusions. A thread of narrative runs through, and it’s all as subjective as hell.
There are many many reasons to love The Fall, and a huge part of that appeal is Mark E Smith’s way with words, and the way he twists language and gabbles on, and while you may not quite grasp the meaning you just know it matters, and that it matters a lot to Mark E Smith, and that there’s no real knowing whether he has stepped sideways and fooled the lot of us, or whether there’s an alien intelligence at play, far superior to ours, and that while Mark E Smith mocks the city intellectuals this may just be because he is that much cleverer, and has invented a whole new vocabulary for pop that’s beyond even Lee Perry and Captain Beefheart, and anyone else who is touched or blessed.

While some singles by The Fall are right up there with my favourite ever recordings, like 'Fiery Jack' or 'Fantastic Life', if pressed I would have to say that the greatest single ever is 'Get Ur Freak On' by Missy “Misdemeanour” Elliott. It scared the hell out of me when I first heard it, and still it has the power to amaze. This astonishing track surely comes from outer space. It’s science fiction in the way we’d always dreamed of. “Man, I think we are aliens”, says Missy to her partner and fellow mad inventor Timbaland in the credits on the accompanying So Addictive set. Mind you on another day I might claim their Work It was right up there too.

The Missy and Timbaland partnership is an unprecedented one by pop standards. Friends since childhood, they supposedly arrived from the American south (whereas we know they were beamed in from another universe) in time to save the hip hop world from self-destruction. Somehow in my mind there’s Missy experimenting with wordflows and irrational assemblages while her Tim would be percolating strange combinations of beats and electronics. Yeah, this is what pop should always have been about. Except the bizarre thing is that Missy and Timbaland became monumentally successful, and that is just not meant to happen. We’re more used to the pioneers tinkering away in the shadows, meddling on the margins, unloved and unheard. But these extraterrestrial visitors pretty much changed the face of pop.
Missy’s just about my favourite pop star because, like Mark E Smith, she’s a mass and mess of contradictions. She can burble and babble like nothing on this earth, and sing the sweetest soul sounds. She can be the funniest foul mouthed girl on the block, and then get down on her knees and take us back to the gospel roots. She can be the sexiest and sassiest lady in show business, and bumble around looking classically all wrong, sending herself and her shape up something rotten. She can smile beguilingly, and spit in your eye and scare you senseless. She is an assault on pop convention that even Throbbing Gristle wouldn’t have dared dream of, and there’s no real mentor or svengali lurking in the background, yet there’s no real manifesto saying hey looka here, aren’t we the adventuresome ones!

I seem to remember someone like DJ Vadim pleading keep the r’n’b out of hip hop, but it’s no big thing blending the two. Sugarhill probably put out as many streetsoul releases as hip hop ones, and the lines were often blurred. Mary J Blige probably set the agenda in the ‘90s, but I don’t think anyone’s succeeded as seamlessly as Timbaland and Missy. Their big break was on Aaliyah’s One In A Million set, which they mostly wrote and produced. Songs from this collection still seem to ooze from the pirate airwaves, and it’s not just rosy-eyed romanticism following Aaliyah’s tragic death. The feel of this set still seems to epitomise the potential of smooth soul and sophisticated strangeness subtly mixed.

Timbaland’s trick is to eschew the old hip hop ways of samples and scratches in favour of electronics and broken beats, which over time have borrowed liberally from dancehall, drum’n’bass, bhangra and bleep to create something unique. His sound sprinkled like gold dust over certain singers and rappers has transformed the potentially okay into the occasionally exceptional. A great example is Tweet, an old comrade of Missy, whose Timbaland tracks on her Southern Hummingbird set, like the infamous 'Oops (Oh My) carry on', are a real treat. Similarly Timbaland acts as alchemist on Brandy’s Afrodisiac, arguably against the odds creating something on tracks like 'Sadiddy' that sounds like abstract electronica from the Warp Records stable, and could perhaps be linked to Nicolette’s own work with Warp’s Plaid, and back to her earliest recordings with the Shut Up And Dance organisation. My own favourite Timbaland collaboration is Ms Jade’s Girl Interrupted set which is one of the strongest and most inventive hip hop sets in a long time from a proudly outspoken MC who at least has something to say.
Writing at the close of his excellent celebration of the magic of the pop single, This Is Uncool, Garry Mulholland enthuses about 'Try Again' and 'We Need A Resolution', two Timbaland produced hits for Aaliyah: “Yep there really are a lot of US rap and r’n’b records here aren’t there? You know why, don’t you? ‘Cos black people with computers make the best, most cutting-edge music right now.” And Timbaland, he claims, was “responsible for all these strange and incredible noises around at present”. And the rest were desperate to catch up, with The Neptunes coming closest, especially on some of their Kelis tracks, and Rich Harrison doing special things on Beyonce’s 'Crazy In Love' and Amerie’s '1 Thing'. Even underground UK groups like Hood were working out what was happening, and talking excitedly in interviews about the weirdness of sounds on tracks by Britney or Justin Timberlake, and letting such influences seep through on their gorgeous Outside Closer set.

Inevitably the fear would be of Timbaland spreading himself too thinly. He was after all the name to have plastered over a record, and it was difficult to keep up. On paper one of the more intriguing collaborations was on the first western set for J(apanese)-Pop phenomenon Utada, though in reality the more adventurous and odd tracks were not touched by Tim. Indeed on a couple of tracks you might swear it was all turning into A Man Called Adam. Interestingly the rest of the world seemed to be throwing things back at Timbaland, via reggaeton or the sound of the Carioca funk or the messed up music from any part of the world turned around by hip hop.

And as for Missy? Well, she became an American institution and the world’s not always good at taking notice of its institutions. They can be taken for granted. Writing about UK rapper C-mone, Melissa Bradshaw argues: “I like that she’s doing for independent UK rap what Missy did for big bucks US rap. I like her enthusiasm for meeting and collaborating with people.” Melissa immediately challenges my own irritation at the numerous times her namesake has shared tracks with contemporaries from all over the place. Yeah, I can see that it’s been worth Missy making links in that way, and yeah wouldn’t it be great to talk about C-mone in the same way in years to come?

© 2006 John Carney