Missy Elliott’s ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ at 20: The Future Had Never Sounded So Fonky
Missy Elliott was always ahead of the curve. From the moment she debuted as a solo artist, it was obvious that the multi-skilled multi-hyphenate wasn't going to be boxed in by anyone's idea of what a superstar should sound like. She sang as much as she rapped, she was playful while still being pointed, and she always seemed to trust her own vision.
Missy's talents are on full display throughout Supa Dupa Fly, her game-changing debut album. Her freewheeling rhyme style recalled the early party raps of The Sequence and the Sugarhill Gang; her gift for R&B melodies poured through every hook, and paired with Timbaland, her talents as a producer gave her tracks some of the most unique arrangements in all of Timbo's innovative arsenal.
It shouldn't be glossed over that the mid-1990s were major for women in rap music. Beginning around late 1993 with the crossover success of hits like "Ruffneck" by MC Lyte and Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." and continuing through 1994 with platinum-selling albums by Salt-N-Pepa and Da Brat, ladies on the mic garnered more visibility than they had in the 1980s or would in the 2000s. By 1996, things were crescendoing with the emergence of Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill. But no one really recognized the pop maven that was bubbling right under everyone's noses. At least, not yet.
Forming the group Fayze with friends La'Shawn Shellman, Chonita Coleman, and Radiah Scott, teenaged Missy Elliott started writing tracks in her hometown of Virginia Beach with her friend, producer Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley, and recording them as Fayze's demo back in 1991. The group's first brush with fame came via an apprenticeship under Jodeci's mercurial Devante Swing, who heard their demo and took them under his wing. In 1993, the gifted songwriter/producer put together a collective of talented singers, producers and writers under his Swing Mob imprint, and among the crew was Missy and Timbaland. Dubbing that collective "Da Bassment," Devante rechristened Missy's group "Sista" and added other talents--including future stars Ginuwine, Tweet and R&B group Playa. The crew all lived together in a house in New York, and Missy and Tim earned their stripes working on Jodeci projects; eventually recording Sista's debut album, 4 All The Sistas Around the World.
That album was produced by Timbaland, Devante and Devante's brother and Jodeci bandmate, Dalvin DeGrate, but it was subsequently shelved after the debut single, a Missy-penned midtempo song called "Brand New," failed to generate any significant success. Compounding that disappointment, Devante's controlling behavior began to feel oppressive. Da Bassment was stifling Missy and the others; and things were exacerbated by various labels jockeying for certain Bassment-affiliated artists, which fed Devante's paranoia. He suspected the acts he was shepherding of not being loyal to his Swing Mob imprint, and his resentment turned the friendly camaraderie of Da Bassment into something else.
Devante's moods and their lack of sustainable success led to frustration, with things boiling over during a 1995 meeting at Devante's studio during which he and his cronies allegedly got physical with various members of the crew. Swing Mob disbanded amidst bitterness and bad feelings, but Missy and Timbaland saw a future for their production and writing. Along with Magoo and Ginuwine, they set out on their own, walking out on Da Bassment and going back to Virginia. Re-starting her career, in early 1996 Missy moved to New York City to write and produce. Battling insecurities about her body, she thought at the time going behind the scenes was the answer.
"Maybe I don't have the look," Missy recalled during an interview with VH1s Behind the Music in 2011. "I won't have to worry about being judged." She and Timbaland set to work on hit singles for acts like Gina Thompson and SWV. Missy was prominently featured on Thompson's hit remix single "The Things You Do," and over the next few months became a regular fixture on the charts via guest spots on hit tracks by 702 ("Steelo"), New Edition ("You Don't Have To Worry"), and MC Lyte ("Cold Rock A Party"). And soon, she and Timbaland's production sound would suddenly have it's largest platform yet.
In 1995, they'd been recruited by Atlantic Records to reinvent R&B star Aaliyah for her sophomore album. Missy and Timbaland would write and produce Aaliyah's double platinum-selling One In A Million, which put their distinctive sound at the forefront of popular music in 1996. Following that album's success, Missy was signed to Elektra's imprint East West Records by then-Elektra CEO Sylvia Rhone, giving her a deal to work with other artists via Missy's own imprint, Goldmine, Inc. But the imprint deal was under the provision that Missy deliver a solo album. So, working quickly out of Master Sound Studios in Virginia Beach, Timbaland and Missy put together Missy's debut, embracing all of her R&B sensibilities and stylistic rap quirks and filtering them through his knack for outside-the-box production.
Released on July 15, 1997, Supa Dupa Fly announced Missy as a fully-formed artist. Years of paying dues for Swing Mob and writing and producing for other artists turned her into an expert craftsman, so much so that her first album sounds like the work of a polished veteran. It also sounded like nothing hip-hop had seen in 1996. Missy demanded respect as vociferously as Lyte or Latifah had, but she could also get a party moving like J.J. Fad or tough talk like Da Brat--while getting as raunchy as Foxy or Lil Kim and singing as sweetly as Lauryn. It wasn't like she was simply an amalgamation of her peers--far from it, Missy seemed to drop in from an entirely different creative space. She was fun and seemed to be uniquely herself at all times--and her talent was undeniable.
Supa Dupa Fly kicks off with as great a run of pop music as any album released in the last 30 years. After the infectious intro, featuring newly-minted solo superstar Busta Rhymes, Missy gets an assist from the "Queen Bee" Lil Kim on "Hit 'Em With the Hee." Wasting no time showcasing her knack for R&B hooks, Missy coos the chorus as Kim does her thing--highlighting the pair's easy chemistry. It's a great opener that announces Missy in remarkable fashion, but only hints at what's to come.
The Stylistics' classic "Ready or Not" had been re-imagined masterfully by The Fugees on their 1996 hit single of the same name, and just months later, Missy revisited the soul gem in an altogether different way on the uber-catchy "Sock It 2 Me." The subtext of hip-hop sisterhood is once again present, this time via a kinetic guest verse from Da Brat.
But the song that become most identified with Missy's early career was "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly.)" An interpolation of Ann Peebles' perfect 1973 hit "I Can't Stand the Rain," Missy's version was a bouncy, percolating track, with Timbaland inventively flipping the sample and Missy's nonsensical rhymes giving the whole thing an air of tossed-off spontaneity. The song was everywhere in the summer of 1997, and it's iconic video was one of the most played clips on MTV in the 1990s. Featuring cameos from everyone from Total to Yo-Yo, it was Missy outfitted in a giant inflated black trash bag "bubblesuit" that became one of the decade's most defining musical images.
The 702-assisted "Beep Me 9-1-1" was another hit single from the album, the kind of midtempo R&B groove that Missy had penned for Aaliyah and SWV. It was another example of Missy's overtly sexual lyrics often flipping the script on gender themes such as setting the terms for sex or demanding sexual gratification. It was audacious coming from a woman in hip-hop--especially a woman who didn't fit the typical mold for what the genre's most misogynist superstars (and their videos) had deemed "sexy."
She goes into full-on ballad mode with "Friendly Skies," a slow groove that pairs her with her longtime friend, Ginuwine. The sex/plane metaphor had been done (Prince's "International Lover" comes to mind) but Missy does it here with some of the most immaculate arrangements and production on an album that has no shortage of either. The percussion-and-winds-driven duet with Aaliyah, "Best Friends," is bittersweet 16 years after the singer's death, but it's an undeniable highlight, a great showcase for Aaliyah's lightly seductive vocals and Missy's gorgeous harmonies. The two singer's voices blend perfectly, confirmation that their chemistry was one of music's most underappreciated.
Despite being another vocal showcase, Missy goes back to her most b-girl friendly stance on the bouncy "Don't Be Comin' (In My Face.)" The double-entendre of the hook is quintessentially Missy and the production on the track is so good that this could've been a major hit single--were it not for that title, likely. "Why You Hurt Me" features Missy rhyming at her most straightforward, sharing stories about scandalous friends over an ominous backdrop. "Getaway" reinterprets Mary J. Blige's "Love No Limit" as a skittering romp, with Timbaland's distinctive beatboxing giving Missy, Space and Nicole the perfect foundation to go as off the wall as they want on the verses.
For all of its unmistakable energy, there is also a pot-friendly air to the proceedings on Supa Dupa Fly. Her gift for traditional melodic craft is front-and-center, but Missy also played up the trippiest aspects of her music--and not just on the obvious "Pass Da Blunt." The stoned-out catchiness of "Izzy Izzy Ahh" is one of the album's most hilariously off-kilter moments, and the hazy groove of "I'm Talkin" may not be explicitly weeded out, but it has the same kind of vibe that made much of the production on Jodeci's latter work sound like the R&B equivalent of Chronic-era laconic grooves.
Of course, part of what made Supa Dupa Fly such a definitive moment in pop culture was Missy's iconic videos. Along with "The Rain," the visuals for "Sock It 2 Me" and "Beep Me 9-1-1" announced Missy as the most visionary mainstream visual artist in rap. Paired with the era-defining approach of legendary video director Hype Williams, Missy's videos pushed image boundaries past anything anyone had seen--even Busta Rhymes' early videos had yet to achieve Missy's idiosyncratic and engaging approach. Soon after, the most ambitious artists in music were all attempting to go where Missy had gone visually.
She was breaking ground from Day One. It changed hip-hop, but it also marked a shift in R&B. Throughout Supa Dupa Fly, Missy's R&B sensibilities might be the album's most revolutionary aspect. Hip-hop and R&B had been inching closer to each other for a decade: in the late 80s, new jack swing showed that hip-hop beats could carry R&B melodies in exciting ways, and later, the hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci proved that R&B's most emotive music could be made via a hip-hop lens. But in Missy, there was a blending that was so natural it hardly seemed to be a blend at all; hip-hop and R&B were no longer two genres converging--here, they were repurposed as one ultra-contemporary sound--and that sound was the future of Black popular music.
Watch Missy Elliott's Video for "Supa Dupa Fly":
Watch Missy Elliott's Video for "Sock It 2 Me":
Watch Missy Elliott's Video for "Beep Me 911":
Watch Missy Elliott's Video for "Hit 'Em Wit Da Hee":