missy elliott supa dupa fly

With her debut album Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Elliott changed everything for the better.

The first time you notice Missy Elliott on screen in 1997 wasn’t in the iconic “Not Tonight (Ladies Night)” video with Lil Kim, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Angie Martinez and Da Brat. Rather it was her, wearing gold helmet shades and a black trash bag that screamed that she was from the future. The track behind her had a warbled, husky tone to it; thick bass, crickets chirping and a man vocalizing DJ scratches with his mouth. She rapped in onomatopoeia and split time half-rapping and singing throughout the first verse. Then there’s a Jeep, background dancers, Puff Daddy with a surprise cameo along with Aaliyah. By the time it wraps up, Missy is sitting on a hill, her eyes bugging out occasionally in a way that would inspire the first guest on her debut album (Busta Rhymes) to later do the same with his first groundbreaking video.

“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” sounds like nothing else that was made in 1997. The only thing that tied it to anything from Puff Daddy’s supersized Harlem take on ’80s pop music was that it sampled something. Ann Peebles’ already throaty “I Can’t Stand The Rain” served as the perfect base for Missy and producer pal Timbaland. The two of them, disciples of Devante Swing’s Swing Mob had not only produced and penned hits under obscurity, they were creating their own material. Months after Missy’s debut album hit the shelves, Timbaland teamed with childhood friend Magoo to release Welcome 2 Our World. Thanks to Blackground head Barry Hankerson being all of a recluse, you can’t hear the album on any streaming service. All of this was built from the Missy tree. Even if Tim Mosley strayed away from Missy, the two made their best material together.

The summer of 1997 was dominated by shiny things. Then “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” happened, a Hype Williams directed monster piece of video cinematography where everything absurd felt normalized. It wasn’t Nine Inch Nails industrial treatment, rather a bouncy, vibrant and absolutely mesmerizing video. When Supa Dupa Fly hit shelves in mid-July, the table was set. Here was Missy Elliott, a woman who the world would not deem traditionally sexy dropping innuendo on her next two singles, the Deflonics sampling “Sock It 2 Me” and “Beep Me 911” with old pals 702. The videos only added to the prestige of Missy with “Sock It 2 Me” inadvertently inventing the GMail logo via Mega-Man space suit and “Beep Me 911” feeling like a boudoir doll house come to life.

If it felt like this was some newcomer who had come to overtake every single idea you had about women in hip-hop, it’s because it’s partially true. Being part of a collective that included Aaliyah, Ginuwine, the group Playa led by Static Major and Tweet, the Swing Mob collective found two pretty leads in Ginuwine and Aaliyah while Missy worked penning material for R&B groups 702 and SWV. Timbaland’s work with Ginuwine on 1996’s The Bachelor found bass lines ready to burst at the seams, especially with “Pony,” the gargantuan lead single. Their work with Aaliyah, a quality that far surpassed her R. Kelly crafted debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number truly secured her legacy. You imitated Timbo’s knock and drag production on “One In A Million” on a lunch table near you. You wondered why Ginuwine was so shiny every time you saw him. Those two albums set the stage for what would become Supa Dupa Fly, as if Timbaland and Missy were working out the kinks to create something perfect.

Looking down the list of collaborators on Missy’s debut and they ring off like artists who were either coming into their own or had well established that they were exist forever. Lil’ Kim pops up swinging hard for “Hit Em Wit Da Hee,” a lighter version compared to the big, Björk sampled remix Timbaland would later create. Da Brat swoops in on “Sock It 2 Me” stating she was gonna drop bars “harder than penitentiary dick.” Ginuwine and Aaliyah showed off silky vocals on tracks like “Friendly Skies” and “Best Friends” that felt like lurching, electronic built slow jams. Then there’s Busta Rhymes, rap’s spastic foghorn who opened the album and foretold of its brilliance and also closed it. Only Missy showed up at the very end dropping an acceptance speech of liner notes, thanking God and her friends for helping her make it.

All the required elements of a great rapper are found within Missy Elliott. She was absurdly confident, not only about her skills as a writer and producer but in regards to sex, even if she wasn’t a classic sex symbol. She wielded threats on the album about as solid and vengeful as any of her male contemporaries. When it came to her flow, my God that flow, she stretched it as if it were Flubber or Gak even. There was no boundary Missy and Timbaland could cross because they had knocked them all down with hiccuping, stuttering and dizzying production. Could rap sound like it was literally dropped from space? Yes. Could one look beyond simple sample flips for ideas and compositions that only enhanced it? Definitely. What they crafted with Supa Dupa Fly was a whole different world from where everybody else lived or even sounded like. And they found imitators aplenty.

The Neptunes’ guerrilla warfare guitars and thundering drums for N.O.R.E’s “Superthug” in 1998?
May not be as understood as without the freaked out, use everything approach Timbo and Missy carved out in ’97. The rest of the world attempted to catch up with the two, creating better, far more futuristic R&B and hip-hop than the previous seven years had allotted. Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” nearly a month to the day after Supa Dupa Fly and it’s creation arrives exactly from that gene pool. Applying African drums that sounded from a different damn galaxy on top of “Sweet Green Fields” by Seals and Crofts and Busta’s own cartoonish appeal? It made everyone pay attention.

Like OutKast, Timbaland and Missy made music that sounded nothing like what their contemporaries were going for. Baby coos worked, flutes as well. The theme persisted throughout their peak days with Missy conceptualizing spacious, world breaking production around topics of sex, her own agency and power. When Under Construction arrived in 2002, Missy had ballooned to an even bigger star. Around the same time, Timbaland linked up with new proteges in Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado and cranked out even more hits. “Big Pimpin,” the single he laced for Jay-Z and UGK shot him into a different stratosphere in hip-hop and remains his most enduring song in Texas. “Me and Timbaland, ooh we sang an jangle / We so tight that you get our styles tangled,” Missy rapped on “The Rain.” She wasn’t lying.