Hip Hop Culture for Grown-Ups
There was a time in Hiphopia when Virginian beatsmith Timbaland was the king of rap’s sonic valley. His tracks rocketed between pop stars and rap artists at breakneck speed, and it was virtually impossible to turn on the radio without hearing one of his hand-crafted joints.
The Internet wasn’t the beast then that it is now so we kinda had no choice but to fall in love with his tracks. He propelled singers Aaliyah and Ginuwine into superstar status with quirky, video game-sampled, cartoon sound effects-inspired electro-thump, and though he has since retreated to the shadows, no longer the eager, young cat that wants the world to see his face, he still gets it in as a music composer for Empire. Yes, that Empire. But this isn’t about Tim. Or his legacy. It’s about him giving us one of the biggest names in rap, and how they fooled us into thinking she was dope.
A lot of our favorite artists tricked us in the 1990s. Originality in hip-hop culture and rap music was thriving, be it from the director’s chair or the audio engineer, the lyrics or experimental beat creation itself. It was relatively easy to get wrapped up in someone’s kooky idea of what was fresh. One of the most tragic yet ingenious methods used to pull the wool over our collective eyes was the magic of the music video. You could take just about any beat with any rapper and create the surreal, visceral illustrations that their skills and abilities couldn’t. It was a beautiful time.
So beautiful that Timbaland used his cloak of awesome beats in conjunction with high-powered small screen sorcery to sneak Melissa “Missy” Elliot on the scene, in 1997. Strapped with some of the hottest production and best videos of that time, she immediately danced and stuttered her way into our hearts with sing-songy mumbo jumbo. That mumbo jumbo went on to sell millions of records. Who amongst us has never “hee-hee-ha“-ed whilst imitating Missy’s spastic dance moves?
Also, back then, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot was a big girl. With all due respect to current day big girls, of course. But that didn’t stop her from bouncing around on stage with her backup dancers, spitting terribly average raps about broke dudes and one minute brothers. Yet and still, She was the queen bee MC for a while, and that’s irrefutable. Undeniable.
It should be stated that while Missy dazzled us with un-clever rap lyrics, her singing voice was awesome. Almost amazing. When her name would come up in conversations about rappers, back when I had the time to have such things, I’d always say she should sing more. That wasn’t a diss. I genuinely enjoyed her tomboy crooning.
Her fingerwaves, not so much.
“Blow The Whistle” focuses on superstar rappers with not-so-super raps. So the fact that Missy is a noted songwriter is accepted irony. She’s worked with and for Timbaland, Aaliyah, 702, Total, SWV, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Keyshia Cole, Tamia, Monica and Ciara. It looks like she gave them all the good lyrics and bogged us down with just enough mediocrity to make sure we shake our asses in jest instead of our fists unjust. Just enough wordplay to earn 5 Grammys and some platinum plaques. 6, to be exact. She’s the only female rapper to achieve this. And honestly, I don’t think it will ever happen again.
So while we may be blowing the whistle on Melissa, make no mistake. Her contribution to Hip Hop is recognized and her success is well deserved, even if she kicked extra-okay bars 98% of the time. It’s what I like to call The MC Hammer effect. That’s when a rapper’s lack of technical skill is shielded by a blinding array of bells and whistles. But Missy paid her dues. From her start with the R&B group Sista, who was ultimately shelved as a product, to being Timbaland’s song production partner, to changing what rap videos look like, Missy will always be remembered as a trailblazer. Nothing can ever be taken away from her legacy…unless you’re talking about her rap skills. That may interfere with the grade curve.