There's poetry in the fact that as Missy Elliott on June 13 becomes the first-ever female hip-hop artist inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, she's preparing to drop her first album since 2005.
A bold personality with an equally bold sound, Elliott spent much of the '90s writing for rising stars including Aaliyah, Jodeci and SWV before in 1997 she shifted the timbre of R&B/hip-hop with her own debut solo album Supa Dupa Fly, produced by her partner in beats Timbaland and recorded under the moniker Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. She's since released five additional studio albums and has racked up more than 70 singles with her as the primary or featured singer, and has penned hits for Ariana Grande, Beyonce, Ciara and Destiny's Child, among others.
The consummate creator's creator, Elliott spoke with Billboard about her influences, who's still on her wish list of collaborators — calling Rihanna! — and why writing for herself is so much more difficult than writing for others.
What does it mean to you to be the first female hip-hop artist inducted into the SHOF?
To be the first female hip-hop artist to be inducted in the SHOF has made me feel thankful to God first for this gift. Then it makes me look back on my life thinking of all the sleepless nights staying up writing even when I was tired or sick and all the times I got into trouble as a kid for writing songs on my mother's nice white walls in the house, lol. To know my work has not been in vain and recognized by many makes it all worth it. To be inducted with other phenomenal writers, for that I am humbly grateful.
Who are some of the songwriters and artists who paved the way for you?
There are so many songwriters' and musicians' shoulders on which I stand. I have to thank Prince because he did it all and even though as a kid I was too young to be singing his songs like "International Lover," I was still amazed by his writing style.
Songs like "When Doves Cry" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" were so cleverly written. Also, Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Also, writers like Biggie and Pac because their lyrics painted a picture; when you listened to their rhymes you could visually see it happening like a movie playing out through song.
How did your early days with your group Sista and working with collaborators — Timbaland and others — help inform your solo career?
I learned to do unorthodox melodies because our music was what I call a hypnotic sound. A lot of tracks didn't have melody in the music because Tim used a lot of different sounds and sound effects, so many times he would only have three sounds playing and you would have to create a melody that worked with just the few sounds. He started with that because he would add other music after I would create a singing melody over the beat.
The Supa Dupa Fly album changed the spectrum of hip-hop. Were you aware that phenomenon was happening as you were writing the album?
During the Supa Dupa Fly era I had no idea that it would change the spectrum of hip-hop. The sound the world heard during that album, Tim and I had been doing that sound many years before the world heard it. So to us, it's just what we were doing. It was our sound. We didn't listen to radio or watch TV back then so we didn't know we were creating a sound unheard of because we weren't listening to anything else to compare our sound to.
You are known as a creator's creator, empowering others even as your solo career continued to escalate. What's important to you about empowering others through the songs you pen for them?
It's important to empower others because God blessed me with a gift, so why not share it? And I love writing for others and listening to them making it into their own feel.
How is writing for yourself different from writing for other artists?
Fantasia is just one to name a few, and Beyonce & Jazmine, when she was 14. When I wrote something for them, then after they sang it, you say "Wow!" I think I became great at writing because back when I first got into it, I didn't think I was a good singer so I would write songs like I was rapping because that's the only way I thought it sounded OK singing, so a lot of my writing styles were different from what was out then. I wrote songs like a rapper would rap, and I just used it with melody. Writing for myself is harder than writing for other artists because I critique myself so hard, and I hear so many things and styles in my head for myself that I know artists I write for won't try. So, I use them on myself, so it takes longer writing for myself.
We want to share the stories behind some of your biggest hits. Let's start with "Work It."
A fun fact about the song "Work It" is Tim and I would get on each other's last nerves because we are truly like brother and sister. I remember I begged him to go to some mom and pop stores to get some break beats because we had been in the studio two weeks straight and had a block; we couldn't think of anything. He finally got some records and caught this vibe and when I heard the worm sound, I was jumping up like, "That's it!" So I would record in another room because I never record in front of anyone, and I ran and did my rap. Then I ran back and said, "Yo play it to him" and he said, "Nah, that ain't it." Then I went back again [and] brought it back and he said, "Nope, that ain't it." Then a third time, the same thing. By this time I thought he was being funny, so I'm pissed! By the fifth time he said, "Yes, that's it! That shit hot!" But guess what? I got him back on the [Miss E…] So Addictive album, he thought we was done and I said, "Nope, that ain't it!" about three times. Then he did "Get Ur Freak On" and I said, "Yup, that's it!" Lol.
How about the creation of "1, 2 Step," which you wrote for Ciara, with a bold Missy Elliott feature.
I remember Jazze Pha called me about her. He said, "Hey sis I got an artist named Ciara, and I want you to write a song for her." Remember, I was not a TV watcher or radio listener so he sent me her video and I was like, "Wow she is dope," and I can use the whole rap-sing style on her because she dances. I remember after I did it, I said this might sound too rap-y so I pulled up the keyboard and played some keys to make it have some singing R&B feel in there for a bridge. I was scared to send it, but when I sent it to Jazze he said, "We are going to make this her next single!" The first time I met Ciara was at the video shoot, and we have been great sisters since.
What was it like working with Ariana Grande on "Borderline"?
First of all, Ariana is a great singer. I got a call from Pharrell saying Ariana wants to record the song you wrote on one of my beats. I was like, "Oh snap that's fire!!" I was humbled and I didn't even need to hear what she did because I know she's a great vocalist. I wish we would have been in the studio together, but I was out of town at the time. Maybe next time we will be in the studio together, but she is doing her thang!
Who is an artist you haven't yet worked with that you'd like to?
I want to collaborate with Rihanna one day and Andre 3000. There are many more on my wish list, but I'll just keep 'em to myself in hopes it will happen. I'm always too shy to ask.