Editor’s Note: Guest Editor Panama Jackson has hand-selected a group of acclaimed writers to curate this special series of personal narratives celebrating Black music, in preparation for the National Museum of African American Music’s January 2021 opening.
In the practice of physics and chemistry, there is a universal truth: Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.
Known as Lavoisier’s law, the French scientist was referring to chemical reactions. These same precepts can also be applied to the birth of hip hop–the ultimate reconstruction of disco, funk, R&B, pop, dancehall, and jazz, anchored by the currents of social unrest that permeated the streets of the South Bronx. Beyond just a sonic experience, hip hop as a movement has grounded itself in counterculture–a subversive cry to the political and social realities of Black American life that made great utility out of limited resources. That vibrance reverberates through every sixteen-bar verse, each break beat, and iteration of streetwear; canvases are made out of buildings and cardboards for artistic expression via graffiti and dance.
As a young dilettante growing up in Harlem, hip hop penetrated my daily existence, from my commutes to school to my days at picnics in Rucker Park. I learned that hip hop could be bombastic like Puffy (now more commonly known as Diddy), charismatic like Biggie, unblushing like Lil’ Kim, or unbridled like DMX. My vocabulary, as someone who learned English as a second language, was expanded as my tongue formed and reshaped itself around the lexicon of classic hip hop verses, ever-changing across the generations, and the technology associated with the music evolved from analog to digital in tandem.
If you were to ask me to describe my generation, I would loosely label us as “the bridge.” We came of age at the junction of the rise of technological age, witnessed the innovative magic of hip hop’s peak streetwear era, and watched Black artists conceive of universes of vast riches that were never granted to us en masse under the lens of a music video. The graphics got richer, the mixtapes became burned CDs, and we hauled the street code into the digital one, bringing the avant-garde into the algorithms of cyberspace with a swagger and melody intrinsic to hip hop’s architectural framework, blazing new trails in unprecedented terrain.
When it comes to trailblazing in hip hop, few names resonate louder than Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, encapsulating the amalgamation of innovation, technology, fashion, and transformation, as one of the genre’s truest contemporary griots. Her imagination is limitless and universes boundless; her production a tribute to the infinite capabilities of the Black artistic cannon.
You would be hard-pressed to find artists’ discographies that hold as much sustained relevance as the Portsmouth, Virginia native, regardless of the category or style. From touching on themes of Afrofuturism to women’s sexual empowerment, with the help of longtime collaborating partner Timbaland, she slips in between fantasy, sincerity, intimacy and improvisation at a whim, layering her R&B-informed arrangements with mind-blowing bass lines and percussion, offering an unprecedented, rich, aural experience.
Setting a blueprint for many works to come, it seems almost impossible to wrap our minds around the fact that her debut solo album, Supa Dupa Fly, was recorded in merely two weeks. It is a record that remains in consistent rotation in my playlists to this day.
The sonic archives that Timbaland and Missy collect aren’t altogether dissimilar from the manner in which we canonize memes in present day communications via social media. Missy slyly winks and references their own handiwork repeatedly throughout the years: Slipping in the iconic bass line from “Pony” by Ginuwine into “Friendly Skies;” a nod to SWV’s “Can We” in “Supa Dupa Fly, ”continuously reshaping and transforming prior productions into new reactions and new sentiments, akin to how Tiffany Pollard’s classic “New York” moments have taken new life in a new context. It’s a masterful application of rhythmic interpolation in its highest form.
This consideration extends into the feature selections, folding into the album as a perfectly-tuned harmony, with the R&B artists sighing into softer edges of the album as the rap verses provide a penetrating duo to the album cuts. Da Brat makes her indelible, incisive mark on “Sock it To Me,” as does the Queen Bee on “Hit ‘Em wit da Hee;” the songs with Aaliyah and Ginuwine, two artists with whom Missy had worked previously, layer their vocals into an inextricable and satisfying experience.
Supa Dupa Fly’s corresponding visuals are the materialization of a groundbreaking perspective that still retains as much cultural currency 20 years after Y2K as it did in the years immediately after its release. With the assistance of Hype Williams’ consummate vision, she fluctuates from the delectably dark milieu in “Hit ‘Em wit da Hee” to the intergalactic erotic space battle in “Sock it 2 Me” (the latter of which has been memorialized in meme form). “Beep Me 911” contained an innovative dollhouse concept which has been referenced by women in hip hop several times over, while “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” reigns supreme in the quartet of video clips–from the slick and luscious colors to the dynamic use of a fisheye lens that seemingly magnified the negative space in the production of the track, accentuating everything from Missy’s ombré lip color to her liberally-applied brown hair gel. To this day, the masses of hip hop devotees faithfully attempt to reproduce this electric moment, comically donning garbage bags and standing in front of fans to reproduce the sheen and heft of the glossy, leather outfit.
Coming of age as a young New Yorker in the ‘90s, I never lacked multifaceted representation of women in hip hop that ran the gamut; we had Kim and Foxy disrupting the Jezebel archetypes with every verse they punched in; Ms. Lauryn Hill holding up the conscious front; and MC Lyte and Queen Latifah as the torchbearers for a growing demographic. As a preteen who wasn’t quite yet comfortable in her own skin, however, Missy presented a new way of understanding and exploring my own reality within rap and hip hop, particularly as I got older and came to understand her lyrics more deeply; finding liberation in the prescient cosmos that Missy created to discuss yearning, dance freely, and camouflage her sexual innuendo in fabulous escapism.
While I was struggling to adjust to the metamorphosis of my body, Missy provided an outlet to find comfort in its folds and crevices in a world that continuously punishes Black women at all points of their lives. Her work, as a practice of radical self-love, remains as a pivotal frame of reference for artists who explore themselves, flaws and all, within hip hop as a performance space.
As technological innovations advance, so does hip hop along with them. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, artists are collaborating on beats to live streaming audiences, producing digital concerts, and improvising as best as possible due to shifting conditions.
As time passes, these evolutionary iterations will only increase in frequency and speed. For an artist like Missy, however, this is an old hat; she has long been drawing us into her own stratosphere, beyond the tactile experience, since the 1990s, giving herself the freedom to imagine a soundscape of ceaseless wonders and possibilities, while remaining grounded in a range of emotions tangible to Black women: Lust, aggression, heartbreak, confidence, and empathy. The ability to realize that vision is a delicately executed dance, and amounts to no less than magic on wax.
Missy’s skill lied in her ability to transport young Black girls like me out of the discomfort of our bedrooms and into the fantasy worlds she had created for us, where we could figure out how to explore our feelings safely, comfortably, and under the construct of a phenomenal bassline that producers would often struggle to mimic.
Hip hop didn’t just transform sound; it transformed people. Supa Dupa Fly is fundamental to that experience.
Journalist Shamira Ibrahim’s byline has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Root, The Washington Post, and Teen Vogue.