Since the start of her music career, Missy Elliott has been infamous for her outlandish fashion and futuristic music videos. However, few credit her with being a boundary-breaker for women in hip-hop. The Grammy Award-winning rapper, singer, dancer, writer and producer has enjoyed an illustrious career spanning decades and has paved the way for female artists for generations to come.
Elliott was born on July 1, 1971, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Growing up singing in a church choir, she knew that she wanted to be a star early on, and would often perform for her family. Despite being a bright and talented student, Elliott’s young life was marred by trauma. As a girl, she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin and witnessed her father physically abusing her mother on a near daily basis. She once recalled sending pleas to Michael and Janet Jackson to save her from her abusive household.
At age fourteen, Elliott and her mother pretended they were going for a joyride, but instead fled their home and left her father behind for good. The two took refuge with a family member, and Elliott vividly recalls fearing for both of their lives in the aftermath.
Once the dust settled from their harrowing escape, Elliott was finally free from the stress of an abusive household. No longer in constant worry about her mother’s safety, she was able for the first time in her life to focus completely on her music.
Soon after, Elliott and a group of friends formed a group called Sista (originally called Fayze). They got their big break in 1991 when they were noticed by Jodeci member Devanté Swing. Sista was subsequently signed to Swing Mob Records, and moved into the company’s two-story house, where all of its artists (including future hitmaker Genuwine) lived and collaborated together. Unfortunately, Sista’s album was never released, but the group did contribute a song to the Dangerous Minds movie soundtrack.
Undeterred by the disbanding of Sista, Elliott leveraged her new connections, continuing to write and produce music with her childhood friend and frequent collaborator, Timbaland. The duo produced 9 tracks for Aaliyah’s smash hit album One in a Million, including the hit singles “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “One in a Million,” “Hot Like Fire.” and “4 Page Letter”.
The success of Aaliyah’s album thrust Elliott and Timbaland into the spotlight. Offers began rolling in, including interest from mogul Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who wanted to sign Elliott to his hyper-successful label, Bad Boy Records. However, the budding talent had her own ideas and decided instead to form her own record label, The Goldmind Inc., under the umbrella label of East West Records. Timbaland was again recruited as her production partner.
In 1997, Elliott released her first groundbreaking album, Supa Dupa Fly, to much critical and audience acclaim. Although she did not fit the prototype of female beauty that is ubiquitous in the music industry, she proved that there was an appetite for female-produced hip-hop, irrespective of looks. Supa Dupa Fly went platinum and spawned hits such as “Sock It 2 Me,” “Beep Me 911,” “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” and the Grammy-nominated “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Elliott’s visionary videos were played nearly nonstop on MTV, and that year, she was named rap artist of the year in Rolling Stone magazine.
Elliott’s next two albums, Da Real World (1999) and Miss E… So Addictive (2001), also went platinum and delivered massive hits like “One Minute Man” featuring Ludacris and Trina, “Get Ur Freak On,” and the international club hit “4 My People.” Her 2002 album release, Under Construction, brought the massive hit “Work It” to radio waves and sold 2.1 million copies, setting the record for a female-led rap album.
While she continues to produce and release hit music to this day, Elliott’s career has slowed down a bit due to her years-long battle with Graves Disease. Earlier in 2017, she released a song called “I’m Better” featuring Lamb, causing a stir with fans and sparking rumors of a new album. While there has been no official announcement, she has dropped a few hints that more new music might soon be on the way for fans. She hasn’t released a full-length drop since The Cookbook in 2005.
Nevertheless, the breadth of Elliott’s work is staggering, and her staying power is practically unparalleled. Not only has she topped the charts herself, but she has also written and produced music for some of the biggest artists in the world, including Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Nas, TLC, Ciara, and Janet Jackson.
Elliott is now widely known as the first female mogul of hip-hop, and amazingly, she paved the path for herself during a time when the industry was largely populated and controlled by men.
Although she was originally dismissed for her appearance, she has proven time and time again through her own career that women in music can be both dynamic and layered. Elliott refuses to be placed in a box, and unabashedly shows off her intelligence, sense of humor, talent, drive, entrepreneurial spirit, and sex appeal; warped female industry beauty standards be damned.
Setting aside her gender and what she has done for female representation in music, Elliott is a groundbreaking artist, full-stop. She continues to be one of the most visionary and influential voices in hip-hop and popular music today.