April 21, 2021
For a racially isolated girl in north-west England, the rapper’s weird fantasy worlds on MTV were a surrealist confidence boost
How Missy Elliott’s Black iconoclasm gave me a sense of identity
I have never lived in a world without Missy Elliott in it. I was born the same year as she released her groundbreaking debut, Supa Dupa Fly, though I got to know her via via the osmosis of TV music channels. Growing up in the north-west of England, where Black children were few and far between, Trevor Nelson’s MTV Base show The Lick – where he pulled turn-of-the-millennium rap, hip-hop and R&B from the vault – became something like Black music history class for my malleable childhood mind. He usually featured Missy, whose videos were always the best. She was an auteur of visuals that were cartoonish, bizarre and surreal, sometimes framed through the fish-eye lens of Hype Williams. Watching her Hack out a CGI glob of spit and seeing it fly into a backup dancers’ mouth used to make me shudder at the grossness and the delight in her macabre fantasy.
A chubby, slightly awkward and quiet child, I secretly loved to dance when I was alone. Missy made impeccable music to move to thanks to the beguiling samples, ticking hi-hats and record scratches lacing the beats she co-produced with Timbaland. I bit down pangs of jealousy whenever I set eyes on her backup dancers – she often featured skilled child performers like Alyson Stoner, kids who could spin on their heads and violently contract their joints to the beat. I was captivated and deeply jealous that I hadn’t been put into dance classes in infancy, and wanted to be exactly where they were performing alongside her.
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