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Missy’s just about my favourite pop star because, like Mark E. Smith, she’s a mass and mess of contradictions. She can burble and babble like nothing on this earth, and sing the sweetest soul sounds. She can be the funniest foul mouthed girl on the block, and then get down on her knees and take us back to the gospel roots. She can be the sexiest and sassiest lady in show business, and bumble around looking classically all wrong, sending herself and her shape up something rotten. She can smile beguilingly, and spit in your eye and scare you senseless. She is an assault on pop convention that even Throbbing Gristle wouldn’t have dared dream of, and there’s no real mentor or svengali lurking in the background, yet there’s no real manifesto saying hey looka here, aren’t we the adventuresome ones!” – John Carney, Tangents, 2006 **** What’s the word for that thing Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott made her own, where someone (specifically a female solo performer) is both a singer and a rapper, or someone who sings and raps, maybe in the same song, maybe doing different things on different numbers? And stretching it slightly, to where someone sings with a rapping rhythm or raps in a sing-song style, where the disciplines blur and it’s something to do with the flow, cadence, timbre and metre. Is there a word for that? And where did it come from, that thing? Teena Marie’s Square Biz? Dare one say Debbie Harry? Huh? Hmm. Someone surely has written a learned thesis on the subject. But would the narrative include the British tradition: Monie Love, Betty Boo, Neneh Cherry. And what about Lorna G(ee)? She bounced between dexterous DJ toasting (e.g. Three Weeks Gone (Mi Giro) and in particular the gleeful Brixton Rock which was a twist on Gary Byrd’s The Crown) and sweet lovers rock (e.g Got To Find A Way and Sing A Long) on the Mad Professor’s Ariwa label. And then also in the reggae tradition there was Sister Nancy and ... oh there is that word singjay, but is that really the best word? ****
Just before Missy’s mischief brightened life up, there were a couple of others doing that same sort of thing who need to be mentioned but rarely seem to be. One was Mèlaaz, over in France, who is best known for the seductive Non, Non, Non, a reinvention of the Dawn Penn lovers rock song You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No) which became an unexpected but deservedly massive hit in 1994 when it was remade by Dawn with Steely & Clevie. The French interpretation took that version one stage further by exaggerating the hip-hop elements, and making it seem even slower and sexier. On the radio in the UK DJs like Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge played it relentlessly, but it was not a hit. An LP by Mèlaaz followed, revealing the French vocalist to be a great rapper and singer with really strong material which was punctuated by dancehall stylings with traces of Arabic/North African influences. The record was produced by Philippe Zdar, and Etienne De Crecy was also very much involved in the recording. This seems to have been the only LP made by Mèlaaz, and information about her is seemingly scarce. Her producers and musical partners are better known, and played a vital role in stimulating interest in French sounds in the 1990s. Zdar produced the best known French hip-hop recordings (with MC Solaar – and a rare glimpse of Mèlaaz can be seen in one of his videos) and with Boom Bass formed La Funk Mob, who were part of the Mo’Wax revolution and later evolved into Cassius. With Etienne De Crecy Zdar recorded as Motorbass, and De Crecy had his own superb Super Discount project. Cumulatively all this activity triggered the French disko explosion which still reverberates. The other performer whose work should be noted is Nonchalent, a rapper from Washington D.C. She had a hit in the summer of 1996 with 5 O’Clock, a devastatingly appealing and confrontational track which attacks the idea of young black guys hanging out, getting into drugs and guns and money: “A black woman trying to get through to the few”. Until The Day, an LP by Nonchalant, followed and was abundantly packed with great tracks which pitched Non’s melodious rapping style in with wonderfully catchy hooks and choruses, so while she may not have been really really singing as such it seems to be that way the way the performances flow mellifluously. The rhymes ooze wisdom and there is a certain contrariness at work which may be summed up perfectly by the strikingly attractive cover photo of Non in fashionable work wear: anorak style coat and boots. Sometime the previous year Adina Howard had released her Do You Wanna Ride LP which featured the singer posing provocatively, leaning against the bonnet of a car, peering over her shoulder meaningfully. The LP itself is packed with Carry-On style innuendo and risqué imagery, but is curiously non-
explicit in its delivery. It’s difficult to tell if Adina’s surprisingly straight soulful stylings benefit or suffer as a result of the sexualised content. It was a selling point, certainly, but it was not a direction Nonchalant chose to take. But then Nonchalant never got to release another LP, despite MCA having a follow-up set, For All Non-Believers, ready to go.
**** The irresistible rise of the three wise ladies, or how the three Ys won: Erykah, Missy and Lauryn. Their engagingly eccentric presence on the pop scene would change things dramatically. It’s easy to dwell on Erykah’s character, Missy’s demeanour, Lauryn’s bearing, but what about the music? Listening now to the first Missy Elliott LP from (mid) 1997, it is oddly disconcerting that it still has the power to surprise, despite seeming so strangely familiar. Supa Dupa Fly generated four reasonable-size hits in the UK, but the really interesting parts are elsewhere on the record. Any arguments about the way it reveals Missy to be a revelatory rapper may be undermined by writing the words out cold and bold because that is not the way the flows go, no, so it’s better to listen to the rhythm the words make, the shapes they take on; onomatopoeic may not cover it, but when it comes to metre no one can beat her. Missy is so good at spouting nonsense, making a phrase like Izzy Izzy Ahh far more deeply profound, liberating it from a Double Dutch Bus ride, and making it into that stretch limo she shares with her girls, so it’s more izzy izzy ahh zizah zizah zizah, blizzy blizzy blahzah blahzah blahzay, as the lyrics sites spectacularly spell it out, bizarre and blasé, with poker-faced James Joycescholar studiousness. Naturally Missy’s not the first to utter gibberish in the cause (course) of art. The Jamaican dancehall DJs turned the ad lib into an artform with all the bom bom diddly bom bom, riddly diddly dee, skibbidy da etc. and the old jazz singers who could scat and gibber and jabber outrageously, and the ones like Slim Gaillard with his cement mixer and the Flann O’Brien-y logic-defying puddle o'vooty, puddle o'gooty, puddle o'scooty. Not to mention Mark E. Smith with his non-sequiturs, cutting like secateurs, and his unique vocal traitsah. And a lot of the great dancehall DJs had their own vocal tic (ribbit, come again) while Missy had her ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky trick which seemed to track the beats she sang against.
And those beats could not be beat as Missy helpfully and pointedly pointed out redoubtably: “You never heard beats like this before when me and Timbaland walk through the door”. Ah, yes, Timbaland, the yin to the yang, the other leader of the gang. One sang, one programmed: you can’t have one without the other, like brother and sister daring one another to go further ... or to do less, just like when she said she was going to dance a little now as there’s no need to rhyme right the way through the whole track as it’d got its own groove going.
And Missy, mmm she sure can sing, and she’s so great when she plays it straight on oh so slow numbers on Supa Dupa Fly. Her approach to a ballad can have the glorious, serious, soaring sweet freshness and free-ness of the jazzy Deniece-y Williams, trilling thrillingly on Beep Me 911, the one which turned out to be the biggest hit of the LP, and Friendly Skies which has that ache inside, the melancholy, the shocking vulnerability that someone of such ability is meant to keep hidden, the forbidden turbulence inside the class clown who is haunted by self-doubt without someone to hold them on the dark days, when skies are grey, confidence grazed, and the tears flow in private before she b-b-b-bounces back with her hormones jumping like a disco as she so perfectly puts it on Sock It 2 Me, slapping her chops lasciviously, mischievously, persona restored. On this Missy LP, in Timbaland’s early productions generally, the slower the track, the more intimate the number, then voila the more delicate and intricate the arrangement, particularly, peculiarly, when there’s nearly nothing there, just the ticky-ticky-ticky-tick-ah thing going on which conjures up images of some drummer in deep concentration, getting busy doing very little on the cymbals and the snare, carefully holding back, back, back, just itching and tickling, a little bit jazzy, but really rooted in the reggae tradition, ticky-tickyticky-tick-ah, understanding nothing else is necessary. And there is quite a reggae thing underpinning much of Supa Dupa Fly, obliquely and explicitly, not just in Missy’s off-beat patter and chatter and the rat-a-tat-tat on the hi-hat but more bass-ically, musically, muse acutely, the arrangements are steeped in the JA reign, meant to be something deeper than another dismaying display of crate dig-otry, another example of admiremy-sample. Missy and Timbaland’s palette was a little broader, gaudier, and while there’s nothing new under the sun about reggae messing about with hip-hop this pop thing zings with dancehall invention and lovers threnody.
That reggae thing, it was explicit enough in the herbaceous bawdry of Pass Da Blunt, with the reference to the Mighty Diamonds’ Pass The Kouchie (or something it spawned), a single released in the UK by Rough Trade in 1982 which humorously got Scritti Green steamed up in an interview with Sounds’ Dave McCullough. Dave describes Green as “this silver-tongued boffin-cumcritic of after-punk turned babbling wide boy” who ends up railing against his record label Rough Trade failing to capitalise on the Mighty Diamonds’ Pass The Coutchi, which was a big US disco favourite, but got buried here. Green rages: “I think there’s some people at Rough Trade who’ve still never heard of the record, never knew they’d even released it. That’s really dreadful.” Green, bless him, fails to mention the Rough Trade staff were too tied up with Scritti palaver to worry about a Mighty Diamonds song which ironically has proven to be far more immortal than the sweetest Scrits’ song. But the reggae thing was far more fun when it was suggestive, like on They Don’t Wanna F*** Wit Me, with the bass slyly contrapuntal to the ticky-tickyticky-tick-ah of the drummer. And the bass is like an involuntary stutter or shudder, in the same way the best dub tracks work. That mixture of reggae and hip-hop, lovers and b-boys together uh-huh, was at the heart of the Bristol blues and roots activity (Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, Tricky and Portishead) which it seems reasonable to suggest made Timbaland’s ears prick up, and want to experiment with the same sort of ideas. In fact the original, smokier blues version of Tricky’s Aftermath seems to be the Timbaland template, but it should be more ssshhh, less obvious shall we say than the Tricky way. The best parts of Timbaland’s art are where there is hardly anything there. And when considering Timbaland’s work it is tempting to simplify things and place Supa Dupa Fly as the central panel of a triptych with Ginuwine’s The Bachelor on one side and Aaliyah’s One In A Million on the other (or at least the seven songs Tim and Missy came up with for that record). Generalising grrrreatly the trademark Timbaland sound on these records was the ticky-ticky-ticky-tickah with accompanying glacial synth stabs and sound effects with practically nothing else on. But would that sound have seemed so remarkable without the singers’ remarkable artistry and distinct personality? No way. And vice versa. The rest of Aaliyah’s LP demonstrates that vividly by serving up soul ‘ordinaire’: something pleasant enough but ultimately unsatisfying.
The Bachelor by Ginuwine’s a wine less ordinary, being completely produced by Timbaland, and therefore more cohesive than a lot of records in that particular marketplace. Ginuwine’s persona on this LP is as the urbane soulman, and the whole product oozes class and elegance, which is why the more restrained of Timbaland’s beats and settings are so appropriate. While the LP itself was not a big success in the UK, it did generate four Top 20 hit singles. The opener Pony is the one that attracts the most attention with its burping bounce and syrupy squelch, but another track like Lonely Daze is more remarkable in its austerity, with the ticky-ticky-ticky-tickah set against chirruping and there’s the suggestion of Joy Division’s The Eternal played on a Chinese music box under the singer’s anguished vocals. The layered vocals on this track create a curious choir effect, the disorientating disembodied quality which is something of a trademark of the early Timbaland productions. Somehow though there is a strong suspicion that the detail, the use of space, is down to the technical experience of the trusted engineer Jimmy Douglass, who helped translate the ideas Timbaland and Missy had whizzing around in their brains into enduring tracks. Jimmy Douglass served his apprenticeship at Atlantic in the early ‘70s, becoming an engineer with credits including Television’s Marquee Moon, Foreigner, Chaka Khan, and the Average White Band. He graduated into the producer’s role, working with Slave and Steve Arrington, and on Odyssey’s Inside Out and the Gang of Four’s Solid Gold. Fate brought him into contact with Timbaland and Missy early on in their careers, and the partnership was obviously meant to be. Would Missy and T. have had the patience to work their ideas through so intricately on tape? It’s very doubtful. **** What’s the word for that thing where attention is grabbed by something (a record, a book, a film, etc.) outside of a person’s usual area of interest? As in Glenn Gould’s passion for Petula Clark’s work, for example? Uh-huh. So the word? ‘Crossover’ doesn’t even come close. It’s got nothing to do with ‘dilution’ either. And there is not necessarily any logic to it: it’s just somehow something connects where ordinarily it would not. It could well have a lot to do with a specific force of personality. What’s the word for that? Take another Missy Elliott: Poly Styrene. For those living in the UK who have watched re-runs of Top of the Pops from 1978 there has been a powerful reminder of how vivid a contrast Poly proved to be in the context of that year’s chart pop. Performing The Day The World Turned Day-Glo she still seems extraordinary, classically wrong and oh so perfectly right, in a curious mix of conservative ladies’ trouser suit and rasta knits. As it was written in The Boy Looked At Johnny, Poly was “blessed with the finest imagination of her generation” and people took to her who might ordinarily be left cold by the sort of punk racket her group made. But Poly was uncomfortable with the music and her image as cranky commentator on the consumer society, performing a dramatic u-turn and declaring that “loudness was boring”. As a solo artist, briefly, she created Translucence, a wonderful LP of “new mood music” seasoned with esoterica, exotica and mysticism, which along with Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? and the Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth laid the foundations for a quiet revolution with a soundtrack of inventive M.O.R. music. This is also known as
the ‘De La Soul syndrome’ where they bridled at being typecast as happy-golucky, day-glo cartoon creations, puppets of positivity, the holy goofs of hiphop, and instead hunkered down, determined to prove to the world they were really ‘real’. There must be a word for that kind of response.
**** It would be 1999 when Missy Elliott got to release her second LP Da Real World, and although the opening ‘credits’ claim this is the future there would be plenty who yearned for the past and Missy’s more surreal world, and who found the harder ‘realism’ difficult to love. There would be some specific reasons for this: the profanities, the guests trampling all over the rhyme scene, and the celebration of conspicuous consumption. The explicit content: was it shocking and offensive? Oh yeah, it was shockingly tedious and offensively dull. The m-word here, the f-word there, the n-word everywhere: profanities become inanities. Swearing and cursing has no impact when repeated relentlessly and used in a way that suggests it’s what you have to do, how you have to behave, to be ‘real’. When expletives are used effectively in pop music though it’s when it’s unexpected, like The Jam’s Mr Clean, the original version of the TVPs’ A Sense of Belonging, and Sun Ra’s Nuclear War. And all those collaborations; there are more than a dozen guests who intrude upon proceedings during Da Real World. It’s a curious practice, but to be generous it’s an inclusive process and there are one or two surprises (MC Solaar and Lady Saw). It also probably makes good commercial sense. Nevertheless it’s incredibly disruptive, and can leave the listener feeling incredibly cheated, deprived, and distracted. Then there’s the question of money and how to measure what a person’s worth. Can you judge a man by the size of his Jeep? Oh, it’s easy enough to understand the issues involved, but the truth is the whole hip-hop/pop obsession with material wealth (c.f. No Scrubs by TLC from around the same time), the lusting after luxury goods, was/is tiresome to some. The context of Da Real World, with Missy on the front holding her mobile ‘phone, dressed in white shirt and tie (which curiously conjures up suggestions of Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet), evoked an earlier age of aspiration and power dressing, Julie Burchill’s Ambition and Joan Collins in Dynasty, which was not exactly the bohemian “money, money, money, root of all evil” outlook.
But time’s been kind to Da Real World. In terms of Missy Elliott’s catalogue it can be seen as evolutionary, and contextually it makes sense in a fast-moving music industry where an artist may be scared of being cast aside. For this was Missy redefining herself, digging her heels in, rolling up her sleeves, squaring up to the world, and taking on anyone in her way. It is part big-budget futuristic fantasy and part reality TV soap opera drama. That’s entertainment. Now, even the explicit content seems quaint. Sure Missy’s rude, crude and lewd. She’s outrageously salacious, scatty, scatological and downright illogical. She is also sharp, hard-headed and shrewd enough to know an outbreak of cursing is not going to hurt sales in the marketplace. Nowadays it’s hard to avoid product (books, films, TV shows, etc.) that’s not peppered with profanities. The publishers, producers, writers and executives seem to think it adds a touch of authenticity and danger, so positively encourage it, when really so much swearing’s wearing. After all, the really hard guys have only got to give you a look: they really wouldn’t need to launch into a tirade of abuse. Missy’s brief on this record was to keep it real. So, the content covers the upsand-downs of daily life: relationships, pseuds, feuds, fights, nights out, backbiting, betrayals, bickering, bitterness, bragging, confrontations, conniving, covetousness, jealousies, jibes, jostling for position, plotting, preening, and the scramble for possessions. Missy in this drama pretty reasonably casts herself as the toughest, the roughest, the smartest and the sexiest. Well, you would wouldn’t you? The word she keeps coming back to is ‘bitch’. She reclaims the word, pitching it in a positive, strong sense, and uses it repetitively to counter the way the word would ordinarily be used as a derogatory, demeaning put-down. The crowing and the confrontational attitude makes sense in the context of an industry that appears to insist young black females should dress and act a certain way. There must have been all sorts of peer pressure on Missy to be what she wasn’t, and if there really was not that pressure she was extraordinarily lucky to work with people prepared to let her do her own thing and be a larger-than-life one-off.
S h e ’ s A B i She’s A Bitch was the lead track on the record, and the Hype Williams video that accompanied it cast a Marvel-lously masked Missy in a futuristic fantasy role, in a ridiculously high-technology and extremely expensive setting, emphasising the 3000 A.D. aspect of Missy’s musical setting which is curiously at odds with the ‘let hostilities commence’ sense of the lyrics.
Wonderfully, given the pugnacious approach of She’s A Bitch, the track demonstrates wonderfully Missy’s ability to create the perfect hook, to use a musical idiom. Hook is an appropriate word too, given its alternative meanings as something to catch with, something to hang an item on, and a boxing blow: that just about sums up Missy’s flow. Often, in a way maybe at odds with the lyrics, Missy’s songs can be incredibly infectious, the melodies memorable, like playground chants, deceptively simple, lines stick in the mind unwillingly – the “you can’t see me Joe” one from She’s A Bitch being a perfect example. Sometimes it’s more fun making up new words to the rhythm of a Missy hook. It is easy to overlook how well put together Missy’s compositions are. It’s some achievement to get people walking down the street unwittingly singing: “Why you all ‘n my grill? Can you pay my bills? Let me know if you will. ‘Cos a chick’s got to live.” It’s hard not to. And it may be stating the obvious but Missy’s hooks perfectly complement Timbaland’s productions, or vice versa, as on All N My Grill where the strings strangely suggest Rob D(ougan)’s Clubbed To Death, which coincidentally or otherwise appeared on the soundtrack of The Matrix, the box office smash science fiction/action film that was pretty close to the heart of Da Real World. Clubbed To Death was released on Mo’Wax in 1995, and seemed to take aspects of Art of Noise’s Moments in Love and Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy one step further with its dramatic use of strings and beats. The original “compact disc experience” features six different mixes. Two of these were brilliantly effective reworkings by La Funk Mob, including the brooding Darkside version. There was also a stunning Carl Craig “Spoon Mix”. Of the two Rob Dougan mixes, the Kurayamino Variation is the best known from its use in The Matrix, with the title of the mix reflecting the work’s original inspirations: Yagunari Kawabata, Yasujiro Ozu, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Clubbed To Death was such a timely release in the mid-‘90s, reflecting a growing obsession with the work of soundtrack composers like John Carpenter, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Hermann, Quincy Jones, and so on. There would be many who attempted to take ideas about using atmosphere and drama in composition, marrying this with hip-hop style beats. Creating imaginary soundtracks became quite the thing to do. Some still sound great, like Clubbed To Death and David Holmes’ This Film's Crap Let's Slash the Seats, but the whole light orchestral-meets-breakbeats thing became so overdone as a device (with a number of labels like Wall of Sound and Skint specialising in this sort of sound) that it became hard to listen to this style of music. Rob Dougan didn’t really play the game, to his eternal credit. He could have been as ubiquitous as Moby, but took seven years to put together a full-length follow up to Clubbed To Death which threw those who even noticed by featuring his own emotionally cracked (Tom Waits for no-one) vocals which were an acquired taste. Rob D. seemed to be pretty uninterested in being dancefloor-friendly, but he could certainly put together some beautiful and very moving string arrangements and the Furious Angels set is a genuine overlooked classic. The Clubbed To Death formula, oddly, has become an industry in itself, with companies existing purely to produce ‘epic scores’ for use as library or incidental music in films, commercials, corporate videos, and so on.
Where the music changed on Da Real World was in the way it became more wide-screen in approach, particularly on the occasions when synths and strings were used, creating a curiously disorientating ZTT-redux effect. More of a headline development, though, was the increased inclination towards dancehall judder and its irresistible bomp-bomp-bomp badda-dub-dum rumbustious bounce, the choreographed chaos, the absurdly disruptive DJ interpolations. How closely were Timbaland and Missy E. listening to the productions and performances on records by Capleton, Sizzla, Luciano, Ward 21, Beenie Man, Buccaneer, and so on? One of the fascinating things was that at this time influences and ideas were ricocheting around madly: people like Timbaland were influenced by what was going on in dancehall while producers in Jamaica were responding to advances in hip-hop, and what was coming out of the UK would have an impact abroad while British beat merchants were picking up on ideas from producers like Timbaland, while anyone seeking to stay ahead of the game was looking further afield for new inspiration to stay one step ahead of the game.
When considering the Missy/Timbaland franchise credit should go to the producer for avoiding the trap of being the guy with one specific sound. The other big 1999 release which Timbaland (predominantly) was at the controls for was (Ginuwine’s) 100% Ginuwine, which is a classic record as tastefully restrained and elegant as Da Real World is brash, uppity and turbulent. As a singer, Ginuwine is the consummate charmer; the urbane, smooth, sensitive soulman, who is big enough to include a credit for his manicurist while poseing provocatively without his shirt to reveal his perfect physique. But as a record this is very much about the arrangements and the setting, and very much not about Timbaland’s incessant interjections. There are some very tasteful guitar flourishes, sort of jazzy or flamenco style, and simple piano passages on 100% Ginuwine, but it’s the beats that really command the attention, perfectly complementing and exquisitely pacing the often anguished and reflective but always gorgeous vocals. This is Timbaland back to using his tricks sparingly, with the stuttering chk-a-chk-a-chk-a activity at the heart of things, creating an effect that is like the minimalist elegance that oozes from advertisements of luxury goods in expensive lifestyle magazines. It would have been very easy to drown Ginuwine out, to make him fight against a ‘big’ production where all sorts of effects and instruments are at work. But, no, a stark chk-a-chk-a-chk-a beat is more conducive, more seductive. It’s been said many times before, but yes less is more.
What’s the word for that thing where the camera’s following the action just as everyone seems to be scrapping it out to be top dog when someone suddenly appears in pole position from nowhere, taking a completely different approach, and leaving everyone else behind, scratching their heads and scrabbling to catch up. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became a massive success when it appeared in late 1998, and L’s style of singing and rapping appealed to many millions around the world. It may well have been canny marketing, but Lauryn seemed to break as many rules as any Missy Elliott/Timbaland production. Lauryn’s approach was defiantly different to the hip-hop norm in terms of presentation and content, and it re-opened classic debates and revisited discourses from pop’s past about providing an alternative and being aware of one’s heritage. The ambience of Miseducation is that of earthy, organic naturalness, and in terms of opposition to the commercial hip-hop status quo it evoked memories of Robin Millar (Weekend, Sade, Everything But The Girl, etc.) wanting to provide a different approach to the Trevor Horn school of luxury production (which record companies were enforcing) while still being progressive and commercially successful. There was also the enduring reggae dilemma of the conscious/roots outlook versus the more ribald dancehall content. In terms of critical theory this ‘natural’ approach is pretty much a minefield: the traditional instrumentation, the socially/politically aware lyrics, the bohemian/rasta trappings and afrocentric accessories, the references to soul classicism. These sorts of elements are a gift to anyone choosing to adopt a contrary position, determined to sneer at such a ‘wholesome’ way of working. It can be tempting to dismiss Miseducation as too tasteful, but where this hostile stance is so wrong is that as a record it is a subtly radical work, which is curiously uncompromising and strangely inventive. Miseducation had the misfortune to become a classic ‘coffee table’ or ‘dinner party’ soundtrack, like Massive Attack and Portishead before that, and Dido later. This is one factor that could be alienating, but it really is a remarkable record. Many records that ‘crossover’ in this way are purposefully smooth with
all the rough finishes and contentious views removed, but that just does not apply to Miseducation. It actually has more in common with the Young Disciples than it does with Anita Baker. Indeed, Apparently Nothin’ with Carleen Anderson’s singing and words, the way the group drew on contemporary hip-hop composition and vintage funk styles to create a new form of soul music etc., could be considered a blueprint for Miseducation and what came after. What did come after? Well, the success of Miseducation created a commercial climate where a series of pretty experimental records were allowed to be released on major labels in an oddly undiluted form. There were four records, specifically, all very peculiar, which came out around the turn of the millennium and which turned out to be pretty successful in terms of sales. These four records were linked in the sense that they were recorded (predominantly) in the Electric Lady studio in New York and drew on a particular pool of singers and players, loosely linked to The Roots and the Soulquarians collective. One of these was Erykah Badu’s second LP, Mama’s Gun. Her first LP, Baduizm, which came out in early 1997, in many ways prepared the way for Miseducation by reinventing soul music as performed from an off-beat female perspective. In so many ways at the time, with Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly, it felt like the future just might have arrived in the right way. So there were lots of high hopes for Mama’s Gun, a lot of people rooting for Erykah, but as a record it’s a mighty strange affair which only really reveals itself over a period of years. The imagery it comes draped in, with Erykah, her dreads up in the trademark head wrap, singing about being a “warrior princess” and an "analog girl in a digital world", oddly suggests the early ‘80s Slits/Pop Group extended circle (Neneh Cherry, Sean Oliver etc.), but the vocals and the feel is reminiscent of (post-Young Disciples soul) a looser Des’ree (Feel So High) or Gabrielle (Dreams). Dreams is one of those songs that has almost become so familiar that it’s pop wallpaper, but its origins are curious being a chance collaboration between a young singer and a producer (Tim Laws) who at the time was working on hardcore recordings as Alcan Warriors. Oh this really is not an either/or situation, because there was a lot of mutual love and respect reverberating around, but the Missy Elliott approach and the Lauryn/Erykah way seem very different. In terms of composition Missy would go for the pow! kapow! boom! catchy tune, while, say, Mama’s Gun oozes over the listener as Erykah meanders and maunders all over the place in a very endearing way, a wonderfully jazzy way, and this air of mystery and mysticism adds to the appeal, being assertive certainly but not in the fanfaronade, gasconade, rodomontade same old-same old fol-de-riddle-lol. D’Angelo’s still astonishing Voodoo CD was the perfect complementary record to Mama’s Gun, and really really really goes further, seeming so subaqueous, woozy, gauzy, with so many layers but so much space. It stays elusive, out-of-focus, elliptical, cryptic, in the way at different times The Associates’ Sulky silkiness has bewitched and bedevilled imaginations. Voodoo took so long to put together, and involved so many ‘kindred spirits’ that it’s a miracle it got made, especially as D’Angelo, like Lauryn, like Mary Margaret O’Hara, has pretty much avoided making another.
The disorientating blurriness of Voodoo occurs partly because of the lopsided, loping beats that deliberately avoid the precision position but it’s the same thing that’s so appealing in say the work of The Sea & Cake (who were noticeably big Voodoo fans). And part of the fun of Voodoo is its conflicts and paradoxes. Like? Like the singer being so obsessed with, possessed by, the spirits of the past but is equally haunted by a futuristic vision and consumed by a need to make music in a way that is in some way unprecedented. This friction is neatly encapsulated in the album’s artwork which partly places D’Angelo as a Fela Kuti type figure and partly as a Calvin Klein underwear model. These conflicts would trouble the singer.
The record came with sleevenotes by Saul Williams in which the poet (and this would be around the time of his incredible performance on Krust’s Coded Language) would explore the state of hip-hop: “But is there any room for artistry in hip hop’s decadent man-sion? Have we walked our Timberlands soleless…soul-less?” He goes on to aver: “These are questions that seem to be null and void in the face of all the glitter and glamour that has dominated most successful Black artistry of recent years. We seem to be more preoccupied with cultivating our bank accounts than cultivating our crafts. Nowadays, I find my peers more inspired by an artist’s business tactics than their artistry.” True enough in so many ways, but such sanctimony would be insufferable if it were not uttered in a context of creative bounteousness. The whole period of Electric Lady soul exploration was delineated by a competitive edge, the impulse that urges those involved to go one step further. Common’s Like Water For Chocolate was another LP that came out of that time, those sessions, and regardless of the man’s merits/appeal as a rapper the record is remarkable for the strides made by Jay Dee (J. Dilla) with his production on that set which in turn The Roots and D’Angelo would strive to translate into live performances which must have an awful lot to do with the keeling, off-kilter filters these records are seen through. The Roots’ Things Fall Apart was the fourth part of the Electric Lady/Soulquarians jigsaw. It’s a funny thing with The Roots in the sense that they can seem simultaneously prissy and revolutionary, which is something they share with contemporaries Fugazi and Rhythm & Sound who were all equally single-minded and obsessed with self-determination. The Roots, like Fugazi and Rhythm & Sound, got away with it by being so very much a force for good. In particular drummer ?uestlove held things together, actually stopping things fall apart. And indeed The Roots proved to be an incubator
for a lot of very special talent who would go on to make incredible records, like Jill Scott, Ursula Rucker, and Jazzyfatnastees. The only thing is that when music’s so refined, no matter how good, no matter how inventive, no matter how moving, there comes a point when the palate needs some de-cleanse-shun, some roughage, some freakiness. There must be a word for that. ****
From ticky-ticky-ticky-tick-ah to chk-a-chk-a-chk-a to freaky-freaky-freakyfreak-ah it goes. In the summer of 1986 the soundtrack for some who would never be the same again was Freaky Dancin’ by Happy Mondays who were busy getting their Bohannons and James Browns on, with Mark Day’s alien approach to the guitar and Shaun Ryder’s impeccably ill-logical confabulation. It would be another three years before the world caught up with Happy Mondays. It would be 15 years later that Missy Elliott got her freak on, with a song so astonishingly outlandish it still seems too good to be true. As with Freaky Dancin’ it’s easy enough to identify the ingredients but it takes a special blend of genius and daring to put them together in a uniquely winning way. The world didn’t notice Happy Mondays’ Freaky Dancin’ but it took Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On to its perverse pop heart in 2001. Even if it were an a cappella performance Get Ur Freak On would still seem so startling, but the big talking point remains Timbaland’s production and the use of bhangra elements which made the song stand out even more on daytime radio. No doubt there are analysts who can detail the recording process, all the various inputs, but that would be spectacularly missing the point. It’s certainly nowhere near the first big hit to use Indian influences, but the beauty of the arrangement is the repetitive use of the did-diddy-diddy-dum riff, which may well be a sample from an old bhangra record which itself may be an update of a folk melody handed down and madly mutated, and it’s the point that mostly it’s just did-diddy-diddy-dum, did-diddy-diddy-dum, did-diddydiddy-dum and some diddy-diddy-dah-dahs plus some mad synths that proves Timbaland’s genius. Lesser lights would not be able to hold their nerve when trying to make such a ‘crazy sound’. Then there are the beats. What are they? Hip-hop? Bhangra? Dancehall? Oh yeah, all of that and more, the more messed-up the better. To hell with specifics: mix it up! There was an appealing project put together by Chrissy
Murderbot, the DJ and producer associated now with ‘footwork’. He did a year-long series of mixtapes which he shared, each one dedicated to a specific musical style. It’s impressive stuff, and in many ways a sonic accompaniment to (Woebot) Matthew Ingram’s riveting The Big Book of Woe. But, but, but, it’s so neat and orderly, so precise, that on one hand it desperately calls out for something ‘shocking’ to disrupt proceedings, like a nasty blast of tinny punk noise of the Raw Records vintage variety, and it needs oh so desperately to be more assorted with a bit of this and a bit of that all thrown into the pot, haphazardly but intoxicatingly, without any tags. The young British kids into their bhangra were in the 1990s deliriously dragging more and more elements into the mix. Whereas some of the first wave of bhangra bands active in the UK were getting more and more smooth and sophisticated, with increased reliance on synths, the extraneous influences roughed things up again, as dancehall, hip-hop and then jungle components were assimilated or shoehorned in to the sound. And it worked both ways. Shy FX with UK Apachi on the mic had a hit with the roughhouse jungle anthem Original Nuttah in 1994, which featured a bhangra mix. The leading UK bhangra label Multitone in turn sought to exploit the record’s success with a 1995 ‘jungle-bhangra fusion’ compilation Deep Into Jungle Territory. Some of the tracks simply shoehorned hallmarks of jungle onto bhangra tracks, while others were more thought through. There are some incredible and utterly irresistible tracks on the CD, including the jungle remix of We’ve Got Feelings Too by the singer Bindu with (presumably) some dancehall chat from Sheena. This was all to be expected (and welcomed) as the influence of jungle at the time was bounding into just about every musical form with great glee: there were for example a series of ragga jungle CDs. Another of the tracks on the Multitone jungle-bhangra outing was a little less typical, being a jungle influenced mix of (the young singer) Amar’s cover of Make It Easy On Yourself which had come out on Multitone the previous year. The original EP featured a few mixes, one of which was a light/poppy reggae influenced version with a touch of the Smith & Mightys about it (though perhaps a little more Sybil-line). The crossover between bhangra and reggae/dancehall was considerable, and the Punjabi percussion and Jamaican rhythms proved to be a perfect fit.
Amar must have been just a kid at the time that record was made, as she recalls being only around 17 a few years later when she went to the Anokha club night at the Blue Note in Hoxton which indirectly led to her participation in Talvin Singh’s compilation LP, Anokha - Soundz of the Asian Underground, which featured Amar as a singer on a couple of tracks. Geoff Travis, wearing
his Blanco y Negro hat, subsequently offered Amar the opportunity to make an LP. He paired Amar with Robin Millar, principally, though Nithin Sawhney also produced a couple of the tracks on the LP, Outside. Amar’s LP appeared in 2000 and it’s one of the strangest, loveliest records of that time. Geoff’s decision to get Amar and Robin Millar to work together made sense: Amar was apparently a fan of Tracey Thorn/Everything But The Girl and it was Geoff at Rough Trade who had originally got Robin in to produce Weekend’s first single, which started a whole series of events. Outside, as an LP, on one hand has that adult contemporary exoticness of the time, with traces of drum ‘n’ bass and downbeat electronica and the feel of other records by, say, Bjork, Beth Orton, Nicolette, Portishead, but at the same time there are still very, very strong Hindi pop and classical influences at work, with lots of strings, which makes for a wonderful combination. Oddly, the Prince cover from the LP, Sometimes It Snows In April, was given a Dream House garage remix and took off in the clubs and appeared on many of the compilations that were churned out at the time. After the release of Outside Amar spent several years away from the music business before re-emerging with a more glamorous, sultry image and R&B/hip-hop inspired sound, coming to the attention of Timbaland and being invited to record the track Bombay with him for his 2007 LP, Shock Value.
By the time Missy and her Tim recorded Get Ur Freak On compositional crosspollination was a phenomenon ricocheting back and forth across continents and oceans willy-nilly, so that it was impossible to tell where anything really came from or what it was made up of, but who cared anyway? Ideas were ping-ponging back and forth between the UK, the States, the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America, Africa, with the origins of rhythms and beats becoming increasingly distorted, refracted through a series of prisms, the provenance elusive, illusive, delusive. So by the time Timbaland had made use of bhangra and dancehall elements, Lenky had come out with his Diwali rhythm, the Baha Men had struck gold unexpectedly, and people were beginning to get wise to reggaeton, sounds could be a little disorientating but they were at least being heard and investigated spasmodically, keenly if randomly. The net result of all this activity was often a sense of anxiety, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Anxiety in pop is a very real thing. A perfect example of this would be Now Thing, the 2001 Mo’Wax compilation of astonishing dancehall instrumentals, featuring cuts by the likes of Sly & Lenkie, Steely & Clevie, Ward 21 and Richard Browne. It was exactly the sort of set to make the listener acknowledge dancehall productions were light years ahead of what else was around, and the anxiety crept in when realising this, an occasional Greensleeves compilation and the shows caught infrequently on the radio
would in all probability be the extent of the consumer involvement with new dancehall releases. Guilt could be another word for it, but that suggests a little too much the ‘guilty pleasures’ phenomenon Sean Rowley (a fine radio presenter) inadvertently kick-started by making it plain that Alessi’s Oh Lori and tracks by Hall & Oates, ELO, Foreigner, Loggins & Messina etc. were really far cooler, far more inventive than the more contemporaneously critically celebrated. But guilt, yeah, does come into it when acknowledging a degree of ignorance about so many areas of musical history/present (still, yes, still, very much so, because you know the more we learn the more we are aware of what else there is to learn about, still) but anxiety definitely, it’s the dabbler’s disquietude, and the terror of missing out which is sort of absurd because the sanctimonious specialist ... what do they really know outside their own area of expertise? Who really knows how deep Missy and Timbaland went into the bhangra thing before making Get Ur Freak On? And, indeed, how immersed were they in dancehall? It seems kind of the right thing to hope they were just dabbling, looking for new flavours to spice things up and so create something new, pinching the most appealing aspects of this and that to stay ahead of the chasing pack. What blows this theory apart is that it’s known that Timbaland really is a massive fan of old Bollywood soundtracks, and Missy’s astonishing vocal performance on this song, which is a work of art in itself, actually accurately captures something of that era’s Jamaican dancehall vocal excesses which seem to, wonderfully, have been closer to the exaggerated stylings of a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera than to the sanctified soul of the roots recordings. It would not really have mattered if Missy Elliott never released anything of any significance after Get Ur Freak On. But it just so happened that the accompanying LP, Miss E … So Addictive, would be abundantly packed with madly inventive tracks. It really didn’t need to be: David Bowie spent the ‘70s putting out great singles paired with LPs patched up with flexible filler and it didn’t hurt his reputation at all. But on So Addictive Missy and her Tim are at the peak of their supernatural powers. Or, as Missy put it herself in the liner notes: “Man I think we are aliens”. Missy’s mission on this LP is to give us what we’ve never heard before. As a shtick it’s a neat trick, and she succeeds if the listener is prepared to suspend belief and allow their futures and pasts to be pleasantly disarranged. Like any record it will appeal to different listeners in different ways, but it has got a specific and surely accidental/incidental appeal for those who have an enduring obsession with the cultural cauldron and mad melting pot of musical ideas that came in the wake of punk and disco. In other words, it rings all the right bells for lovers of, say, Tom Tom Club, Sly and Robbie, Ze, Sugarhill, West End Records, early rap and electro tracks, lovers rock and afrobeat, Indeep’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, Lipps Inc.’s Funky Town, et set, and just how much that has to do with the future of hip-hop in the early days of the new millennium is open to conjecture, and it must be said it’s not the same at all as ‘sounding like’, oh no, no, no, no, no, but there you go. If Da Real World was the sound of Missy being coldly pragmatic and materialistic, ready for a scrap if that’s what it takes, then So Addictive is her party record, about pleasure principally, in the club and in the bedroom. It’s
a surreal sensualist’s charter, with Missy interested in more things than the size of a guy’s Jeep and bank balance, and up for twisting her tongue around more than a mic. Naturally, records concerned with how to get on up, get high, get down, get it on are plentiful enough, but this LP created a critical kerfuffle because it wasn’t what was expected. Missy’s whole reason for being was to do things differently, so a ‘flip’ in content was understandable. So intent was Missy to defy expectations, and resist typecasting, that for Get Ur Freak On she avoided using Hype Williams on the video for fear that his outlandish settings should prove to be too readily identifiable as part of the Missy/Timbaland franchise. So instead of being cast in some cartoon/comic sci-fi context she appeared in Nudie-style denims and Motorhead t-shirt. Decode that one! The LP itself featured Missy on the cover looking fantastic with spiky hair, surrounded by images of what look like medieval/futuristic mace-like objects which give a certain air of deviancy to proceedings, intentionally or not. As an LP So Addictive has little in the way of fillers, and thankfully there are far fewer guests. Where the big-hitting male MCs do have an opportunity to swagger into the studio and beat their chests they sound positively Neanderthal and are cunningly cut down to size by Missy effortlessly. On what is effectively the opening track, Dog in Heat, Method Man and Redman act the oafs, while Missy purrs and pants. What steals the show though is the exceptionally dry and heavy funk bassline and the clangorous punk guitar motif, which suggests the hand of Jimmy Douglass at work, very much still the glue holding it all together, harking back to his early productions for Slave and oh so wonderfully the Gang of Four’s Solid Gold where he slowed things down dra-mat-tic-ally, rescuing them from the over-familiar aridity of Entertainment!
So too, Ludacris’ intrusion on One Minute Man is simply, well, ludicrous, simply superfluous, which fits sort of, but what a song. It encapsulates the genius of Missy, taking on the spirit of Salt ‘n’ Pepa and En Vogue’s Whatta Man, the update of the Lynda Lindell song, and Billy Ward’s Sixty Minute Man, flips everything 180o and ends up on the side of Ida Cox the One Hour Mama, for that’s where Missy’s heart is isn’t it, there with the blues’ lipsmacking licentiousness. Her ability to get the listener walking down the road singing along unwittingly is remarkable: “Wake me up, show me what you’ve got, ‘cos I don’t want no one minute man”. The song itself has the mind-bog(g)ling bop-bop-bop bump and writhe of a dancehall production, complete with
synth squiggles and giggles beep-beep-beeping away as Missy sings so sweet and innocent. Then it’s straight into one of LP’s highlights Lick Shots, judder-funk war dance, not dissimilar to the reggaeton sounds of the time which seemed to be providing a distorted reflection of Timbaland’s twisted take on dancehall or is that the other way around? At times the singing/rap ridiculously suggests Missy’s going to break into the Talking Heads’ I Zimbra at any moment. But the production makes Fear of Music seem staid and superslicksterised, with a vibrating bass and a cheese-wire Chic-style guitar figure so stark and insistent the Subway Sect would have stood up and applauded: and it goes dudduddud-duh-dud-dud, and could quite easily go on for ever with Mark E. Smith warning: “Don’t start improvising, for god’s sake”. And, as for little melodic figures that could go on forever, What’cha Gon’ Do has just that, with its echoes of Fela Kuti’s Colonial Mentality, a riff which also appeared in Blackalicious’ Smithzonian Institute Of Rhyme from the superb Nia in a slower form, but speeded up here it’s got the same sort of spiralling appeal as PiL’s Socialist. When Timbaland lets Missy get to the mic she sounds at her most Jamaican, letting the influence of kindred spirits Lady Saw or Tanya Stephens shine through, chatting about when she’s in a club and comin’ for ya. Clubs, they’re at the heart of this record really, to confound the commentators who consider their musics sep-ah-rate-ly: hip-hop over there guys, house over that way ladies. Rubbish isn’t it? If Missy had been younger she’d have been hanging out at the Paradise Garage freaky “dancin’ like your moms and your pops”. Hardly front page news is it? At least it shouldn’t be. More interesting are the tracks towards the end of the LP (assuming the listener skips the unnecessary remixes and bonus ones) where the songs sssslow down and Missy’s blissed off, high on life and love, as on X-tasy where she and her Tim create some lovers disco, in the spirit of Sister Sledge’s Thinking Of You and Diana Ross’ Love Hangover, the casio soul of the Aural Exciters’ Emile (Night Rate), Marina Van Rooy’s slinky Sly One. The sound, at least, was of the subtle pop perfection Timbaland attained on the Aaliyah hits We Need A Resolution and More Than A Woman.
**** What’s the word for that thing where you feel inclined to take a contrary stance, even on something you’re in full agreement with, just because you feel like being on the opposing side? It’s easy to manoeuvre oneself into a situation where a party line is contested for the sake of it, to avoid kowtowing to the general consensus. So, for example, there is a critical narrative about Timbaland and The Neptunes dominating global pop which provokes the contradictory position. The missionary zeal about productions by the Virginia blenders has always seemed a little unsettling, and in this analytical age it would be interesting to see a breakdown of the background and interests of the most influential critics, and how this dovetails with certain aspects of the Timbaland/Neptunes sound. The words Depeche Mode, Prince, Human League, and New Order might just feature prominently. And that’s part of the reason why there’s a temptation to fly in the face of this cultural hegemony. There must be a word for that. Are Timbaland and The Neptunes really recognised the whole world over? Have they ever really been ubiquitous even in terms of influence? Hmm, hmm, hmmm. While it is tempting to challenge their omnipotence, it is harder to ignore their appeal, even when it seems as if they have tried to be ‘unloved’ such as when The Neptunes, operating as N*E*R*D, had their In Search Of ... LP reimagined using ‘real’ instrumentation, flirting with rap-metal fusion stylings which could prove difficult to digest. Difficult albums: it’s the sort of subject some stupid Oxbridge graduate working for The Guardian would run a feature on every few years or so, risibly ruminating on Trout Mask Replica and Starsailor and the challenges they present. But it’s the same old story about where one starts from. Surely something like Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms or Supertramp’s Breakfast in America constitute the really demanding listens? It’s odd how for some Trout Mask Replica and Starsailor remain straight pop, and it’s likely that for these people the works of, say, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, INXS, Guns N’ Roses, Huey Lewis & the News, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon will be pretty much unknown territory. They may too recoil from records and acts loved by The Neptunes which can prove tricky for admirers of their way of working. So, aspects of In Search Of ... may be hard to swallow but as a whole it goes down a treat. And there are some moments of such exquisite beauty that it’s still hard to comprehend, where they arrogantly, effortlessly, seem to combine soft rock glide with Heatwave/Imagination-style funk sumptuousness. Questions, questions, questions: life’s full of them. What would Chic’s reputation be without Sister Sledge? Where would The Neptunes be without Kelis? Certainly fortune favoured the producers when they found the perfect singer to complement their ideas: one who was consummately professional, but offbeat and kooky. The impact of Kelis and The Neptunes with Caught Out There in the first Spring of the new millennium was considerable, at least in the UK, and the “I-hate-you-so-much-right-now” outburst remains one of the great pop moments. The accompanying LP Kaleidoscope was stunning stateof-the-art pop; exactly the right mix of confection, invention, functionality, and strangeness. But it was the follow-up, Wanderland, at the end of 2001, post-So Addictive, that would take Kelis and The Neptunes into more unexpected areas. Kelis herself on the cover sported kinky afro, stripy t-shirt, white jeans and Converse sneakers, which was pretty counter-revolutionary in the R&B
marketplace at that time. The LP itself was undervalued, commercially and critically, but over time it has revealed itself to be a real pop classic. On Wanderland the state-of-the-art pop was supplemented by unexpected themes. So, there was for example the occasional disconcerting metallic rock crunch in the guitar/arrangements, particularly on the single Young, Fresh n’ New. In a way this was reminiscent of that point where the Munich disco set went to Hollywood, and the sound became more rock-orientated, like Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff, the Three Degrees’ The Runner, the Foxes soundtrack, Keith Forsey’s work with Gen X/Billy Idol, and so on. Another record with a similar disco/rock clash was Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo LP, made with the Chic Organisation, and it’s another good reference point, particularly as a record which time has revealed to be a complete classic. And there seems to be a lot of Debbie Harry/Blondie on Wanderland, not least in some of Kelis’ smart and sweetly screwy lyrics.
There are also some very pronounced bossa nova/samba infused Brazilian leanings, in among the skittering electro ‘new pop’ beats, and a lovely track that’s suggestive of Phyllis Nelson’s Move Closer, and the bossa-thing is there most explicitly on the fantastic Little Suzie. Where did it come from this bossa nova influence? Old Sergio Mendes records? Or newer ones like Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo, which was a big record at the start of the new millennium, exquisitely combining bossa stylings with elements of new electronica? Was it something to do with the return of Sade with Lovers Rock? Sade’s producer Mike Pela (who had been the sorcerer’s apprentice to Robin Millar) had also produced Maxwell’s magnificent Embrya. Wherever the bossa elements came from they were certainly a bonus for fans of Stereolab and The Sea & Cake, and maybe there is a tract to be written on the influence of Stereolab on the hip-hop community. These same ‘yacht rock’ and bossa elements reappeared on N*E*R*D’s In Search Of ... LP, and the striking thing is that plenty of others (e.g. Phoenix, who have been produced by Philippe Zdar) have worked with similar ideas and sounds, but this particular record has something in the gloopy quality of the songs that irrespective of lyrical content makes them irresistible, the syrupy sound pulls the listener in, the mellifluent hooks are lovely and contagious in that unforced way say Scritti lacks (dear), and oh it must make some Green with envy. The funny thing is there’s been some (Some? So many!) musical
operators, nice guys (because that’s what they usually are) that reel off spoton aesthetically perfect lists of influences and loves but, when push comes to shove, their output provokes violent urges, as in not just ennui and enmity or apathy and antipathy, but real psychopathy. Yet in slouch these privileged geeks, with lousy t-shirts and ugly trainers, who can charm the birds out of the trees with sleezy, cheesy, breezy nonchalance, while casually tossing off muggy magnificence. There must be a word for that. There really must be. **** Missy might have been forgiven for failing to live up to So Addictive, and Get Ur Freak On specifically, but against all the odds, dun-der-dun-duh, she and her Tim bounced back in late 2002 with the utterly and gloriously outrageous Work It. “Pop doesn’t get any more saucy, sexy, sassy and sharp,” wrote John Carney for Tangents, naming it as his single of the year, along with There Goes The Fear for very, very, very different reasons, but given the lyrical content of Work It perhaps not so very different as one thing leads to another. And what about those lyrics to Work It? Woo-hoo! Pure Carry-On! Beyond T’s doo-doodoo-dop motif, the mad Pepper Box synth swirls and rhythmic ticks, it’s really all about Missy, and not just about keeping an eye on her ba-bomp-a-bompbomp in the video, trumpeting like an elephant, oh no it’s the song itself which is the real deal, the most high-faluting, rootin’ tootin’ Tutti Frutti lusciously lubricious work of art outside of the lewdest blues or Music Hall repertoire, and it’s great fun too.
Timbaland has his greatest moment on Under Construction, the accompanying LP, when Missy sings Slide as in “slide, slide, dip, dip, shake, move it all around, move it all around” and the producer creates something so way-way-way out there it sounds astonishing still with its cyclical hum-buzzdrone and robotic beats which gives the old dance routine a whole new twist that’s as unexpected as Marcia Griffith’s Electric Boogie (Electric Slide) 1983 recording becoming a ‘line dance’ staple but by now Missy’s is too no doubt. “I’m old school,” claims Missy during the frighteningly futuristic Slide, and that’s a big theme on Under Construction where she repeatedly comes on like The Ramones doing Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio? with Phil Spector at the controls. From the artwork to the music to the lyrics there is a real drive towards capturing an idea of hip-hop as it was ‘back in the day’. On the record’s inlay booklet Missy is featured in various poses wearing ‘vintage’ Adidas tracksuits,
Nike trainers, Kangol hats, rolled gold chains, with a graffiti backdrop and oversize ghetto blaster. Musically there’s more in the way of scratching and breaks rather than outlandish dancehall deviations. And lyrically there are many references to making hip-hop fun again and being all about invention and competition rather than feuding and fighting, with all sorts of allusions to tracks and artists that paved the way. It’s a funny thing about hip-hop and its proprietorial sense of history. In so many ways it’s a good thing: a celebration and an awareness of where the culture’s come from, the struggles and successes along the way, the highs and lows people should know about. It’s something that’s tolerated, critically, but something which would not be condoned in other areas of music, oh no-nono. In certain areas of hip-hop the lessons of history are used to warn peers about bad habits, often in the sense of warning against an obsession with J.L. Godard’s creed of guns and girls. In the case of Under Construction it’s used specifically as a plea for sanity in the context of a series of high-profile deaths, and in particular the passing of Missy’s close friends Aaliyah and Left Eye, which very understandably made Missy rear up and take stock, and reevaluate life and art. Nevertheless for someone so resolutely determined to stay ahead of the chasing pack it was a little disconcerting to find Missy so preoccupied with what went on ‘back in the day’, but if that’s what got her through then great. Under Construction, like its predecessor, featured guest appearances from key members of Team Missy, Tweet and Ms Jade. By the time Under Construction was out, Tweet had enjoyed huge chart success with the irregular Timbaland ultra-pop production and Missy-featuring risqué Oops (Oh My) which again prompted involuntary singing of the lines: “Oops there goes my shirt up over my head. Oh my. Oops there goes my skirt dropping to my feet. Oh my.” As irresistible as Oops was it proved to be a bit of a red herring for Tweet’s subsequent Southern Hummingbird LP which was partly produced by Timbaland but mostly the work of Tweet herself. The story goes that Missy saved her old friend Tweet from the slough of despair and invited her to come and help out on backing vocals. The experiences of those dark days and lonely nights seem to have been what Tweet drew on for this remarkable LP. With its reflective/confessional content and frequent use of acoustic instrumentation it feels closer to what the likes of Jill Scott and Jaguar Wright were doing around that time. This is a modern take on the tortured torch song format or one of Swamp Dogg’s remarkable conceptual LPs for Doris Duke or Sandra Phillips. But notably there are no deep soul histrionics, and instead the feel is far more understated and classy, making it the melancholic flip of 100% Ginuwine. Two tracks in particular stand out, Smoking Cigarettes and Drunk, both of which have a real film noir or David Goodis or George Jones style really vivid, involving sense of drama about them.
Ms. Jade on the other hand was much younger, and it must have been tough as an aspiring rapper trying to make space to express herself in the shadow/glare of the Missy/Timbaland franchise, while knowing this was a unique, glorious opportunity. So, it would have been difficult to say: “Look, Tim, will you puh-lease just stop jabbering away in the background on the tracks I’m rapping on?” Nope, it wouldn’t really work that way, especially when Timbaland was coming up with some pretty special rhythm tracks for you, mentoring you, and calling in favours to get the likes of Jay-Z, Nate Dogg and Nelly Furtado to put in guest appearances on your debut LP. Ms. Jade’s LP, Girl Interrupted, which came out late-ish 2002 still sounds great, but there are three tracks in particular where Timbaland really works his magic, and Jade to her credit shows enough pizazz and personality to keep her head above water. Ching Ching is built around the “bada baba ching ching” hook from Nelly Furtado’s Baby Girl and is irresistible in its use of repetition. Also, sans Jade, it’s pretty much a clue to what would come a few years later. The really arresting track on Girl Interrupted is Big Head, which has a great (what is it? Arabic? Chinese? Indian?) single-string riff repeated (“repetition in our music and we’re never gonna lose it”) and again Eastern-tinged percussion and some embellishments which give it a curious XTC Meccanik Dancing feel. Indeed the XTC dub tracks on Go+ sound like parallel universe prototypes of Timbaland works. It’s a thought that’s harder to dismiss when seeing the video for Ms. Jade’s Big Head with its affectionate nod to Devo. The other stand-out track is Different, which has a strange punky-electro feel which is wonderful. In a way it strays into the crunchy-rock territory The Neptunes marked out on Kelis’ Young, Fresh n’ New but Timbaland’s up for some competition. Ironically there is one track on the LP that was produced by The Neptunes. But still the record didn’t set the world on fire. And it seems to have been the only LP Ms. Jade’s made. What is it with the world and female rappers? Ms. Jade’s only released one LP. The same seems to be true for Nonchalant and Mèlaaz. In the UK some of the best female rappers never even had the chance to make LPs, such as Wildflower and Q-Tee (the curse of Saint Etienne!). One big fan of the form is Stephen Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, who has been promising for years now to complete a hip-hop related NWW project “saturated with female rappers”. But even that’s not appeared ... yet.
Who would you like to work with but haven’t yet? STAPLETON: MISSY ELLIOT. What’s the word for that moment when you realise you’re drifting apart, that something or someone once so precious is not really a part of your life anymore? Once you couldn’t seem to live without them, but now you don’t even really think about them. It’s the end of the affair, but there have been no big falling-outs, no tearful splits, nor any horrible arguments: it’s just been a gradual parting of the ways. This can apply to art, too: a one-time favourite author or critic or singer or producer or actress or director we lose track of. “Really, they went on to do so-and-so? I had no idea. I’d not been paying attention”. This may not necessarily be any kind of critical comment on the work concerned. In fact, quite the opposite on occasions, when it can turn out to be great fun catching up with the missed books, films, records, etc. It really says more about the consumer’s situation, about how their interests, their life and loves, have changed, and how they are absorbed by other outside interests. This is not always an entirely comfortable position, though. There may be more of that accompanying anxiety or guilt, albeit a different kind to the fear of missing out. Nevertheless there must be a word for that feeling.