"I got the Martin Luther King fever," declares hip-hop artist Missy Elliott on her album This Is Not A Test. What the renowned rapper is referring to is a newfound sense of responsibility - it seems that "Misdemeanour", as she is also known, has turned over a new leaf. "I do believe when you reach a certain status in this business, you have got to be positive," she affirms. "You have to remember you are a role model."
But it wasn't always like that, and Missy built her reputation on outrageous lyrics that sneered at the pressure to be positive. She's a bitch!
, the hit single from her breakthrough album Da Real World,
announced Missy's arrival in the big time in exactly the manner she had hoped for. And the record, which also featured a duet with a then-unknown Eminem
, let the world know that Melissa Arnette Elliott was not a woman to be trifled with.
This irreverent toughness, which has characterised most of her recording, is the result of real life experience. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1971, Missy grew up hard. She has talked openly about seeing her mother abused at the hands of her father. And despite the fact that her IQ qualifies her as a genius, she achieved little at school, always seeing music as her best chance of a better life.
By her late teens she was singing with the neighbourhood group Sista which was signed to Swing Mob records. The label collapsed soon afterwards, however, and Missy found herself having to start again from scratch. Undeterred, she persuaded executives at Elektra to subsidise her own label Gold Mine Records and thanks to an enviable contact book, her debut solo album Supa Dupa Fly
made it onto the shelves.
It received rave reviews but Missy, who was also gaining recognition as a producer and businesswoman, was reluctant to be pigeon-holed. "I don't want to get caught up and be an artist always on the go," she said. "Because once you do that, it's hard to get into the studio and do what I do."
Some years later it is clear she has succeeded in doing exactly what she loves, but Missy shows no signs of resting on her laurels. Having produced hits for such artists as Janet Jackson
, Whitney Houston
, Justin Timberlake
, Destiny's Child
and Mariah Carey
, she is also one of popular music's most influential figures. And that's before you take into account the fact that, along with long-time collaborator Timbaland, she has sold upwards of 12 million albums herself.
It's no small irony, therefore, that her decision to leave the "bad girl" image behind was followed by an entirely unrelated controversy. When a newly svelte Missy graced the cover of This Is Not A Test
, many of her fans responded with anger, fearing that their ferociously independent heroine had caved in to showbiz pressure. "I was very disturbed to find that a few people were angry at my weight loss," admitted the chanteuse afterwards. "I still represent for overweight adults and kids but I am also now painfully and personally aware of the health issues."
And Missy's influence is also felt in the British music scene, where she has collaborated with former Spice Girl Mel B, on the number one single I Want You Back
, while Damon Albarn of Blur named his daughter after her.
Her ground-breaking music videos have also won a clutch of awards, which decorate her beachfront mansion alongside a collection of MTV gongs and Grammys. Reflecting on her humble beginnings, the singer observes that she was always destined to be a performer.
"I'd stand on the side of the road when I was just a little girl singing on trash cans," she recalls. "People would roll down their windows saying, 'isn't she cute'. I had a vivid imagination. I always pretended it was some big stage."