Wide-Open Spaces - EMusician

Wide-Open Spaces

Missy Elliott and her longtime music partner, Timbaland, are the reigning superfriends of hip-hop — for good reason.
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It's true: She has her Platinum Visas and a fat check from Gap. But on her new track, “Wake Up,” Missy Elliott points out that showing off status with the likes of spinning rims and cellular phones isn't the be-all and end-all of hip-hop success. Elliott's musical messages go far beyond ruffling feathers and flaunting funds. After all, she didn't earn her bling-bling through purely money-driven means. If she had, she might have fallen prey to the recycled beats and obvious rhymes of those rappers who are not in it for the art. Elliott and her longtime music partner, Timbaland, are the reigning superfriends of hip-hop — for good reason.

Back when nobody knew or cared who they were, Elliott and Timbaland were hard at work making tracks. But they weren't looking to TV or radio in order to mimic the popular style of the moment; they knew that what they were doing was misaligned with what was happening in hip-hop. But they kept doing it. “We didn't have the opportunity to get out there [at first],” Elliott says, “which probably a great thing, 'cause it might have been so far left, people might have been, ‘Oh, they are trippin'! They on a bad alcohol trip or something.’”

Elliott and Timbaland started from the sidelines, producing for young artists such as Aaliyah and the girl group 702. Elliott finally dropped her solo debut, Supa Dupa Fly (GoldMind/Elektra), in 1997. And when the video for the “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” with Elliott wearing an air-filled garbage bag while rapping slow-mo — “Beep, beep, who got the keys to the jeep? Vrrrooooom!” — hit MTV, it was clear that this was something different, and that bizarre image took her straight to the top of the charts.

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At the time, rap was still a boys' club, but with Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim and Da Brat (the latter two were guests on Elliott's debut) also in the ring, women had begun to prove that they could rhyme right along with the boys. But Elliott also proved that she could produce right along with the boys. She's not a musical virtuoso. But armed with her beautiful R&B voice (which she uses to dictate various parts for the musicians to play), signature hip-hop flow, unexpected lyrical twists and kooky onomatopoeia, Elliott is capable of writing songs and producing ideas more fresh than most that are fighting for a hit in the mainstream pop arena. Because of this, it's been a critically and financially successful ride for Elliott; for her own label, The GoldMind Inc.; and for her parent label, Elektra. All of her albums — Supa Dupa Fly, Da Real World (GoldMind/Elektra, 1999), Miss E… So Addictive (GoldMind/Elektra, 2001) and Under Construction (Elektra, 2002) — have made it to the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart. It would be a shock if the same fate doesn't befall her latest, This Is Not a Test (Elektra, 2003).

MISSY MISDEMEANOR'S WAY

One luxury most bedroom musicians don't have is the ability to write songs in a professional studio. Elliott doesn't create demos, and like with her past albums, she didn't start working on any tracks for This Is Not a Test before setting foot in the Hit Factory in Miami. “She does the exact opposite of the adage I heard when I was growing up: You never write in the studio,” says Jimmy Douglass (aka Senator Jimmy D), Elliott and Timbaland's longtime engineer. “It was too expensive back in the day.” Douglass has worked with plenty of young R&B and hip-hop acts throughout the years, but he also has a résumé that includes working with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. “With the advent of [inexpensive] digital workstations, the way that music is done is way different,” he continues. “Now, people sit in their studio and vibe.” The difference is that Elliott vibes in a multimillion dollar studio, writing parts on the fly while listening to giant expensive speakers.

“This time, it took longer for us to get into the swing of things, 'cause Timbaland had been [producing] Brandy, I had been [producing] Monica, and I did some stuff with Beyoncé,” Elliott says. “So it was kind of hard trying to find the zone, because it's totally different from what I may work on with somebody else. When we went in, for three or four days straight, we didn't do nothing. We was brain-stuck. Then, we happened to stumble across ‘Pass That Dutch’ and ‘Wake Up.’ And that kind of gave, like, a zone to where we were going.”

Elliott and Timbaland's process works like a well-oiled piece of machinery. It all begins with Tim filtering through his sound library, keyboards and sound modules. He comes up with beats and little sounds for a handful of tracks and then hands them over to Elliott to check out. From that, Elliott will pick one or two. “I pretty much try to listen for the different sounds that I haven't heard in other people's records,” Elliott says. “This time around, I went with more of a hollow kind of sound. A lot of the beats that Timbaland had pulled up and I embraced were the ones that didn't have a lot going on. It was kind of like an open track. I picked those kinds of beats because a lot of the records this time around were having a lot going on, so I wanted mine to be more empty, kind of like back in the day when people probably wasn't that good on the drum machines, so they would take maybe a kick and a hi-hat.”

SOUNDS LIKE CRAZY

Speaking of kicks and hi-hats, on “Wake Up,” you won't hear any; rather, you'll hear something that sounds like someone banging a spoon against a sheet of wobbly metal combined with an underwater submarine sonar signal. “Together, [Elliott and Timbaland] have this amazing, uncanny ability to hear the craziest little sounds that fit,” Douglass says. “She'll come in and go, ‘Oh, that sound! I like that!’ She'll pick up on one little sound and then base her thing around it and go from there.”

Few producers would dare to pick such bizarre, simple sounds, and still fewer would create a hit out of them. Timbaland is very matter-of-fact about the muse that moves him to create. “It's just something that you just do,” he says. “It comes, and I know what it's going to sound like, so that's what I make it sound like.” Timbaland is also secretive about what makes his productions tick. It's no secret that other artists and producers have been biting his style for years, so it comes as no surprise that he would protect the tricks of his trade. “I keep my tricks to myself,” Timbaland says. “I don't even give one out.”

But Douglass reveals that there is definitely more to making Timbaland's unusual beds of sounds work within the context of pop music. “People try [to create weird sounds] a lot of times, but they don't know how far to go with it,” Douglass says. “He knows exactly how far to go.” To make an unusual sound usable for a Missy Elliott track, Tim makes each sound count, as with that sheet-of-metal kick sound in “Wake Up.” “He'll add another sound under it,” Douglass says. “He'll just keep changing the size of the sound until it's enough, until it feels like a kick, but yet it's not a kick, but yet it's not a piece of metal. So that way, it still has a reality factor to it for people even though it sounds unreal.”

When Timbaland conceived the first sounds for “Wake Up,” the idea hit him first, and the hard part was bringing that sound to fruition. “I might want a sound that's, like, underwater, so I'll just do an underwater sound like you're in a hull in a submarine,” he says. “I have so many sounds; I just try to find it in a library of my stuff, or I create it by filtering it using certain drum kicks and create it myself.”

EMPTINESS IS GOODNESS

Although previous albums were more thick, lush or action-packed, This Is Not a Test shows off Elliott and Timbaland's restraint. “It's at a next level,” Timbaland says. “I don't think it's like we evolved — yet. The songs are just more consistent. It can develop into something bigger than that, but people gotta accept what you're doing. At that level, that's when you go to the moon. But we've already been to the moon.”

The emptiness of Elliott's album was part of the master plan. “It's a good empty feeling,” Elliott says. “It's like you can appreciate the beat more. Sometimes, you might have so much going on that it's just too much. It's almost like you just got that kick, and that kick is the thing that drives the whole record.”

Another track with that feeling is “Let It Bump,” one of Elliott's favorites. “It's just basically the kick and a snare, but not even a hard snare,” she says. “It's almost like a wood-block snare. And there's no hi-hat in it. There's just one other sound effect that goes on, and it's basically me and Tim making our voice sound like it's scratching, but we doin' it live. And with ‘Pass That Dutch’ [the first single], you got the handclap, which is almost like the hambone. Instead of the sound of a drum pattern, that sounds more like people just making a beat with their hands and feet.”

SECRETS FROM THE VAULT

As tight-lipped as Timbaland is about his methods, he does let a few things slip. A Korg Triton and a Yamaha Motif 7 are on hand for synth sounds, with Yamaha NS10s for monitoring. And the vocal chain is a sturdy mix of a Neumann U 87 mic, a UREI 1176 compressor and a Neve 1076 preamp. But the most important pieces for Timbaland are his Ensoniq ASR-10 — “It's just special to me” — and his computer filled with plug-ins and soft synths, which Elliott says add up to “a million sounds.” Timbaland uses Digidesign Pro Tools for editing, but his tricks come from using VSTi software synths. “There are a lot of tricks — especially on the computer,” he says tauntingly. “For Missy's album, I used stuff called Transformer, Votex and Syn Pulse, [the latter of] which is from overseas.” (Timbaland's finds may be difficult to track down, but you can check out tons of synths at sites such as www.synthzone.com and www.sonicspot.com.)

Elliott, meanwhile, finds pleasure in the simplest gear. “My whistle is the most important thing for me,” she says. “If you listen to all my records, you gonna hear this whistle. It's just a plain old gym whistle. I have to have it on every record. If I could have it on a ballad, I would.”

But whatever the source, Elliott is confident that they can get that empty sound and tweak it just right. “We're good with the Motif and the Triton because even with drum sounds, we're taking these old, flat, paper-thin drum sounds out of those keyboards to keep a hollow sound.”

THIS IS THE TEST

Elliott isn't one to get too nostalgic about old tracks that didn't work. There are times when she likes part of a song, but rather than cannibalize it for a new song, she generally moves on. “It's hard for me to go back and make [a track] to my liking if I didn't use it, 'cause once you've heard it one way the whole time, it's kind of hard to go back and write something over the same track,” she says. “So those records go to writer's heaven.”

The songs that make it past the first test then move on to the dance test. “What I like to do is play [a track] in a club,” Elliott says. “If it don't have the drive that the record before mine had, then it's a problem. I see how the crowd reacts to it, and if they semidanced, then I'll feel, ‘Okay, maybe there needs to be some other stuff to go on in this record.’ So I'll pretty much let a club crowd determine whether something's missing or not. If they ain't moving to it, then it's back to the lab, because you're on the wrong page.” For This Is Not a Test, Elliott tested out tracks such as “Pass That Dutch” at the Opium club in Miami, as well as other clubs in South Beach and in New York City.

NO TUG-OF-WAR

There are many tales of bands breaking up over “creative differences” — that is, drugs and other problems that cloud the groups' visions. But even with a clear head, egos still get in the way of creativity. Sometimes, it can get ugly. “The key to the collaboration thing is, everyone has to be willing and sure of who they are,” Douglass says. “When people don't know who they are and they're trying to prove something, they're not going to be able and willing to share, because they feel threatened. One of my biggest credos as a producer is, it doesn't really matter where the idea comes from as long as it's a good idea. No matter who contributes it, it doesn't really matter. All we're looking for is the best idea. But people in the beginning of their careers think that you're trying to destroy their idea because their idea is the best one in the world.”

A secret to Elliott and Timbaland's longevity is that they throw egos out the door when working together or with other collaborators. “It's like, ‘Do you all think that's hot?’ And if they say, ‘Ah, no,’ then we start all over again,” Elliott says. “The good thing is that we're team players, and we don't suffer with ego situations. If somebody is like, ‘Let's see what it sounds like a little different,’ then we're open to listening to it. And then if it still don't sound right, then we're like, ‘Ah, that's a blackmail track.’ That's what we call tracks that's wack: blackmail records. It's like, I'd pay anything for somebody not to put it out.”

ALONE AGAIN OR — ?

There's a perception that Elliott and Timbaland are affixed to each other like superglue, but the two go their separate ways to produce different projects. And then the process changes. Recently, Elliott co-wrote R&B singer Mya's single “My Love is Like … Wo,” with songwriters Charles and Kenneth Bereal. “With Timbaland, he's more in the forefront, where he gives the bass to the beat, and then I'll go in, and I'll rap over and add my little stuff in there, whether it's taking my vocal backward, little stuff with ‘Pass That Dutch’ with the crowd or the doubling of the beat. When I work with [other people], I'm basically in there from the shell until the ending. It's like, ‘Okay, let's do the beat like this. Let's do the guitar like this.’ Or I'll say, ‘Let's do the bass line like this,’ and I'll sing it — 'cause I'm not a player, so I have to sing a lot of things that I hear.”

When Elliott is asked to make hits for other artists, she doesn't tailor them to the specific artist. “I don't like to think of the artist and say, ‘I have to make a record that Monica or Beyoncé or Mya would sing.’ I like to do records that I just think are hot, because I don't want to give them what you normally would hear from them. Like with Mya, you wouldn't normally hear her saying, ‘My ass is like wo.’ So I wanted to do things that make people say, ‘Oh, my God. Mya said that?’ So I'm just going to do a record that I think is hot and convince [the artist], ‘This is the hot joint — you need to do it.’”

COOL CONFIDENCE

Although it took a couple of extra days to get the momentum going for the This Is Not a Test sessions, Elliott wasn't worried, because she and Timbaland always connect with the muse at some point. “The most important thing for us is to not change up what we do,” Elliott says. “When we recording, it's just basically sitting in a room and vibing with each other. It's not like he's not giving me the direction to go or I'm giving him the direction to go. It's just that zone, and when we stumble across something, we know what it is.”

Self-doubt is not an option, especially for producers so high in demand. “Once you're confident, you make everybody else around you believe that you got some hot shit,” Elliott says. “So if they see that you're like, ‘I don't knooow,’ then you raise that doubt in them about your music.

“People probably didn't know how nervous we were [in the beginning], because the music sounded so bold. We knew that this is what we wanted to do, and we were forcing a new sound on everybody. It was taking a chance. So we threw this record out and thought, ‘If it don't work, it don't work.’ But, fortunately, it did, and I think it had something to do with having confidence in what we do.”

TO 2-INCH OR NOT TO 2-INCH?

Engineer Jimmy Douglass is a fan of 2-inch tape, but he used none on This Is Not a Test. “When we used to do it in analog, we found that it sounded much better than the [digital] 2-track did,” he says. “But when we laid a basic 2-track to digital to work off of, it actually competed with the analog in terms of clarity. Maybe sonically it didn't kill it, but it kind of did claritywise. So we started staying in digital until the end on Missy's projects.”

But experimenting with 2-inch tape is something Douglass highly recommends, as long as it doesn't get in the way of creating music on your own terms. “You're going to make the better record out of your place because you're there everyday and you feel comfortable with everything,” he says.

One way to incorporate tape is to go to a studio with a 2-inch machine, record parts for a day and then dump the takes to your home-studio hard drive. “I would suggest that you invest the $150 to $200 for that reel of tape,” Douglass says. “You only need to deal with one reel because once you hit analog, you can bounce it over to Pro Tools and then erase it again. If it doesn't really work, then you're only out $150 for the experiment.”

Or you can bring the machine to you. “See if you can convince a rental company to rent you a machine,” Douglass says. “Some rental companies will have a 2-inch machine for basically nothing. They'll basically charge you for the cartage, which is the hardest part of it, and maybe $100 to $200 a day.”