Zaftig Beats

Delano security is acting a bit nervous. It's a beautiful afternoon in the hotel's artfully sculpted grassy back yard, but today's lounging guests look very different from the usual run of schmoozing businessmen, high-rolling European tourists, and Hollywood figures. Instead it's a parade of thug chic, with a large gathering of muscle-bound black men bedecked in bandanas, rolled-up sweatpants, cut-off T-shirts, and lots of tattoos. This sight would normally send hotel staff running for their walkie-talkies. The members of this menacing-looking crowd, however, are the guests of honor -- the cream of the hip-hop world, with more than ten million records sold among them.

The assemblage is here for the birthday celebration of Yber-manager Chris Lighty and his firm, Violator Management, whose roster of clients reads like a who's who of rap. New York City's Noreaga stands sipping a plastic cup of champagne, while Busta Rhymes bounces around, making faces and mugging for an obliging photographer. Lighty cracks jokes with several other rap-label impresarios, laughing loudly as they all chime in on a punch line that seems perfectly to encapsulate this meeting of street-level aesthetics and big business: "It's what you bank after taxes! After taxes!" On the sidelines are several clumps of freshly signed-to-Violator rappers who appear to be observing some standard of etiquette handed down from a high school cafeteria: You can sit near the cool kids, but not with them.

Also set back from the crowd is Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, but she's hardly an up-and-comer. Rather she's been a player in every sense of the word since her 1997 multiplatinum debut, Supa Dupa Fly, singlehandedly rewrote the very sound of modern-day funk. Elliott's unease at this party may stem from the high expectations surrounding her just-released second album, Da Real World. After all, once you've made a revolution, how do you top yourself?

A hulking bodyguard built like a small tank leads us back to a poolside cabana. Wearing a bright blue jersey and a beaming smile, Elliott casually leans back in her chair and reflects on the recording of Supa Dupa Fly, when she wasn't yet a star, just a producer with a buzz, based in unfashionable Virginia Beach, Virginia, far from the tastemaking centers of New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta.

"When we left the studio at night, I'd turn on the radio in the car," she recalls. "It made me realize how far left we were. All the drum sounds on the radio had the same beat. Everything just sounded exactly the same. We didn't have anything to prove at that time, because nobody knew who we were. But it made me want to bring something fresh to the table -- to throw people, make them hear us, and say, 'Man! Who is that?'"

"Something fresh" is quite an understatement to describe the initial impact Elliott's record had. Together with producer Timbaland, the two created an utterly idiosyncratic blend of slinky grooves that while instantly infectious, also pushed the boundaries of what a black pop single could sound like. Double-time staccato snare kicks did a funky-chicken shudder around the melodies, while Timbaland inserted R2D2 chirps and phaserlike burps around his own signature grunts and inventive onomatopoeia. The end result was a futuristic landscape that nodded as much to Blade Runner as it did to any '70s soul traditions.

And then there was Missy Elliott's singing, a full-bodied growl that seemed less concerned with "keeping it real" than keeping it surreal. To that end Elliott flitted around the rhythms, blissfully out-of-step, pausing in the midst of "The Rain" to purse her lips and purr, "Vrroom ... Beep! Beep!" Like Hairspray's Ricki Lake dancing gleefully in front of an American Bandstand-style TV show, Elliott was a proudly zaftig temptress unafraid to embrace the naked sensuality of R&B as well as its power to transcend the mundaneness of daily life. Even better, here was a singer who could sum up the juvenile state of pop music in one line in "Hit 'Em Wid Da Hee," snapping, "You must be retarded if you think Brandy really's brokenhearted."

What's so surprising is that this unorthodox approach not only clicked with a mass audience, but also was adopted by black producers from coast-to-coast, to the point where radio once again sounds monolithic. Only this time the formula is Elliott's. On Da Real World's pejorative-flipping "She's a Bitch," the singer addresses her many professional admirers: "I gotta say one thing to y'all beat-biters, it's about to be the year 2000. I'm sick of that kat-kat-kat," she snarls, mimicking her own once-unique rhythms, while Timbaland joins in with his own self-parodying "riki-boom-boom-ch-boom."

"I remember when we were starting out, we met with this radio station's program director," says Elliott with exasperation in her voice. "He was all confused. 'We just don't get your record' he told us. 'What's up with that beat? We can't mix it into the next song, we can't play your music on the radio!'" She shakes her head and continues, "It's 1999 now, and everybody is throwing down the exact same beats as us. It's good, though. It makes Timbaland and me move on to something different. If no one was copying us, we'd probably still be doing the same thing. [During the recording of Da Real World] I made a point of not listening to the radio or watching videos. A lot of times, as producers and songwriters, we get caught up in trends. We start following what's hot and changing our own style." Smiling, she adds, "If I'm not listening to the radio or watching videos, then I don't know what's hot, so I'm coming with my own creativity."

Such a maverick sensibility raises the question: Just where do these off-kilter ideas come from? More than one critic has compared Elliott's music to British drum and bass, whose affinity for jungle breakbeats and sci-fi effects Elliott and Timbaland seem to share (albeit slowed down, split in half, and panned wide). Elliott grows animated at such a notion. "For so long we've been hearing 'This sounds like drum and bass!'," she exclaims, throwing her hands up. "I'd never heard of drum and bass at all! After [Supa Dupa Fly was released] we went to London for the first time, and right away I made them bring me some CDs of drum and bass. I had to hear this stuff!"

And the verdict? "Well, if you've been attuned to drum and bass, and then you hear our music, you might find a similarity," she explains. "But I don't hear it, maybe because drum and bass is so fast! It's not something I would listen to every day, but I've heard some DJs doing some interesting stuff, even doing drum and bass remixes of our songs."

Elliott and Timbaland may have reached their aesthetic peak in late 1998, constructing the song "Are You That Somebody?" for teenage diva Aaliyah. In the hands of anyone else, the tune surely would have been a syrupy ballad. Elliott and Timbaland, however, gave the song a stop-start shuddering groove, with strange whirring noises circling the mix, and -- most delightful of all -- a baby cooing throughout. It's not a wholly original idea; Sly Stone used a crying infant on his 1974 album Small Talk. But it was Elliott and Timbaland who figured out how not only to push the sonic envelope, but to take that baby to the bank, scoring a monster hit in the process.

The chart success of "Are You That Somebody?" may have been a curse in disguise, however. Searching for something new, trying to run away from the very type of experimentalism that made her music so appealing in the first place, Elliott's Da Real World shows signs of strain. There's a grimness throughout the album, highlighted on "You Don't Know," where Elliott and rapper Lil' Mo engage in a verbal catfight. In 1997 such a track might have been cut playfully. Now it's leavened only by Timbaland's eyebrow-raised utterance: "Uh-oh." There are also disturbing lapses into the same commodity fetishism that clogs up so much of hip-hop today; the mind-numbing odes to Lexuses and gold jewelry on this CD were once precisely what Elliott refreshingly avoided.

Still, fears that Elliott may be about to bow to convention are unfounded. Instead chalk up the slight disappointment of Da Real World to growing pains. "I'm already looking to the year 3000," says Elliott decisively. "I don't consider what we do hip-hop or R&B. I'd rather find a new category.

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