Missy Elliott on Writing Songs for Aaliyah and Others: 'I'm Very Much a Feeling Person'

Missy Elliott
Josh Brasted/FilmMagic

Missy Elliot performs during the 2018 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 7, 2018 in New Orleans. 

Rap icon Missy Elliott is making history once again—this time as the first female MC nominated for entry into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Winners will be inducted at the 50th annual ceremony in New York on June 13, 2019.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought this would happen, I wouldn’t have known,” says Elliott. “But wow, this is such a blessing. I’m so humbly grateful.”

Known for a string of top-charting singles that includes “Hot Boyz”, “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It” and “Gossip Folks,” Elliott has been just as successful writing songs for others. Among those credits: Aaliyah (“One in a Million”), Monica (“So Gone”), 702 (“Where My Girls At”), Destiny’s Child (“Confessions”) and Whitney Houston (“In My Business”).

“A lot of people just thought I was an artist,” Elliott notes with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘I had no clue.’”

In the following interview, Elliott clues people in about her creative process, the one song fans are surprised she wrote and what’s up with her long-anticipated next album.

Billboard: What does your nomination mean for the current and next generation of women songwriters and producers? 

Missy Elliott: I hope it opens the door so people will be able to see that they [female songwriters and producers] do exist out there. I was talking to Queen Latifah the other day, saying it’s so crazy how people don’t know that there was a Patrice Rushen, who did a lot of her own stuff; an Angela Winbush … so many before me that people aren’t aware of. If I [win], I’ll have the biggest party. And if I don’t, I’ll still have a big party because I’m just grateful, and it sparks the conversation for someone that comes after me. There hasn’t been a female MC inducted, and we have to look at that. 

What one song are fans most surprised to learn you wrote? 

There are so many. Aaliyah songs have never been a surprise because people have always connected us. But I think Fantasia’s “Free Yourself” is one. People from the era before know about Monica and “So Gone.” But the new generation don’t know. 

Because Fantasia’s such a strong singer, I wanted to make sure the music was live and not create a beat on a machine. I wanted to have bridges as well because songs don’t have bridges anymore. Then, of course, I’m famous for writing “look if you do me wrong, I’m about to leave” kind of records [laughs]. And Fantasia was going through some things at the time. After Jazmine Sullivan, then 16 years old, demoed the song, Fantasia went in there and made it her own. She gave it that Fantasia church feeling mixed with some hood.

Is songwriting a daily process for you?

It comforts me to write every day. I always say my friends live vicariously through me because I’ll listen to them and then put their stories into song form. Monica’s “So Gone” came like that. She was in the studio fussing about something. I overheard her and immediately wrote the song based on what she was arguing about.

It’s been 13 years since your last album. What have you learned about yourself creatively in that time?

That I’ve been very hard on myself. Since I record all the time, I play stuff for my friends when they come over. They’re like, “You’re sitting on this great body of work.” And I’m like no, that’s not hot. I’m never fully comfortable with things. I’m very much a feeling person. Fifty people can tell me, “Hey, this is hot.” But if I don’t feel it then nobody else will ever hear it except for those 50 people at my house. If I get goosebumps, then I feel like the world will feel that way when they hear it.

You’re far from done but how would you define your musical legacy to this point?

I like to let other people say what it is. I’m blessed for sure to have reached so many people. I saw a lot of kids dressed up like “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” for Halloween. They were all of five and six years old, walking around singing “The Rain.” When I saw Mary [Halsey, whose cover of “Work It” recently went viral], I was like wait, she knows the words better than me. I pray that as long as I’m breathing that I continue to create music that will transcend to other generations.

What’s next?

I don’t like to talk about that because my fans are so crazy. What I love about them is they ride for me through thick and thin. But if you tell them a date, you better stick to it. If you tell them you’re doing something with somebody, you better do it. So, I don’t want to say who I’m working with. For this album, I’m just trying to make sure that I give the best me that I can possibly give.