PERMANENT RECORDS: FUNKY FRESH DRESSED TO IMPRESS READY TO PARTY
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
9. MISSY ELLIOTT - UNDER CONSTRUCTION (2002)
Personnel: Missy Elliott and Timbaland, with guest vocals by Method Man, Ludacris, Jay-Z, Tweet, Ms. Jade, Beyonce, TLC and 50 Cent
Producers: Timbaland and Missy Elliott, with assistance from Erroll McCalla, Jr., Craig Brockman and Nisan Stewart
Label: The Gold Mind, Inc./Elektra
I first met Ian Shaughnessy when he was a young comic book fan looking to have his Oni Press books signed at Wizard World Chicago. We were standing in line at one point at that show to meet Method Man and RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, who were there to support some crappy martial arts comic they had licensed out. I had a vinyl copy of a RZA album with a Bill Sienkiewicz cover that I was hoping to get signed, which hopefully made me look kind of cool. Years later, I hired Ian to be my intern at Oni in the hopes of convincing him to not edit comic books and just write, to not get caught in the tangle of trying to do both the way I had. Now he's making good on that, co-writing Strangetown with Chynna Clugston and scripting his own graphic novel with artist Mike Holmes, Shenanigans. To celebrate the forthcoming release of that book, I invited him to join the Permanent Records team and talk about an album that influenced his script. He chose Missy Elliot.
JAMIE S. RICH: So, you picked Missy Elliot's Under Construction as the album you wanted to talk about. I think it's her best album, myself. There's not a duff track on it, and it doesn't have the preponderance of r&b crooning and gospel stuff that bogs a lot of her other records down. Her statement of intent is that the disc is meant to celebrate old school hiphop, and all the songs adopt a style from the past before twisting it under Timbaland's production. Now, you're what, 22? Did you even hear most of what she's referencing the first time around?
IAN R. SHAUGHNESSY: In a way. When all the stuff that she references on the record came out, I was very, very young...but I have a brother who is six years older than me who was always listening to tapes of Eric B. and Rakim, N.W.A., Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, and on and on. I was always familiar with it, but it wasn't until junior high school that I really got into that stuff and said to myself, "Oh yeah, I remember this."
What I love about this album is that it feels so stripped. Up until this point, everything Missy and Tim did together felt like it came right out of a time machine from the year 3000. They took it back a step for this, but still moved the music as a whole, forward. For instance, as complex sounding as "Work It" is, no one believed it was a Timbaland beat when it first came out. It wasn't conventional for either artist.
JSR: Do you think there is a lesson in that, in going from something so complex to something more simplistic?
IRS: Sometimes the flash can cover up the substance, and I think that hurt Missy in the beginning. This was her most successful album, after all, so that has to say something.
For me personally, I've always loved when an artist of any sort wears their influences on their sleeve -- like what Quentin Tarantino did with Kill Bill for instance. There's just something special about seeing what made the artist get to the point where they're at...the things they studied, the things they enjoy...that sort of stuff. What Missy gives us is a personal look into her CD collection and she takes what those artists gave her and she runs with it. Then we have Timbaland come in and he makes it completely their own -- it continues their signature sound while still keeping the "old school" vibe. It's a beautiful homage.
But I think another thing that made this record so powerful...so wonderful, was that it was also built upon tremendous loss. This was the first material they recorded after the death of Aaliyah. She was the person who took them in and gave them their first big break, so I think her death made them step back and ask themselves, "How did we get here? We owe Aaliyah...and we owe Rakim, we owe Dr. Dre, we owe MC Lyte. Let's pay tribute." Does that make sense?
JSR: Yeah, there seems to be a theme throughout the record of stopping and taking stock, of realizing what is important, and looking back at hiphop when it was still a community, when people were guests on each other's records for the fun of it, not to posture or to take sides against someone else, the way maybe 50 Cent and Eminem were going after Ja Rule, for instance. Not that there were weren't classic rap battles, but the sense was that when you were not on stage, it was no longer real. Like pro wrestling. So, all the guest stars somehow hearken back to that feeling, and they even kind of cover older songs, too.
I find it interesting that this approach not only reinvigorated Missy, but she and Tim brought out something in her guest stars, as well. I don't own any Ludacris or Jay-Z records, and I often find their intrusions on other people's records a low-point for those discs, but here, on "Gossip Folks" and "Back In The Day," those guys really rock.
IRS: I have learned to appreciate Jay-Z over the years, partly due to his amazing verse on his guest spot here. He's incredibly talented with word play, and the double meanings he uses are fantastic in "Back In The Day." The way he switches up rapper's names and albums for other meanings is fun, and as Missy is trying to say in this song…that's what hiphop used to be all about.
JSR: It's interesting that you bring up artists wearing their influence on their sleeves and how we're talking about this record bringing out the best in other performers, because the reason you chose this record is because of the influence it had on your writing. When I approached you to be a part of this feature, I suggested we pick an album that helped you write your graphic novel Shenanigans, and this is the one you chose. Can you explain a little bit about that? How did you get from this celebration of hiphop to a romantic comedy with secret identities and pratfalls?
IRS: Just a love for the idea, really – the idea of taking something that I appreciate so much and giving it my own spin, all the while still using the influences that made me value the genre so much in the first place. Gwen Stefani did it with Love.Angel.Music.Baby. When that record came out, she was all about saying, "I wanted to record an album that reminded me of the stuff that I listened to in the '80s…Janet, Madonna, Lisa Lisa, New Order, Club Noveau." And when you go and listen to her album, it's like all of those artists meshed into one, but it's still all Gwen. Missy did it. The Killers did it. I wanted to do it, too…but my passion is comedy, not music, so that's how it all worked out. I took the same idea that Missy did for Under Construction, to pay homage to my influences, and put it into a book. It was an absolute blast.
The main influence is, of course, Billy Wilder. Irma La Douce, specifically. I know it's a more obscure film of his, but it's probably my favorite. The colorful sets, the wonderful characters, the mature themes, the secret identity issues…it was very different for such a mainstream film of its day. Then, of course, Some Like It Hot dealt with the identity thing, as well, and The Apartment had the same kind of light-hearted romance set in front of a very dark and mature setting. Sabrina has the screw-ball zaniness that takes place in high society which factors into the climax of Shenanigans in a way…I tried to put it all in there.
And then there's little dashes of Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, and some of my favorite comedy writers like Evan Dorkin, Chynna Clugston, and Rumiko Takahashi. It's like goulash, really.
JSR: I've actually described Shenanigans to people as Billy Wilder cut to a hiphop beat.
Is there a standout track for you on Under Construction?
IRS: It keeps coming up, but I'd probably say "Back In The Day." It's so effortless and soulful. Listening to it takes me back to my own childhood…even though it was nothing like the picture Missy's lyrics paint, it still reminds me of the good times past. Whether you grew up in the inner city or the 'burbs, this song just feels so relatable to me. Plus, any song that features a "fuck Bill O'Reilly" reference gets thumbs up in my book.
I also really, really love "Funky Fresh Dressed." Tim's vocal sound effects and computer keyboard snares are so addictive (wasn't that the name of her third album?) and when Ms. Jade comes in with a rendition of the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" time just stops. I wanna get up and dance like it's junior high all over again. Plus, Missy's just so damn cocky…I love it.
JSR: Yeah, "Funky Fresh Dressed" is one of those incredible tracks that whenever it comes on, it just stops you cold, you have to listen. The verbal dexterity both Missy and Jade display are impressive, to say the least. I have a similar reaction to "Gossip Folks." The nonsense chorus is so slyly dismissive of the people it's criticizing, and yet strangely unshakeable. It's hard to get it out of your head despite being absolutely meaningless. The conversational elements and the Ludacris cameo, where the rapper talks at an incredible speed, the whole thing is breathless and fun, but the sort of fun you can only have when you've got the moral and intellectual high ground. It's like a playground song, and Missy and her crew are the victors.
I think I'm always impressed by women in hiphop, too. It's been such a male dominated industry for so long. I talked in another column about UTFO, and their willingness to not only come out as the underdogs in their own song, but to give an album cut to a woman to cut them down. How rare is that? LL Cool J did "I Need Love," but some people saw it as a sell-out. (A clever one, if that, given how much action he probably got off of it.) "Pussycat" is all about the joys of a woman's pleasure zone, and I am sure that weirded out a lot of the male hiphop audience. Then when it was followed by her duet with Beyonce, "Nothing Out There For Me," which calls out shady males for the dogs they are, it really would have knocked your average crunk fan off his game.
IRS: I've never understood why most females in hiphop don't seem to garner the same sense of respect that males do. I think it's a male pride thing and they don't even want to listen...after all, I'd say most hiphop heads are guys. I think the thought of a strong woman can scare them sometimes, and the fact that Missy's a performer, a writer and a producer? She's a triple threat, what can they do besides rap about how much they own?
Something else that I love about her is though she may always seem to be in control of herself and her surroundings, Missy's not afraid to show her vulnerable side, especially towards the end of this particular album. "Ain't That Funny" is another stand out track for me. She's talking about how she's just been played by a man who has used her for her money but no matter what he does, she'll never be able to say no to him. How many women have found themselves in a situation like that and cried about it? Most R&B artists would love to write a song like this as a soft ballad...but not Missy. Tim gives her one of his futuristic "Matrix"-style beats and Missy just commands it. Her vocals sound more like an angry vent than a lonely sob. And then we have "Can You Hear Me Now" with the surviving members of TLC that acts as a sort of eulogy to Aaliyah and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who had also died in the previous year. The intro recording by Aaliyah's mother is just heart wrenching.
JSR: I suppose that's a real lesson to take with you when you're writing a romantic comedy, isn't it? For as outrageous and funny as you are going to be, eventually you are going to have to pull it back in and make it about the hard stuff, about the emotion and what's inside your characters. You can be wild and have a good time, you can be innovative and go a little crazy, but you always have to step back to being human.
I guess to wrap, if someone were to walk up to you and say, "Shenanigans reminded me of Under Construction because..." what would you hope that thing would be?
IRS: I guess I would want it to be something along the lines of, "...I could really tell that you had a love and affinity of the genre and you really tried to push it forward in comics, but you stayed true to its core. It felt like something Billy Wilder would have done in the year 2007, just like Under Construction really felt like something from 2002 but was still old school."
My thing with Shenanigans is that the humor never gets out of control. I've got Strangetown with Chynna and a couple of upcoming projects to do that with. At its heart, this is a romance. I tried to make it as realistic as possible...after all, we all do funny things when we're in love, so the comedy is still there but I'm hoping it's relatable, you know? The fights, the make-ups, the moments spent with each other. If someone's able to come up and say, "That reminded me of my girlfriend or boyfriend and I," then I'll be perfectly pleased.
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Current Soundtrack: last night's episode of ER
Current Mood: indifferent
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich