Missy Elliott hit the headlines this month when she became the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The award-winning singer-songwriter broke down in tears during her acceptance speech as she shared her gratitude: “Every time I come up to a podium … even with all the work that I’ve done, I don’t know, and I’m assuming it’s just God, I don’t know why I am here,” she said. “I want to say one thing to the writers, to the upcoming writers, ‘Do not give up.’ We all go through writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to walk away from a record and come back to it. But don’t give up because I’m standing here. And this is big for hip-hop, too.”
Elliott’s recent honor comes off the back of a 30-year career that’s seen her claim 30 million records sales in the US alone, five Grammy awards, collaborative success with some of the biggest names in the industry and, not least, a $50 million net worth. How she came by her millions is a question that demands a closer look into her life, her career, and her work ethic. With that’s said, let’s begin.
Missy Elliott was born in Virginia and raised in Jacksonville, North Carolina as the only child of Patricia and Ronnie Elliott. Elliott found early salivation in her church choir, and by the age of four, had already decided her future lay in performing. Outside of church, her childhood was less happy; her father was abusive, frequently beating Elliott’s mother and even, on one occasion, threatening the young Elliott with a gun. When Elliott was fourteen, she and her mother escaped the violence by fleeing to Portsmouth, Virginia. Elliott has since credited the experience with giving her the strength to get through the challenges of later life. “When we left, my mother realized how strong she was on her own, and it made me strong,” she’s recalled. “It took her leaving her home to be able to realize that.”
It was thanks to her mother’s decision to set up home in Portsmouth that Elliott got her first break. While there, she formed a band, Fayze (later renamed Sista), alongside three girlfriends, La’Shawn Shellman, Chonita Coleman, and Radiah Scott, and her neighbor and songwriting partner, Tim Mosley (aka Timbaland). Singer-producer Devante happened to chance upon the group and, impressed by their talents, invited them to record an album in New York. While nothing really came of their recording efforts, Missy and Timbaland used the opportunity to begin peddling their songs to any artist willing to buy them. Their first big success arrived with Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew”, which hit the number 1 spot in 1996. Record labels, who had previously dismissed Elliott as being too “tubby” to rank as a worthwhile investment, suddenly started falling over themselves to sign her. Ever the astute businesswoman, Elliott held out until she was offered her own label, Gold Mind Inc, with East West Records, a division of Elektra Entertainment Group. The opportunity gave Elliott 100% creative control over her output, as well as the chance to bring new artists on board. The result? In one fell swoop, Elliott became one of the first black American entertainment tycoons and secured her (and Elektra’s) fortunes for good.
Since the off, Elliott’s solo albums have proved massively successful. Her first, “Supa Dupa Fly”, produced the platinum-selling single “The Rain”, while her 2nd, “Da Real World”, sold 3 million copies worldwide. 2001’s “Miss E… So Addictive” featured the hugely popular “Get Ur Freak On” along with club banger “4 My People”, while her 4th album, 2002’s “Under Construction”, cemented her status as one of the most successful female rappers of all time with 2.1 million sales in the US, a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album and the title of that year’s best hip-hop album from the New York Times.
Collaborating Her Way to the Top
In between writing, rapping and producing her own albums, Elliott has seen huge success (and profits) from her collaborations with other notable artists. Some of her earliest collaborative efforts included co-writing and producing two tracks for Whitney Houston’s hugely successful album from 1998, “My Love is Your Love”, and featuring on Spice Girl Melanie Brown’s chart-topping debut, “I Want You Back”. She’s since seen success with “1, 2 Step” with Ciara, “I Deserve It” with Faith Evans, “I Love Him” with Monica, and “Borderline” with Ariana Grande.
As much as she’s a successful artist in her own right, Elliott seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to ensuring the success of others. Her production and songwriting skills have helped artists such as Jennifer Hudson, Monica, Keyshia Cole, and Jazmine Sullivan achieve huge international records sales and award glory… and cleverly, ensured Elliott stays relevant even in the downtime between her own releases.
Pushing for Success
One of the key reasons for Elliott’s continued success is her refusal to take things for granted or allow herself to become complacent. In an interview with Billboard, Elliott revealed how Michael Jackson inspired her work ethic by answering “work harder” when asked what he would have done differently in his career. “I was just like, ‘Work harder? Like Mike, you moonwalked until your shoes were almost flip-flops. What else could you do?'” she said. “But it pushed me somewhere else because I feel like there’s always room for improvement.”
So, the answer to how Missy Elliott made her millions? Hard work and a massive helping of natural-born talent. In the early years of her career, Elliott was dogged about making her way to the top, refusing to accept the dismissal of image-conscious record exec’s and plowing on regardless. Since then, she’s extended her reach into every aspect of the industry, whether through her songwriting, her producing, or her collaborations. 30 years after she first dipped her toes into the music industry, Elliott’s relentless work ethic has ensured she remains as relevant and productive as ever – and the rewards speak for themselves.