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18 Lessons From Missy Elliott’s ‘Supa Dupa Fly’

A trip back to the future on the eve of the 20th anniversary of a genre-shifting album

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Twenty years ago on July 15, Missy Elliott released Supa Dupa Fly, a genre-shifting album so creative and forward-thinking that rap is still trying to catch up to it. There were an untold number of bits and pieces of advice tucked away in it. The 18 best:

1. Make sure you have people’s attention before you start talking.

Ay, yo, yo, yoyo, yoyoyoyo / Ay, yo, yo, yoyo, yoyoyoyo / Ay, yo, yo, yo, yo / Ay, yo, Missy. — Busta Rhymes, “Busta’s Intro”

Busta says either “ay” or “yo” 25 times before he finally says Missy’s name. While I would not recommend that you take it to such extremes should you employ this particular technique (like, say, at a job interview or while you are being interrogated by the police), I also cannot deny the effectiveness of this particular pre-talk strategy. (Busta later gives an even more important piece of advice when he says, “I continue to disregard all of y’all’s opinion,” and then after that he gives his most important piece of advice of all when he says, “No time for the kissy kissy.” I oftentimes have to remind myself that very few situations allow time for the kissy kissy, including but not limited to the aforementioned job interview or police interrogation.*)

*I don’t know why I think this is so funny. I kept just picturing a person being questioned by a very serious police detective in this dark room somewhere in the underbelly of the precinct and the detective is asking the person questions about a disastrous crime that’s been committed and the person leans in and tries to kiss the detective and then the detective bangs his fist down on the interrogation table and shouts, “There is no time for the kissy kissy!”

2. Know that you are not infallible.

Christians repent then sin again. — Lil’ Kim, “Hit ’Em Wit’ Da Hee”

The whole point of being alive is you’re supposed to screw things up and then try to fix those things and then screw things up again. It’s why they have church every Sunday and not just one single Sunday. Lil’ Kim understands that. I hope that you do, too.

3. Understand that money isn’t the most important thing — if you have it.

It wasn’t your car that had me all in love with you / ’Cause I’ve got my own ride and a trunk full of tunes. — Missy Elliott, “Hit ’Em Wit’ Da Hee”

When I was in middle school, a kid that lived on my street received Mortal Kombat 3 for SNES as a birthday present. The game was relatively new and also everyone in our neighborhood was relatively poor, so for a good little while he was the only person who lived near me who had it. The main problem with that situation was he was super not somebody that I liked or that any of my friends liked. So we were all stuck in this spot where it was either (a) you have to hang out with a person who is bad and mean but at least you get to play Mortal Kombat 3, or (b) you don’t have to hang out with a person who is bad and mean but you also don’t get to play Mortal Kombat 3. And maybe that doesn’t seem that big of an existential conundrum to you, but I’ll just remind you that we were all around 12 years old at the time, which meant that it was the biggest fucking conundrum of all. At any rate, Missy’s point here is that you can avoid all of that if you just have your own stuff, so just get your own stuff, is what I’m saying.

Aaliyah and Elliott in 1998 (Getty Images)
Aaliyah and Elliott in 1998 (Getty Images)

4. If someone is shooting, then you should get down.

Duck / Here comes the shot bang-bang. — Missy Elliott, “Hit ’Em Wit’ Da Hee”

Of all of the advice offered on this album, this idea here is probably the second-most practical. I just can’t think of too many situations where getting shot in the head is an ideal outcome, unless you wanted to win some sort of Get Shot In The Head contest, in which case I think you and I have some larger issues we should discuss.

(Later in the album, Missy raps the line, “If I come out buckin’ / the whole world better be duckin’” on a song called “Pass Da Blunt.” A lot of people have said many smart and good things about Supa Dupa Fly, but I don’t think it’s ever gotten its due as far as its advocacy of ducking bullets is concerned.)

5. Guys who are incarcerated have extremely hard erections.

Hit hard like penitentiary dick. — Da Brat, “Sock It 2 Me”

I remember learning about this thing in school called the Mohs Scale of Hardness. It was a thing that arranged the hardness of minerals relative to one another. (The way it worked was you just measured minerals by whether or not they could scratch the surface of other minerals.) The lowest level of hardness was talc, a clay mineral that’s mostly known for being in baby powder and cornstarch. The highest level of hardness was diamond, which was the only mineral that could scratch the surface of all the other minerals. I’m certain Professor Mohs et. al were startled when Professor Da Brat made the groundbreaking discovery that actually the hardest substance of all was penitentiary dick (i.e., the dick of someone in prison).

6. Always have confidence.

Me, I’m supa fly, supa dupa fly. — Missy Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

7. Don’t settle. (Or: Do have friends who gas you up.)

All my friends say I can do better than you. — Missy Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

Elliott, Ginuwine, and Timbaland in 2001 (Getty Images)
Elliott, Ginuwine, and Timbaland in 2001 (Getty Images)

8. Don’t be reactive, be proactive.

I break up with him before he dump me. — Missy Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

A lesson I learned very early in my life was that if you think you’re going to get into a fight, then make sure it’s you who throws the first punch. (Sadly, a resulting lesson I learned very early in my life was that even if you’re the one who throws the first punch, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the one who wins the fight. I have been in, I think, at least three different fights where I threw the first punch and then got beat up after that. I lack knockout power, I suppose.)

9. Obey the rules given to you on a plane, even when you are afraid.

I’m a passenger of this plane / I feel the turbulence, I maintain / I will refrain / Stay in my seat / Till I reach the gate. — Ginuwine, “Friendly Skies”

Two things here:

1. Of all of the advice offered on this album, this idea here is probably the first-most practical.

2. The first single from Supa Dupa Fly was “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” It was released about two months before the full album. It was (and remains) an impossibly good and creative song. As such, it immediately positioned Missy and Timbaland as this left-of-center, wildly inventive, potentially brilliant, potentially transcendent duo. There was still a question mark there, though; people were caught between trying to figure out if that genius-level of music was something Missy and Timbaland had aimed toward or if it was something they’d stumbled into. When the video for it came out the next month, though — that’s when everything snapped into place for everyone else watching, and when the vision that only Missy and Timbaland had been smart enough to see came into focus. All of a sudden, it felt a lot like this whole new part of the music universe had been found and needed to be explored. Everything was in play. There weren’t anymore gates up to pen anyone in. And still, despite the cosmic shift and the atomization of boundaries, I still never would’ve guessed in a billion years that Supa Dupa Fly was going to have a part in it where Ginuwine gave very sound advice on how to handle being on a plane experiencing a certain amount of turbulence.

10. Living debt-free is ideal.

I’m leaving you without arrears. — Magoo, “Beep Me 911”

(I had to Google what the word “arrears” meant. Even after all these years, Missy and Timbaland and Magoo are still helping me learn things.) (Also: What happened to Magoo? Why didn’t he take off like everyone else did? Remember how incredible “Luv 2 Luv U” was? He deserved to be a star. There’s a story there that needs to be told.)

11. Always shoot your shot.

Should I not or should I? I’ma get ’em, I’ma get ’em. — Missy Elliott, “Pass Da Blunt”

12. Always pick up the phone.

I’ll still be there for you in your time of need. — Missy Elliott and Aaliyah, “Best Friends”

This whole song is actually a thing where Missy and Aaliyah take turns bouncing back and forth between talking about how bad a significant other might be and how, despite that fact, they will always be there when that significant other needs them. Though not exactly the same, the sentiment reminds a bunch of the recent comedy special by Chris Gethard. In it, he spends a great deal of time working toward a big point: Regardless of whether or not you think you have the answers or think you know how to fix a situation, if someone is hurting and needs help then you should always pick up the phone when they call. (Here’s an interview The Ringer’s Alison Herman did with Gethard after the special came out.) (And if you’d like for this all to be tied to Missy, then I’ll point out that one time Gethard had Diddy as a guest on his show, and that Diddy also had a cameo in Missy’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” video. The universe is always connected.)

13. Fuck ’em.

Fuck you. — Missy Elliott, “Don’t Be Commin’ (In My Face)”

I just wish that maybe they’d have gone with a different title for the song, is all.

14. Always listen to New Edition.

And if she humped Ralph, she humped Bobby, Ricky, and Mike. — Missy Elliott, “Why You Hurt Me”

Clearly, the point of this line has nothing to do with New Edition, it’s just Missy was hat-tipping them here and so I want to respect that. (That link sends you to “Cool It Now,” one of New Edition’s biggest hits. The song — which has a part in it where Ralph raps the line, “Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, and Mike,” and as he says each guy’s name the guy looks into the camera with a surprised face — is about how Ralph has fallen in love with a girl and the guys are all telling him he needs to slow things down. Sometimes I think about how maybe Missy used the line to just wink back at them as an homage of sorts, given that they were a truly important musical act. But other times I think about how maybe she actually used it as a way to torpedo the idea of innocent love and speak on how, as you grow older, it becomes a near impossibility to find that sort of thing again, and that maybe it’s also secretly a hat-tip to that line in Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” where Ronnie raps, “I know she’s a loser / (How do you know?) / Me and the crew used to do her.” I’m not sure. Unraveling all of the things that Missy Elliott is doing is like unraveling a battleship, which is to say it’s inconceivable and why would you ever even try that?)

15. Another person’s actions are of no concern to you.

She can do her thang / ’Cuz me and her don’t hang. — Missy Elliott, “Why You Hurt Me”

16. If you’re going to fight, then fight hard.

Fight you like the fucking enemies / You would think there’s fucking 10 of me. — Missy Elliott, “I’m Talkin’”

Elliott in 2002 (Getty Images)
Elliott in 2002 (Getty Images)

17. Stay petty.

Whoever bit my style, I hope you croak from the rabies. — Missy Elliott, “I’m Talkin”

If someone copies a thing that you’re doing, then it’s OK for you to tell them that you hope they die of rabies. (FYI: It is not, however, OK for you to facilitate said rabies-based death.) (I’m honestly not sure exactly how someone would go about doing that, though.) (I suppose you could trap the person in a room with several animals that have rabies, but that hardly seems like a good plan.) (Do you remember in that movie The Crush where the one girl traps the woman in the room and then empties a wasps’ nest into the vents?) (That was a weird movie.) (And a bad movie.) (I don’t know.) (It feels like we’ve wandered away from the point here.) (I’m sorry.)

18. Just do cool shit.

Make it hot / Aight / I’m out. — Missy Elliott, “Missy’s Finale”

The only thing that truly matters when you’re trying to create something is that you always work toward trying to make sure that whatever the thing is that you’re creating is cool. If you do that, then most everything else seems to work out just fine.