Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 4, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Missy Elliott’s 1993 classic, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).”
This show is about the past, about nostalgia. It’s about what you remember, or at least what old people around you seem to remember. But it’s also about the future, or at least which people from the fairly recent past felt like, and still feel like, the impossibly distant future. That’s Missy Elliott. She’s had a cataclysmic effect on music for the better part of 25 years now—the style, the physical movement, the sexuality, the audacity. But we still haven’t caught up to where she was 25 years ago.
For a while, she was in an all-female R&B group, first called Fayze, then called Sista—they got a record deal from Jodeci’s DeVanté Swing and put out one album in ’94 that pretty much got buried. But behind the scenes, Missy and her childhood friend Timothy Mosely, better known as Timbaland, quickly rose to power as writers and producers, primarily as the driving force behind Aaliyah’s multiplatinum second album, One in a Million, from 1996. And by then Elektra Records wanted Missy, specifically. As a songwriter, as a producer, as a developer of other artists, as herself a label owner—they gave her her own imprint, called the Goldmind. But also, yes, as a solo artist, as a star in her own right. Missy could have whatever she wanted so long as she made an album of her own.
So she and Timbaland made Supa Dupa Fly. They made it in two weeks. It included “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” the de facto title track and a breakout in the summer of 1997. By that time, hip-hop was—not in a state of crisis—but certainly a prolonged period of mourning and unease: Tupac Shakur had been shot and killed in September ’96, and the Notorious B.I.G. had been shot and killed in March ’97, both murders unsolved, then and, officially, now. This also created somewhat of a power vacuum, or at least a star vacuum. We needed a few new ones, and the more colorful and flamboyant and relatively peaceful and exuberant those new stars, the better. Virginia is not quite the South, the way we think of Outkast or UGK or No Limit Records as the South, but it’s not quite Puff Daddy’s conception of the East Coast either, not quite part of the coming Shiny Suit Era. Missy would probably find Shiny Suits way too boring. She was her own region. She was her own planet.
Beep, beep, who got the keys to the Jeep, vrooooom
I’m driving to the beach
Top down, loud sounds, see my peeps
Give them pounds, now look who it be
It be me, me, me and Timothy
That vroooom is amazing. Onomatopoeia is everything to Missy—she’s a walking comic book. Every part of the comic book. The action, the costumes, the dialogue. And how the words sound means as much as what the words mean. Plus, Missy likes her Jeeps. By the end of ’97 she’d be talking to Rolling Stone about her Mercedes Jeep, and her Mercedes SLK, and her Lexus. Some of those had TVs; some of those TVs had VCRs.
Anyway, pick your own favorite part of “The Rain.” The squiggly bass line, sure. The Ann Peebles sample, of course, from 1974’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” But my favorite part is the crickets. The crickets, incidentally, are also my favorite part of Aaliyah’s “One in a Million,” the song. Earlier on “The Rain,” Missy puts it like this:
When the rain hits my window
I take and *cough* me some indo
Me and Timbaland, ooh, we sang a jangle
We so tight that you get our styles tangled
That tangle, that chemistry, is what makes the whole Supa Dupa Fly album so incredible, and so immersive. Samples don’t just have to be old beats from old records. It’s crate digging without the crates. These songs shook things up, loosened things up. Going forward you’d see and hear and feel their influence immediately, starting with Pharrell and the Neptunes bringing greater glory to Virginia. But Missy and Timbaland didn’t pave the way; they encouraged rap and R&B and pop radio as a whole to leave the pavement.
With “The Rain,” all these little production touches, without Missy’s colossal presence, they’d feel a little too goofy, too whimsical. But Timbaland is just as valuable to her: On record, and even on paper, she is a flagrantly three-dimensional figure, and the sound of Supa Dupa Fly—part Quiet Storm, part New Jack Swing, part P-Funk, part electro-rap—is outrageous enough that it’s tactile, it has a scent, it’s visible. She’s an artist in every physical sense, and whether you can see her or not, maybe a visual artist most of all.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.