Missy Elliot
Missy Elliot
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As Missy Elliott announces her first headlining tour, a look at the 2001 song that proved a gamechanger for the rap legend.

It's hard to believe that she's never had her own headlining tour – but Missy Elliott has just announced her first, 27 years after the release of her debut album. Starting on 4 July in Vancouver and set to wrap on 22 August, Out of This World – The Missy Elliott Experience 2024 will feature support from Ciara, Busta Rhymes and Timbaland. Pre-sale tickets for the tour launch today, with general sale available from 12 April.

"Fans have been asking me to tour forever but I wanted to wait until I felt the time was right because I knew if I was ever going to do it, I had to do it big, and I had to do it with family," Elliott shared in a statement. "This is an incredible time in my life as I am experiencing so many milestone 'firsts'," Elliott continued. "Being the first female hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and now going out on my first headline tour."

When Elliott was inducted in November 2023, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to the "in-demand songwriter, pathbreaking producer, label exec, and video trendsetter" who holds the record for most platinum albums by a woman rapper and who "forged new paths for women in the music industry and beyond by unapologetically owning her body, her sexual desires, and her blackness".

In 2004, Elliott co-headlined the Verizon Ladies First tour with Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. Arguably, one song released three years earlier proved to be a turning point in the career of the Virginia-born rapper, singer-songwriter and producer: Get Ur Freak On, which would become one of the most iconic anthems in modern music.

This was no debut – Elliott had already made a bold impact with hits over two albums: Supa Dupa Fly (1997) and Da Real World (1999), as well as penning songs for R&B stars such as Aaliyah and SWV with her long-time friend, producer and collaborator, Timbaland – but it was a gamechanger. From its opening notes, the track was fantastically irrepressible: the six-note melody played on a Punjabi one-stringed tumbi; the impulsive tabla percussion; Elliott's vivacious Southern flow ("I know you dig the way I sw-sw-switch my style"). In 2001, it felt like a thrilling shock to the system; countless plays, remixes (and multi-genre covers) later, Get Ur Freak On still sounds utterly electrifying.

Switching things up had definitely been Elliott's intention. By then in her late 20s, she was already a savvy businesswoman, had founded her own offshoot (The Goldmind) from major label Elektra, and was conscious of the industry pressure surrounding her next move. There was also a sense that while Timbaland's distinctive productions were proving widely influential, they weren't yet getting their mainstream due.

In a 2001 Vibe feature (written by Marc Weingarten), Elliott explained that: "I wanted to do what everybody else is scared to do." She and Timbaland had actually created Get Ur Freak On as an impromptu late addition for what would be her third album Miss E… So Addictive; first, though, she intended to let the track "marinate in the clubs for a while, get a street buzz going". This buzz would blossom into a crossover storm; Get Ur Freak On channelled serious hip-hop caché, worldly flavours, and an instant, all-encompassing pop appeal, as Elliott insisted: "It could be about dancing, the bedroom, whatever. You're cleaning your house? Get your freak on!"

It's also impossible to separate the vivid music from its eye-popping visuals. Elliott had already established a reputation for outlandish videos directed by Hype Williams; the '90s had proved a creatively febrile, increasingly big-budget period for US hip-hop and R&B, but Elliott presented alternative, fuller-figured and fearlessly surreal statements. For Get Ur Freak On, she turned to a new collaborator, video director Dave Meyers, and together they conjured a murky-glamorous world that projected the avant-garde into the prime-time. Meyers told Fortune in 2019 about his initial connection with Elliott: "She reached out to take me to dinner and then took me to see Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. We just vibed about perspectives of the world and weird stuff and developed a trust… There are no limits with Missy. The crazier, the better. She tends to respond to interesting movement."

Reaching the mainstream

Get Ur Freak On's urgent dance moves were created by another of Elliott's regular collaborators, visionary choreographer Nadine "Hi-Hat" Ruffin. Elliott's dancers throw shapes in some kind of industrial underworld – crouched on concrete blocks, hanging upside down like bats. The video also spotlights an array of Elliott's established and emerging peers: Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, Eve, LL Cool J, Jah Rule, Nicole Wray. Elliott herself is both queenly and cartoonish: craning her head from her body; swinging from a chandelier; and in one memorably trippy, Matrix-like effect, spitting long-distance into a male dancer's mouth.

The track received international airplay, scoring Platinum success on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, Elliott was emerging as a cover star across publications that had rarely afforded such attention to hip-hop – although she had already been a mainstay in acclaimed street culture and music magazine Touch. "Get Ur Freak On was the song that really took Missy to the mainstream, although R&B fans already knew her from her earlier band Sista, and had the two albums prior to this," says Lawrence Lartey, former contributing editor of Touch, now creative director at Ravensbourne University. "I liked the track, though I did think that everyone was playing catch-up; they'd finally seen how good she is. And it immediately sounded and looked different in the national charts; this wasn't Oasis or S Club 7! It was the age of bling, but also a time where the mainstream was opening up to the offbeat in other acts like Outkast. It was also a precursor to the UK really projecting its own identity in hip-hop and R&B."

BBC broadcaster, life-long hip-hop fan and then club DJ Nihal Arthanayake recalls hearing the track for the first time: "It felt like a watershed moment where, sonically, you feel like the world would never be the same again," he says, emphatically.

This also felt like a transformative point in Western mainstream music, where Eastern influences and samples were given natural prominence, rather than being side-lined (and rarefied) as "world music"; in addition to the Indian inspirations, Get Ur Freak On features an intro and outro in Japanese.

"Certain sections of the press had leaned towards an esoteric orientalism when it came to Asian music," says Arthanayake. "Then this guy [Timbaland] was African-American, and one of the biggest producers in the world, along with one of the most exciting rappers on the planet, and they incorporated the beats in a way that was commercially viable, not just exotic. It kind of gave Asian producers, and people who used Asian beats, a validation.

"The percussive spine of this track, the inordinate amount of money they'd spent on this video, meant that its cultural impact was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It came before Addictive by Truth Hurts (2002) and What's Happenin by Method Man (2004), which both sampled Bollywood. I joined a brand-new Asian beats show on Radio 1 in 2002; I can't definitively say the two things were connected, but the fact is that Radio 1 felt something was going on around Asian sounds. I do remember interviewing Timbaland in 2003, and he went to Southall afterwards to buy loads of Asian CDs…"

Get Ur Freak On still feels like a global hotbed, fuelling new generations of samples and remixes; Arthanayake excitedly plays me a 2019 Mastiksoul and Chuckie bootleg down the phone, and adds that the track's creative dexterity is its enduring strength. "Get Ur Freak On is a party record that still bangs; you can imagine it being the kind of track that gangstas and pretty boys wanna dance to," he says. "It's pop, it's hard, it's got everything you want in a hip-hop single. There's another reason why it works; it's 178 beats-per-minute, like drum'n'bass, but you can dance to it on half-time (89bpm) – so ravers and hip-hop heads will like it, it appeals across genres."

The track has even proved a bop for music theorists, such as Professor Ethan Hein: a doctoral fellow in music education at NYU. In his blog (Oct 2020), Hein describes Get Ur Freak On as "my go-to example for Phrygian mode" (similar to the modern natural minor scale, with ancient Greek origins), and transcribes Elliott's a capella flow into a melodic study. It's a hypnotic contrast to a flurry of Get Ur Freak On covers spanning Britney Spears in Vegas to alt-rockers Eels.