Listen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!
“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.
In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels.
In terms of its sonic landscape, for that we have Elliott’s childhood friend Timbaland to thank in part as producer, known by then for his use of unexpected samples and textures in the mainstream. But that musical environment is just the base for Elliott’s own upfront performance that is non-apologetic and bursting with self-determination. When Elliott raps “I know you dig the way I switch my style” we know that she is the captain of this creative ship. It’s also an acknowledgement that she’s very aware that she’s cutting a new path for herself, and for her peers, too. In this, the song blurs the line between the deliverer of the message and those to whom she delivers it. Her voice belongs to her, but it also can represent the voice of those listening, too. We just have to take it on for ourselves.
As far as that goes, I think it’s important to acknowledge that “Get Ur Freak On” is not just a song title. It’s a call to action. It’s an invitation to be as non-apologetic and confident in the same way the artist herself is. I think too that the use of instruments across the cultural divide supports this idea as well, and adds to another dimension that hip hop has been particularly good at arguably above any other musical stream; purposeful cultural representation. The Japanese evocation at the top of this song roughly translates “Everyone start dancing together, make some noise”, underscoring this song as a communal anthem to self expression, maybe of a sexual kind, or perhaps a creative one. Perhaps in this context, that distinction isn’t all that important. This song is about liberation and taking control. This is particularly pertinent for women in the audience, with Missy Elliott being a paragon of this specific strain of womanhood.
And to that very important point about cultural representation, I think this song is purposefully aimed beyond a white audience, which is one of its primary strengths in the end. It’s unique sound invites other cultures into it instead by using a more diverse musical vocabulary than expected, short-circuiting the received wisdom to pander to a white audience first by using European musical reference points. That notion has always been a burden to R&B and often to hip hop, too. “Get Ur Freak On” kicks all that to the curb. In the end, white audiences must come to it, and not the other way around.
This was a risk for Elliott that paid off brilliantly, resulting significantly in one of the most innovative and musically exciting tracks of the decade, and praised by publications across the board, from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and all points in between. It also paved the way for so many artists making music from that point on and up to today who fashion their work primarily with specific communities and cultural backgrounds in mind, not necessarily engineering their work for broad cultural appeal. This always makes for better music, and it challenges the idea that mainstream audiences are not willing to follow a sound across cultural lines as traditional music industry wisdom has always assumed. This song is exhibit A that this once sacredly held notion is ridiculous.
After a long sabbatical away from her music career due to a chronic illness, Missy Elliott is an active artist today. You can catch up to her at missy-elliott.com.