How Missy Elliott's backward vocals in 'Work It' came together
Producer Timbaland recalls the origins of the tongue-twisting hit
It’s no secret that the rapper took the lyrics “I put my thang down, flip it and reverse it” and, well, reversed them in the chorus of her 2002 hit “Work It.” But after a BuzzFeed post last week pointed out that some fans are only just now discovering what she’s saying, interest in the song’s tongue-twisting rhymes spiked — and even Elliott herself joined the conversation via Twitter.
Those iconic backward vocals helped make “Work It” the highest-charting U.S. single of Elliott’s career — but the song didn’t come easy, according to Elliott’s partner in crime. In an interview with EW earlier this month, Timbaland recalled coaching the rapper through several iterations of the track. “We cut the song at least five times before it was right,” says the producer, who currently hosts the Lifetime competition series The Pop Game. “She had different lyrics, different [flows], but I just didn’t care for it.” He told her over and over again: “That’s not it, it’s still not there yet.”
It was on her last attempt that Elliott played around with the reversed lyrics. “That’s something that she did creatively,” Timbaland says. “When she came back and played it for me [backward], I was like, ‘That’s the one.'” Timbaland says Elliott’s revised hook “found the sweet spot in the [groove] to seal the deal” — the backward segments were just “the icing on the cake.”
Timbaland didn’t actually witness Elliott’s eureka moment firsthand, however. Though the two have been collaborating for decades, Elliott usually records her vocals away from Timbaland with just her engineer. “We don’t ever work together in a room,” he says. “[Sometimes] when I’m doing the music, we’ll be in there vibing, but after that, she takes it with her to another room, to her space. I’m not there.”