It took grueling physical therapy to recover, but when he did, Missy Elliott took him and Magoo up to New Jersey, where her band was auditioning for Donald Earle DeGrate Junior, otherwise known as Devante Swing, one of the founding members of the R&B band Jodeci. At first Mosley “sounded horrible,” said Bill Pettaway Jr., a songwriter and session musician who was hanging around the studio at the time, but it was clear he had talent: Enough to join the music-making collective DeGrate was assembling in Rochester. The setup he described sounded utopian, or at least like a pitch for an MTV show: a gang of talented young artists living and working together, writing songs for his label, Swing Mob. But the group, who quickly named themselves Da Bassment Crew, after the basement studios they worked in, found over time that the reality of their condition was more totalitarian. Credit on the albums went to the Swing Mob, not to individuals, which bothered Mosley, as did the fact that DeGrate was amassing a fleet of luxury vehicles while the rest of them were struggling. Pettaway sometimes drove to Rochester just to bring him ramen noodles. “He had no money, nothing,” says Pettaway. “He had one blue-turquoise coat. And he sat by a hot-water heater on the floor on the basement.”
The collective fell apart in 1995, although its members continued to collaborate. Mosley and Static Major produced the oily, now-iconic “Pony” for their cohort Ginuwine, and soon after, Def Jam put Mosley and Elliott together to work on material for Aaliyah Haughton, the teenage siren. “I was in love with her,” Mosley admitted to E! after Aaliyah died in a plane crash in 2001, although this was hardly a surprise to anyone who heard the lilt in his voice when he introduced “Baby Girl, better known as a Aaliyah,” in the 1998 single “Are You That Somebody?” Which was everyone, because that song was huge.
“Are You That Somebody?” is often held up as an example of what is unique about the Timbaland sound, because it combines all the elements that would become his signature: the chunky, unpredictable beat that forces the singer to chase it around, the combination of traditional hip-hop and R&B sounds, which would pave the way for the Rihannas and Nicki Minajs of today, and the weird yet appealingly familiar sample of a cooing baby, plucked from a seventies disco record.
Now, in the digital age, it’s remarkable for how organic it sounds. You can hear actual instruments, guitars and bass and live drums. Mosley still makes most of his beats the old-fashioned way. “I do everything from my mouth,” he says. “Horn sounds, everything.” He also has a vast library of sounds and samples. “The other night, I was watching Oblivion, and I fell asleep, but I woke up when I heard something dope and I’m like, ‘Aww, I got to sample this.’ ” If that fails him, he looks to whatever is handy. People talk about the time when Mosley picked up a chair during the recording of Rihanna’s “Sell Me Candy” and started bashing the window, just to get the sound he wanted.
An omnivorous consumer of music (“I love Metallica,” he says, in Miami), Mosley thought nothing of mixing hip-hop and R&B, or reaching into Egyptian music for a loopy flute for Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin,” or grabbing a beat from bhangra for Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” These decisions would sometimes come back to haunt him in the form of the copyright owners, but the result was that no one who heard the music really thought about what genre they were listening to. “There was no category for the music he did,” says Elliott. “People didn’t know what to label it.” This was a pretty big deal in an industry in which urban and pop were still pretty segregated. Timbaland’s songs didn’t so much cross over as obliterate the line. Sure, there were some stinkers. A lot, actually, including most of his releases as a rap duo with Magoo. But Timbaland managed to produce an amazing 49 Top 40 hits between 1996 and 2008. His music embodied the spirit of the early aughts. Bouncy and joyful, it smelled like vanilla body lotion, wore Juicy Couture, thrilled to sexy text messages, and was giddy from the prospect of globalization and the pleasure of “spending cheese.”
His music also sold really, really well, and soon everyone wanted a piece of him. His beats boosted the careers of established artists: “Timbo the king,” became a recurring character in Jay Z’s music. You can hear him battling “2 Many Hoes” on the The Blueprint 2 (it’s a perennial problem); brushing the dirt off his shoulder on The Black Album; and providing “that hop I’m talking ’bout right here, Timbo” on so many others. And they made stars: In 2002, former boy-bander Justin Timberlake walked into Timbaland’s studio upset about breaking up with his fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears and walked out with “Cry Me a River,” an epic, Gregorian-chant-infused revenge ballad that launched his career as a solo artist.
“He has an amazing sensibility,” says Nelly Furtado, who might have been the “I’m Like a Bird” girl forever had her label not hired Mosley to work on her 2006 album, Loose. “He has good taste, and he makes good choices.”