The Year Virginia Rewrote the Rules of Popular Culture

At the peak of his powers, Michael Vick could make a broken play look like it was planned. In 2002, as quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, he was a newly minted NFL star, known for his ability to confound defenses with his deep passes and exhilarating runs. In my Virginia Beach high school, this was the year of the Michael Vick jersey; we were about a Vick-length scramble from his hometown of Newport News. Sure, Vick played in Atlanta, but we were keenly aware that he was bred from our soil, and we were proud of his ascension to the national stage.

In December of that year, when the Falcons played the Minnesota Vikings, Vick more than confirmed his star status. The game was tied at 24 in overtime, and Vick had the ball. Facing an oncoming pass rush, he instinctively moved to the left, his strong side, and found a running lane. Most other quarterbacks of that era would likely have taken a few yards and slid to avoid a blow from an opposing linebacker. But Vick kept running. Two defenders closed in on him, one on each side. The defender to his left missed the tackle altogether, and the one to his right got just a handful of jersey. Vick charged on another 20-plus yards into the end zone for the touchdown, and the Falcons won. As the teams cleared the field, a television announcer said: “Is there any doubt as to who will be the most valuable player in the NFL this season?” Vick didn’t end up winning the award, but plays like this one made him a household name nonetheless.

It was a good year to be from Virginia, and to rewrite the rules. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott—born and raised in the shipping town of Portsmouth—had us all convinced she must be saying something on the gibberish-sounding chorus to her hit single “Work It,” if only we could decipher it. In reality, what we heard was a studio mistake that played her preceding vocals (“Is it worth it? / Let me work it / I put my thang down flip it and reverse it”) backwards (“Ti esrever dna ti pilf nwod gnaht ym tup”). But Missy liked the way it sounded; the string of nonsensical words perfectly complements the frenetic energy of the robots-and-lasers-meets-’80s-hip-hop beat. “Work It,” which was co-produced by Missy’s musical partner Timbaland (from Virginia Beach), became her highest Billboard-charting single, peaking at No. 2, and helped her fourth album, Under Construction, achieve double-platinum status.

Songs by artists and producers from the Tidewater region were all over the charts. The Neptunes—the production duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, both raised in Virginia Beach—made hit tracks across multiple genres for the likes of Busta Rhymes, ’NSync, Beenie Man, LL Cool J, and Clipse (a pair of brothers, Pusha T and Malice, who were also from Virginia Beach). In 2002, the Neptunes had their first No. 1 single with Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” a percussion-heavy dance number with a go-go-inspired beat. For Justin Timberlake’s solo debut, Justified, released in November 2002, the singer enlisted the Neptunes and Timbaland to shape his emergent sound, a mix of pop, dance, hip-hop, and soul.

[Read: Missy Elliott is reclaiming her legacy]

You would be forgiven for not realizing just how influential Virginia was 20 years ago. The cultural innovators from Atlanta and New Orleans who bubbled up around the same time were consuming a lot of oxygen. In retrospect, though, Vick, Missy, Timbaland, and the Neptunes—not to mention Allen Iverson, born and raised in Hampton, and perhaps the most popular and polarizing NBA player of that era—amounted to a boldly creative wave.

Iverson, both beloved and criticized for his swagger and streetball-inspired play, embodied this spirit. It was also the year of his infamous, misunderstood “practice rant.” At a press conference following a disappointing season for the Philadelphia 76ers, a reporter repeatedly questioned Iverson’s dedication to the game, after he’d reportedly missed practice. Iverson balked at the suggestion that he had let down his team. “I’m supposed to be the franchise player,” he said, “and we’re in here talking about practice … not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, not the game—we’re talking about practice.” Iverson recognized, and rejected, the subtext: the old, pernicious idea that “flashy” Black players lacked work ethic. However theatrically expressed, his exasperation, heightened by the grief of having recently lost a close friend to gun violence, was real.

What was it about the Tidewater area that produced so many audacious cultural figures? I can’t help thinking that restlessness thrives when your career options seem limited to joining the military (the naval base in Norfolk was a big employer), getting a military-adjacent job (plenty of those in Hampton Roads), or selling crack. As Clipse memorably put it on “Virginia,” their dark 2002 ode to the state, the commonwealth is a place “where ain’t shit to do but cook.” (Clipse rapped candidly, unapologetically, and relentlessly about the crack trade.) It may have also helped that these rappers and athletes didn’t have much of a local cultural legacy to draw on, which in turn meant not having much of a legacy to be beholden to. The area could feel like a cultural hinterland. “We got everything so late,” Missy told the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in 2017, that “it also allowed us to be different because we didn’t hear.” They had to become architects.

To be young, Black, and creative in Virginia at the turn of the millennium certainly was not a recipe for any type of success one could predict. After 1989 the message was clear: Virginia’s primary way of interacting with young Black people was through neglect or hostility. That year, the Virginia Beach police overreacted to Greekfest—an annual Labor Day–weekend gathering of Black college students, many of them members of Black fraternities and sororities—and the festival turned into two days of rioting. Cops on horses swung batons as festivalgoers shouted “Fight the power!” Police and civilians were injured, and some 100 businesses faced an estimated $1 million worth of damage. The tourism slogan that Virginia was “for lovers” rang hollow to some of its own inhabitants.

[From the September 2020 issue: Mychal Denzel Smith on how police reform isn’t enough]

An unexpected boost came in the form of Teddy Riley, the king of the new jack swing genre. In the early ’90s, Riley moved down to Virginia Beach from his native New York City. He discovered the Neptunes at a high-school talent show and later signed them to a deal; they ended up writing on and co-producing some Riley-led tracks. While Riley was working on “Rump Shaker” (Pharrell wrote his verse), Timbaland was DJ-ing in Virginia. He had previously collaborated with Pharrell, who is his cousin, in a group they called S.B.I., or Surrounded by Idiots. (They were teenagers.) After the dissolution of that group, a mutual friend introduced Timbaland to Missy, who was part of a girl group then called Fayze, and the two bonded. Their breakthrough as a songwriting/producing duo came with their work on Aaliyah’s 1996 album, One in a Million.

photo of 3 men posing for candid snapshot
Malice, Pharrell Williams, and Pusha T in 2003. The brothers Malice (who now goes by No Malice) and Pusha T made up the Clipse duo. (KMazur / Getty)

Iverson, too, was a catalyst. He had been well known in the area as a high-school basketball and football star—though his career prospects were nearly derailed when, at 18, he was convicted on felony charges of “maiming by mob” after his participation in a bowling-alley fight drawn along racial lines. (The charges stem from an obscure Virginia law originally meant as an anti-lynching measure.) But he was soon granted conditional clemency by then-Governor Douglas Wilder, and he went on to play at Georgetown. Ultimately, his conviction was overturned, and in 1996, Iverson became the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick. A few years later, Vick, a dazzling Warwick High School quarterback (whose mother knew Iverson’s), drew comparisons to the basketball player: Here was another homegrown future star at work. Vick’s signature style gelled in his two seasons at Virginia Tech, where he took the schoolyard ethos that defined Iverson’s game and put it to use on the gridiron. He went on to be the No. 1 NFL draft pick in 2001.

A few more NFL players from the region have come up after Vick, but none of them has quite captured his star power (and Vick all but ended his career a few years later, when he pleaded guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting ring). There has never been another Iverson. And although Pusha T, Missy, Timbaland, and Pharrell have all enjoyed continued success, no new crop of artists has come behind them waving Virginia’s flag. Nor has Virginia become a destination for iconoclastic reinventors who want to make their broken plays and backward lyrics look planned.

Which isn’t to say that these pioneers have had no lasting impact; Virginia is everywhere if you know what to look for. So many of today’s NBA stars take after Iverson, whether we’re talking about the arms covered in tattoos or the way they execute a crossover. Sure, Tom Brady is widely considered the GOAT, but for every young NFL quarterback worth watching, the prototype is Vick, combining an accurate cannon arm with serious running speed, if not quite his catch-me-if-you-can zeal. And the music of Missy, Timbaland, and the Neptunes/Pharrell has spent a cumulative 888 weeks on the Billboard charts since the beginning of 2002—meaning that if you have listened to music, even casually, over the past 20 years, you’ve almost certainly listened to music created by someone from Virginia, someone who got their start by doing things their own way.

Nowadays, when Virginia makes headlines, it’s because of things like the alt-right uprising in Charlottesville, a governor’s blackface scandal, fights over critical race theory in schools, or rules that make life harsher for transgender children. In 2019, Pharrell tried something different. The live-music landscape was shifting to focus more on festival-style concerts, and Pharrell, working with the Virginia Beach chief of police, looked to establish his hometown as a site for a weekend-long event that would invite tourism, commerce, and artists from all over to the Tidewater area. He called it “Something in the Water,” and it was a success. Everyone involved hoped that the festival would return after a COVID-prompted hiatus. But then, in March 2021, a Virginia Beach police officer—allegedly responding to reports of gunshots—shot and killed Pharrell’s 25-year-old cousin, Donovon Lynch. Citing Virginia Beach’s “toxic energy,” Pharrell moved the 2022 iteration of the festival up north to Washington, D.C.

For now, 2002 exists as an anomaly, one that doesn’t even have its own lore to accompany it, because no one bothered to notice. I worry that I’m making too much of it myself, trying to read meaning into a set of lyrics played backwards. Maybe I need to believe there’s something in the water, because I drank it. But when I hear Neptunes beats bumping down the street of my Brooklyn neighborhood, I know the rest of the world has been feeling that something too.

This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “Tidewater Renaissance.”

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