Written by Joe Coscarelli
Biz Markie, the innovative yet proudly goofy rapper, DJ and producer whose self-mockery and outrageous wails on songs like “Just a Friend” earned him the nickname Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, passed away Friday. He was 57.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Jenni Izumi, who gave no reason.
He had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in his late 40s and said he had lost 140 pounds in the years that followed. “I wanted to live,” he told ABC News in 2014.
Born in New York and an early collaborator with hip-hop pioneers like Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté and Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie started out as a teen beatboxer and freestyle rapper. He eventually made a name for himself as the resident court jester of the Queensbridge-based collective the Juice Crew and the Cold Chillin’ label, under the tutelage of influential radio DJ Mr. magic.
On “Goin’ Off” (1988), his debut album, Biz Markie introduced himself as a bumbling upstart with a youthful sense of humor – the opening track, “Pickin’ Boogers” was just about that – but his charm and his skills were undeniable. , making him a plausible sale to an increasingly rap-curious crossover audience.
With direct, often mundane lyrics written in part by his childhood friend Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie was a hip-hop everyman whose greatest love was music, a journey he interrupted over a James Brown sample on his first hip-hop hit, the biographical “Vampen”; Snoop Doggy Dogg later adapted the song for his own 1997 version.
“When I was a teenager I wanted to be down / With a lot of MC DJing crews in town,” Biz rapped Markie. “So at school on Noble Street I say, ‘Can I be down, champ’ / They said no, and treated me like a wet food ticket.”
But Biz Markie soon surpassed his peers commercially and became a pop sensation with the unlikely 1989 hit “Just a Friend” from “The Biz Never Sleeps,” released by Cold Chillin’ and Warner Bros. Taking its melody from the 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need,” recorded by Freddie Scott and written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Biz Markie raps an elaborate tale of unhappiness in love.
But it was his painful, rough vocals in the song’s chorus—along with the “yo’ mama” jokes and the Mozart costume he wore in the music video—that made the song indelible: “Oh, baaaaby, you/ You got what I need / But you say he’s just a friend / But you say he’s just a friend.”
Writing in The New York Times, critic Kelefa Sanneh Biz Markie “the father of modern bad singing” wrote: “His bellowed plea – wildly out of tune and totally unforgettable – sounded like something made up after a day of romantic disappointment and a night of heavy drinking.”
Biz Markie has said that he was never meant to be the singer handling those notes. “I asked people to sing the part, and no one showed up at the studio,” he later explained, “so I did it myself.”
“Just a Friend” would go platinum and reach number 5 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart and number 9 on the Hot 100 for all genres. He said he realized how big it had become “when Howard Stern and Frankie Crocker and all the other white stations across the country started playing it.” And while Biz Markie would never again reach the heights of “Just a Friend”—he failed to get another single on the Hot 100—he wiped out those who scornfully called him a one-hit wonder.
“I don’t feel bad,” he said. “I know what I did in hip-hop.”
Marcel Theo Hall was born on April 8, 1964 in Harlem. Growing up in Long Island, where he was known locally as Markie, he took his original stage name, Bizzy B Markie, from the first hip-hop tape he ever heard, in the late 1970s, by the L Brothers, featuring Busy at Starski . He was always known as a prankster and is said to have once given his high school vice principal a cake laced with laxatives.
He honed his act as a DJ and beatboxer at Manhattan nightclubs like the Roxy, though his rhyming remained a source of uncertainty. By the mid-1980s, he had been introduced to the Juice Crew, whose members began playing him on records and eventually worked with him on his lyrics and delivery.
“When I felt I was good enough, I went to Marley Marl’s house and sat on his doorstep every day until he noticed me, and that’s how I started,” he said.
In 1986, Biz Markie appeared on one of his earliest records, “The Def Fresh Crew” by Roxanne Shanté, featuring exaggerated mouth-based percussion. That same year, he released an EP, produced by Marley Marl, “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz”, calling itself the Inhuman Orchestra.
“When you hear me do it, you’ll be shocked and amazed,” he rapped on the title track, which would also serve as the single off “Goin’ Off,” his official debut. “It’s the brand new thing they call the human beatbox craze.”
But after the success of his first two albums, Biz Markie’s third would become a part of hip-hop history for non-musical reasons, which would nevertheless reverberate through the genre: a copyright lawsuit.
After the release of that album, “I Need a Haircut,” in 1991, Biz Markie and his label were sued by representatives of Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan, who said eight bars of his 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” were sampled without permission on Biz Markie’s “Alone Again.” An O’Sullivan attorney called sampling “a music industry euphemism for what someone else would call pickpocketing”; a judge agreed, demanding $250,000 in damages and prevented further distribution of the album.
That ruling would set a precedent in the music industry by requiring that even small snippets of sampled music — a cornerstone of hip-hop aesthetics and studio production — must be pre-approved. A market for sample cleanup emerged, which is still an important part of the economics behind hip-hop.
“Because of the Biz Markie ruling,” a record executive said at the time, “we had to make sure we had everything pre-approved.”
In 1993, Biz Markie responded with a pointed new album, “All Samples Cleared!” But his popularity had waned and it would be his last major label release. A decade later, he returned with “Weekend Warrior” (2003), his fifth and final album, though he retained cultural relevance as a major personality with an enduring hit in “Just a Friend”.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Biz Markie appeared on the big and small screens, mostly as a version of himself. He was featured in the movie “Men in Black II”, heard as a voice on “SpongeBob SquarePants”, appeared on “Black-ish” and as the beatboxing pro behind “Biz’s Beat of the Day” on the kids show “Yo Gaba Gaba!” He also became a devoted collector of rare records and toys, including Beanie Babies, Barbies and television action figures.
But even as a novelty returning, he remained jovial, calling himself “one of those unsung heroes” and comparing himself to a McRib sandwich (“when I show up, they appreciate everything they see”) in a Washington Post interview. from 2019.
“I’ll stay Biz Markie until I die,” he said. “Even after I die, I’ll remain Biz Markie.”