Music

Nobody Beat the Biz

Biz Markie was much more than “Just a Friend.” He was a rap legend.

Biz Markie, wearing a white T-shirt and headphones, DJs on a laptop with a blue and pink cartoon image of his own face on it.
Biz Markie DJing at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The first thing you should know about the late Marcel Theo Hall, better known to the world as the rapper Biz Markie, is that he had a music career that few have fully grappled with. Biz could do anything: beatbox, record-scratch with his mouth, sing out of tune with feeling and fervor, and show up the best emcees of his day, all through sheer energy and personality. In the 1980s, as rappers came to brand themselves per lyrical prowess or street smarts, Biz distinguished himself from that era’s rhyme technicians and hustlers and socially conscious preachers—he instead manifested a goofball who still commanded all your respect. Biz could hold his own with Big Daddy Kane or Heavy D; he influenced everyone from Biggie Smalls to Anthrax; he could provide a snarling hook for Jay-Z or do the most joyous Elton John cover you’d ever heard; he could spin mediocre tunes by ’70s rock staples like Ted Nugent and Gilbert O’Sullivan into gold. Throughout it all, he remained approachable, self-effacing, and funny, someone unusually OK with getting caught with his pants down and his finger in his nose while in a public restroom.

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Biz Markie—who died Friday, July 16, of Type 2 diabetes and at a tragically young age, like so many others of his generation—was an original, multi-faceted creative in a way those who know him mainly as the “Just a Friend” guy have never fully realized. That’s a shame, because the Biz’s legacy across rap music is far more significant than most modern-day fans of the genre even know. (Don’t get me wrong—“Just a Friend” is a great, classic song, and the reason it remains so beloved is because it’s Biz at his best. But it’s not the best of Biz.)

Biz Markie’s career began where so many other hip-hop greats’ did: in the nightclubs and alleyways of Reagan-era New York, where he perfected his vocal percussion and rhymes and turntable spins in front of audiences in real time while taking cues from the street poets rapidly popping up around him. As he told the Washington Post Magazine in 2019, his moniker didn’t originate from German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, as many may have assumed; instead, it came from pioneering rapper Busy Bee Starski’s stage name, which Marcell Hall appended to his childhood Long Island neighborhood nickname, Markie—he was always more deeply attuned to his city and its burgeoning artistic scenes than to anything else. While hip-hop became a much more potent musical force throughout the ’80s “golden age,” Biz found a home with the Juice Crew, the legendary Queens-based rap collective led by DJ Marley Marl that produced figures like Kool G Rap and Masta Ace and led to some of rap’s most important early cuts.

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But as Biz’s compatriots took more confrontational approaches in the scene, from the so-called Bridge Wars to “Roxanne’s Revenge,” he showcased himself on his 1988 debut, Goin’ Off, as a beatboxer, insult comic, nose-picker, and storyteller who could capture the heart of New York City. Perhaps no better example exists of his boundless imagination than the LP cut “Vapors,” based on a definition of the titular word Biz came up with himself (“The meanin’ of this word, without no doubt/ Means nobody want to be there when you’re down and out/ Once you’re established and got a lot of money/ Everybody wanna be your buddy and honey”). “Vapors” not only expressed a concept familiar to rappers newly successful in the ever-growing genre, but it also told true stories of people in Biz’s circle, from hook man TJ Swan to song co-writer Big Daddy Kane, from DJ Cutmaster Cool V to Biz Markie himself. It was frank, personal, and even vulnerable (“After getting rejected I was very depressed/ Sat and wrote some def doo-doo rhymes at my rest”); it was also catchy and universal. Biz’s concept of “vapors” would not only enter the rap lexicon, but the song would be referenced and sampled by rappers throughout the decades, with the Biz-penned line “Damn, it feels good to see people up on it” appearing verbatim in song after song (Snoop Dogg would fully cover “Vapors” in 1997 and then in another remix in 2017). After Goin’ Off hit the Billboard charts in spring 1988, Biz Markie would attract further attention, in part thanks to his appearance in the video for Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” just later that year.

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1989 would see the release of The Biz Never Sleeps, which featured Biz’s one and only top 10 hit, “Just a Friend,” the classic tale of his pursuit of a girl who kept blowing him off for some other guy she simply called a friend. The video, featuring Biz cosplaying Mozart, became ubiquitous to the point of earning a Beavis and Butt-Head skewering, and the song, which would appear in film and TV soundtracks and acclaimed songs lists the world over, would be so inescapably associated with Biz as to define his obituaries and interactions with everyday citizens, who to this day mistake him for a one-hit wonder.

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After the “Just a Friend” craze, Biz released I Need a Haircut in 1991. This LP wasn’t as successful as Biz’s preceding two, but it became notorious in rap history for the track “Alone Again,” which sampled the treacly dad-rock favorite “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan without permission (though, as Oliver Wang wrote in 2013, Biz and his label did try to clear the sample with O’Sullivan, only to be turned down; the trouble came when they released the song anyway). The year Haircut came out, O’Sullivan sued Biz in a landmark lawsuit that would forever shift the landscape of hip-hop: The judge ruled in favor of O’Sullivan, barring Cold Chillin’ Records from selling either “Alone Again” or Haircut and referring the alleged sample theft to criminal court (which was dropped). As I wrote back in 2019, that case, along with rock band the Turtles’ sample-based suit against Biz’s oddball contemporaries De La Soul, chilled the future of sample-heavy hip-hop, moving away from the cut-and-paste audio collages of groups like Public Enemy and toward more careful, minimized aesthetics. The ruling also, just as troublingly, prevented myriad other songs from ever being officially released. To this day, you can’t listen to much of either De La Soul or Biz Markie’s early catalogs on streaming services, putting many of their classics out of reach in a Spotify-dominated music economy. De La Soul has tried time and again over the decades to ensure fairer terms for the digital release of their music, including by appearing on the cartoon Teen Titans Go! just earlier this year; Biz would cheekily release an album titled All Samples Cleared! in 1993, but he rarely made other similarly public efforts to get his older albums on digital platforms. (You can shell out nearly $200 to get a vinyl pressing of The Biz Never Sleeps from Amazon, however.)

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Following the lawsuit, Biz would never again reach the highs of his late-’80s Juice Crew times. But he would remain in the public consciousness, not just due to repeated plays of “Just a Friend,” but also from establishing a personalized pop culture presence based on the same silly mindset that characterized tracks like “Albee Square Mall.” He appeared in various movies and TV shows as exaggerated versions of himself, most famously in Men in Black II as a beatboxing alien; he would continue to work with rappers like the Beastie Boys and Will Smith, along with artists like Kesha and the Avalanches. Meanwhile, everyone from the Rolling Stones to 50 Cent would sample his best tracks or directly shout him out, ensuring a distinctive sonic footprint throughout your favorite songs—no matter where you heard him, you recognized him as nobody but the Biz. Even the next generation of kids would get to know him, as he appeared on shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! and SpongeBob SquarePants while joining a Schoolhouse Rock! covers compilation.

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The most important thing about the Biz, far from just his hits, his legal troubles, his commercial gigs, is this: He was an entirely different kind of rapper, a unique and versatile presence we’re not likely to see again, an icon of a long-bygone age. Not many other old-school rappers could pull off his act of both ribald eccentricity and wide-ranging vocal and musical skill that he could take to any medium. Biz became one of the guys who could appear everywhere and nowhere, as the (sighs) “Just a Friend” guy, or the weird beatboxing dude in all your favorite movies and shows, or the established rapper who worked with countless legends. He was strange and hilarious and all the cooler for it, comfortable in his identity as the “clown prince of hip-hop,” assured in his skills, and bold in how he approached both his music and those who would dare snipe at him, whether it was old bullies who caught the vapors or unoriginals like Gilbert O’Sullivan. There was nobody like the Biz, whom nobody could beat; it’s high time we took the moment and the time to fully take stock of all the wonders he crafted.

Like he said to the Washington Post Magazine just two years ago: “The weirdest thing about my fame is that when I’m thinking that it’s almost over it just sparks back up. … They’re not letting me die. The public, the fans, they like me around.”

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