Originally published in Vulture on July 23, 2021.
Around the turn of the century, ViacomCBS property VH1 pivoted to its “Music First” era, punctuated by its original programs like The Greatest, a compilation show that purported to count down influential cultural and musical moments — from the “100 Greatest Love Songs” to the “40 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of the ’90s” — from a position of expertise and authority. One episode that aired in 2002, “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders,” featured ubiquitous flash-in-the-pan classics like Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (which topped the list) and Deee-Lite’s dance hit “Groove Is in the Heart.” Rounding out the list at No. 81 stood “Just a Friend,” the smash hit from Marcel Theo Hall out of Long Island, better known as the late New York legend Biz Markie. Known for its intentionally scratchy and warbly refrain — a fortuitous result of requested singers failing to show up to the recording session — and simple yet distinct C-major melody, the track, alongside the debut of his album The Biz Never Sleeps, went gold in 24 hours.
Much of what informed the popularity of the single was endemic to both the time in which it was released and the persona of Markie himself. The lyrics, depicting a lamentable tale of thwarted affections, are delivered in a deliberate, narrative style that leaves the listener both bemused and curious about the veracity of the sequence of events (Markie, for the record, has always claimed his lyrics to be renditions of real stories: “I didn’t know how to write no other way,” he said). The corresponding video serves as a capsule in time to a specific era in Black American urban history: Markie is resplendent with rope chains and Cuban links, donning a Georgetown sweater that hearkens back to a time when the university’s basketball team felt indelible to the Black cultural fabric of the 1980s, generating stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and later Allen Iverson. For nearly half of the video, Markie engages in jocular theatrics, switching into a powdered wig and embodying a character that is equal parts Mozart and James Brown. These dismembered pieces — self-deprecating lyricism, dynamic percussion, and whimsical, referential presentation — boiled together to help establish Markie’s unofficial status as the self-declared Clown Prince of Hip-Hop.
Canonizing Biz Markie as a one-hit wonder, though, more than misses the mark; it requires a fundamental misreading of hip-hop history and the genre’s cultural touchstones to arrive at that distillation of his life’s work. Markie’s legacy exists well outside the opening and closing notes of his most popular track. Born in Harlem in 1964, he broke into the rap scene in 1985 as a reputed beatboxer, performing in the club circuit throughout New York City, honing his sets at storied venues such as the Roxy alongside contemporary Doug E. Fresh before bringing his skill set as a human beat machine to the steps of the notorious Queensbridge projects and working with early local legends like Roxanne Shanté. Before long, he found himself a member of the legendary Juice Crew, helmed by DJ Mr. Magic and Marley Marl, associating him with the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Shanté. As an ensemble, they were unassailable, with Markie serving as the complementary humorist to frequent collaborator Big Daddy Kane’s suave and charismatic persona.
Appreciating Biz Markie is a full-body sensory experience. The heaviness in Markie’s tongue counterbalanced the levity in his musical approach, adding dimension to his beatboxing and weight to his vocal stylings. It can be heard unmistakably on an early track like “Vapors” — a neologism coined by Markie about the fickleness of fame and fortune — which originally appeared on Markie’s 1988 debut album, Goin’ Off, and which Snoop Dogg later covered on 1997’s Tha Doggfather. Goin’ Off is also home to the renowned track “Make the Music With Your Mouth Biz” — an ode to Biz’s dexterous use of his body as a physical instrument, down to placing the mic against his throat as a signature move — and more humorous and frank songs like “Pickin’ Boogers.” And still, none of those tracks beat “Nobody Beats the Biz,” the song from the album that became rap’s gold standard. The beat itself, anchored by a sample of “Fly Like an Eagle,” by the Steve Miller Band, has been interpolated by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to the Wu-Tang Clan, and its punchy lyrics (“I’m bound to wreck your body and say turn the party out”) have been repurposed in classics like Tribe’s “The Chase, Part II.” Through its lyrics, percussion, and melody, “Nobody Beats the Biz” has served as a template for more than 100 songs in hip-hop, many of them stand-alone classics; Jay-Z himself references Markie’s signature cadence in the opening bars of “Best of Me (Remix)” with Mya (Markie would also appear on the hook of “Girls, Girls, Girls”). Even the Northeast electronics chain the Wiz, a competitor to P.C. Richard & Son, repurposed Markie’s hook for its inescapable commercial jingle, now the distant memory of a generation.
While Markie’s second album, 1989’s The Biz Never Sleeps, proved to be his biggest success due to the popularity of “Just a Friend,” his third album, 1991’s I Need a Haircut, led to a turning point in music history with lasting ramifications for the hip-hop industry. “Alone Again,” the 12th track on the album, quickly became the focal point of a lawsuit by artist Gilbert O’Sullivan owing to allegations of unauthorized sample usage. His legal team called sampling “a euphemism in the music industry for what anyone else would call pickpocketing.” The final judgment, requiring that all future sampling gain clearance from the owners of the copyright, ended with the album being pulled from shelves (though it was eventually rereleased without the offending track), hefty fines, and a gradual shift of the use of sampling in production styles as a bevy of songs fell prey to these restrictions. Ever the jokester, Markie titled his next studio album, in 1993, All Samples Cleared!; its art comically referred to his legal battles, and multiple tracks sampled various versions of Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman.”
Over time, Markie pivoted to DJ-ing and record producing, working closely with colleagues Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, certifying a multi-hyphenate position in the cultural movement by adding the mastery of yet another element of musicianship to his lexicon. He then reintroduced his jubilant nature to the next generation, becoming a presence on shows like Yo Gabba Gabba!, resonating with the children of those who had held his voice close to their hearts a lifetime ago. Trends in rap change and cycle back; Markie’s raucous persona persisted and multiplied, remaining versatile enough to be a sustained presence on the festival and college-tour circuits while simultaneously transferring his skill set to TV and film (Markie notably played a scene-stealing beatboxing alien in 2002’s Men in Black II, besting Will Smith).
Markie’s manager, Jenni D. Izumi, said in a statement following Markie’s death on July 16 at the age of 57, “Biz created a legacy of artistry that will forever be celebrated by his industry peers and his beloved fans whose lives he was able to touch through music, spanning over 35 years.” Markie’s impact as a presence in a musical revolution, from its near inception as a genre to his final days, is indelible yet still unsung — a helping hand to the progression of a creative industry predicated on the principle of honoring its forebears, one in which he was comfortable remaining as understated as indispensable.
When asked about his feelings on his position in hip-hop for a 2019 interview with the Washington Post, Markie remarked, “It’s beautiful because it means all eyes ain’t on me, so when I do pop up they appreciate everything they see … It’s like the flowers outside that turn white on the bushes. It comes around when it’s getting ready to be springtime. You appreciate it.” It’s a prescient, telling quip. His wry sense of humor and keen self-awareness of the reverberating impacts of his musical contributions come at a time when the elder class of hip-hop — a genre that runs on youth culture — is being faced with premature mortality.
As hip-hop extends further from its roots and grows more and more profitable, so does the transactional treatment of its history. Cataloguing the rise of a working-class cultural phenomenon in museums across the country from a mainstream lens has proven deleterious to the legacies of rap luminaries, subject to the arbitrary whims of mainstream success in a niche that started as a subculture. This history depends on our ability to preserve the story; left unattended, the genre-shifting moments we hold dear may dissolve into urban legend.