Pop Culture

Biz Markie Was More Than “Just a Friend”

American rapper and actor, Biz Markie, near the offices Warner Bros. Records (owners of his record label, Cold Chillin’), Wrights Lane, Kensington, London, 6th April 1988. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Courtesy of Photo by David Corio / Michael Ochs Archives for Getty Images

I must admit, I stole the name BIZ for my own (extremely) short-lived, amateurish graf exploits after first hearing Biz Markie debut on Roxanne Shanté’s “The Def Fresh Crew” in 1986. Some of my Bronx high school friends from the handball courts wondered if Shanté was really throwing in with this beatboxer to create an actual new rap duo. By the time of Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz, his EP released later that year, it was clear that Biz Markie was a solo MC, putting his own spin on the beatboxing art that Doug E. Fresh and the Fat Boys’ Buffy were already widely known for. Biz would be sticking around; I needed to change my graffiti tag.

Behind the mixing boards of Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz, Marlon “Marley Marl” Williams was steadfastly making a name for himself as a rap music superproducer. Some of Marley’s earliest staples on late-night NYC rap radio (courtesy of DJs like Mister Magic, Red Alert and Chuck Chillout) were Biz Markie classics: “Nobody Beats the Biz,” “The Biz Is Goin’ Off,” “Vapors.” Even a playfully immature single like “Pickin’ Boogers” made its way into Sony Walkman mixtape rotations and the hip-hop dance floors of Union Square and Latin Quarter. Though many of his rhymes came ghostwritten by Big Daddy Kane, the music of Biz Markie was always a beloved presence in one of hip-hop culture’s greatest eras.

Biz Markie’s songs sometimes centered vocal hooks sung by his friend TJ Swann, or turntable scratching from his cousin, DJ Cool V. They nearly always contained quintessential boom-bap drums sampled or programmed by Marley Marl, and his own harmonious beatbox percussion. My favorite samples appear on “This Is Something for the Radio,” where Biz rhymes over drums recorded from a random scene in Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon movie, synth horns slyly interpolating Prince & the Revolution’s “New Position.” Biz created a sub-cultural catchphrase in ’88, when “Vapors” told the tale of sycophants who overcompensate for ignoring people before success comes their way. (Snoop Dogg covered the song in 1997.) Biz even had his own dance, immortalized on “Biz Dance (Part One),” as well-known in its time as the Wop or the Snake.

Though Biz Markie’s musical relevance may seem short-lived, the truth is that most rap artists from his fast-paced era of hip-hop normally didn’t stay relevant past two or three albums. After Goin’ Off (1988), The Biz Never Sleeps (1989) and I Need a Haircut (1991), a legal skirmish with repercussions for sampling in hip-hop music sent Biz Markie’s career into a downslide. Gilbert O’Sullivan, the Irish singer-songwriter behind the 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally),” sued Biz for copyright infringement over the I Need a Haircut deep cut, “Alone Again.” The verdict against him put a nail in the coffin for the types of sample-heavy masterpieces being made then by rap artists like Public Enemy and De La Soul. Biz removed the song, and though his career was never the same, it arguably wouldn’t have been anyway: Big Daddy Kane, for one, met the same commercial fate.

In late 1989, “Just a Friend” made Biz Markie popular among an audience best visualized by imagining the drunk frat-boy caricatures in Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).” His ode to unrequited love, his chorus sung in an unapologetically off-register, became the most mainstream hit of his career. But the inevitable “clown prince of rap” headlines eulogizing the one-hit wonder behind “Just a Friend” don’t tell the whole tale. The hyper drums of “The Biz Is Goin’ Off” pumping through my AirPods helped me get through the New York City marathon two years ago. The braggadocios, ego-boosting energy fed my spirit when I needed it. Thanks Biz, on behalf of us all.

Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, out September 28.


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