Farewell, Biz Markie: Remembering the Wild-Style Chaos and Diabolical Genius of Hip-Hop’s Old-School Joker King
Damn, this one hurts. Lighters up for the hip-hop legend Biz Markie, the Diabolical One, the Inhuman Orchestra, one of the most universally beloved figures anywhere in the music world. The Biz was the class clown of old-school Eighties hip-hop, but he preferred the title of the Human Beatbox and Rap King. He brought his own kind of wild-style chaos to everything he did, a jester with soul, which is why he became the all-time champion of cameos — he made every song he touched better. When it came to freestyling, beatboxing, rocking the party, or just making booger jokes dance, nobody beat the Biz.
Biz died on July 16th; no cause of death was revealed, but the rapper had struggled with health issues related to a long battle with Type 2 diabetes. Premature rumors of his death spread on social media weeks earlier, and even got reported as fact by some shady sources. His longtime friend and collaborator Big Daddy Kane posted a video on July 1st, asking fans to “keep my brother in your prayers,” before putting the hoaxers on blast: “Remember, it’s better for you to get the news correct than get the news first. Check your facts, people. And Wikipedia, do better.”
The Diabolical Biz Markie was best known for his 1989 hit “Just a Friend,” a timeless classic that made him the star he deserved to be. He belted the hook with all his tone-deaf gusto: “Youuuuu! You got what I neeeed! But you say he’s just a friend! You say he’s just a friend!” It was ridiculous and hilarious — yet touching, too. He was the trickster who could close the show at the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Concert, with a Woodstock goof — he came onstage in an Afro wig, with a Day-Glo guitar, doing a human-beatbox imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only the Biz would try a prank like that. Only the Biz could pull it off.
Biz was a master of the freestyle, always ready to drop rapid-fire rhymes like “I’m not white as Barry, because I’m dirtier than Harry/With a rap that’s big and fat that Mariah couldn’t Carey.” He always had something new up his sleeve. As he said in his manifesto “I’m the Biz Markie,” “Me without big strong thoughts for a Biz song/Is like Patti LaBelle not singing with a wig on.” He loved to take it to the stage, one of rap’s loosest, wildest, most virtuosic live performers, playing around with his biggest hit. (“You, you got a disease” or “You, you got a hair weave/But you say it’s your own hair!”) And damn, did he love to sing. Witness his famous — some might say infamous — interpretation of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”
Biz and Big Daddy Kane were an Eighties duo as iconic as Chuck D and Flavor Flav, with a similar chemistry: the big man and the motormouth wise-ass. Kane was the ultimate Smooth Operator; Biz added a touch of Diabolical genius. At the end of Kane’s classic 1988 debut album Long Live the Kane, Biz drops by the studio for “Just Rhymin With Biz,” where he rhymes “motor,” “South Dakota,” “root-beer soda,” “underarm odor,” “voter,” “Rhoda,” and “I watched Star Wars just to see Yoda.”
Born in Harlem in 1964 and raised on Long Island, Biz made his debut on Roxanne Shante’s 1986 single “The Def Fresh Crew,” billed as the Inhuman Orchestra, doing his beatbox version of the Meow Mix cat-food jingle. (The rap bible Ego Trip called it “one of hip-hop’s great recorded moments.”) He hooked up with the Juice Crew out in Queens, at the moment when they were the most creative team anywhere in music. Biz, Kane, Shante, producer Marley Marl, Kool G Rap — streets ahead of anyone else.
Biz’s early days got captured in the excellent 1986 Dutch TV documentary Big Fun in the Big Town, a crucial snapshot of early New York hip-hop. There’s an amazing scene where Biz steps onstage with Shante in the Bronx, just the two of them. It’s a trip watching the crowd explode when they hear Biz beatbox (“Rock, rock, rock the Boogie Down!”) for the first time.
He blew up with his 1986 EP Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz, produced by Marley Marl. He also dropped singles like “The Vapors” and “Pickin’ Boogers,” a gleefully disgusting rhyme: “Let me take a trip down memory lane/Back in public school with my partner Kane/When I was class clown, and he was my brother/Sittin at the desk pluckin’ boogers at each other.” (Kane co-wrote it with Biz; he did ghostwriting for most of the Juice Crew.) It’s a gross-out rap, but it’s also the tale of a long-running friendship, with the kicker: “Just last night, when Kane was gettin’ ready/I slipped a little green one inside his spaghetti.” (Snoop Dogg covered “The Vapors” with Teena Marie on his 1997 album The Doggfather — a meaningful gesture in the heat of the East Coast/West Coast feud. As always, Biz was a peacemaker.)
He was a notorious pop-culture junkie and collector. In Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, from 1999, the Biz offered a list of his favorite things: his huge collection of toys (Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots), Mad magazines, trading cards (Wacky Packages, Good Times, Welcome Back Kotter), Barbie dolls, board games, 12-inch singles by artists from Thin Lizzy to Billy Joel, white-label promos of every James Brown album, karate-movie posters, lunch boxes, action figures, video games. He boasted he had one house to live in, another for his stuff. Biz always had that archive kicking around in his imagination, and you could hear that in his endlessly inventive rhymes.
His 1988 debut, Goin’ Off, was a classic, but his best all-around album was the 1989 hit The Biz Never Sleeps, with “Just a Friend,” the Fat Albert dance groove “Mudd Foot,” and “My Man Rich,” the sad tale of a friend turned crack dealer. A weird artifact from those days: Paul Simon decided to make a video for his oldie “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” starring Biz and Kane, the ultimate NYC flex in 1988. (He also got cameos from Mickey Mantle and John Madden. This video really happened.)
For Biz, the sad love story in “Just a Friend” was real. “To write a good record, I gotta get depressed,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000. “I was talking to this girl from L.A., and every time I called her, this dude was at her house, and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just a friend.’ I hated that.” He meant this song as a forlorn ballad. “But it came out funny,” he said. He tried it out on his friends Q-Tip and De La Soul, and “When I sang the hook, they couldn’t stop laughing — they bugged out. Then I knew it was gonna be a good record. You know how when you have a feeling that your football team is gonna win the game? Well, I had a feeling that record was going to be a hit.” He turned his sob story into a hit that still makes the world smile. (And the girl from L.A.? He put her in the video.)
Biz became a regular with the Beastie Boys, joining up for sure shots like “Do It” and “The Biz vs. the Nuge.” He gave them the name for their label and magazine: Grand Royal. He joined them onstage at Madison Square Garden to sing — what else? — “Bennie and the Jets” (preserved on their Sounds of Science comp). The first time he met the Beasties, he asked, “Yo, you know where there’s a candy store?” They wondered if he meant drugs. Nah — he wanted some Tootsie Rolls and Snickers. “I did not expect the Biz to be as Biz-like as he was,” Adam Horowitz admits in the Beastie Boys Book. “You better have the tape running when the Biz is around. He’s an all-freestyle, off-the-dome kind of artist.”
Biz’s world was rocked in 1991 by a disastrous lawsuit that changed hip-hop forever, brought by a forgotten pop crooner named Gilbert O’Sullivan. Biz got sued for sampling what might be the 1970s’ most stomach-turning hit, “Alone Again, Naturally,” in a parody called “Alone Again.” The judge was a big fan of O’Sullivan — asked for an autograph — and showed his rap expertise by asking a witness, “What is R&B?” His Honor came down hard against Biz, called sampling theft, and effectively shut down hip-hop’s Golden Age of sample-delic creativity. Music fans were infuriated. Years later, Sonic Youth boasted about throwing food at O’Sullivan on an airplane.
But after a trial that would take a toll on anyone’s good nature, Biz bounced right back with his flat-out funniest album, All Samples Cleared! No bitterness here, just the Diabolical vowing to rock it from the Billy Ocean to the Al B. Shore. He found a new theme song with “I’m Singin’,” taking off on “Singing in the Rain,” singing hooks from Springsteen to Judy Garland. Biz beatboxes his way through it, saying, “Me and rap is like peanut butter and jelly/Which reminds me of a song by my man Gene Kelly.” He got even more generous and prolific with his cameos on other folks’ records, helping out Jay-Z here, Lou Rawls there, the Flaming Lips on “2012,” the Spin Doctors on the Space Jam soundtrack (for a cover of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I Like It”). He even did the honors for the Rolling Stones, who sampled Biz on their 1997 hit “Anybody Seen My Baby?”
The Biz became a kiddie-TV star on Yo Gabba Gabba, an ideal gig for him, dropping the “Beat of the Day.” He had a cameo in Men in Black 2 as a beatboxing alien, and did guest shots on Spongebob Squarepants and Adventure Time. He dropped his final album in 2003, Weekend Warrior. He kept appearing on TV, playing himself in Empire and Black-ish and Celebrity Fit Club, always up to reprise “Just a Friend,” which any crowd is up to hear. He brought “Just a Friend” to Radio City Music Hall in 2019 — 30 years after the fact, you can hear every voice in the room join in. Diabetes kept taking a toll on his health, but could never crush his spirit. To the end, the Diabolical Biz Markie was revered as a link to rap’s freewheeling early days, a man of wit and wisdom. Rest in beats, Biz Markie.