30 years later, 1988 still stands as rap’s greatest year. The lyrical molotovs of Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton, the post-modern (and pre-lawsuit) free-for-all of sampling, the national spotlight of a new show called Yo! MTV Raps and much more. To celebrate 30 years, Rolling Stone’s Best of ’88 explores some of the greatest songs from those explosive 12 months. See our other entries on Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock, EPMD, Run-DMC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Slick Rick and MC Lyte.
In only his third year of hip-hop fame, Marcel “Biz Markie” Hall was already captivating the rap world with his tales of success. His four previous singles were instant classics, all masterful combinations of unique humor and his powerful beatbox skills. But “Vapors” showcased a storytelling ability that ultimately provided rap with indelible lines like “Can you feel it, nothing can save ya” and “Damn, it feels good to see people up on it.”
1988 was a huge year for the Queensbridge-based Juice Crew and the Cold Chillin’ label, who also released debut albums from rhyme-slayer Big Daddy Kane and beatmaster Marley Marl. But only Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off had odes about going to the mall, dances that seemed impossible and the joys of picking boogers. “Vapors” would be the song that stormed Yo! MTV Raps (pedantic rap fans know that the video version, a.k.a. “Vapors (Remix)” is the superior version since it lets the sample from James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” ride out into the saxophone). “Vapors” has had a long life, sampled and interpolated by everyone from Ice Cube to UGK to Notorious B.I.G. — that’s the Biz saying “back in the day” on “Things Done Changed.” Snoop Dogg even covered it outright in 1997.
Rolling Stone caught up with Biz to ask, “What’s the meaning of V-A-P-O-R-S?”
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What is the origins of the term “vapors”?
Vapors is like, you get a whiff of my success. Before I was successful, you ain’t paid me the time of day. Soon as I got hot, you get a whiff of my success. So you get the vapors.
Who came up with the term? Was it something people said around your way?
Nah, I made it up myself. You know how somebody used to wear a lot of jewelry? Well, a person that wear jewelry at the time, they get a couple of pieces of jewelry and girls’ll try to jump on their joint. So I said, “Yo, she caught the vapors.”
How long were you saying that?
Since eighth grade. Since ’83.
What came first, the beat or the rhymes?
It was the last record on the album. So me and Kane wrote it. The beat was first. First of all [DJ] Polo made the beat and it was too slow for Kool G Rap to rap off of. So I traded him a beat for that beat, and that day, it was the last record on the album.
Do you remember which parts you wrote and which were Kane’s?
Kane wrote the first two, I wrote the last two. But I told him exactly what to write. I told him the style and everything, ’cause at that time I was looking for beats for his first album. I had to make sure that, since he was down with me… I wanted to make sure that when he came out, he came out as bam! It was by committee, we always helped each other out.
You said before it was inspired by The Twilight Zone.
The video was. You remember how, at the end, Rod Sterling would go, “and now it’s the Twilight Zone?” So, “They caught the vapors.” You know, just like that.
The four stories that you tell in the song, how real are they?
Dead real. Everything. I didn’t know how to write no other way.
Did you or TJ Swann ever hear back from Fran, the girl who rejected him?
Oh yes, Fran was from my projects. We grew up in the same building.
And her name is actually Fran?
Her name is Fran. She was in the video! The one with the long hair poppin’ up, that’s her.
Do you remember what record shop Cutmaster Cool V was trying to get employed at?
He was trying to get employed at Vogel’s, it was in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Which is also in the video.
Yes, that was in the video. The real guy that didn’t hire him at first and then hired him is Jeff. He’s the real person. Everything is real in the video.
Who were the Source Crew on Noble Street who wouldn’t let you be down?
That was a DJ crew on my block. I had to be home by before the lights came on on the street. So I wanted to be down with the cool guys. They wouldn’t let me be down. Because I was just a kid. The Source Crew was older. They used to smoke weed and do all the cool stuff. I wanted to be down with them ’cause I wanted to be part of the cool stuff.
How old were you?
And was that actually them in the video?
That was actually them in the video.
There was no Yo! MTV Raps at the time, what were your goals in making the video?
You still had Video Music Box. And you had Video Vibrations [on BET]. You had a lot of things. My thing was just keepin’ the money comin’ in. And, of course, I loved hip-hop through my blood.
You ended up in Paul Simon’s video that same year
Yeah, me and Kane was in [sings] “Julio down by the school yard.“
How did that come about?
I don’t know, they just told me to come.
When did you find out about the Snoop Dogg cover of “Vapors”
I was friends with all of them guys. I knew Snoop before he came out. “Vapors” was such a big record. In L.A. it was such a big record. Like super big. They got me and Snoop, gave me some loot and then I was cute [laughs].
When did you realize it was a big thing in L.A.?
When I couldn’t walk nowhere. That was ’88. I mean, they would treat me like I got big titties or something. Everybody was cool, it was a beautiful time.
The Notorious B.I.G. sampled and interpolated “Vapors” more than once. I assume he loved that record.
Yeah, but Biggie’s from around the way. Biggie’s from New York, he know. Besides being one of the best, he did he records with passion.
Did you get to meet him when he was alive?
Yeeeeeah, of course! He used to come to the parties and everything. We freestyled in Queens, we freestyled different places. He was just cool.
When did you realize the “Vapors” would have such a long life?
Well, I always look at records like, if it has a good feeling, it’s gonna have a good feeling for a long time.
Is there anything else we need to know about “Vapors”
It was just beautiful, I can’t tell you nothin’ else.