Biz Markie, the rapper, singer and actor behind the 1989 hit “Just a Friend,” died Friday in Baltimore. He was 57.
“It is with profound sadness that we announce, this evening, with his wife Tara by his side, hip hop pioneer Biz Markie peacefully passed away,” his rep Jenni Izumi said in a statement to Rolling Stone.
He had been suffering from complications due to diabetes, according to TMZ
Markie made a splash in hip-hop with the single “Just a Friend” in 1989, off of his second album, “The Biz Never Sleeps.” The song’s signature piano melody (interpolated from Freddie Scott’s “You Got What I Need”) matched with Markie’s narrative-driven rapping and raspy, off-kilter singing voice, made it a success — reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — and an eventual oldies favorite. Its music video, too, was a hit, detailing Markie’s romantic problems in a humorous way, including a scene of Markie at the piano dressed as Mozart.
Born Marcel Theo Hall on April 8, 1964 in Harlem, N.Y., Markie was raised on Long Island and began his music career performing in night clubs and colleges, eventually finding himself a member of Marley Marl’s famed Juice Crew, where he performed as a beatboxer alongside the likes of Roxanne Shanté and MC Shan. (Though he didn’t pioneer the technique, Markie was one of beatboxing’s most visible early practitioners.) He released his debut album, “Goin’ Off,” on the Cold Chillin’ imprint in 1988, with singles “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” “Vapors” and “Nobody Beats the Biz” helping him break into the top 100 of the Billboard album chart. His sophomore record, “The Biz Never Sleeps,” followed in 1989, quickly going Gold on the success of “Just a Friend.”
With his third album, 1991’s “I Need a Haircut,” Markie found himself at the center of one of the most consequential battles over copyright law and sampling in hip-hop, when ‘70s singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan sued the rapper for sampling his song “Alone Again (Naturally)” without permission. The case went to trial, with the judge ruling against Markie, and even referring him to criminal court on possible charges of “theft.” A criminal case was never brought, but the matter wrought huge changes to the way hip-hop producers approached sampling going forward, as well as substantial setbacks for Markie’s career. (Markie made cheeky reference to the case with the title of his next album, 1993’s “All Samples Cleared!”)
His recording output dropped off after that, although he frequently collaborated with longtime fans the Beastie Boys, who featured him on several albums and often brought him out during concerts. (His deliriously off-key rendition of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” was much beloved.) It wasn’t until 2003 that he finally released another album, “Weekend Warrior.”
In addition to his music career, Markie made numerous appearances in television and film, most notably as a rapping alien in “Men in Black II” in 2002, and on the children’s television show “Yo Gabba Gabba.” Markie also appeared on “In Living Color” in 1994, was an announcer on the animated series “Crank Yankers” and voiced roles on “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Adventure Time.” More recently, he appeared in the popular TV series “Empire” and “Black-ish” as himself. He was currently in production on the film “Chaaw,” which is set for release in May 2022.