iz Markie in 1988. (Photo: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Biz Markie, the “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” best known for his 1989 global smash “Just a Friend,” has died, according to his representative, Jenni Izumi. His cause of death has not yet been disclosed, but Izumi said the rapper, singer, DJ, producer, actor, comedian, and writer “peacefully passed away” Friday evening with his wife, Tara Hall, by his side. Markie had been hospitalized in April last year due to complications from Type 2 diabetes, and as of last December he was reportedly living in a Maryland rehabilitation facility after suffering a diabetic coma and stroke. He was 57 years old.
“We are grateful for the many calls and prayers of support that we have received during this difficult time,” Izumi said in a statement. “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. He leaves behind a wife, many family members and close friends who will miss his vibrant personality, constant jokes, and frequent banter.”
Biz Markie was born Marcel Theo Hall on April 8, 1964, in Harlem, and he spent his childhood in Long Island. He launched his hip-hop career in the Manhattan club scene (and later, on the East Coast college circuit), working as a human beatbox for acts like Roxanne Shanté and MC Shan. His debut album, 1988’s Goin’ Off — which featured production by Marley Marl and co-writing by Big Daddy Kane, and showcased Biz’s impressive beatboxing skills — was a respectable success, peaking at No. 90 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 19 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart on the strength of underground tracks like “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” “Nobody Beats the Biz,” “Vapors,” and “Pickin’ Boogers.”
However, it was the following year’s gold-certified, entirely self-penned The Biz Never Sleeps, featuring “Just a Friend,” that made Markie a household name. That playful, piano-driven single, which interpolated Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need,” became a platinum-selling top 10 U.S. hit, and its wacky video, featuring a candelabra-lit Markie bashing the ivories and wailing the unhinged, deliberately out-of-tune chorus in a powdered Mozart wig, was a high-rotation MTV staple for months.https://www.youtube.com/embed/9aofoBrFNdg?rel=0
Unfortunately, Markie never charted another Billboard Hot 100 hit again, and his cartoonish image and puerile humor relegated him to novelty act/one-hit wonder status. On top of that, promotion for his third album, 1991’s I Need a Haircut, was sidelined by a lawsuit from soft rock singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan, who claimed that Biz’s track “Alone Again” featured an unauthorized sample of O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” When Markie lost that case, I Need a Haircut was pulled from circulation; the court’s landmark ruling, Grand Upright Music Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., changed the entire music industry, with record labels now required to clear all samples on all future releases. Biz’s follow-up LP was 1993’s cheekily titled All Samples Cleared!, but his career was unable to rebound after the negative publicity. It would be decade before he released another album, 2003’s Weekend Warrior, which turned out to be his last.
However, the legacy of “Just a Friend” was enduring, and over the years Biz’s skills and wit gained new appreciation. He became an icon of the alternative hip-hop genre, collaborating with the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, Will Smith, Wu-Tang Clan, Coolio, Fat Joe, the Avalanches, Kesha, the Flaming Lips, Canibus, the Aquabats, Len, and — in recorded-sample form — even the Rolling Stones. Mario’s “Just a Friend 2002” was inspired by Markie’s hit, and Austin Mahone sampled and interpolated the original “Just a Friend” chorus in his 2012 single “Say You’re Just a Friend” featuring Flo Rida. The Beasties’ championing of Biz especially helped revitalize his career, although he pivoted to DJing rather than recording, even opening for Chris Rock on tour with DJ sets in 2008.
Biz also reached new audiences by appearing in Men in Black II, Black-ish, SpongeBob SquarePants, Empire, In Living Color, Wild ‘n Out, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Sharknado 2, and the first season of VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club, which he won. He also memorably performed “Just a Friend” with Jeff Goldblum and the Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and hosted a daily radio show on LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells channel on SiriusXM.https://www.youtube.com/embed/S76WGZk4XY4?rel=0
In 2011, Markie was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; three years later, he did an interview with ABC News about how he had shed 140 pounds in an attempt to improve his condition, explaining, “I wanted to live. … If I didn’t make the changes, it was going to make the diabetes worse. I’m trying to get off [medication]. The way you’ve got to do it is lose the weight. I’m off half my meds; I just got to get off the rest. They said I could lose my feet. They said I could lose body parts. A lot of things could happen.”
Just this past April, Markie’s friend and collaborator Big Daddy Kane said Markie was on his way to recovery after his 2020 stroke, telling syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, “He’s in rehabilitation now. He’s getting better and stronger every day. Last time I talked to him on the phone, he got a real light voice — but last time I talked on the phone he stuck his middle finger up at me, so I think he’s coming along.”