Biz Markie, Harlem’s Beatboxing Legend And “Just A Friend” Rapper, Dead At 57

Iconic rapper Biz Markie, who rose from his Harlem roots to pop culture ubiquity in the 1980s and 1990s, died Friday in Baltimore, according to reports. He was 57 and had suffered complications from diabetes, Variety reported.

“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 Variety. “We are grateful for the many calls and prayers of support that we have received during this difficult time. 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.”

Biz Markie is survived by his wife, and many family members and close friends, Izumi wrote.

Born as Marcel Theo Hall in Harlem and raised in Patchogue on Long Island, Biz Markie started off beatboxing as a member of Marley Marl’s Juice Crew in Queensbridge alongside MC Shan and Roxanne Shanté.

Missy Elliott praised his beatboxing talent, saying he was a model for her own rapping skills:

Mike D of the Beastie Boys called him a “completely unique musician. No one else could beatbox, making beats and grooves and sounds the way he did.”

Biz Markie sailed into the public eye when he released his biggest hit “Just A Friend” in 1989 from his second album “The Biz Never Sleeps.”

The discordant piano chords that underscored his off-key wailing also set the tone for his comic persona, as the song’s video showed him dressed like Mozart in a powdered wig and tinkering at a harpsichord while bemoaning his romantic misfortunes.

Even the story of Biz Markie’s famously unpolished singing in “Just A Friend” is comedic legend: Biz Markie said he wasn’t actually supposed to sing the chorus of “Oh baby you, you got what I need. But you say he’s just a friend. But you say he’s just a friend,” but had no choice.

He told Entertainment Weekly in a 2019 interview, “I wasn’t supposed to sing the [chorus]. I asked people to sing the part, and nobody showed up at the studio, so I did it myself.”

“Just A Friend” was Biz Markie’s sole Top Ten single and became an indelible part of the era’s soundtrack — he said he “realized how big it had gotten ‘when Howard Stern and Frankie Crocker and all the white stations around the country started playing it,'” the New York Times said.

While the song was his entry to fame, Biz Markie became a mainstay of the hip hop world and was booking 175 shows a year, his website said, including events for the Grammys and Oscars, Will Smith appearances and Chris Rock’s standup tours. He also collaborated with the Rolling Stones and the Flaming Lips. His family-friendly reputation also meant he showed up in kids’ television shows like Yo Gabba Gabba’s “Biz’s Beat of the Day” on Nick Jr. and “Spongebob Squarepants,” and he appeared as an actor in “Men in Black II” and a narrator on “Crank Yankers”.

Biz Markie’s career also set an industry-wide legal precedent for sampling other artists’ music, when he was sued by musician Gilbert O’Sullivan over allegedly unauthorized samples from his 1972 song “Alone Again (Naturally)” for Biz Markie’s song “Alone Again,” according to CNN.

A federal judge ruled in O’Sullivan’s favor, establishing the practice of clearing sample usage. The judge also ordered Biz Markie’s album pulled from shelves and even referred the case for potential criminal charges, the Washington Post reported, “citing one of the Ten Commandments, ‘thou shalt not steal,’ in a six-page ruling.”

Charges were never brought and the case settled out of court. In a cheeky nod to the lawsuit, Biz Markie named his 1993 album “All Samples Cleared!”

The musician Questlove recalled in an Instagram post a long-running and affectionate rivalry with Biz Markie, including a memorable run-in at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner where Biz Markie was DJing and started playing V.I.C’s Wobble with its signature dance.

“I never seen a (B)lack song transform an entire room of suits—the press/White House staff/even Rachel Maddow ran from behind her bar (she was serving drinks) & got down,” Questlove wrote. “He taught me ALOT. (I’m) using ALL the education he taught me. We will miss him. But he will be here forever.”