Nobody Beats Biz Markie
by David Ma
In the classic 1986 Dutch documentary film, Big Fun in the Big Town, director Bram Van Splunteren captures New York City in its vibrancy, with hip-hop wedging its way forward between dilapidated buildings and police sirens. The film is rich with footage of young, soon-to-be titans—Doug E Fresh, Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, and others among them. It’s unmistakably colorful, a time capsule capturing the palpable fun and innocence of mid-’80s hip-hop innovation.
Midway through the movie, in a jam-packed nightclub in Harlem, we see a tall, skinny beatboxer with an enormous grin named Biz Markie. He does a bare-bones stage routine with female rapper Roxanne Shanté. Despite the cramped club, the crowd is effusive, partying along while police and security stand by on high alert. When Shanté’s rapping pauses, Biz continues to beatbox as the camera zooms in and just sits. What we see here are teammates from one of the all-time deepest rap collectives—the Juice Crew—but we also see a young talent about to make his mark on hip-hop, pop culture, and the world.
Born Marcel Theo Hall, Biz Markie grew up in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, and gravitated towards Long Island in the early 1980s. It seemed like kismet, as hip-hop in New York was still young, still developing with varying crews, styles, and newfound aesthetics. He was admittedly always into music, and while his first forays were as an MC, his later career would flesh out more components of his large, looming personality and acumen to entertain.
Besides his knack to make music with his mouth, he also performed simple, funny raps and would later serve as the comic relief for the Juice Crew and eventually given the handle of the “clown prince of hip-hop.”
The Juice Crew was the precursor to Wu-Tang, a collective helmed by a single superproducer (Marley Marl) and a stable of MCs with different strengths and personalities. Core members included Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, the aforementioned Roxanne Shanté, Masta Ace, and other notables. Says Biz: “We were just all young, having fun. We liked being around each other too. We didn’t even care about fame or record sales then.”
As the crew sold more units, making a name for themselves outside of New York, Biz’s talents grew—as did his small frame. He’d later follow the legacy of other self-deprecating acts such as the Fat Boys, often making his appearance the punch line of his songs. Though subject matter was never profound, his songs were catchy and his choruses sung with a refreshing lack of self-awareness. Though he probably never hit a note correctly, he’d go on to release enormous singles with the help of Marley Marl.
After his debut, Goin’ Off, which featured great ones like “Vapors” and “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” he released the cut that would underscore his legacy, “Just a Friend.” The song interpolated a Freddie Scott sample that to this day remains a classic, known across generations. In the track’s video, Biz is depicted as heartbroken, wearing a powdered wig, playing the piano like Beethoven. It was a massive one-hit wonder, eventually reaching #9 on the Billboard charts, and bolstered his crossover appeal.
Though the music on his albums had always been sample based, his next release, I Need a Haircut, halted his career due to a lawsuit served to him by Gilbert O’Sullivan for the usage of an unauthorized composition.
Biz’s version, similarly entitled “Alone Again,” was another narrative on his lack of women and his weaknesses as a playboy. Said track sampled “Alone Again (Naturally),” a melodic rock number by Gilbert O’Sullivan made in 1972. The lawsuit was a landmark that changed the structure of rap music, forcing all sample-based songs to be cleared in advance. With a huge record corporation like Warner Bros. on the losing end of such a major decision, Biz’s records were pulled off shelves. Biz’s cousin, Cool V—who appears on most of his early records—was also served a lawsuit. Biz soon became the face of illegal sampling. Though he later mentioned in interviews that it was just a business altercation and that he was never personally shaken, the lawsuit marked a huge shift in his career.
The next album was a tongue-in-cheek stab at his tribulations called All Samples Cleared! His sense of humor was intact, though record sales quickly receded. Members of the Juice Crew branched off into different directions and solo careers. And besides a few cameos on each other’s albums, group members became more like affiliates. Even Marley Marl’s release, In Control Vol.1, was more of a compilation than cohesive group effort. The album’s cover depicts Marley in the cockpit of jet plane, highlighting his production prowess. There are pictures of the crew sitting and posing together. But it also featured younger members like Tragedy (also called Intelligent Hoodlum), which also signaled a changing of the guard.
Throughout the 1990s, Biz’s reputation transcended that of a mere rapper—he was now a pop-culture figure, a personality who made guest appearances on other people’s records. The Beastie Boys were fans, asking him to appear on projects Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), and Hello Nasty (1998). Biz at this point was a novelty act but also a living legend, a beloved figure. He was even sampled on “Anybody Seen My Baby,” a 1997 single by, of all people, the Rolling Stones.
Though he was known mostly for his rap cuts, Biz was also a DJ throughout his career. Stories of his record collection had become almost mythological. He boasted extremely rare vinyl like the supposed one-off, 12-inch single of “Take Me to Mardi Gras” by Bob James.
James, a jazz keyboardist and arranger for the CTI label whose songs such as “Nautilus” had been sample fodder for years, has said that a version is “highly unlikely.” Biz’s version, he claims, has the iconic bells in the beginning of the song omitted, making his supposed version stripped down, with solitary drums. To this day, the validity surrounding the record still confounds. “I promise, I swear I got it!” says Biz.
Once the 2000s arrived, Biz was doing corporate gigs and cameos in Jay Z videos. He revealed that he was a major toy collector with an expansive collection of action figures and gadgets. He made appearances on the popular, hip-hop-centric children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba and was featured in movies as well. He was on reality shows like Celebrity Fit Club and his famous saying “Oh snap!” entered the pop culture pantheon, with T-shirts made with his image.
Hip-hop doesn’t create renaissance men anymore, but it seems that Biz Markie was truly one of the first multi-faceted rappers to be gifted with varied skill-sets. To this day, he still keeps a sense of humor about him, still scrunches his face toward the camera for laughs. And he still can certainly beatbox like he did on Big Fun in the Big Town.
Below is our conversation (taken from a series of interview I conducted between 2007 and 2010) where I asked him to cover his history beginning from his first memories of hip-hop to his heyday with the Juice Crew. He even addresses his mysterious Bob James record. All this, almost thirty years later, with humor and candor, Biz recounts a career with so many moments of magic.
“Lemme Tell You a Story of My Situation…”
You rapped, DJed, and beatboxed. What was the first hip-hop related thing you ever did or remember doing?
Beatboxing. I mean, I was a kid and that was just the first thing I took up when it came to hip-hop. I didn’t think about, I just sorta did it, ya know?
How was New York when you were just a young beatboxer?
It was so amazing. It wasn’t even a baby, more like a wild seven-year-old. It was a beautiful thing then.
How’d your life change when “Just a Friend” blew up?
Not much changed. I just became really, really popular overnight and got more money. But, otherwise, I was the same and not much changed. I’m always the same dude no matter what.
What do you think is your best album?
I can’t even tell you, ’cause they’re all different and significant in different ways.
How’d you end up hooking up with Prism Records?
Tyrone Williams brought me over there.
Where were you when you found out about the whole court case over your sample usage?
I was driving in my car and they told me about it. Good thing is, I never even had to go to court! It was the record company’s thing.
Did you think it affected I Need a Haircut, or your career for that matter? I mean, your records and tapes literally got pulled off shelves.
I actually didn’t think it affected things much. I felt real talented then, and now too, so I would’ve just jumped into something else. I’m a survivor. Whatever I do, I’ll always provide and survive.
But the case affected hip-hop as a whole. Did you think it’d be that monumental?
I didn’t know then that it’d be that important. I just thought it was another court case. Sorta like if you got pulled over and got a traffic ticket or something. [laughs] I don’t even really think about it. I know it was important, but I have to only think about the future. I did that during the case, and I still do that now.
When you look back, do you think you were a highly influential character?
Yeah. I think the way I did things were influential ’cause it’s still reflected in people today. You know, the way people rap and have their pants sagging, whatever. Many little things, man. Maybe I didn’t invent these things, but I popularized it in many ways. I popularized a lot of things.
“ ’Cause I Have Friends, and That’s a Fact…”
He knew how to make great records, plus he was on the radio. That right there caught my attention immediately.
Let’s talk about how you met members of the Juice Crew. How’d you meet Fly Ty Williams?
He aight. He was a manager and was real hard working in the beginning. But when the money came into play, he wasn’t as hardworking.
What about Shan?
I met MC Shan in a hallway randomly. My man Phil Rodriguez from Long Island brought me out to his cousin’s house, and Shan lived right across the street. He said, “You I know this kid named Shan?’ I’ll introduce you to him.” And that’s how we met.
Are those stories true about you meeting Big Daddy Kane at a battle?
Yeah, I met Kane in Brooklyn, and we rapped against each other. So after we met and battled, we got down because I used to get into all kinds of parties and stuff. So he’d eventually roll with me.
How’d you connect with Kool G Rap and DJ Polo?
I met G Rap through Polo. I met Polo from Marley’s house. That’s where everybody used to record and just kick it. So I ran into Polo at Marley’s and Polo introduced me to this cat named Kool G Rap.
What about Craig G?
When I met Craig, he was actually doing a record in Marley’s house. He was from Queens Bridge, so he was another local kid from the way.
What about the younger members, like Tragedy?
I knew Tragedy since he was a little kid in Queens Bridge.
Where did you meet Roxanne Shanté?
I met Shanté in a park.
I met Ace at Marley’s too.
How about TJ Swan?
He was my boy from Long Island, and we got together to do stuff. I got him to sing with me.
And what about Cool V?
V’s my cousin. We knew each other since we were teenagers, and he became a really dope DJ right before my eyes, so I had to get him onboard to whatever I was doing.
So Marley’s house linked everyone together?
Yeah, sort of. I met everyone at Marley’s house at different times. Plus, we all would record there. Everything went through Marley. His house was the nucleus.
How about “The Bridge” rivalry? What’s your outlook on that now? Was it something that was blown out of proportion?
Definitely, man. It wasn’t as big of a deal as everyone made it out to be. I mean, we were friends with BDP and Scott La Rock. It wasn’t a big fight or anything. I mean, I had to give Chris [KRS-One] props. We were friends, we were cool. I still look at Chris as one of the greatest. He was innovative but had a lot of heart too.
What was your main contribution to establishing Cold Chillin’?
Besides me being me, I was like a talent finder. I like to believe in people, so I put Kane on. I was always a team player and that’s probably my main contribution to Cold Chillin’.
What are your final thoughts on the Juice Crew?
There will never be another Juice Crew. Ever. But I’d say that the closest thing to Juice Crew would have to be Wu-Tang. I mean, like us, they had different rhyme styles, personalities and they all rhymed about different things.
“Oh Snap, Guess What I Saw…”
After doing TV shows and making guest appearances on other people’s records, would you consider making another rap album?
I have been thinking about it. I mean, I always have ideas, ya know? But I think that the way rap is going right now, my style might be a little too old.
What do you mean by “the way rap is going right now”? What’s your take on it?
Things are more catered to corporate now. You know, they’re just in it to make money. I mean, of course we all are, but it’s losing its art. It’s a sad thing, man. At least to me.
Are there any artists you currently like?
I like them all as long as they’re keeping hip-hop alive and are being true. It’s hard to just say one artist. I know a lot of artists I don’t like though!
You’re busy, it seems. What do you do on your off days?
I like to relax! I like to watch movies and I like to play records. I also like looking for breakbeats and stuff. I like doin’ whatever!
The last time most people saw you on TV was probably on Celebrity Fit Club a few years ago. How was the experience of being on a reality show?
It was weird! But only because I didn’t know any of the other celebrities on there. We were a bunch of strangers really. I mean, I had seen them all on TV before. But had to get to know them. We were honestly like a big family once we got to know each other.
Your history in the public, and music in general, is real unique, comparatively speaking. What do you think is your place in pop culture?
How do I say this? Um, I don’t look at myself as just part of hip-hop. I look at myself as being sorta important at different times. I was always popular at school and that sorta carried over to my career. When I make a record, I don’t just make it for one purpose—I do it for many different reasons. I don’t think I’ll be remembered for just one thing, ya know?
Can you tell us some of your all time favorite rappers and producers?
My favorite rappers weren’t on records. So I can’t really say. I mean, I love Grand Master Flash & Furious Five, Cold Crush, Crash Crew and Def Committee—those are the people y’all would know. Other cats no one’s ever heard of ’cause I saw them perform and they’d blow me away and I’d never see them again.
One last question: Are all those rumors true? Do you have the “Take Me to Mardi Gras” 12-inch without the bells?
The one with no bells? Yeah, I got that! As you sit on the phone, hold on, I’ll get people who’ve heard it and have seen it, hold on…I could put Jazzy Jeff or Kenny Dope on the phone right now and they’ll tell you. Everybody wants to come to my house and look through my record collection and find it. Everyone thinks it’s a myth but it’s not.
[on hold, but still audible] Um…hold on…um…Kenny, wake up, Kenny! Oh Kenny! Kenny wake up! [gets back on the phone] Aaaah, I can’t get anybody on the phone, but I promise, I swear I got it!
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