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Biz Markie Was Forever Himself

The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, the Inhuman Orchestra, Biz Markie was one of rap’s most innovative stylists, a character who brightened every room he was in and every song he was on

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Take Biz Markie out of the photo, and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before: a black-and-white picture in XXL magazine of a handful of rappers and producers smiling or putting on their best serious-rapper-or-producer face. In the bottom left, Pharoahe Monch stares at the camera with fire in his eyes. All the way in the back, De La Soul’s Maseo looks ahead blankly, unbothered by the proceedings. But at the far right, the only person standing is having some fun with his tourmates. He lifts his shirt as his belly spills over his belt and his mile-wide grin threatens to crowd every other person out of the frame. As usual, Biz is goin’ off, and even Common seems to appreciate it.

What’s remarkable about the photo is how well it sums up the nearly four-decade career of Biz Markie, who died on Friday at the age of 57 following a hospitalization earlier this month. In a genre often defined by tough-guy posturing and self-styled messiah types, Biz made it clear that it was possible to have fun, be yourself, and still be one of the most respected artists of your generation. It’s not unlike how he got his start as a member of the Juice Crew in the 1980s, pumping out classics alongside a smooth operator like Big Daddy Kane and a verbal assassin like Kool G Rap. To outsiders, he was an off-key one-hit wonder with a broken heart who popped up on kids TV to beatbox, or on Beastie Boys records to emulate Ted Nugent. But to hip-hop devotees, he was one of the art form’s most innovative stylists—the forerunner to Ol’ Dirty Bastard and every other high-energy dynamo who followed him, the inventor of an iconic dance bearing his name—and one of the most beloved party rockers to ever stand behind a pair of Technics. They called Biz Markie “the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop,” and he was all too happy to wear the crown.

Born in Harlem in 1964 as Marcel Theo Hall, Biz was the son of a saxophonist who played alongside John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt. Biz would soon discover, however, that his preferred instrument was his mouth. As a young teen in Brentwood, Long Island, Biz fell in love with hip-hop after hearing tapes of the pioneering “L” Brothers. He soon began writing his own rhymes and beatboxing, the latter of which became his early calling card. By the mid-’80s, the Fat Boys and Doug E. Fresh had both ridden their beatboxing skills to gold and platinum success. But no one could do it quite like Biz, who viewed his mouth as more than a percussive instrument, adding melodies and other flourishes to his act as he came up through New York’s party and battle scenes. Marley Marl, the producer who helped define the sound of hip-hop in the 1980s, recalled in 2013 that he originally had no plans to add a beatboxer to the nascent Juice Crew. But then he met Biz, who camped out at the Queensbridge projects daily hoping for the chance to impress Marley. When they finally connected, Marley was floored by both Biz’s talent and outsized presence—he was a hulking 6-foot-3 with a personality that felt even bigger. Marley put Biz on tour with MC Shan and had him record the backing track for Roxanne Shante’s “Def Fresh Crew” (a song featured in the cult documentary classic Big Fun in the Big Town). Along the way, Biz earned another nickname: “the Inhuman Orchestra.”

Biz would become known as much more than a beatboxer. His earliest songs are now hip-hop staples: “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz” flipped an Isaac Hayes sample and a T.J. Swan falsetto into a dance-floor filler; on “Nobody Beats the Biz,” he repurposed a commercial for an electronics store into a personal theme song. Both would make it onto his debut album, Goin’ Off, which included other classics such as “Vapors”—in which rap’s Rodney Dangerfield finally gets some respect—and “Pickin’ Boogers,” the coolest song about fishing for snot ever created. The latter became a key part of his early identity, resulting in perhaps the only New York Times concert review to ever recount a person sliding out of a giant nose. (In a quote that explains the Biz Markie experience nearly as well as the XXL picture, Biz told Tim Westwood in 1988: “‘Pickin’ Boogers’ is me. That came from my heart. All those incidents really happened.”)

But if you know just one Biz Markie song, it’s the biggest one off of his second album, The Biz Never Sleeps: “Just a Friend,” a bona fide hit single that peaked at no. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1990 and is on the short list for the catchiest earworms rap has ever produced. Based on a true story of Biz trying to court a girl who was lying about her relationship, “Just a Friend” is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking—a cautionary tale of a person who ignores better judgment and plows ahead with an ill-advised crush. But the song is indelible because of its hook, which the rapper belts out himself. According to Biz, that was the result of perhaps the happiest accident of his career: T.J. Swan, his first choice to sing it, was unavailable, as were Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat, two of the biggest R&B stars of the era. So Biz did something that seemed illogical at the time but now seems genius: He sang it himself. Biz was nobody’s idea of a great singer—technically speaking, his vocal talents sat one notch above “drunk at karaoke.” But the song works even though it shouldn’t, thanks to a combination of passion and pure audacity. It’s aspirational for any person who’s ever shouted along to a song in the shower, thinking that they could be a star if they were to simply commit. Few people, however, can commit like Biz could, and no one can sound this good while sounding this bad.

By this point, Biz had become a full-blown cult figure—look no further than Masta Ace’s 1990 single “Me and the Biz,” in which the Brooklyn rapper impersonates his friend’s style and pals around with a Biz doll. But “Just a Friend” would mark a short-lived commercial peak for Biz. His follow-up album the next year, I Need a Haircut, sparked a lawsuit by 1970s singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan, who said that Biz illegally sampled him on “Alone Again.” The judge agreed and issued a ruling that barred further sales of the album, not only tanking I Need a Haircut’s prospects, but also setting a precedent that made sampling more difficult and cost-prohibitive, effectively changing overnight the way hip-hop was made. Biz returned in 1993 with the cheekily named All Samples Cleared!, though it failed to gain much traction. The energy of rap music was beginning to change, morphing into something harder and, at least on the surface, authentic-seeming. On the West Coast, Death Row Records was rising, as was the drama and violence that followed the label. On the East Coast, the Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang were committing the chilly vibe of New York streets to wax. This isn’t to say there wasn’t room for joy in rap during this period, but even relatively happy-go-lucky novelty acts had to put on their serious-rapper faces. Suddenly, people like Biz were getting pushed from the picture frame. For his part, Biz seemed fine with it, even as some people threw around the dreaded term “one-hit wonder”: “I don’t feel bad,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. “I know what I did in hip-hop.”

Perhaps Biz was so comfortable with his place in music because he was able to thrive on the margins. The Beastie Boys introduced Biz to a new audience with songs like “Do It” and a cover of “Benny and the Jets,” another classic of the bad-singing-sounding-good genre. And while he’d release just one more official album—2003’s Weekend Warrior—Biz would embark on a successful second career as a DJ. (Here he is captivating a crowd with the theme from Cheers the same way he had with his own singing decades earlier.) In the past two decades, Biz also embraced his status as a totem of the ’80s and ’90s, making cameos across all types of movies and shows: He was a beatboxing alien in Men in Black II, Kenny the Cat on SpongeBob SquarePants, a pitchman for Radio Shack, a cast member on Nick Cannon’s Wild ’N Out, and most unforgettably, a beatboxing tutor on Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba! “It’s beautiful because it means all eyes ain’t on me, so when I do pop up they appreciate everything they see,” he told The Washington Post in 2019. “It’s like the McRib sandwich. It’s like the flowers outside that turn white on the bushes. It comes around when it’s getting ready to be springtime. You appreciate it.”

Biz mastered the art of being a character without being a caricature. His stories often bordered on unbelievable—there was the time his crates of vinyl stopped a bullet outside a show (a rare Michael Jackson single was lost in the kerfuffle) and his claim to own a never-before-seen Bob James record that vexed everyone from the average collector to Questlove. But there was something deeply human about the Inhuman Orchestra. His best friend, Big Daddy Kane, was one of the greatest rappers on the planet, who carried himself like a modern Greek god—an artist who named his debut album Long Live the Kane and posed for Playgirl and Madonna’s Sex book. By contrast, Biz was the lovable loser—the guy who donned a Mozart-inspired powdered wig to croon about his broken heart, the one who had to walk home alone in the freezing cold after his own show. But Biz made up for all of his shortcomings through sheer charisma and innovation, no small feat for someone who got their start making music with his mouth for more popular rappers—ones whose star Biz would soon eclipse.

While Biz’s manager did not disclose the cause of the rapper’s death on Friday, the news comes after years of reports of his declining health. Biz was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2011, and in 2020, he was hospitalized several times because of complications from the disease. In early July, premature rumors of his death swirled online, leading his manager to acknowledge Biz was under medical supervision. Biz’s passing is part of a wave of crushing losses of hip-hop pioneers: In 2021 alone, Biz, DMX, Black Rob, Shock G, Gift of Gab, Double K, Ecstasy of Whoodini, and Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys have died. All were in their 40s or 50s; some had very public struggles with health or addiction. Taken together, their deaths raise concerns about how hip-hop burns through its stars, leaving them to fend for themselves when they need help the most.

Besides Biz, the most important person in the XXL photo is Posdnous, the De La Soul frontman who’s seated front and center. He turns toward Biz with a look of disbelief, and you immediately sense that Pos has seen his tourmate do this—or at least something like it—dozens of times before. But even as Pos’s eyes are saying “I can’t believe this is happening again,” his mouth betrays him; his lips are beginning to form a smile. The more you look at the photo, the more you see similar things happening all around: Common and Trugoy are full-on grinning, of course, but Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek look like they’re about to break character. Upon closer inspection, even Monch and Maseo seem like they’re trying too hard to look serious. You get the sense that the second the photo is snapped, the assembled serious-faced rap legends will burst into laughter. Biz Markie was the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, but even a clown prince is still royalty.

Justin Sayles is an articles editor at The Ringer.