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Rapper Biz Markie, whose 'Just a Friend' became a '90s staple, dies at 57

Known as the "clown prince of hip-hop," he will be missed for "his vibrant personality, constant jokes and frequent banter," a spokeswoman said.
Image: Biz Markie, near the offices Warner Bros. Records, owners of his record label, Cold Chillin', in Kensington, London, on April 6, 1988.
Biz Markie in Kensington, London, in 1988.David Corio / Redferns/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Biz Markie, who fortified the humor-and-hijinks school of hip-hop by taking it worldwide with his 1989 hit "Just a Friend," died Friday at the age of 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," said Jenni D. Izumi, CEO of Biz Markie, Inc., in an emailed statement.

The rapper had been ill, and Izumi had asked for "thoughts and prayers" after it was falsely reported that he had died.

On Friday, Izumi said, "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."

Image: Biz Markie
Biz Markie c. 1970.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Markie, whose real name was Marcel Theo Hall, spent his early years in Harlem but moved to Long Island, and by the time he was a teen, he was rapping and beat-boxing, a way of making percussive sounds through vocal and breath work.

He adopted his emcee name because, he said, he admired pioneering rapper Busy Bee Starski, and initially called himself Bizzy B Markie, using his nickname, Markie.

He later shortened the name and made his 1985 hip-hop debut as a beat-boxer for Roxanne Shante of the Juice Crew, already big names in the emerging rap world.

Markie's first hit, "Make the Music With Your Mouth," in 1987, was an ode to beat-boxing.

But it was "Just a Friend," which sampled Freddie Scott's "(You) Got What I Need," which launched Biz Markie to global hip-hop fame and inspired MTV to call him "the clown prince of hip-hop."

Its chorus sang the universal tune of two-timing: "You, you got what I need but you say he's just a friend/And you say he's just a friend, oh baby."

At a time when the video revolution in music was still a thing, Markie made a strong play for the camera in the song's video, dressing somewhat like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, complete with a white wig, while pecking on a piano.

Markie's song earned a decent rotation in the wake of 1980s criticism that MTV would rarely put Black artists on the air. (The network launched "Yo! MTV Raps," a program focused on hip-hop, in 1988).

"Just a Friend" peaked at 37 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart in December of 1989.

The rapper would also become a major voice in the debate over the breadth of intellectual property rights in a music world dependent on sound recycling.

After the 1991 release of his song, "Alone Again," which sampled several bars from Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 hit, "Alone Again (Naturally)," O'Sullivan sued, and won, chilling hip-hop's use of samples that haven't been accompanied by a big check.

In 1993, Markie hit back with an album titled, "All Samples Cleared."

Among those saddened by his passing was rapper Q-Tip, who tweeted, "damn im gonna miss u." Funk star Bootsy Collins tweeted that "to a lot of us he was more than Just a Friend," and Cheo Hodari Coker, creator of Marvel's Luke Cage and a hip-hip journalist, tweeted: "BIZ. Dammit."

Longtime hip-hop writer Jeff Weiss, editor-in-chief of Los Angeles' theLAnd magazine, called Markie "the epitome of hip-hop wild style."

"A brilliant real-life cartoon full of absurdist humor and class clown wit," Weiss said by email. "A beatbox master, vapor-passing, booger-picking pioneer of the drunken vocal technique. The physical manifestation of pure child-like joy with the musicality of a prodigy."

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2019, Markie said his fans always return to "Just a Friend," saying they repeat the chorus to him. "They always sing that to me. Always."

"The weirdest thing about my fame is that when I'm thinking that it's almost over it just sparks back up," Markie said. "I made 'Just a Friend' in '89. Some people's records die — it sprouts up. Now it's 30 years later and it's sprouted up again in commercials. They're not letting me die. The public, the fans, they like me around."

Markie is survived by his wife, many family members and "close friends who will miss his vibrant personality, constant jokes and frequent banter," Izumi said.