Biz Markie, jubilant ‘Just a Friend’ rap star, dies at 57

Biz Markie, onstage, holds a microphone to his mouth while pointing toward the audience with his other hand.
Biz Markie’s 1989 breakthrough hit “Just a Friend” remains a staple from rap festivals to karaoke bars.
(John Shearer / InVision/Associated Press)

Biz Markie, the New York rapper whose jubilant, bawdy charisma made him one of the most idiosyncratic hip-hop figures ever to break into the top 10, died on Friday. He was 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,” a representative for the rapper said in a statement. “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. He leaves behind a wife, many family members and close friends who will miss his vibrant personality, constant jokes and frequent banter. We respectfully request privacy for his family as they mourn their loved one.”

The representative did not give a cause of death, but Markie had battled diabetes in recent years.

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Born Marcel Theo Hall on April 8, 1964, in Harlem, N.Y., Markie was a pivotal figure in early hip-hop, best known for his endearingly warbly 1989 single “Just a Friend,” which remains a pop-culture staple, still heard (and sung along to) at rap festivals and karaoke bars. Although Markie embraced the “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” label, he also bore the brunt of a 1991 lawsuit that first defined emerging law around sampling, a ruling that forever changed the music industry and the craft of making hip-hop.

Biz Markie, in a cap with upturned brim, leans back as he raps into a microphone.
Biz Markie performs in London in 1988.
(David Corio / Redferns)

Markie grew up on Long Island and earned early renown around New York City’s street-party circuit for his prowess at beatboxing — imitating the sound of drum machines and turntables with your voice — which he invoked on his breakthrough single, “Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz” from his 1988 debut album, “Goin’ Off.” That LP, with state-of-the-art sampling from producer Marley Marl and some ghostwritten lyrics from Big Daddy Kane, sported such street hits as “Vapors” and “Nobody Beats the Biz,” on which Biz riffed on the hook from a local electronics store advertising jingle to boast, “You won’t be fighting or illing, you’ll just be partying / I came to have fun and, not be number one.”

That sense of loose, self-aware charm was a world apart from the ferocity of peers like Public Enemy or N.W.A. But Markie had a playfulness and an off-key, enthusiastic musicality that turned out to have pop potential. His second LP, “The Biz Never Sleeps,” contained the single “Just a Friend,” adapted from Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need.” “Just a Friend,” a catalog of woe-is-me romantic travails delivered in a charmingly pitch-agnostic wail, reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 and became Markie’s defining single for the rest of his career. Acts including the Beastie Boys, 50 Cent, Nas and metal titans Anthrax sampled or alluded to it on record, and its video — with Markie dressed as Mozart playing piano — was an early MTV fixture.

But his hot streak would hit a wall on his third LP, “I Need a Haircut,” which liberally used a sample of Irish singer Gilbert O’Sullivan’s maudlin 1972 single “Alone Again (Naturally)” for the track “Alone Again.” Although sampling was a widespread practice in hip-hop, O’Sullivan brought a successful copyright lawsuit against Markie, his producers and his label, Warner Bros. Records, marking the first time an artist was granted an injunction over unauthorized sampling. Warner Bros. was compelled to run an advertisement in the Jan. 4, 1992, issue of Billboard magazine requesting that retailers return all unsold copies of “I Need a Haircut.”

The ad read, in part: “It is imperative that you immediately adhere to this order or risk serious adverse legal consequences, both civil and criminal in nature.” The ruling, and subsequent settlement paid to O’Sullivan, would permanently alter the sonic and creative landscape of hip-hop, turning a formative production technique into a legal and financial minefield for rappers who wanted to sample other people’s music for their own.

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The setback didn’t dampen Markie’s spirits even if it set his career on edge (his follow-up LP was titled “All Samples Cleared!”). He covered country singer Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” on the blow-off-work-forever comedy film “Office Space,” guested on three Beastie Boys albums (their version of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” is uproariously joyful), and played a beatboxing alien in “Men In Black II” opposite Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In 2009, Heineken beer helped turn “Just a Friend” from one-hit wonder to multigenerational earworm in a ubiquitous singalong commercial reminding people to “let a stranger drive you home.”

Markie, an affable and lovable figure, became an unofficial goodwill ambassador for early hip-hop: He was the DJ on the short-lived VH1 game show “Hip Hop Squares” and hosted his own old-school hip-hop show on SiriusXM radio. Generation Z kids and their parents might remember his beatboxing segment on the madcap Nickelodeon show “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

Markie was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2010 but lost a significant amount of weight and continued to tour and record frequently. In 2020, the rapper was hospitalized for complications related to his diabetes, according to TMZ. In April of this year, former collaborator Kane told the syndicated morning radio show “The Breakfast Club” that Markie had recently suffered a stroke. “He’s in rehabilitation now,” Kane said. “He’s getting better and stronger every day.”

Markie is survived by his wife, Tara Hall.