Biz Markie has died. The rapper, actor, and DJ was best known for his 1989 single “Just A Friend,” off his sophomore album The Biz Never Sleeps—but also for a spirit, perseverance, and good-natured energy that transcended that single major hit. Known for his comedic approach to his music, collaborations with many of the less self-serious artists from the hip-hop world, and—inadvertently—for setting legal precedents that re-shaped the relationship between early rap artists and the samples they so frequently relied upon, Markie was hospitalized last year due to complications from Type II diabetes. TMZ reported his death today, after rumors that his health was failing began circulating in late June. Markie was 57.
Born in Harlem as Marcel Theo Hall, Markie came up in the New York nightclub scene, releasing his first album, Goin Off, in 1988. A talented beatboxer, and a distinctive singer, Markie followed Goin Off the next year with The Biz Never Sleeps—and “Just A Friend,” a song that marked the high-water mark of his career, at least in terms of strict musical popularity. Strangely sweet, and a little sad, the song—which built off Freddie Scott’s 1968 “(You) Got What I Need”— hit No. 9 on the Billboard charts. Decades later, when Markie was primarily working as a DJ, a performance of “Just A Friend” remained a staple of his shows.
Ironically, though, it was the release of Markie’s far less successful third album, I Need A Haircut, that reshaped the world of modern rap. That’s because the album’s lead-off single, “Alone Again,” contained an uncleared sample from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” The subsequent lawsuit, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. vs. Warner Bros. Records Inc., set a landmark precedent in IP law, with the judge ruling that any unauthorized sampling constituted copyright infringement. In an instant, the decision changed the sound of hip-hop, enforcing a new culture of conservatism in the use of samples, so central to the sound of early rap artists. But while Markie’s sales flagged in the wake of the decision, he still presented a public sense of humor—naming his next (and second-to-last) album All Samples Cleared!
Meanwhile, though, Markie’s career began to transition, with him taking on roles as an actor, producer, and DJ. He also forged connections with those working on the less aggressively serious side of hip-hop, working alongside the likes of The Beastie Boys and Will Smith. Markie even appeared in Smith’s Men In Black II, playing a beatboxing alien—a prowess he would also show off from time to time on kids’ TV show Yo Gabba Gabba! with the recurring segment “Biz’s Beat Of The Day.”
After releasing his final album (the endearing, but not especially successful, Weekend Warrior) in 2003, Markie continued to work as a DJ and an actor—often appearing in those projects masterminded by kids who once grew up on his music, or who embraced him as a representative of the goofy, gentler side of old-school hip-hop. His final TV appearance was in a 2017 episode of Black-ish, where he appeared as himself, performing a show-specific version of “Just A Friend.”