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Music

Hip-hop’s Clown Prince Biz Markie Has Got What We Need

Photo: David Corio, License: N/A

David Corio

Biz Markie flaunting his ice in London, 1988


** Update: We learned after going to press that the show at the Korova was cancelled.

Unfortunately, rapper and beatboxer Biz Markie’s pop culture headstone will highlight just one track: “Just A Friend,” a karaoke mainstay that holds the laudable distinction of being the worst-sung hit song of all time. “Just A Friend” eternally banished Biz to one-hit wonder status, sandwiched between Kriss Kross and Vanilla Ice on some VH1 Top 100 daytime fodder.

It’s a placement that the Clown Prince of Hip-hop in no way deserves, as his back catalog shows him to be a deeper talent more on par with the raucous likes of De La Soul than, say, the guys who did “Rump Shaker.” That catalog, though limited to only a handful of albums, is chock full of party-rap classics that showcase his talents as a showman, beatboxer and fun-as-hell rapper.

Like any true hip-hop originator, the rapper born Marcel Hall began his career in mid-’80s New York City, living through hip-hop’s halcyon days while slowly building a name for himself as a formidable beatboxer. It was exactly that talent that landed Biz his first studio date; a single that produced the ’86 hit “Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz.” Planned as a platform for his beatboxing talents, the track acted as a coming out party for Biz the lyricist. That flow—slow-placed, simplistic and rife with one-liners—would remain his M.O. for the remainder of his career, as would his rather quaint approach to typical hip-hop tropes of braggadocio. Boasts like “Not gonna act conceited and say I’m the best, but I’m guaranteed to pass any test” sound downright adorable in the context of contemporary hip-hop.

A better pure distillation of his talents came courtesy of that single’s B-side, the sparse showcase “A One, Two.” Much in the same vein as Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” from the previous year, the track features Biz alone at the mic, providing lyrics, beat and a ridiculous array of inhuman sound effects all in real time. Most impressive is the outro of “A One, Two,” when Biz takes the synth line from Nu Shooz’ cheezeball classic “I Can’t Wait” and vocalizes it as well as any Casio, utilizing serious throat tapping technique and insane breath control.

By the time he dropped his debut Goin’ Off in ’88, Biz had fully honed his goof-ball persona into an oddly captivating force. While Public Enemy, NWA and Ice T pushed hip-hop to new extremes of militancy, vulgarity and outrage, Biz was rapping about “pickin’ boogers” and “chasing honeys” over Steve Miller Band samples. And it totally worked due to a killer batch of beats courtesy of Juice Crew producer Marley Marl and Biz’s unmistakable charisma that made even the most cringe-worthy of lines (see: “Albee Square Mall”) strangely endearing. Things grew even goofier on ’89’s The Biz Never Sleeps, which in spite of its overall weaker material, became Biz’s biggest hit on the strength of the single “Just a Friend.” With its excellent narrative, witty wordplay and earworm hook (famously sung by Biz wearing full Mozart costume in the video), the track struck a perfect balance between his serious hip-hop chops and cartoonish irreverence. That balance was one he never quite hit on again. While rap veered further towards the gangsta, Biz continued to push his Clown Prince persona into more juvenile territory, with diminishing returns on his two subsequent releases.

Biz never really launched a full resurgence as a straight-up rapper, but found that his comedic talents made him a natural fit for TV. Alongside the likes of Flavor Flav, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, he slotted perfectly into VH1’s early 2000s retrograde reality show lineup, most notably on Celebrity Fit Club and as host for the 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs countdown. Roles on In Living Colour and Men in Black II would follow, along with his most visible to date as resident beatboxer on Nick Jr.’s kid/stoner favorite Yo Gabba Gabba.

Now 25 years removed from “Just a Friend,” Biz’s current tour has seen him ably rework the balance that defined those classic early years: still unabashed about his eight-year-old boy’s sense of humor, but also readily able to showcase his skills as a distinctly clever MC with mind-boggling beatboxing ability.

 

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