Hip-hop lost one of it’s most prominent fixtures on July 16 with the passing of Biz Markie. He was 57. Born Marcel Theo Hall, reports say he’d been fighting a series of complications from diabetes for more than a year before transitioning.
Born in Harlem and raised in Long Island before getting his start at 14, the former Juice Crew member has a legacy that spans beyond music. There’s his iconic appearance in ‘Men In Black’, where he and “J” (played by Will Smith) re-introduces “K” (Tommy Lee Jones) to alien lifeforms. But he was also a beatboxing savant, who’s taught the method in an episode of the children’s show “Yo Gabba Gabba!”.
What Biz may best be known for and what has given him unprecedented universal acclaim, however, was his massive 1989 hit, "Just A Friend," which featured on his sophomore album The Biz Never Sleeps.
The song, which tells the story of a man dating a woman who claims her lover is nothing more to her than a friend, has more than 70 million views on Youtube, is certified platinum, and makes most greatest hip-hop songs of all-time lists. It peaked at number nine on the Billboard and was by far, his most aclaimed song. The song’s impact, however, goes beyond raw numbers.
The off-key notes and self-depreciative bravado of the single not only has permeated pop culture, resulting in commercials, memes and countless covers, but changed the sonic evolution of rap as we know it. Now it’s a trend for rappers to sing poorly. You think Kodak Black or Gucci Mane cares about the notes they are or aren’t hitting? And Ja Rule and Nelly have taken us to church off-key — all thanks to Biz.
The self-described “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” may no longer be with us but his classic and his influence always will. Here are seven things you never knew about his smash hit, “Just a Friend”.
You know a song is a classic when the remix eclipse’s the original because, I’m not going to cap on you, I totally forgot Markie’s song was an adaptation of the Freddie Scott's tune, "(You) Got What I Need". He used the phrasing of the line, "You got what I need," and piano medley but, as we all know, changed the subject matter completely.
The same time Biz Markie was recording “Just a Friend”, A Tribe Called Quest was working on their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990). As peers in the industry do, they mingled, which led to Markie playing Tip the record to see what he thought.
Q felt the song had legs. It’s just, he wasn’t so sure about the lyrics to Biz's chorus, which was a work-in-progress at the time. Instead of the version we hear today, it previously began "You, you must be on speed." But when Biz later sang the lyrics to Freddie Scott's original, Q-Tip gave his nod of approval.
Contrary to popular belief, and as the video would suggest, the song is not about some groupie he’d met, but was actually based on true events. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly on the 30th anniversary of the song back in 2019, he disclosed that the tune is actually not supposed to be funny.
“I was talking to this girl — the first girl I ever talked to. And every time I would call out to California, a dude would pick up and hand her the phone. I’d be like, “Yo, what’s up [with him]?” She’d say, “Oh, he’s just a friend. He’s nobody.” And I came out there a week early just to surprise her, and she’s tongue kissing somebody — and I caught her! So instead of me fighting, I put the pain into the pen and wrote it out.”
Biz Markie’s loud, scratchy voice, wailing across the record is probably one of the most magical things about “Just a Friend” but according to him, that wasn’t planned. In the same 2019 interview, he tells Entertainment Weekly, “I wasn’t supposed to sing the [chorus]. I asked people to sing the part, and nobody showed up at the studio, so I did it myself.”
Well aren’t we all glad he did.
Who doesn't remember Mario's 2002 single of the same name which had middle school’s rocking across the country? The single was the lead from Mario’s self-titled debut album and helped him score a breakthrough record while also introducing Biz's genius to an entirely new generation.
Similarly, we owe 50 Cent’s “Best Friend” (2005) to the Biz too. The title as well as some of the lyrics are an ode to the late star and ended up being a smash from his ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ soundtrack, which reached the Top 10 on the Hot Rap Songs chart.
(Photo: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for BACARDI)