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Remembering The 'Clown Prince Of Hip-Hop' Biz Markie

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rapper, deejay and pop culture figure Biz Markie died yesterday at the age of 57. A statement from a representative said, quote, "Biz created a legacy of artistry that will forever be celebrated by his industry peers and his beloved fans," end quote. Biz Markie was known as the clown prince of hip-hop, bringing a charming off-key sense of humor to the genre. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM WESTWOOD: How did you get your name, brother?

BIZ MARKIE: Well, I used to be busy getting in trouble, and my name is Markie anyway.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: This is Biz Markie talking to British deejay Tim Westwood. It's 1988, and hip-hop as a genre is enjoying its relatively recent mainstream success. Markie's big song at the time was "Vapors."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAPORS")

BIZ MARKIE: (Rapping) The meaning of this word without no doubt means nobody want to be there when you're down and out.

LIMBONG: It tells the story of how nobody wanted to mess with him and his friends when they were up and coming - not girls, not other rappers, nobody. Now that he's all big, well, all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAPORS")

BIZ MARKIE: (Rapping) But now they switched without belief. Yo, Biz, do you remember me from Noble Street, chief? We used to be down back in the days. It happens all the time. It never cease to amaze.

LIMBONG: Here he is in that 1988 interview again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIZ MARKIE: Everybody looked at - underrated me as a rapper. But then I just sat down and wrote stuff to myself. And it's like a more and more of a revenge thing, you know, like putting it back in your face.

LIMBONG: That sort of comically spiteful glee, along with the self-deprecating underdog attitude, are threads present in a lot of his songs, including his biggest hit, 1989's "Just A Friend"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A FRIEND")

BIZ MARKIE: (Singing) You, you got what I need. But you say he's just a friend. And you say he's just a friend. Oh, baby, you...

LIMBONG: Biz Markie was born Marcel Theo Hall in 1964 in New York. He made his way into hip hop through deejaying and beatboxing. And then he made a name for himself as kind of a goofball rapper with his song Pickin' Boogers, which is about exactly what it says it's about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICKIN' BOOGERS")

BIZ MARKIE: (Rapping) So go up your nose with a finger or two and pull out one or a crusty crew. Yo.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: When he did a whole song called "Pickin' Boogers," which is like - is unimaginable, you know, when we get to that era of gangsta rap in the 1990s.

LIMBONG: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African American studies at Duke University who's written a number of books on Black pop culture. Neal says that while Biz Markie might have been joking, his influence was serious.

NEAL: When you think about his impact, you know, he was making fun and singing then. But, you know, 30 years later, you know, singing is now part of the toolbox of how to be a successful rapper.

LIMBONG: He left his fingerprints on the business of music, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONE AGAIN")

GILBERT O'SULLIVAN: (Singing) Alone again, naturally.

LIMBONG: On his third album, Biz Markie sampled the song "Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan without clearing it. O'Sullivan sued and won. A judge ordered Marki to pay $250,000 in damages and barred the label from continuing to sell the album. Sampling was never the same, as labels then started pouring resources into making sure everything was on the up-and-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME TURN YOU ON")

BIZ MARKIE: (Singing) That's why I say, well, it feels so good to me

LIMBONG: In true Biz Markie fashion, he titled his follow-up album "All Samples Cleared." Markie's musical career never reached those early highs again, but he remained a part of pop culture by appearing in various TV shows and movies. And, of course, every generation eventually discovers how infectious "Just A Friend" is. He told The Washington Post in 2019, it's like the McRib sandwich, it's like the flowers outside that turn white on the bushes - it comes around when it's getting ready to be springtime. You appreciate it. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.