A well-loved pop culture figure for over three decades, rapper Biz Markie established his fame through his exceptional beatboxing skills and off-kilter rapping on singles like "The Vapors," "Nobody Beats the Biz" and "Just a Friend," which rocketed him to the top of the hip-hop charts in the early 1990s. However, a lawsuit involving unauthorized use of a sample on the 1991 single "Alone Again" not only capsized his career, but also changed the structure of recording hip-hop music by requiring labels to clear all samples prior to an album's release. However, Markie's oversized personality kept him afloat in the wake of the suit, mostly as a guest performer on television shows, as well as albums by the Beastie Boys and Will Smith. By the new millennium, he had transformed from class clown to admired elder statesman of hip-hop, as well as a guaranteed laugh generator on television shows ranging from "Celebrity Fit Club" (VH1, 2005-2010) and "Yo Gabba Gabba!" (Nick Jr./Noggin, 2007). Throughout the often-unusual trajectory of his career, Markie never lost his commitment to old-school hip-hop through the venerable art of beatboxing, a skill that required just one instrument - his mouth - and a limitless imagination.
Born Marcel Theo Hall on April 8, 1964, Biz Markie began performing in clubs while still a teenager in his hometown of Long Island, NY. His talent for beatboxing brought him to producer Marley Marl, who tapped Markie to contribute guest vocals on albums by such early rap artists as MC Shan and Roxanne Shante. Markie's beatboxing on Shante's single "Def Fresh Crew" (1986) boosted his profile on the New York hip-hop scene, which led to his first single, "Make Music With Your Mouth, Biz," that same year. His debut album for Marl's Cold Chillin' label, Goin' Off, followed two years later, instantly minting Markie as a unique figure in rap circles for such humorous tracks as "The Vapors," "Pickin' Boogers" and "Nobody Beats the Biz," which displayed his skill at the African-American spoken-word game of "the dozens," in which participants insult each other in creative ways.
His second album, The Biz Never Sleeps (1989), featured his breakout hit, "Just a Friend," a humorously melancholy rap ballad with a memorable chorus sung off-key by Markie. The single shot to No. 9 on the Billboard pop singles while reaching the Top 5 on the hip-hop charts, which in turn sent the record itself to No. 66 on the Billboard albums chart. Unfortunately, his meteoric rise to the top of the rap business was almost immediately followed by an equally dramatic fall from grace. His third album, I Need a Haircut (1991), failed to generate a hit on par with "Just a Friend," stalling at No. 113 on the albums chart. Adding insult to injury was a lawsuit by singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan, who claimed that a sample from his song "Alone Again (Naturally)" had been used without his authorization on the track "Alone Again." O'Sullivan's claim was upheld in a major legal ruling that required record labels to clear samples with the original artist prior to their use on hip-hop albums. Warner Bros., which distributed Cold Chillin's product, pulled I Need a Haircut from circulation, effectively neutralizing Markie's career. He attempted to defuse the situation by titling his fourth album All Samples Cleared! (1993), but the stigma of the lawsuit resulted in the record's failure.
Markie spent much of the 1990s as a comic performer on television series, most notably on the sketch comedy series "In Living Color" (Fox, 1990-94). The appearances helped to preserve his image as a sort of hip-hop clown prince, as did amusing guest turns on several albums by the Beastie Boys, including "The Biz vs. the Nuge" from 1992's Check Your Head, which featured Markie "singing" over a sample from a song by Ted Nugent. A popular commercial for MTV featuring Markie performing a freestyle rap helped to further rebuild his profile in the music community, and by the end of the decade, he was a favored guest on major records by artists within and outside of the hip-hop community, from Will Smith and Canibus to the Rolling Stones. Markie also gave a memorable cameo turn in "Men in Black II" (2002) as an alien whose native language sounded remarkably like beatboxing.
The following year, Markie released Weekend Warrior (2003), his first album in over a decade. It performed moderately well, but was largely overshadowed by Markie's work as a guest performer on television shows, including "Wild 'n Out" (MTV, 2005-07) and the first season of "Celebrity Fit Club," where he set a series record for weight loss by dropping 40 pounds through exercise and physical challenges. His most widely recognized television project during the period was unquestionably the children's live action series "Yo Gabba Gabba!," which featured a regular segment built around his beatboxing skills called "Biz's Beat of the Day." Markie also became an in-demand DJ at various high-profile functions, and served in that capacity as the opening act on Chris Rock's 2008 "No Apologies" comedy tour.
By Paul Gaita