Biz Markie, who has died aged 57 after suffering from diabetes, earned himself the nickname of “Clown Prince of Rap” for the way he preferred humour and tunefulness to the guns and gangs scattered through the lyrics of more menacing, gangsta-style rappers. He was a fan of the comedians Benny Hill and Richard Pryor, and admitted that “I’d rather have a smile than to be serious.” His biggest hit, Just a Friend (1989), was a rueful tale of his efforts to persuade a girl that “you’ve got what I need!”, only to find his progress blocked by another guy she claimed was “just a friend”.
Over a rolling beat accompanied by clonking piano, the tale was told with tongue-in-cheek histrionics by Markie, who hammed it up energetically on the wailing chorus, and it reached No 9 on the Billboard pop chart. “I knew if I mixed the drums from Lee Dorsey’s Get Out of My Life, Woman with Freddie Scott’s You Got What I Need, I’d go platinum,” he said. The song was boosted by a video featuring Markie’s slapstick impersonation of Mozart, pounding a keyboard while dressed in a cape, ruffled shirt and periwig. Markie insisted that “the song is all true. A girl in California. She dissed me, treated me like a pair of dirty drawers.”
Another of Markie’s claims to fame was to have been at the centre of an event that dealt a body blow to hip-hop. His third album, I Need a Haircut (1991), sold slowly on release, but hit the buffers catastrophically when Gilbert O’Sullivan launched a lawsuit against Markie for using an unauthorised 20-second sample from his 1972 hit Alone Again (Naturally) on the track Alone Again. O’Sullivan’s suit was upheld in the landmark legal ruling Grand Upright Music Ltd v Warner Bros Records Inc, and Markie was ordered to pay $250,000 in damages. The decision sent a seismic shock through the hip-hop world and beyond, since henceforth all samples would have to be legally cleared with the original artists, and duly paid for. Warner Bros withdrew I Need a Haircut from sale.
Markie’s fourth album was entitled All Samples Cleared! (1993), and the cover depicted a re-enactment of the courtroom scene, with Markie playing both judge and defendant, but none of this was enough to make it a hit.
One of six siblings, he was born Marcel Theo Hall in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, and grew up in Patchogue in Long Island. At Longwood high school in Suffolk County he earned a reputation as a prankster. He adopted the alias Biz Markie when he was 14, and described how it was derived from “the first hip-hop tape I heard. It was ’77, ’78, from the L Brothers.” One of the rappers on the tape was Busy Bee Starski, and the name appealed to him. “My name used to be Bizzy B Markie, and after a while I put the Biz with the Markie. My nickname in my neighbourhood was Markie.” He developed a gift for rhyming and beatboxing, his work displaying the wit and playfulness that would become his trademark.
He gained a toehold in the music business by beatboxing for Roxanne Shante, of the Juice Crew collective, and worked his way up through playing Long Island house parties and taking part in rap battles, then working as a DJ in nightclubs in New York City. As word spread about his skills, he found himself in demand at clubs in Washington, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Markie approached the producer Marly Marl (real name Marlon Williams), a founder of the Juice Crew, to make some demo tapes, and Marl helmed his 1985 single Def Fresh Crew, which featured Shante. He signed to Prism Records and released singles including Just Rhymin’ with Biz, on which he duetted with Big Daddy Kane.
In 1988 he recorded his debut album, Goin’ Off, for Cold Chillin’ Records (Prism’s new name, now with distribution by Warner Bros). It was produced by Marl, and featured lyrics by Kane on five tracks, including the single Pickin’ Boogers. This began with a warning: “Now this may sound disgusting an’ like very gross.” A standout track was Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz, a showcase for his beatboxing skills. The hip-hop guidebook Bring the Noise (1991) praised his ability to “thud like a kick drum or chatter like a hambone”.
His second album, The Biz Never Sleeps (1989, which billed Markie as “The Diabolical Biz Markie”), contained Just a Friend. However, in the wake of the copyright lawsuit, Markie’s career headed off in a new direction, as he focused on DJing rather than recording. He had an acting role in the film Meteor Man (1993), appeared on the TV show In Living Color and shot a freestyle rap commercial for MTV2. He popped up as a guest artist on the Beastie Boys albums Check Your Head, Ill Communication and Hello Nasty.
In 1996 he appeared alongside Wu-Tang Clan, Coolio and others on the album America Is Dying Slowly, which aimed to boost Aids awareness among African-American men. In 1997, a sample of his track A One Two was used on the Rolling Stones song Anybody Seen My Baby? from their album Bridges to Babylon (making it the only Stones song to use sampling).
Markie appeared in the films Men in Black II (2002, playing a beatboxing alien) and Sharknado II (2014), and in numerous TV shows. In 2005 he took part in VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club, a weight-loss competition in which Markie shed more pounds than any other contestant. He filmed commercials for Radio Shack, Heineken, Budweiser and many more.
It was not until 2003 that he released a new album, the ramshackle and intermittently lovable Weekend Warrior. “I don’t want to look like a 50-year-old rapper trying too hard,” he said. “If I’m going to do a record I’m going to do it because I want to do a record.”
Markie happily acknowledged his admiration for mainstream singers like Elton John or Barry Manilow – “I’m just here to entertain and make people happy,” he said – and he looked back fondly to the close-knit underground New York scene, the so-called “old school” from which he emerged. He had appeared with many of his New York compatriots including Shante, LL Cool J and Run-DMC in the documentary film Big Fun in the Big Town (1986), made for Dutch TV and now considered a cult classic. In 2016 he joined other veterans including A Flock of Seagulls and Tiffany on an 80s cruise around the Caribbean.
Markie suffered from persistent weight problems, at one stage weighing 175kg (27st 7lb). “I’d eat, eat, eat, not exercise, go to sleep, eat and eat,” he said. In 2020 he was hospitalised after suffering complications of Type 2 diabetes. At the end of the year he was reportedly in a rehab facility, having suffered a stroke after going into a diabetic coma, and he died in hospital of complications.
He is survived by his wife, Tara (nee Davis), whom he married in 2005.
• Biz Markie (Marcel Theo Hall), rapper, DJ and songwriter, born 8 April 1964; died 16 July 2021