The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biz Markie was more than just a goofball. He showed us how joyous hip-hop could be.

Biz Markie, born Marcel Theo Hall, died Friday. While his most well-known hit “Just A Friend” defined his career to many, his sound has influenced rap and hip-hop for generations. (Tyler Kaufman/AP Images for NFL)

If you read enough about the rapper Biz Markie — who died Friday — you’ll notice words like “goofball" and “clown” thrown around. But really, it’s the sound of one word in particular that, for more than 30 years, has captured the hip-hop legend’s influence: yeeeeeewwwww.

That wailing delivery of the word “you” (as in “Yeeeeeewwwww — you got what I need”) came courtesy of his best-known musical gift to the world: the breezy, pleading heartbreak anthem “Just a Friend.”

Think back to when you last heard it, which might not have been that long ago: Since its 1989 release, the song has become a staple of commercials, karaoke showstoppers, walks around the mall, cookout singalongs, dance parties — any communal experience where you might need or want a smile on your face.

Hip-hop fans of a certain age will remember the infectious energy of the performer, adorned in a Mozart-style powdered wig, in the song’s music video. And his charming, unmistakable, ear-to-ear grin.

Yes, the song was goofy. But just give it one more close listen, and you’ll realize how vivid Biz Markie’s storytelling could be, catching the rhythms and lulls of the courtship dance between him and the apple of his eye at the time: a woman identified as “Blah-blah-blah.”

“Just a Friend” was his first and only Top 10 hit, but Biz Markie was more than a one-hit wonder. If you love the earworm chorus of that song, turn on the chest-puffing “Nobody Beats the Biz” or his ode to mining for nose gold, “Pickin’ Boogers.”

The rapper, born Marcel Theo Hall, died Friday in Baltimore. The cause was undisclosed, but he had struggled with complications of Type 2 diabetes since 2010. Hall lived in Bowie, Md., in recent years, after growing up on Long Island.

Biz Markie, New York rapper known as ‘clown prince of hip-hop,’ dies at 57

Biz Markie’s career-making hit led some of the biggest hip-hop artists of his time, including Will Smith and the Beastie Boys, to seek out his voice and knowledge.

“In the ‘90s, Biz would often show up at our G Son studio in Atwater, Calif.,” Mike D of the Beastie Boys wrote in a statement sent to The Washington Post. “I’ll never forget the time he showed up with a stack of 45s to make a mix tape to listen to on his flight back to New York. Did this mix tape include famous breakbeats like the Honey Drippers ‘Impeach the President’ or Rufus Thomas’ ‘Funky Penguin’ or any of the other classics that you might associate with Biz and his amazing human beatbox skills? Nope. He smiled ear to ear as he put on Helen Reddy‘s ‘I Am Woman’ and sang along at top volume with his headphones on — so excited that he’d soon be able to do this all over again on his flight!”

As rap has become synonymous with pop music, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when the art form was demonized by some who claimed that street-tough rappers were corrupting the nation’s youth. But Biz Markie set the bar for how fun and silly — how joyous — making rap and hip-hop could be.

“No one else could beatbox, make beats and grooves and sounds the way he did,” Mike D wrote. “When he came out, he didn’t play by the rules or observe any categories. If he loved something, he would play it or sample it or rap over it — or just DJ the song and have the audience sing along.

“He was all inclusive the way hip-hop can be at its best moments.”

It was Biz Markie’s eclectic and searching taste that served as the backbone of his beats and albums. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, co-founder and drummer of the Roots, and a renowned record collector, paid tribute on Instagram to his friend.

“Biz built me man,” Questlove wrote in a caption. “In my early early stages it was Biz who taught me the REAL places to cop records….Biz taught me what cities had good digging…..Biz taught me where to collect 45s……Biz taught me where to collect 8TRACK TAPES!!”

Actress Kerry Washington recalled on Twitter getting absorbed by some of Biz Markie’s career-making DJ sets in New York.

“When I was a teenager we used to sneak out on Monday night to hit the hottest party in NYC,” Washington tweeted. “Soul Kitchen taught [me] how [to] let music live in my body. Whenever we saw Biz on the 1s & 2s we were in awe. He was a genius. Rest In Peace and Soul.”

Chuck D, one-half of the iconic rap duo Public Enemy, sent his condolences on Twitter (“#RestInBeats”), noting that Biz Markie was one of nine influential rappers, including MF Doom and DMX, who rose to fame in the 1980s and ’90s and died recently.

In a 2019 interview with The Washington Post Magazine, Biz Markie summed himself up best, talking about his prolific career in music, which ranged from appearances on children’s television to his regular appearances behind the DJ booth at a suburban nightclub in Maryland.

“I’m going to be Biz Markie until I die. Even after I die I’m going to be Biz Markie,” he said. “I love it. I’m one of them unsung heroes. It’s like, I’m part of hip-hop, but sometimes I’m forgotten about in hip-hop.”