(July 17, 2021). Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a world where hip-hop wasn’t the dominant music genre. Perusing this generation’s Billboard charts is just one indicator of rap’s current ubiquitous status as there’s rarely a chart that doesn’t have at least one hip-hop song in the top ten.
Yet the passing of two early hip-hop pioneers in 2021 serves as a reminder of a time when rap music still hadn’t pervaded the mainstream and every top-10 crossover success was to be celebrated as if it might be the last. Many folks still weren’t convinced that hip-hop was here to stay, or at least that was wishful thinking on the part of its many detractors.
On Friday, July 16, the second of those pioneers – Biz Markie (born Marcel Theo Hall in Harlem) – died after a long battle with diabetes.
It was just less than three months earlier on April 22 that another of 1990’s breakthrough rappers – Shock G (Gregory Jacobs) of Digital Underground – passed away. It was later revealed that his death was the result of a drug overdose.
Both rappers were only 57 years old when they died. And, coincidentally, at one point in 1990 during hip-hop’s Golden Era when their breakthrough records were all over the radio, they were the only two rappers in the pop top 40.
It was the second week of April 1990, just weeks before the latest hits by Salt-n-Pepa and M.C. Hammer ascended the ranks, that Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” and Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” ranked as rap’s lone representatives in a top 40 that included hits by ‘80s non-hip-hop superstars like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross and Phil Collins, as well as ‘70s rock holdovers like Heart, Kiss, Aerosmith and Don Henley.
Of course rap music was still on its come-up back then, as the mainstream still hadn’t fully embraced the genre. While harder-core rap acts like NWA, Ice-T, Boogie Down Productions (with KRS-One), and Public Enemy had already recorded albums that are now considered classics, none of them had yet cracked the top ten of the Billboard album charts.
Similarly, by 1990, groundbreaking rap acts known more for their misogyny and constant berating of women, like 2 Live Crew and Too $hort, had made dents in the charts, but none had yet experienced the level of success that similar rappers would have in the ensuing decades.
The Florida-based group 2 Live Crew had cracked the top-40 of the pop chart (peaking at No. 26) in 1989 with “Me So Horny,” which sparked one of the earliest controversies about lyrics in rap music. The group battled obscenity charges that year, were banned from radio in their home state, and otherwise could not get another big hit (aside from the self-mockery of their “Banned in the USA” in July 1990).
Biz Markie’s contribution to rap played a huge part in the genre’s early-‘90s expansion. It was the safe, self-effacing nature of “Just A Friend,” in which the rapper lamented his love interest’s affections for another man, which helped make hip-hop more palatable to the mainstream despite the concurrent growth of gangsta and misogynistic rap. Who could forget The Biz’s incredibly bad – but undeniably charming – singing of the hook: “Oh, baaaaby, you/You got what I neeeeeed/But you say he’s just a friend/But you say he’s just a friend”?
The party- and radio-friendly anthem climbed to the top-10 of the all-genre Hot 100 (then considered still a pop chart), peaking at No. 9 and becoming the first rap song of the 1990s to reach that milestone. It was followed two months later by M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” from rap’s first blockbuster album, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. That album and its many hit singles opened the floodgates for hip-hop to achieve the kind of commercial success it had never experienced up to that point.
To wit, there had only been five rap songs during the entire 1980s decade to make the top ten of the Hot 100 (Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right,” Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” and Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move”). None had reached No. 1 (that would finally occur in Nov. 1990 with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”).
“Just A Friend” thus became only the sixth rap top-10 in Hot 100 history – and the first of a decade that is largely considered to be the most transformative, most expansive period in hip-hop’s history.
Curiously, as important as the song was to rap’s commercial expansion, you won’t find the whimsical “Just A Friend” on many lists of the greatest rap hits of all time, or even of the 1990s for that matter. Those lists are generally reserved for classics by more street-credible future ‘90s superstars like 2Pac, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, the Fugees, Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill and other more prestigious rappers.
Instead, “Just A Friend,” which sampled a 1968 tune “(You) Got What I Need” by singer Freddie Scott, and its pop top-40 counterpart “The Humpty Dance” are relegated to lists of ‘90s party and dance favorites, and the artists who recorded them are considered among hip-hop’s goofiest, with Biz even called the “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” at one point.
Sadly, Biz never repeated the success of “Just A Friend” with his subsequent releases. Following its success in 1990, he ran into legal trouble after using an unauthorized sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” for a similarly titled tune on his next album. The lawsuit was won by O’Sullivan and set a legal precedent for samples having to be approved for use in future recordings. Biz mockingly titled his next album “All Samples Cleared!” as a result.
Yet Biz Markie and “Just A Friend” will not and should not be forgotten. Its own place in hip-hop history is indelible. And just as we remembered Shock G earlier this year following his untimely death at 57, we must now pay homage to The Biz for the same.
R.I.P. Marcel Hall (April 8, 1964 – July 16, 2021). You were Biz Markie until the end, forever associated with “Just A Friend.”
And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing!
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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