Monday, August 9, 2021

Appreciation: Nobody Beats the Biz

The weekend that rapper/DJ Biz Markie (Marcel Theo Hall) made his transition, I was having major wifi issues. My intentions to post a tribute were upended because I rely on YouTube for those, and it just wouldn't come together in time. As we all know, technology is great until it isn't, so I figured I would come back to it a few days later but then you know how being a Busy Black Woman means stuff comes up and...

Then I saw a lot of nonsense on Twitter recently involving several current rap artists and between realizing that I don't know who any of those jokers are and the fact that I still hadn't posted a song tribute to Biz (or any new playlists in a while), I thought the time was right for me to school some of you youngins' about the old school. Because y'all be trippin!

Both 2020 and 2021 have been brutal for Generation Xers who feel some kind of way whenever we see a name from our past suddenly trending on social media. It is a heart-stopping moment for sure, especially when we learn that one of our faves from back in the day has died. In recent months, we lost John 'Ecstasy' Fletcher from Whodini, Mark Anthony Morales bka Prince Markie D from The Fat Boys, Gregory 'Shock G' Jacobs from Digital Underground, Earl 'DMX' Simmons, and now Biz. Last year, we lost Andre Harrell, and the day I pulled that playlist together was when I realized just how long most of us old heads have been listening to hip hop. All of a sudden we're celebrating milestone birthdays, watching a Salt 'n Pepa biopic, calling Snoop Dog Grandpa, and realizing that a quarter of a century has passed since Biggie and Tupac were killed, so yes, it is safe to say that we are at a midlife crossroads.

Hip hop has changed. Really changed.

I can tell you several things as I reflect on the number of years it has been since I learned all of the words to Rapper's Delight (1979) and how I got such a kick out of watching Breakin' 2 every summer (and how sad it was to watch it recently after the recent death of Adolfo 'Shabba Doo' Quinones). And the first thing is to say that rap has come a long way, but sometimes it feels like damn, but where did it go? Has the art form matured or did I just get too old for that shit? And that is a serious question, especially as I try to pay attention to what my daughter might accidentally come across one day on YouTube.

What happened?

Second, for the entire week that people were posting remembrances of Biz, I noted that every single tribute spoke of his humor, his kindness, and all-around good nature. Those are not descriptions that I have ever heard in connection to today's current crop of rappers, so this tribute to Biz mourns both his physical passing and the death of era. Once upon a time, rap was fun and we played certain songs to get the party started. Remember the days when all of the music videos were terrible and corny like Biz Is Goin' Off, but we loved them anyway? Remember Make Music With Your Mouth and how beat-boxing was a thing?

Third, and this is definitely me admitting my age, it is scary when artists from your youth die and you suddenly realize that old is relative. A dude who dies at 52 is the same age as the Hub, so that makes me nervous as hell. And quite honestly, there is a range of about ten years in either direction that no longer counts as "old" so we're just as likely to get emotional over the death of any artist from the 80s and 90s. We are still mourning Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston because of how HUGE they were, and for that matter, we're still not over Aretha Franklin even though she was in her 70s when she passed back in 2018.

Fourth, and again, showing my age and speaking for myself, I don't get y'all. It was so effed up when Biggie and Tupac died, such that I lost my love for the music and the culture it glorified. It was mind-blowing to lose two artists to senseless violence at such a young age six months apart. It ruined the enjoyment to watch award shows to see who might end up fighting, since in our day, rappers worked their beefs out on vinyl or on tape. Nowadays, it seems that every few months, some young rapper gets killed over some nonsense, and y'all just keep it moving on to the next big act. 

Biz came on the scene back when rap was in its toddler years and everybody was part of a crew. Specifically, he was part of the Juice Crew, which included Roxanne Shante, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. By the time I had heard of him, I had no idea of his connection to the Roxanne Wars, which was definitely a bigger deal in New York than elsewhere (two songs, Roxanne Roxanne by UTFO and Roxanne's Revenge by Shante). That is a separate rabbit hole, but a whole year's worth of dis records and nobody died. Instead it launched music careers.

I know it is an over-simplification to say that no one died, when in fact, part of the overall message of rap music in those early days was to address the frustrations of growing up in the hood. Rappers like Biz certainly got the party started and kept it hype, but at the same party, you were going to hear a song like The Message (1982) in the mix. The conventional wisdom about New York City and most big cities in the 1980s was that urban blight and decay were symptoms of an inherent pathology born and bred in the ghetto (not caused by neglect or the conditions that were imposed on those communities). People did die from drug overdoses, run-ins with the police, intimate partner violence, and from community-based crime. A lot of those themes were highlighted in a movie like Beat Street (1984), but that went over a lot of our heads... 

Biz didn't build his career on those gritty realities, but his music did provide an escape from them. Wasn't it the goal of every teenage boy in the 80s, even ones from the hood, to impress his friends? So he's flashing his name brand apparel, bragging about his attempts to get the attention of a potential love interest, and hyping his crew. If John Hughes' movies captured that spirit for the suburban mall crowd, then a song like The Vapors (1988), represented the same aspirations with Biz and Crew hanging out on a chartered boat, wearing those chunky gold rope chains, tailored suits, and surrounded by women--the life that existed just over the bridge or through the tunnel.

The notion of Biz as a ladies man had to be a recurring joke, but he was in on it, so that's what made songs like What Goes Around Comes Around (1991) and Let Me Turn You On (1995) part of the fun of listening to him. He never took himself too seriously, as evidenced by his album cover art, his willingness to poke fun of himself in Men in Black 2 and on Yo Gabba Gabba, and in commercial jingles. Only a big kid would have songs in his discography like Pickin' Boogers and Toilet Stool Rap. Only a dude like Biz would call himself 'The  Diabolical' and mean it as a cartoonish mad scientist. 

His biggest hit song was Just a Friend (1989), which came out during my last year of high school. To let Billboard or MTV tell it, Biz was a one-hit wonder, in spite of the fact that his earlier Black-famous songs were in regular rotation on BET. Nobody Beats the Biz (1988) was based on the jingle for a popular record store chain where I bought several old school hip hop albums. While I liked his corny story-telling on songs like She's Not Just Another Woman, his schtick could be one-note. There was no progression in his style from songs like Spring Again to Young Girl Bluez (1993), two albums and four years later. So even if it is true that the peak of his music career was short-lived, Biz was one of the earliest rappers to reinvent himself instead of fading into obscurity. He did some acting, reality TV, and then at one point, he even taught a celebrity cooking class.

Biz wasn't the only rapper who found himself left behind at the end of what I would call the first golden era of hip hop. What has been clear about the nature of rap music, even in those early days was that one was only as popular as their current hit record. In fact a better analogy might be that a career in rap music was a lot like having a career in professional sports. So by the time I got to college, Biz was already being eclipsed by the genre shift from party rap to conscious rap. He tried, like on this compilation song, Erase Racism (1990), but that really wasn't his lane. When gangsta rap took over, his style was effectively passé. Although he continued to release music throughout the 90s, and a final studio album in 2003 that included an appearance by P. Diddy on Do Your Thang, most of us missed that.

Instead, we kept up with his other endeavors, particularly his return to his roots on the turntables. For anyone not old enough to remember his rap career, he was a DJ, and many of the remembrances that were posted over the past several weeks were pictures taken with him at some show or party. I attended a show or two, but can't tell you which ones and as always I have no pictures of my own. I definitely took it for granted that I would get more chances to see Biz perform live, until this past year he spent in a coma. I imagine if he could have kept us entertained during this pandemic, he would have been spinning alongside his old school friends Jazzy Jeff, D-Nice, Questlove, and DJ Kool. I'm sure he would have shown up for rapper Kwame's birthday on Instagram, as well as the classic hip hop Pass the Mic with DJ Cassidy. Or he might have treated us to a Verzuz against Kid Capri.

This is the point in this appreciation where I begin to sound like one of those old relatives at the barbecue, sizing up some little scrub when an old jam comes on, "What you know about that, youngster?" Because every song included in this piece, every video...all of it has me in my feelings. Nostalgia has that effect of course, but this is more a heavy sigh that for the last 18 months, music has brought us a lot of comfort in the face of uncertainty. It has been reassuring to check in with these old school artists and deejays from my youth and know that the most risqué line my daughter will hear in a song like Just a Friend is about the girl wearing a very big bra. I'm not changing my tune about the right of this current generation to express itself, but y'all don't leave nothing to the imagination. Not-a-damn-thing.

That brings us back to the rhetorical question posed at the outset, because we know what happened to the music and to everything else--time. Biz wasn't some didn't die a young man stripped prematurely from life with a world of unmet potential laid before him. He was already an elder statesman getting sampled by his peers 30 years ago, so we need to celebrate him like we would any other legendary pioneer by continuing to enjoy his music. We owe it to that first wave of artists to make sure that our kids know their music before we're mourning their passing. This generation needs to know that once upon a time, rappers like Biz used hip hop to express their aspirations for living, not dying in these streets. 

The last song in this tribute is Turn tha Party Out (2001), which is something Biz always did. And that is the best way to end this tribute, with a head bop, a crooked smile, and appreciation for all of the fond memories.

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