Happy 30th Anniversary to Biz Markie’s debut album Goin’ Off, originally released March 1, 1988.
There was a time when reputation and integrity meant everything in hip-hop; if you didn’t write your own lyrics you were considered suspect. In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about “ghostwriters” being behind some of the most commercially successful artists, leading an older generation to call out newer rappers over a lack of originality and skills.
It’s one of those debates you only find in a genre as fickle, self-obsessed and insular as rap music. As a fan of hip-hop for twenty-five years, and firmly outside the demographic of rappers currently bothering the streaming charts, it’s hard for the author of this article to side with the new kids. Yet they do have a point when they say they don’t care if a rapper writes their own lyrics. In every other genre of music, many artists have songs written for them. Nobody questions their integrity. Nobody describes the people behind the scenes as ghostwriters, because nobody really cares.
People also didn’t really care that much in mainstream mid to late ‘90s rap. It was widely understood that The D.O.C. wrote for Dr. Dre, that the Notorious B.I.G., JAY-Z and Nas wrote for Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim.
Rappers writing lyrics for other rappers goes back further than that, all the way back to the birth of the culture in the ‘70s and into the Golden Era of the late ‘80s. Big Daddy Kane for instance wrote verses for his fellow Juice Crew emcee, Biz Markie, including several tracks on his classic 1988 debut Goin’ Off. And again, nobody had a problem with it.
It was also a mutually beneficial situation. Writing lyrics for Biz allowed Kane to explore a different, lighter-hearted persona to the man on his own records. For Biz, a rapper who cut his teeth in the freestyle battle and beatboxing scenes, having Kane write for him gave him access to a skilled lyricist who could structure and put his funny, off-the-wall ideas into words.
The mastermind behind the Juice Crew was radio host and producer extraordinaire Marley Marl. In the years since the collective’s heyday, there has been doubt about how much Marley actually contributed, with some of the more vocal members of the crew, including Kool G Rap and Kane himself, claiming they had a large hand in producing several tracks credited to Marley Marl. The suggestion is that the artists would bring samples they wanted to use, often including the drums, which Marley would then loop and mix. It was likely therefore a collaborative process rather than Marley taking full credit, and Biz is on record as describing a similar process during the recording of Goin’ Off, including hunting for the specific samples used on hits like “Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz.”
This process, and having Kane as a writer for several tracks, shows that Biz Markie was first and foremost an entertainer who understood how the creation of popular music is an assembly line requiring different people and expertise at each stage: someone to write the rhymes (Kane), someone to select the source material and record vocals (Biz), and someone with the technological skill to bring it all together (Marley).
That’s not to say, of course, that Biz wasn’t creative or that he only brought a minimal offering to the table. His goofy, man-child personality has perhaps worked against him when we talk about the greatest rappers from the first Golden Era, but this is unfair. The words of a great writer still need to be delivered well if the song is to be remembered, and Biz’s unique, distinct rap style and humor has ensured they are. He wasn’t as witty or as smooth as Slick Rick, but the fun factor of his music was a cut above the gimmicks of The Fat Boys, in spite of the fact the first track on Goin’ Off happens to be named “Pickin' Boogers.”
He also did write a lot of songs himself anyway, and was particularly good at free-association verses. It was a style of emceeing that would later be mastered by MF Doom and others, but Biz did it to perfection first on songs like “Just Rhymin' with Biz” from Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live The Kane, released the same year, and on several Goin’ Off tracks. On “Nobody Beats The Biz,” for instance, Biz spits irreverent lines with finesse: “On and on to the break of dawn / When you buy food cheap, you need a coupon / Or catch a sale retail, before it gets stale / So hurry up and get the WIC check out the mail / And shop non-stop, but how I hip-hop / On the mic and like make you co-op / erate with the rhythm, that is what I give ’em / Reagan is the Pres but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.”
Biz’s musical output slowed down a few albums after Goin’ Off thanks in part to an epic legal battle with Gilbert O'Sullivan over the song “Alone Again” from 1991’s I Need a Haircut. It had a huge impact on the legalities around sampling in hip-hop and other genres, the effects of which are still felt today. Biz is now a successful DJ and occasional movie star, and sometimes joins the rest of the Juice Crew for reunion shows.