“You, you got what I need,” Biz Markie crooned the hook of “Just a Friend” characteristically off-key as the audience sang along on March 18, 2019, in the Sarazen Student Union. Markie’s visit to Siena College kicked off the 6th annual Hip-Hop Week, a week-long celebration of the genre’s social and cultural impacts. Past keynote speakers have included Wu Tang Clan’s Masta Killa, emcee Sha-Rock, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
Born Marcel Theo Hall, but best known by his stage alias, Biz Markie rocketed to hip-hop fame in the late 1980s with his single, “Just a Friend.” Considered Markie’s biggest hit, the hip-hop hymn of unrequited love topped the charts upon its release in 1989, reaching spot #9 on the Billboard charts. Its accompanying album, “The Biz Never Sleeps,” achieved gold status. Markie was also part of the famous Juice Crew, a hip-hop group composed of various artists. Throughout his career, he has released five studio albums between 1988 and 2003 and worked with a number of big names in the music industry, including the Beastie Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Flaming Lips. Beyond his music career, Markie has appeared in films and television including “Men in Black II,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Sharknado II,” according to his website. This year marks the thirty-year anniversary of “Just a Friend,” and Markie remains active in the music industry today, booking DJ gigs and touring nationally.
Before Markie took the stage, Christa Grant, director of the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center, introduced Dr. Todd Snyder, associate professor in English and – in Grant’s words – the “hip-hop professor.” Dr. Snyder teaches “Rhetoric(s) of Hip-Hop Culture,” an upper-level writing class that explores the elements of hip-hop music, movies, fashion and identity. The class, offered annually in the spring, is immensely popular among students not only for its unique topic but for the creative ways in which Dr. Snyder handles discussions of verbal and visual rhetoric in the hip-hop genre.
Following Markie’s performance of “Just a Friend,” Dr. Snyder facilitated a Q&A with the rapper. Dr. Snyder asked about Markie’s experience in the hip-hop industry, his initial interest in the genre, and the transition of turning a hobby into a career. “When I started getting good and people started coming to see me perform, do the beatbox, do the rapping, that made me go, ‘Yo, I think I could do this. It was a tough road, but I think I could do this.’” said Markie. He then shared an anecdote about what he considers one of the highlights of his pre-records career: “I’m in a house party; they got turntables. One turntable broke, right?” He continued, “So I was doing the beatbox. Nobody knew it was the beatbox” – Markie then began expertly beatboxing – “And then they finally came back and hooked in [another] turntable, and nobody knew the difference.”
The first round of audience questions came from Dr. Snyder’s “Rhetoric(s) of Hip-Hop” class. Students asked about his professional career, inspirations, struggles with lawsuits and his vast toy collection. Markie then took a number of questions from audience members, which ranged from Siena students to aspiring hip-hop artists to community members from the Capital Region. He even encouraged an up-and-coming rapper to perform one of his samples on the stage to the audience’s surprise, as well as provided feedback for any aspiring musicians attempting to break into the music industry.
When a student asked about his variety of talents in the music genre – as his abilities span from rapping to beatboxing to DJing – and prompted Markie to share which of these he considers himself best at, Markie jokingly deadpanned, “I’m great at everything.” He continued, “My thing is…whatever I’m into at the time. You know what I mean?” Markie noted his successes in beatboxing and rapping with regards to his unique style: “I had my thinking cap on backwards when I was making my records.” He then added more seriously, “I want to make sure that when I leave this earth, everybody know that I at least tried to do something good.”
Markie’s visit as the keynote speaker of Hip-Hop Week was sponsored by the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center, the Black & Latino Student Union, the Diversity Action Committee, the English Department, the Greyfriar Living Literature Series, Community Living and Student Activities & Leadership Development.