All of the tributes to the human orchestra called Biz Markie, who died July 16 at age 57, led with a reference to Biz’s biggest hit, the platinum smash, “Just a Friend.”
The truth is, by 1989, when Biz’s funny, self-deprecating track that introduced us to the friend zone was released, Biz was already a hip-hop legend.
“Vapors” and “This is Something for the Radio,” both released in 1988 during my freshman year of high school, were the music of carefree teenagers. Biz, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Marley Marl, and Roxanne Shante were the members of the Juice Crew. They had jams that shook the speakers and pulsated through boom boxes in the city’s parks and basketball courts. And like Biz, we became human beatboxes, too, turning our lips into percussion instruments.
Artists in Biz’s generation were the pillars upon which hip-hop was built. Without these pioneers, there would be no Jay-Z or Eve, let alone Lil Nas X or Megan Thee Stallion.
But Biz’s death reminded me that we aren’t those kids anymore.
As I emerge from the pandemic with a wide streak of gray and a pair of progressive lenses — nice words for bifocals — I’m reminded that many of the artists responsible for the soundtrack of my life are past middle age and are approaching early retirement. They are dying. That feels strange when I reminisce about a music genre where the performers never seem to age. In my mind, hip-hop artists are like vampires, forever young like Pharrell.
But wait... Pharrell is 48. I’ll be 48 in” October.
The sad truth is that Biz Markie — born Marcel Theo Hall in Harlem in 1964 — is the latest in a string of old-school rap artists who have died recently.
John “Ecstasy” Fletcher, one-half of the rap group Whodini, was only 56 when he died last December.
Prince Markie Dee of The Fat Boys died in February. He was just 52.
DMX was 50 when he died in April.
Digital Underground founder Shock G died a few weeks later at 57.
The hip-hop community is still mourning the death of rapper and producer Andre Harrell, who was among the first producers to blend hip-hop and R&B, ushering in the New Jack Swing era. Harrell was just 59 when he died in May of 2020.
These men were around the same age as our grandfathers were when we were little. And it’s not uncommon to lose grandfathers.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around hip-hop’s old-man-at-the-club status because these icons were far from the oldest performers still in the game. Many of the greats: Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Kenny Gamble, and Leon Huff are alive, well, and still relevant.
Hell, Motown’s founder Berry Gordy is 91!
The thing is that we have forgotten that we are aging right along with them.
The generation that is coming behind us is aging, too. Philly’s favorite rapper Will Smith is 52. His wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, is 49. And their daughter, Willow Smith, who is 20, recently shaved her head during a Facebook Live concert. Wasn’t she just a cute little 9-year-old whipping her hair back and forth? What is happening?
It’s called the circle of life. Although it feels like hip-hop should be immune to aging, it’s not. And I’m reminded of it every day when I look into the mirror and see my rounder face and tired eyes staring back at me. A card-carrying member of the hip-hop generation, I can’t escape it.
Yet, as I mourn the passing of my favorite hip-hop artists, I see how the Golden Age of hip-hop, just like our parents’ beloved Motown, lives on. It lives on in my car on my ride to and from work, where classic hip-hop is a staple of the morning and afternoon drives.
It lives on when I dance in my living room to VH1 and BET playing videos from Kwame and A Tribe Called Quest.
It lives on when DJ Cassidy passes the mic in a virtual cypher from Doug E. Fresh to Rakim during his pandemic-era Pass the Mic series on YouTube. It lives on when I catch a repeat of NCIS: Los Angeles starring LL Cool J, or when I tune into CBS’s The Equalizer starring Queen Latifah. It lives on in the entertaining, yet inaccurate, biopics of Salt-N-Pepa and TLC on Lifetime Movie Network.
And it certainly was alive at the 20th-anniversary celebration of Tastytreats, the classic old-school dance party hosted by Stacey “Flygirrl” Wilson and Questlove. The recent party drew scores of hip-hop heads — many who are now silver foxes and rocking “Girl Dad” T-shirts — happy to have made it through the pandemic.
In between bites of Tastykakes and cans of Liquid Death, the latest in upscale water — not beer — we bopped our heads and did the Electric Slide to music that defined who we were then.
But because of who we are now, the party was a wrap at 11 p.m.