All Up In The Biz Shines a Special Light on a Hip-Hop Legend at #Tribeca2023
by Michael A. Gonzales
This year hip-hop celebrates the big 5-0 and it’s a great time to turn back the clock and peep into the past. While most of the “kids” on the scene don’t have the same respect for old school rap history the way young jazzbos dig into the legacies of Duke Ellington or John Coltrane, there are those who would like to know about those years before Drake and Kanye West became main representatives of the culture. Certainly, documentaries have become the perfect 101 introductions to “back in the day” fashions, music and aesthetics, and filmmaker Sacha Jenkins has led the pack with his “jammies” Fresh Dressed (2015) and Word Is Bond (2018).
Jenkins’ latest All Up in the Biz, which premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, is a terrific remembrance of oddball rapper Biz Markie. One of the funniest dudes who ever picked-up a microphone, Biz kicked off his professional career in 1986 with the hypnotic “Make The Music With Your Mouth Biz” (1986), produced by the beat king of 1980s NYC rap records Marley Marl. However, it wasn’t until the following year that the bugged rapper released the riotous “Pickin’ Boogers” that many began to pay attention.
Though its obviously Biz’s disgusting, but funny, story, the lyrics were written by his homeboy Big Daddy Kane, who the jovial rapper helped get signed to Cold Chillin’ Records, the influential label whose roster also included Roxanne Shanté, MC Shan and Craig G. “Where would I be right now if it wasn’t for him (Biz),” Kane ponders in the doc. Other guests hashing out history include Shanté, Rakim, Erick Sermon, Prince Paul, Nick Cannon and Biz’s wife Tara Hall.
Taking us “way, way back to the early days,” Jenkins even has vintage footage of Biz showing an interviewer his old apartment in Harlem’s Colonial Park Houses, where he lived with his mother and father. In them days Biz was still going by his government name Marcel Theo Hall, he was ten years old when they moved to Long Island. Shortly after relocating his mother died, his dad had a breakdown and soon they were homeless living in a tent.
Thankfully, a foster family from Brentwood, LI, who also are featured prominently in All Up in the Biz, took him in and gave him a solid foundation. Biz went to church, where he sang “We Are Soldiers in the Army” badly in the choir; hearing that reminded me of his recording years later of “Bennie and the Jets” that he did as a flexi-disc for the Beastie Boys’ magazine Grand Royal.
One day in 1978 heard a rap battle cassette featuring the L Brothers and Busy Bee; it was a play on the latter’s name that Biz got his moniker. There were various crews in Long Island including Grooveline and New York Employers, but none really put Biz on the way he wanted to be on, so he went for self. Though another rapper might’ve revealed the pain of life in their lyrics, Biz, according to his foster brother, “Didn’t like talking about bad things.” Instead he choose to be comical; while other MCs were reading Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, brother Biz was practicing “the dozens” as though he was auditioning for Laff Records.
Biz travelled throughout Long Island beat-boxing and rapping in various high school lunchrooms where he met future icons Rakim and Prince Paul. “He was the goofy big guy, and nobody thought he looked like a rapper,” Paul says. Of course, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Showing no fear, the young rapper also journeyed to the Bronx and Harlem to absorb knowledge and compete; he even took a young Rakim with him to test their skills. Harlem and the Bronx thought that Long Island didn’t know jack about rap, but Biz was determined to prove them wrong.
Director Jenkins, a once upon a time hip-hop journalist who once wrote and edited for Vibe while also co-founding the often brilliant Ego Trip magazine, has long had a love for all things Queensbridge Projects that included writing a brilliant essay about the buildings in the ‘90s. Unafraid of digging deep Jenkins spent much time with Masta Ace, Shante and Kane. All were members of the Juice Crew, a unit of rappers conceived and produced by Marley Marl, who is also in the film.
“Marley was Dre before Dre,” DJ Jazzy Jeff says of the man who man who constructed some of the best rap records released in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Marley laced Biz with more than a few booming beats including the laidback revenge track “The Vapors,” the now classic joint from Biz’s album debut Goin’ Off (1988). However, when it came to his follow-up The Biz Never Sleeps (1989), Biz and his cousin DJ Cool V were behind the boards and the duo were responsible for Biz’s biggest hit “Just a Friend.” Many of the people that Biz played the song for thought he was wasting his time, but quickly changed their minds when the single began climbing the charts. As Biz’s former manager observed, the rapper went from “rap star to pop star” very quickly.
Two years later it all came crashing down when Biz released his third album I Need a Haircut, and was quickly sued for sampling Gilbert O’Sullivan’s pop hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” on “Alone Again.” That lawsuit changed the world of sampling and, though he’d release two other albums (All Samples Cleared!/1993 and Weekend Warrior/2003, soured Biz on making records.
Instead, Biz became a DJ who spun at various events and celebrity parties. He married the love of his life Tara Davis in 2018, and became a stepfather in the process. After years of battling diabetes and weight problems, Biz was hospitalized in 2020 and died the following year at the age of 57. Today Biz Markie’s influence can be heard in the music of Tyler the Creator, the comedy of Tracy Morgan (who is also in the doc) and the absurdist visions of Donald Glover and Boots Riley. All Up in the Biz uses animation, puppetry (I could’ve used less of that), vintage flyers, videos and in-depth interviews to tell the story of the complex man behind those funny ass rhymes. Biz spent his career as though he was a wacky cartoon character, but Sacha Jenkins triumphantly reveals a very real man.
<div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="https://soulhead.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Michael_Gonzales-dream.jpg" alt="Michael_Gonzales-dream" class="wp-image-36067"/></figure></div>
<p><a href="https://twitter.com/gonzomike">Michael A. Gonzales</a> has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. <a href="https://www.soulhead.com/?s=michael+gonzales">Check out some of his work for soulhead</a>.</p>