Biz Markie on 30 years of 'Just a Friend': 'I just wanted to make a story rap record, not to go pop'
Have you ever met a girl you wanted to date, but a year to make love she wanted you to wait? Back in 1989, Biz Markie turned this familiar scenario into one of the most popular songs in rap history. The self-described “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” already had a string of underground hit singles — including “Nobody Beats the Biz” and “Vapors” — when his friend-zone anthem “Just a Friend” hit. A riff on Freddie Scott’s “You Got What I Need,” the track not only catapulted Biz to a new level of fame, but helped the genre break further into the mainstream.
“Just a Friend” would eventually go on to become one of rap’s enduring classics, appearing in television series, commercials, video games, and talk shows. As recently as 2017, it showed up in the season 3 finale of Black-ish, where Biz personalized the track to include the names of the show’s characters. But even if his anguished, off-key chorus continues to make people laugh, the rapper recently told Entertainment Weekly that he never intended to sing it himself. Not only that, but the song, which turns 30 this month, was based on a true story — one meant to be an earnest expression of his feelings that, for better or worse, fans have found hilarious for three decades and counting.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What initially inspired you to write “Just a Friend?”
BIZ MARKIE: I was talking to this girl — the first girl I ever talked to. And every time I would call out to California, a dude would pick up and hand her the phone. I’d be like, “Yo, what’s up [with him]?” She’d say, “Oh, he’s just a friend. He’s nobody.” And I came out there a week early just to surprise her, and she’s tongue kissing somebody — and I caught her! So instead of me fighting, I put the pain into the pen and wrote it out.
How well did you know the Freddie Scott song “(You) Got What I Need” when you decided to sample it for “Just a Friend?” It’s impossible to hear it now without thinking of your rendition.
What happened was I was looking for these Lee Dorsey drums [from “Get Out Of My Life Woman”], and I told T.J. Swan back in ‘86 if I ever found them, I’m going platinum. So in ‘88 when I was doing the album, Grand Wizard Theodore brought me over to Danny Dan [The Music Man]’s house, and he was playing records, and he played the beat. So I traded him a Barbra Streisand record for the drums, and he started playing another 45, [which was] the Freddie Scott. I wasn’t putting them both together, but he played the Freddie Scott. So I gave him $200 for the 45s, even though the 45s were only worth a dollar. When I got to the studio, I had the beat and I was trying to lock up the 45 of Freddie Scott with the drums, but it wouldn’t lock up cause both of them were live. So a dude named Shane Favor, me and him had a keyboard and we stayed up until eight o’clock in the morning to find the right sound of the piano. And when me and him played the [melody] one time, it was over.
You’d already had a string of hits, but were you thinking of something with more mainstream appeal when you were writing the song?
No, the record wasn’t done because it was commercial. I just did the record because I did the record. I just wanted to make a story rap record, not to go pop or anything.
Did you automatically consider it as a single?
I knew it was gonna be a single. But it’s not like I’m looking for that record first or last. I’m just doing the record.
When was the first moment that you realized “Just a Friend” was not just a big song, but an actual crossover hit?
When Howard Stern and Frankie Crocker and all the white stations around the country started playing it. Because I went around with my own money and I went around the country and promoted the record by myself.
Was it tough to get them to play the song?
Yeah. But the thing is, it didn’t go pop — it’s just that pop picked it up. I just came off of “Vapors,” a big hit. I just went both directions this time.
What were your feelings when it blew up? Was there a reaction from the hip-hop community?
A lot of people didn’t like the record at the beginning. They would say, “Biz is trying to sing? Aw, the record is wack.” But I wasn’t supposed to sing the [chorus]. I asked people to sing the part, and nobody showed up at the studio, so I did it myself.
When did you shoot the music video with Lionel C. Martin?
We did the video that fall. We did the video right before Labor Day. That was my idea. I helped write the storybook with him. Because the record was supposed to be serious and it came out funny.
The song was supposed to be serious, or the video?
Just the song itself. I didn’t do it to be funny.
Was that frustrating that people assumed the song was funny?
Naw, there wasn’t no frustration. I was just happy. People look at me as the clown prince of rap anyway.
What are some of the most offbeat or unexpected uses of “Just a Friend” that you’ve seen or heard in the years after it came out?
They’ve used it for commercials. And a lot of people tried to do it over. But, you know, there’s nothing like the original. Pepsi and everybody used it.
How did its success change your career?
It never changed nothing because I still do everything the same. It never changed nothin’.
You’ve had a long career full of hits. Does it bother you that some people consider you a one-hit wonder because of “Just a Friend?”
I don’t feel bad. I know what I did in hip-hop.
Is there something about the legacy of this song or its success that stands out for you, or that you continue to hold on to?
I’m just glad that people still know it 30 years later. And it’s like a brand-new record every time.
What are the lessons that you’ve taken away from this kind of success and being a luminary in the music industry?
I look at it as you’ve got to treat hip-hop as a hobby, because I love what I do. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps the youth in you.
Did “Just a Friend” help you get over your heartbreak?
Yes. I think all artists tell a story through their music, whether they experienced it personally or someone they know went through it. It’s always therapeutic to talk about heartbreak whether it’s a conversation with a friend, or through music.