Biz Markie died at the age of 57 in 2021, and his unsurprising — Biz had been sick for years — yet still tragically young demise remains fresh among the hip-hop community. When All Up in the Biz: The Life and Rhymes of Biz Markie shows Rakim struggling to contain his tears, it’s like watching your father cry. There are less fraught magic moments, too, like when Masta Ace freestyles to a puppet version of Biz and apologizes for making “Me and the Biz” with Marley Marl without getting Biz’s blessing first. (A commentator’s observation that Marley Marl was “the original Dr. Dre” seems ironic given that both Marley and Dre have faced accusations of not giving collaborators proper credit.) Director Sacha Jenkins floats between a biography dense with history of the early 80s rap scene and Biz’s lengthy, ultimately unsuccessful hospital battle against diabetes. The latter segments are illustrated with puppets and humans a la The Muppets. Jenkins also utilizes fanciful, childlike illustrations of Biz’s adventures from Hectah Arias. At one point, All Up in the Biz posits that Biz “stopped making records” after the historic lawsuit surrounding his sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” for 1991’s “Alone Again.” But that wasn’t the case: Biz remained active throughout the 90s as he slowly transitioned into a corporate events DJ and guest on children’s shows like Yo Gabba Gabba. His collaborations with Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal empire also kept him in the public eye. To be fair, though, “Studda Step” can’t compare to classics like “Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz” and “Vapors.” As Jazzy Jeff — whose frequent appearances in rap docs is turning him into the hip-hop Henry Rollins — says, “The gift and the curse of being around for a long period of time is there’s a period when all your shit is on the radio, and then there’s a period when it’s not.” Jenkins and Mass Appeal produced All Up in the Biz as part of their ongoing content deal with Paramount. * (Recommended)
On September 29, Okayplayer.com’s editorial staff revealed on social media that they had been laid off without warning. (Full disclosure: I wrote a story for Okayplayer earlier this year.) The ensuing dialogue around their collective dismissal led to fears that Okayplayer was “dead,” so to speak; or that it may turn into a “zombie site” — to borrow a phrase from journalist Jeff Weiss — that only posts AI-generated content and the occasional advertiser-friendly article. Then, on October 4, the site’s owners posted a statement from Okaymedia CEO Isha Sesay on Twitter/X. “For many years Okayplayer has been a mainstay for lovers of black culture,” Sesay wrote. “So it is with tremendous sadness that the growing challenges within the digital media space and the ways in which content is being consumed today have brought us to the point of having to say goodbye to some of our friends and colleagues.” That same day, its social media accounts began posting banal fodder about sundry pop events. Last week brought a handful of new articles, including an essay on Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron and an interview with Anthony Hamilton. (Those pieces may have been edited before the September 29 layoffs.) The intrigue surrounding Okayplayer comes amid a dearth of sites that cover hip-hop with journalistic integrity. Many of its onetime peers are either shells of their former selves (allhiphop.com), focused on rap drama (hiphopdx.com), and/or overly solicitous of celebrities (vibe.com). Meanwhile, young fans seem content with following ad hoc accounts that traffic in sensationalism or waiting for a mainstream outlet like Pitchfork or the New York Times to take notice of trends. Okayplayer has had its ups-and-downs since Questlove originally formed the company in 1999 to spotlight the Roots’ adventures and his “Soulquarians” friends like Mos Def, Common, and Erykah Badu. However, recent years also brought increasing acclaim as the editorial staff generated sharply written essays, interviews, and news items. Okaymedia wouldn’t be the first music media company to jettison staff for cheaper talent: the Fader, for example, is notorious for periodically downsizing its bylines. Meanwhile, Okaymedia figurehead Questlove has yet to comment on the matter, even as he promotes his various projects. His silence speaks worrying volumes.
Broadcast on BET over three nights — the first episode was shown on October 10 prior to the 2023 BET Hip-Hop Awards — Welcome to Rap City explores the history of the much-missed video program. The filmmakers acknowledge that Rap City debuted in 1989 after BET tried to offload rap videos onto its secondary program, Video Vibrations, instead of giving them equal attention on its flagship program, Video Soul. But they downplay how BET only created Video Vibrations’ memorable “Rap Week” and then Rap City in response to MTV’s groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, which debuted in 1988 and made people loudly question why the biggest Black-owned cable station in the country didn’t embrace the genre. (Meanwhile, a tacitly displayed photo of BET founder Robert Johnson with President George H.W. Bush nods to Johnson’s politically conservative background.) Initially, Rap City’s production values were noticeably poorer than Yo! MTV Raps, although they yielded a homespun charm with riotously funny host Chris “The Mayor” Thomas; and, later, smoothed-out host Prince DaJour. The program’s main value, as one person notes, is that “they showed everything,” thanks to broadcasting two hours every weekday while Yo! MTV Raps stuck to six hourly shows. (Doctor Dré and Ed Lover handled Yo! MTV Raps’ weekday afternoon segments, while Fab 5 Freddy hosted the main Friday night showcase.) It didn’t truly hit its stride until 1994 and after Yo! MTV Raps was inexplicably canceled, Joe Clair and Big Lez joined as hosts, and BET increased the show’s budget, allowing the program to travel beyond the East Coast. The filmmakers make much of Clair’s 1997 interview with the Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles, which became the rapper’s last filmed television appearance. (The interview didn’t air until a week after Biggie was murdered.) But all in all, Welcome to Rap City has way too many talking heads. With due respect to Debra Lee and Stephen G. Hill, no one needs to see a phalanx of television and music executives congratulating themselves. Fans want vintage clips of “WRAP Radio,” “The Basement” ciphers, Chris Thomas doing his arm-bounce dance, Big Lez flexing and flirting, Joe Clair’s lovably bad freestyles, and Big Tigger disarming guests with his infectious goofiness. By centering the backroom machinations that led to Rap City’s rise and fall, Welcome to Rap City underplays the earthy appeal that made the program so special. A handful of rap stars appear, including Ludacris, T.I., Eve, and Trina. Given Rap City’s massive impact, it feels like there should be many more. Former The Source editor Selwyn Seyfu Hinds adds important historical context. Welcome to Rap City is directed by Rahman Ali Bugg and marks a collaboration between BET Media Group and Mass Appeal.
More than just a doc of an indestructible pop act, Wham! offers an instructive look at how early rap penetrated the mainstream.
Few seem to know that one of the key brands in the 1992 film Juice is Valentino, Inc, a now-defunct library music company.
The Legacy of J Dilla covers oft-trod ground, but there’s a poignancy in watching friends and family memorialize a lionized producer.
A cheat sheet to my extended discussion about indie rap with Peter Agoston for his podcast, The House List.