New York has produced many legendary hip-hop collectives over the years. From Run-DMC to Public Enemy and Diggin In The Crates, it is impossible to dispute the calibre and sheer wealth of talent the region has provided the culture. However, the 1980s was an extraordinary period for the East Coast metropolis concerning rap groups. Every corner of the city was thriving during the 1980s, and building upon the foundations laid by acts such as the Furious Five and Sugarhill Hang, new and exciting acts began to surface, one of which was the iconic Juice Crew of Queensbridge. Comprised of MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, Masta Ace and Kool G Rap, as well as others, the Queens ensemble made waves when they first arrived.
Aside from their quality music, the expansive group was a potent outfit that challenged other acts, such as the South Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions. As well as their integral role in ‘The Bridge Wars’, Juice Crew was also one of the first collectives to capture and utilise mainstream radio to spread their hip-hop music. One key group member was the iconic Mr Magic, the host of the first mainstream radio rap show Rapp Attack. However, different acts had varying amounts of success. Still, it is safe to say that one of the more esteemed MCs was Biz Markie.
Raised in Long Island, the emcee (real name Marcel Hall) spent much time in casual battle rapping growing up and did so all over New York. In an interview with Jigga Juice, Hall unveiled that he once battled an unnamed rapper in Queensbridge. As such, he got the attention of the legendary Marly Marl and, shortly after, began hanging out in Queensbridge. The Juice Crew, through Marly Marl, had a close relationship with Cold Chillin’ Records, who released the majority of their material. Marly Marl (real name Marlon Williams)was the collective’s primary producer and executively produced Hall’s debut album, Goin’ Off, in 1988.
Produced by Marley Marl with some input from the Brooklyn legend Big Daddy Kane, Goin’ Off was received relatively well but was most noted for its incredible display of Biz Markie’s beatboxing skills. The track ‘Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz’ helped put Hall somewhat on hip-hop’s radar. However, his 1989 album The Biz Never Sleeps solidified his place as a credible artist in the culture. Released on Cold Chillin Records, the project was recorded at Marly Marl’s home studio in Astoria, Queens. However, one track exploded into the mainstream like no other, and that was ‘Just A Friend.’
Revered as a palatable comedy hip-hop track, ‘Just A Friend’ interpolates the 1968 song ‘(You) Got What I Need’ by Freddie Scott. The single was so popular that it reached number nine o the Billboard Hot 100 and by 1990 was certified Platinum by the RIAA, making it Hall’s highest charting single of all time. The single received vast amounts of critical acclaim and was a crossover anthem. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Markie unveiled what inspired him to write ‘Just A Friend,’ explaining, “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.”
Despite the success of ‘Just A Friend’, many didn’t pay attention to Hall’s follow-up releases, and, unfortunately, many dubbed him as a one-hit-wonder. Regardless, the track is still adored and in 2021, it was placed at number 480 on Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 500 Best Songs of All Time.’ You can hear the isolated vocal of the track in the video below.