The late Marcel Hall, a.k.a. Biz Markie, would always insist that he wrote ‘Just a Friend’ straight, without intending it to be funny. If he was ever bothered that people found it funny anyway, he hid it well; with typical modesty, he always said he was just happy that people liked his song, whatever their reasons. All Biz, all the time.
Considered in the context of what was out at the time, along with what came before and what came after it, Biz Markie’s ‘Just a Friend’ starts looking and sounding like an anomaly; a quirky blip on the pop culture radar. The song is remembered mostly for Biz’s exuberantly off-key attempt at singing the chorus, but truth is, it might be more notable for what it wasn’t — any kind harbinger of hip hop’s mainstream success or techniques — rather than what it was: an eccentric one-off by a comic and charismatic figure.
‘Just a Friend’ was released as a single on September 26 1989, a couple weeks in advance of Biz’s second album, The Biz Never Sleeps. Earlier that same year, gravel-voiced L.A. rapper Ton Loc put out two songs, ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Funky Cold Medina’, that reached the top ten of Billboard‘s Hot 100. More important in terms of long-term trends that are still being utilized today were two other songs that hit the top ten that year: R&B singer Jody Watley’s ‘Friends’, which featured a rap by Eric B and Rakim, and Young MC’s ‘Bust a Move’, featuring a sang chorus by Crystal Blake.
The year before that, in 1988, Public Enemy had put out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and on the West Coast, NWA had put out Straight Outta Compton. Both of them were game-changers. The year after Biz Never Sleeps, in 1990 — the same year ‘Just a Friend’ reached its peak Hot 100 position on St. Patrick’s Day — Tribe Called Quest put out their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The very same day of the Tribe release saw Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and barely a month after that, Ice Cube’s first solo album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.
The point is, for all its charm and sincerity — and Biz Markie had plenty of both of those qualities on offer — ‘Just a Friend’ feels like it was heading in one direction, and most of the rest of hip hop, even at that relatively early stage, heading in another.
Michael Strum: “Another iconic, sticky hook: ‘You got what I neeeed.’ A gem lyrically: ‘I whispered in her ear, Come to the picture booth / So I can ask you some questions to see if you are a hundred proof’, but also some real clunkers. I’ll stipulate some popular influence, yet I’m left wondering, ‘Why is this on here?’ Naturally, wondering ‘Who likes this?’ led to ‘Why does anyone like anything?’ Fortunately, we have Badis Khalfallah riding to the rescue: The Surprising and Scientific Reasons Why Songs Become Popular. I don’t detect lyrical and genre dissonance per se on ‘Just a Friend’, but if art’s purpose is to stimulate and inspire conversation, then Biz was on the money.”
Rolling Stone: Nobody beats the Biz (1964-2021), an impossibly good-natured DJ, rapper, producer, human beatboxer, and hip-hop personality who broke big with this ode to the friend zone off his second album. Built on a fat beat, plinking piano, and his charmingly off-key singing, “Just a Friend” interpolates Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need” as Biz warbles about a love that will never come to pass. It was based on real life. As he told Rolling Stone in 2000, “I was talking to this girl from L.A., and every time I called her, this dude was at her house, and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just a friend.’ I hated that.”