Black people sometimes discuss entertainers who matter to us in terms of whether they matter to people outside the community: “Is this person famous or Black famous?”
Some Black performers never achieve mainstream success – or even recognition – but they still enjoy what appear to be fulfilling careers playing in front of the people who loved and supported them first.
This came to mind as I have watched hip-hop artists from my younger days transition from this life to the next.
First was John Fletcher, better known as Ecstasy, the bolero-wearing half of the rap duo Whodini. The group’s biggest hit was 1984’s “Friends,” followed closely by “Freaks Come Out at Night.” Lesser known but much loved were tracks like “Five Minutes of Funk” and the introspective “One Love.” He was 56.
Then came Mark Anthony Morales, the Fat Boys’ Prince Markie Dee. Along with Darren Robinson (The Human Beatbox) and Damon Wimbley (Kool Rock Ski), Morales was part of the genre’s earliest superstar group. The Fat Boys’ sense of humor about their girth and the undeniable appeal of songs like “Stick Em” and the jazzy cautionary tale “Jail House Rap,” made them a name in Black households well before they crossed over.
Morales continued to make hits as a writer and producer (Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” and Father MC’s “Treat Them Like They Want To be Treated”) long after the Fat Boys’ biggest hit, “Wipeout,” a duet with the Beach Boys. He died of congestive heart failure at 52.
The most famous of them all died shortly after. Earl Simmons, aka DMX. Dark Man X was a hip-hop titan, originally showing on the radar with a feature performance on LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1.” That set the stage for his own debut album, 1998’s “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,” the first of five albums in a row to debut at the top of the Billboard Top 200. He was the first artist to do that.
While disgruntled workers everywhere claim his “Party Up (Up In Here)” as an anthem — “Y’all gon’ make lose my mind, up in here, up in here” – a smaller population will bob heads to his “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and “Get at Me Dog.” The narrator to his “Slippin’” recounts personal struggles while trying to make positive life changes. The song becomes more poignant in light of DMX’s high-profile battle with drug addiction and death at age 50 from a cocaine-induced heart attack.
Gregory Jacobs died just days later. The Brooklyn native found fame and fortune on the West Coast as Shock G leader of the jazz-funk hip-hop act Digital Underground. The video for their biggest hit, “The Humpty Dance,” was an MTV smash, featuring Jacob’s other alter-ego, the hedonistic MC Humpty Hump.
Looking back, it seems almost quaint there was a controversy over Humpty’s brag that he “once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.” Jacobs died at 57 of an accidental drug overdose.
And just last week, we lost the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, the Diabolical, the one and only Biz Markie. The man born Marcel Hall will be remembered by most for his hit, “Just a Friend.”
The story rap of a love interest downplaying the constant presence of another man was inescapable in 1989. The song’s video seemed like it was on MTV every hour with the Biz, in powdered wig and Mozart attire, crooning, “Oh baby yoouu, you got what I neeeed, but you say he’s just a friend, but you say he’s just a friend.”
He refuted the “one-hit wonder” label, telling Entertainment Weekly: “I know what I did in hip-hop.” And we know, too, pointing to his classic tracks “Make the Music with Your Mouth,” “Vapors,” “Nobody Beats the Biz,” and feature appearances for a variety of artists.
It’s been a devastating series of losses of people who brought us so much musical pleasure, and we’re not even past July.
Public Enemy’s Chuck D weighed in on Twitter: “On (the) road eating the wrong food will eventually kill you, lack of sleep & activity will kill you. … It is tough. But it’s the trade. I never did drugs or drink, but it’s hard enough.”
These performers transcended “Black famous” to win broader acclaim, but they were ours first and will be ours forever. Their music will live on, and as Chuck D wrote, may they rest in beats.
Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.