This wasn't supposed to be a tribute piece.
The death of Mark Morales, aka rapper/producer Prince Markie Dee, shocked and stunned Hip-Hop fans and artists across the spectrum. For me, as a Rock The Bells writer, it stung because we were supposed to be connecting just days prior to his death. From the moment I found out Prince Markie Dee was part of the Rock The Bells family, I'd wanted to talk to him. I'd grown up on the Fat Boys, but beyond even that, I'd become a massive fan of Prince Markie Dee's talents as a producer and songwriter; and I loved his solo work. The NYC native had one of Hip-Hop's most storied second acts, even if the masses didn't always recognize just how impactful Prince Markie Dee has always been.
The Brooklyn-born Morales formed the Disco 3 in the early 80s with his high school buddies Damon "Kool Rock-Ski" Wimbley, and Darren "Buff Love" Robinson. Of course, within a few years, they'd go on to massive success as The Fat Boys. The trio was part of the first wave of Hip-Hop's mainstream stars, a generation of acts (including Run-D.M.C., Whodini and LL COOL J) that took Hip-Hop to the charts in the mid-80s. With their jovial personas and comedic songs, The Fat Boys became a cultural phenomenon, starring in commercials and major movies like Krush Groove and Disorderlies.
To some casual observers it may have become fashionable to frame the Fat Boys as a novelty act; but this was a group steeped in Hip-Hop tradition; Buffy and his talents as a human beatbox helped mainstream the artform; and they boasted production from none other than Larry Smith, the superproducer behind Run-D.M.C. and Whodini's iconic sound. And in Prince Markie Dee, they had the lovable everyman, a solid rapper whose musical gifts were only hinted at within the platinum-selling group.
Things fractured in the late 1980s as Hip-Hop's image became more defined by acts like Public Enemy and N.W.A.
And the Fat Boys, who'd become known for crossover covers with oldies acts like the Beach Boys, splintered amidst shifting tastes in music. As Jay-Z (and Chris Rock's Bony T character from 1992s Boomerang) lamented; then the Fat Boys broke up. The group would have some fleeting reunions, despite Buff dying of a heart attack in 1995. But for Prince Markie Dee, the Fat Boys was just a chapter in an ongoing story.
He was just getting started.
Markie Dee began working as a producer/songwriter, in tandem with creative partner Mark Cory Rooney, on projects by Uptown Records/MCA acts like Christopher Williams and Father MC. At the height of the new jack swing era, Morales and Rooney developed a sound that was steeped in that fusion of Hip-Hop and R&B, but it also seemed to point towards something on the horizon. Their lush, soulful production would form a foundation on which Uptown would launch "Hip-Hop soul," a term that would enter the lexicon via Prince Markie Dee's first major moment as a songwriter. Markie Dee and Rooney penned "Real Love" the breakout single for burgeoning Uptown star Mary J. Blige. The song announced Mary as a force, and also played a major role in pushing R&B away from new jack swing towards something more soulful.
Morales and Rooney would form The Soul Convention after landing a deal with Sony. They released Free in 1992 as Prince Markie Dee & The Soul Convention and scored a moderate R&B hit with "Typical Reasons (Swing My Way)," an emotionally earnest song about domestic abuse that also featured a popular remix. Free is a stirring combination of Hip-Hop and classic soul that echoes the work the duo had done with Blige and others, while expanding on the musicality of their sound. This was band-driven music that spoke as much to R&B fans as rap fans, but the album wasn't a huge commercial success. "Trippin' Out" featured up-and-coming singer Billy Lawrence and the video received steady airplay, but it didn't push Free to major success.
Nonetheless, the album and those noteworthy singles made it clear just how talented Prince Markie Dee had always been.
He would drop Love Daddy in 1995, but there was little commercial notice. The Soul Convention remixed Mariah Carey's hit "Anytime You Need a Friend" and produced tracks for Soul Convention affiliates Menageri and for 3T, the R&B trio comprised of Tito Jackson's sons and signed to Michael Jackson's MJJ Records. Rooney would become a successful A&R as Morales would also go on to work with superstars like Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child.
He would relocate to Miami and kickstart yet another chapter; becoming a successful club promoter and DJ. And when he became a radio personality for Rock The Bells, I was glad to know that I'd be working so closely with an artist I'd admired for so long. I was happy to help give him his flowers, both as a member of The Fat Boys; and as a producer/songwriter whose sound helped shape the 1990s. He emailed me back a week before he died:
"Hey Stereo. Available weds early from 9am-12pm," he wrote. "Any other days that you may need me just ask and I’ll try my best to make myself available."
My schedule being hectic kept me from making a timely response, even though I was eager to talk to him. Sadly, I won't ever get that chance now.
Mark Morales died just a day before his 53rd birthday. It's been revealed that the cause of death was congestive heart failure, and notables such as Questlove, Roxanne Shante and Eminem were among those paying homage.
“Forever in my Heart. Prince Markie Dee was more than a rapper; he was one of my very best and closest friends," tweeted Prince Markie Dee's close friend and colleague Louis "Uncle Louie" Gregory. "My heart breaks today because I lost a brother. I’ll always love you Mark and I’ll cherish everything you taught me. Tomorrow is your birthday, swing my way big bro."
Prince Markie Dee's career is a testament to his talents. He had one of Hip-Hop's most unique second acts; and helped reshape popular music twice -- once by kicking down mainstream doors for Hip-Hop with The Fat Boys, and again by helping to introduce Mary J. Blige to the world and developing the sound that would influence a decade of R&B artists. Prince Markie Dee's death was a shock to the system for Rock The Bells and Hip-Hop lovers everywhere, but I'm so grateful for what he gave us.
Thanks so much, Mark. Forever a fan, bro.