The rapper Magoo, a foundational member of a groundbreaking hip-hop scene that emerged in Virginia in the 1990s and that included his collaborators Timbaland, Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams, has died at 50.
Magoo, whose birth name was Melvin Barcliff, died this weekend in Williamsburg, Va., according to his wife, Meco Barcliff, and a statement from his family. Barcliff said that he had no known health problems other than asthma, but that he had not been feeling well in the past week. The coroner’s office was still investigating the cause, she said.
Magoo was a child when rap music was first broadcast on the radio, and he credited it with helping save him from a difficult early childhood in Norfolk, Va. At first, he thought hip-hop was something he could dance and listen to, but was made only by people in the Northeast, he said in an April 2013 interview for the hip-hop oral history collection at the College of William & Mary.
As rap music began to drift from the coasts and Atlanta to radios and record stores in Virginia, Magoo realized at 14 years old that it was an art form he could practice, too. At Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, he made friends with other teenagers who also wanted to rap including Timothy Mosley, also known as Timbaland, who became a renowned music producer.
Magoo and his associates in the Virginia Beach area, including Pharrell Williams and Missy Elliott, would go on to exert a heavy influence on music in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Magoo and Timbaland formed a duo and between 1997 and 2003 put out three albums. “Welcome to Our World,” their first collaboration, included the track “Up Jumps da’ Boogie,” featuring Elliott and Aaliyah, which reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, their highest charting effort. Critics noted the project as a step in Timbaland’s development as a producer, and compared Magoo to Q-Tip, one of the rappers in the Queens group A Tribe Called Quest.
On Monday morning, Timbaland posted on Instagram several videos and photos of the two together and said in one caption: “Tim and Magoo forever.”
Elliott wrote on Instagram on Monday that she met Magoo when they were teenagers and that he gave her the nickname “Misdemeanor,” telling her it was because “it’s a crime to have that many talents.”
Though Magoo faded from the spotlight as his early collaborators’ stars continued to rise, Barcliff said that her husband had always preferred to be behind the scenes.
She said that they separated five or six years ago but that they were still family.
The couple met on Aug. 10, 1996, at a club, she said. Even though Magoo was a great dancer, she said, she would learn a few months later that he did not like to go out because it was too much like being at work. “That’s when I found out: No more clubbing for me,” she said.
Barcliff said that she had a 2-year-old daughter, Detrice “Pawtt” Bickham, when they met, and that Magoo raised her as his own. As a family, they loved going to theme parks, including Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion.
Magoo’s survivors include the aunt and uncle who raised him and whom he considered his mother and father, Magdaline and Hiawatha Brown, and his two sisters, Portia Brown and Lynette Hawks.
In the William & Mary interview, Magoo said that his aunt, who went by Mag, inspired his rap name, Mag-an-ooh, which he then shortened.
He said in the interview that his aunt took him in when he was 4 years old. He said he most likely would have been taken into state custody without his aunt’s care and he “probably would have ended up away from family and wouldn’t have been in the position to become what I was able to become.”
He treasured the memory of the first time he heard a rap song was a treasured memory, he said. He could still remember where he was standing, in another aunt’s house, when he heard the track, “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang.
“It just changed my whole perspective on life because, like I said, I was, 6 or 7 at the time,” Magoo recalled. “I was only three years away from being with my real mother who had abused me, so I hadn’t completely get over that abuse, but rap music became my blanket.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.