Rest in peace heavy D, who played at Cardiff & features in Jam
The rapper Heavy D, who has died suddenly, aged 44, after collapsing at his home, was among a handful of hip-hop stars from the 1980s who successfully established a lasting career. Having created a string of infectious, party-time hits with Heavy D & the Boyz, he was able to extend his reach into the commercial mainstream through collaborations with BB King and Michael Jackson, and subsequently exhibited bankable skills as both a businessman and actor. Although he was past his commercial peak as a musician, his last album, Love Opus, released in September, showed that he had not entirely run out of creative juice.
He was born Dwight Arrington Myers in Mandeville, Jamaica, and his parents moved the family to Mount Vernon, New York, in 1971. His mother Eulahlee was a nurse and his father Clifford a technician. He began putting together his own rap lyrics when he was eight years old. He formed the Boyz at the dawn of the 80s boom in new jack swing – a pop-orientated fusion of hip-hop, dance grooves and R&B – and the group became the first to sign to Andre Harrell's Uptown Records, which was destined to become one of the most successful black music labels of the late 80s and early 90s.
Heavy D & the Boyz – D's cohorts were G-Whiz (Glen Parrish), "Trouble" T Roy (Troy Dixon) and Eddie F (Edward Ferrell) – released their debut album, Living Large, in 1987. Its self-mocking title, and its spin-off hits The Overweight Lover's in the House and Mr Big Stuff, set the tone for the comic streak in Heavy D's songs, in which he would cheerfully make fun of his own girth (he weighed about 135kg – 21 stone). He saw rap as good-time party music, and was not drawn to the bleaker themes of drugs or gang warfare favoured by gangsta rappers such as NWA or Ice-T. Heavy D would also become something of a favourite among African-American feminists for his women-friendly lyrics (in contrast to the misogyny notorious in some sectors of the rap fraternity), and always remained very close to his mother.
Nonetheless, he proved himself able to speak to hardcore rap listeners as well to the R&B crowd. His follow-up album with the Boyz, Big Tyme (1989), triggered a splurge of hit singles including We Got Our Own Thang, Somebody For Me and Gyrlz, They Love Me, and the album reached No 19 on the Billboard 200 chart as well as topping the R&B/hip-hop chart. Even if some listeners considered him too poppy and escapist, his rhyming skills and bravura performances commanded respect.
The band's progress suffered a serious blow in July 1990 when "Trouble" T Roy died following a fall while the group were in Indianapolis. Their third album, Peaceful Journey (1991), was named in his memory, and like its predecessor brought the group a platinum disc. Hits from the album included Is It Good to You and the title track, while the Boyz' version of the Gamble and Huff classic Now That We've Found Love became their biggest hit in the UK, reaching No 2. Heavy D also essayed some social commentary in Letter to the Future, whose lyric exhorted a teenage criminal to see the error of his ways, while Sister Sister was a message of solidarity to black womanhood.
Heavy D began to expand the scope of his operations, not least by performing the rap on Michael Jackson's smash single Jam and appearing on his sister Janet Jackson's hit, Alright. In 1997 he rapped on Keep It Coming, from the blues legend BB King's album Deuces Wild.
In 1990, D had written and performed the theme song for the African-American TV comedy show In Living Color, which featured such up-and-coming stars as Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez, and he pursued a sideline in acting, appearing on TV shows such as Roc, Living Single, Tales from the Crypt, Boston Public and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He was able to make the jump into movies, appearing in The Cider House Rules (1999), Big Trouble (2001) and more. His most recent big-screen role came in the new Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy vehicle, Tower Heist (2011).
Heavy D's musical success continued with Blue Funk (1993) and the platinum-selling Nuttin' But Love (1994), both recorded with the Boyz. Then he went solo with Waterbed Hev (1997) and Heavy (1999), though by now his chart profile was beginning to wane. In 1996 he was the first rapper to become the president of a record label, at Uptown Records.
Last month, in his first live performances for 15 years, Heavy D performed Run with La Toya Jackson at the Michael Jackson tribute concert in Cardiff; and a medley of hits at the BET network's Hip-Hop Awards.
He is survived by a daughter, Xea.
• Heavy D (Dwight Arrington Myers), rapper, actor and businessman, born 24 May 1967; died 8 November 2011