Rammellzee was remembered Wednesday with affection and admiration as a man whose originality and idiosyncratic vision was a hallmark of early-’80s hip-hop. He died Tuesday at age 50 from causes unknown at the time of writing.
“Beat Bop,” the 10-minute single he cut with K-Rob in 1983, was tinged with the surreality of dub music; the sleeve designed by his close friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, (who also produced the track) quizzically states that the disc is a Test Pressing. Well, of course. Though the disc’s “iconoclastic panzer” rhythms really were meant to be just a test pressing — for Rammellzee everything was a test, an experiment.
Rammellzee was truly different — not just from the other artists who surrounded him, like Fab5Freddy, Basquiat, and Futura 2000, innovators all, but from anyone else on the planet. He didn’t simply rap on and on till the break of dawn and then go to McDonald’s for a burger and slump in front of the TV. He lived the ideas he rapped about, wrote about, and made art about. You may have seen him in Henry Chalfant’s Style Wars, or playing “man with money,” in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, or rapping in the seminal movie of the time, director Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, in which Rammellzee makes a tantalizingly brief appearance toting a toy gun in a jokey way that suggests if he were to shoot it, he’d probably aim at his own foot (below).
But the full essence of the artist may be better captured in the DVD bonus tracks revisiting the original participants, in which you can’t really tell if he’s a human, a robot, or a creature from an unimagined galaxy. He enjoyed appearing like that in public, completely disguised in an insane, gnarly confection of found objects, transmuted into a living embodiment of his own sculptures, a walking extrapolation of his original, complex cosmology.
“When people heard Rammellzee talk, they would be amazed. ‘Who is this guy and does he really know all this shit about quantum physics?'” his mentor, Fab5Freddy says. Like the mysterious jazz adventurer Sun Ra (never seen without his imperial space head-dress and robes), Rammellzee would spout mysterious, provocative messages that sounded like nonsense — or the key to all wisdom, if only people could understand what on earth he was saying.
Rammellzee, a native of Far Rockaway, New York, was drawn to the convoluted lore of the Five Percenters, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that fired up several early hip-hoppers.
An even greater source of inspiration was the alphabet itself, and its usage in graffiti. Other graffiti artists sprayed walls and subway cars. Rammellzee worked either on paper or in his own imaginative style of 3-D. Remembers Fab, “Rammellzee would pour resin into square or rectangular molds and embed different objects in it that expressed his cosmic worldview. He would talk about letters in three dimensions, using metaphorical terms, describing elements of individual letters as ‘armouring,’ and the arrows we used in Wild Style graffiti as shooting missiles.”
“He was my protegé,” Fab says. “We met around 1979, just as I was hitting the art scene, and I saw right away that he was brilliant. He invented his own method of expression with graffiti — his own language, an outrageous urban form of communication.” Fab soon introduced him to Jean-Michel Basquiat who “fell in love with him and took him to L.A. Then I took him to Europe as part of our hip-hop show.”
Back in those days, I was a music journalist living between London and Paris, and well remember the impact Rammellzee had when he landed with Fab’s crew to introduce hip-hop to Europe. Performing at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and at the behest of French hipster bible, ACTUEL, the young men burst on the scene like a shockwave of zany futurism, revolutionizing all our preconceptions of African-American creativity, with its soul and R&B. They boldly smashed the old barriers separating the visual arts and music, spontaneously spraying raw art on gallery walls while manipulating turntables and rapping in an outpouring of originality. “Fresh” was the scene’s adjective of choice, and their virile aesthetic was as fresh as a newborn’s first breath. Even then, Rammellzee’s art was more elaborate than the stripped-down faux-simplicity of, say, Basquiat’s. His intricate pieces laid the foundation for a career that continued to sustain him, particularly in Europe where his moody interpretations in the Gothic Futurist style are much prized by collectors.
“People would say about him, ‘The guy’s a nut — but he’s fucking brilliant,'” Fab5Freddy says. “He was an engaging character. Rammellzee had his own swagger.”