WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – MARCH 2018
Rammellzee is one of New York’s great enigmas. The shape-shifting artist emerged in the late ’70s, making a name for himself in the city’s graffiti scene. As he gained more renown he kept moving further and further into the leftfield; developing his own theories around language and using that to inform his bizarre and deeply inspired creations, be that abstract hip-hop, cosmic and meta visual/performance art or esoteric found object sculptures.
Born in Far Rockway, Queens in 1960, many aspects of Rammellzee’s life remain a complete mystery including the exact date of his birth – he describes himself as being 6 billion years old – and the name he was given when he was born, which he legally changed to RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ – a mathematical equation that makes sense within his theories.
Rammellzee wouldn’t be the only one to benefit from the New York graffiti scene, which would prove a fertile ground to launch a number of prolific careers. Although graffiti goes as far back as ancient civilisation, the modern roots can be traced back to 1960s Philadelphia and when it moved to NYC it really took root. In the same decade people like JULIO204, TAKI183 and TRACY168 began tagging their names and street numbers around the city and this developed into its own art form as it moved into the ’70s and entangled itself with the other elements of hip hop; breakdancing, turntablism and MCing. The designs became more elaborate as the graffiti artists grew tired of just tagging their names and street numbers.
With a jagged style of deconstructed symbols that spread far and wide via the NY subway train network, Rammellzee rose to prominence through this new wave of graffiti in late ’70s / early ’80s New York, alongside the Fabulous 5 crew and the Wild Style crew – which included TRACY168 and TAKI183 and created the angular and dynamic style that’s become a graffiti staple – plus of course, the globally renowned Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Keith Haring had begun to spread his work through the New York subways, utilising a style that was playful and accessible on the surface but beneath that, his work addressed deep facets of the human condition: manipulating symbols to explore things like sexuality, death and social/political issues. He’d go on to paint the Paradise Garage, including a naked Grace Jones and his art has always maintained a strong association with ’80s New York club culture.
Jean Michel-Basquiat and high school friend Al Diaz put their own slant on tagging with SAMO©, a moniker/movement that covered Manhattan’s Lower East Side with epigrams, declarations and multiple choice questions designed to provoke new thought and pierce through the mechanical monotony of everyday existence in a city on its knees financially. Basquiat would declare ‘SAMO© IS DEAD’ and move away from graffiti but remained an integral player in the New York scene with his highly inspired visual art that drew together a plethora of real-world influences, socio-political commentary and popular culture references with acute and biting juxtapositions.
The Fabulous 5’s Fred Brathwaite AKA Fab 5 Freddy was an instrumental figure in NYC counterculture. Both a connector and catalyst at various turning points, he did much to unite the downtown art and punk scene with uptown graffiti and early hip hop. Like Basquiat he moved from graffiti into visual art and also starred in ‘Downtown 81’ – the film that followed Basquiat through New York’s creative underbelly. In 1980 Debbie Harry gave Braithwaite his props in Blondie’s ‘Rapture‘: “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly” and the next year he made a notable contribution to hip hop with ‘Change The Beat‘ – one of the most sampled records in history – rapping in both English and French.
A friend of Rammellzee, he’d help the artist create his best remembered work: the 1983 cult hip hop classic ‘Beat Bop‘. A warped and wonky, socially conscious cut that offered a ten-minute vignette of New York life, the record paved the way for a move towards more experimental hip hop from proponents like Kool Keith and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew.
Due to the personnel involved, and the rarity of the original pressings – a reported 500 – ‘Beat Bop’ is viewed as one of the hip hop ‘Holy Grail’ records and has fetched more than £1,500 on Discogs, whilst the only going copy today is listed at an ambitious €5,000. The vocal style utilised by Rammellzee, self-described as ‘Gangsta Duck’, would later reach a wider audience when it was emulated by The Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Cypress Hill’s B-Real.
The track would come to represent the uneasy relationship between Rammellzee and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Originally intended to be a rap battle between the two artists, it didn’t quite work out that way as K-Rob has explained:
“Ramm came through with a trench coat and dark black shades on, looking like Inspector Gadget… Jean introduced us, and he gave us some papers to read. I can’t remember what it [said], but it was so far-fetched. It was some corny shit. Me and Ramm looked at it like, “Get a load of this motherfucking guy! Really?””
“He wanted say his own verses, me and K-Rob read them and started laughing and we crushed up his paper with the words he had written down and we threw it back at him face first. Then we said we’re gonna go in these two booths, and [I said] “I’m gonna play pimp on the corner” and K-Rob said “I’ll play school boy coming home from school” and then it went on.”
Despite getting his vocals thrown back in his face, Basquiat designed the artwork for the record and is credited as being the producer, though Rammellzee disputes this fact. That said, Rammellzee is hardly an unbiased source and Basquiat did invite old friend Al Diaz to put his homemade percussion on the record. As Diaz recalls, “Basquiat had his hand on it; he was very present. In some account that I read, it made it sound like he just took a back seat, which is absolutely not true.” K-Rob corroborates this, “Jean-Michel made the beat. Listen to the beat: That is Jean-Michel. That’s the type of person Jean-Michel is.”
Regardless of the turbulent relationship, Basquiat had his fingerprints on one of Rammellzee’s most important pieces of work and visa versa – the same year as ‘Beat Bop’, Rammellzee ended up in Basquiat’s ‘Hollywood Africans’, alongside graffiti artist Toxic and Basquiat himself, which was inspired by an excursion the three of them took to the West Coast.
Only intended as a test pressing, the success of ‘Beat Bop’ caught everyone involved by surprise and opened up some new doors for Rammellzee. The track was used in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s seminal graffiti documentary, ‘Style Wars’ later in ’83, whilst Rammellzee would make another foray into film that same year, appearing as himself in Charlie Ahearn’s ‘Wildstyle‘: a time capsule for the early hip hop scene of the Bronx. He’d also feature in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 deadpan comedy ‘Stranger Than Paradise‘ alongside Eszter Balint, who coincidentally played violin on ‘Beat Bop’. More than anything, this newfound fame gave him a new perspective on life, allowing him to abandon his real world ambitions of being a dentist and follow his dreams of far-fetched, cosmic art.
His best creations came out of the mythical TriBeCa loft he’d dubbed The Battle Station, where he created art inspired by his Gothic Futurism theory. Since his early graffiti days, he’d had a fascination with language and wrote the ‘Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism‘ at the age of 19. People have labelled his work Afrofuturist but Rammellzee denies the existence of that concept and instead sees his work as a continuation of a European medieval monk tradition based around the Gothic language. His manifesto could either be genius or gibberish – it’s very hard to tell given the abstract references and coded language.
From what we gather, his theory argues that the true symbols have been stolen from the Roman letters that are widely used around the world, and there’s consequently a disconnect between their written and verbal use. However, by applying his ‘Ikonoklast Panzerism’, he can complete the symbols of our language with an “armament structure” – panzer being German for armour – and use them as weapons against the oppression of the linguistics system. Rammellzee notes: “According to the degree of knowledge of the cipher, triangle, and square this is not revolution this is evolution.”
Whether you subscribe to his theories or not, it’s undeniable that they inspire an incredible spectacle. Creating a cast of mythical Gothic Futurist characters including; Crux the Monk, Destiny Destiny, Wind The Mother Of Natures, Reaper Grim, a judge named Igniter The Master Alphabiter, a secretary known as Vain The Insane, a matradee called Chaser The Eraser, a pimp going by Barshaw Gangstarr The Duck, a bookie called Chimer and Gash/Olear – his most recognisable character sometimes known as Rammellzee – he builds a self-referential world around them, bestowing his characters with a backstory and realising them in visual art, figurines and the performance art costumes he toured the streets of New York with. There’s an undeniable influence from Japanese samurai culture running through his work.
Over the years Rammellzee continued to dabble in music, working alongside Bill Laswell, although nothing came close to the magic of ‘Beat Bop’. His true calling was as an artist and he had exhibitions alongside Basquiat and Futura. He lived inside his art all the way through his time on this planet and perpetually created his own mythology right up until he left his mortal coil in 2010 at the age of 50. Even though he’s no longer with us, through the many creations of his unique career, the equation known as RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ lives on.
Rammellzee illustration by Dan Lish