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The mighty Rammellzee, street-art legend and the pioneering rap eccentric behind “Beat Bop,” has passed away. Though confirmed by Fab 5 Freddy, the details of his death remain sketchy, which is oddly appropriate, as even in life he was difficult to pin down. His legends are hip-hop canon, but they’re rarely even attached to anything as tangible as a government name. Wikipedia reports a Far Rockaway birth circa 1960, but that’s about it. But such details are irrelevant: Like Sun Ra before him, Rammellzee quickly expanded beyond such earthly shackles.
Yet he always found a way to wander into the frame at just the right moment, making him the Forrest Gump of ’80s NYC. He turns up in both pillars of hip-hop cinema, wielding a sawed-off shotgun onstage in Wild Style and providing music for the seminal graffiti doc Style Wars. His connections to the downtown art world furthered his quiet multimedia takeover via frequent collaborations with Bill Laswell, a small part in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and an off-and-on friendship with Jean-Michele Basquiat.
It was the Basquiat affiliation that lead to his most memorable recording, 1983’s “Beat Bop.” A ten-minute tag-team duet with rapper K-Rob, it was unquestionably the genre’s first consciously experimental rap record, with Rammellzee wheezing about remanipulation and cocaine fingernails over Basquiat’s micro-funk 808 workout. It predicted nearly every hip-hop oddity that followed, from Kool Keith to Def Jux, and introduced the “Gangsta Duck” rhyme style that would later be borrowed by more visible acts like the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill’s B-Real. He’d played the margins of the music world in the decades since, recording a handful of import-only projects for obscure Japanese and German labels.
As a visual artist, he was similarly distinct and distant, working in splatters and turning the aimless arrows of most graffiti violent. He began by bombing trains, but his work quickly mutated into multidisciplinary, uniformly bizarre sculptures, including typography on wheels and masks cobbled from dismembered action figures. But as varied as his résumé became, it still pales in comparison to the scope of his ideas. His “Gothic Futurism” screeds were nearly indecipherable to the common man, but in his head it was pure mathematics. There, language was just a series of equations, and letters were weapons. Art, music, and nature were one in the same, broken down to binaries and restructured to his liking.
When I interviewed Rammell in ’08, he described his live performance as a bank heist: “You hit the bank, you rob the money, and you leave. No encores.” Same with his life’s work. He stuck to each of his disciplines just long enough to make an impact, and then he moved on to the next one.