Before MF Doom donned a metal mask, before Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys conquered the adenoidal vocal and street art was bound in $100 books for sale at Taschen, Rammellzee was the original train-bombing, abstract-rapping outlaw.
He passed away last Sunday at 49, in his birthplace of Far Rockaway in Queens, N.Y., after a lengthy and undisclosed illness. The details of his death mirror those of his life: bathed in shadows and blocked behind bug-eyed ski goggles and robot-samurai battle gear.
There are people who know Rammellzee’s birth name, but even after his death, no one has publicly divulged it. He first came to attention in the Bronx of the mid-1970s, where he relocated "because that’s where the culture was coming from," he told Greg Tate in a definitive 2004 Wire feature. Rammellzee quickly fell in with the graffiti writers who rode the A train, including Phase 2, Peanut and others who achieved regional fame in the Carter-era chaos of the five boroughs.
It was the dawn of the Wild Style: B-Boys, DJs, MCs and graffiti bombers united to create hip-hop culture, immortalized in the twin testaments of hip-hop cinema — "Wild Style" and "Style Wars." Rammellzee factored into both, brandishing a sawed-off shotgun and rapping in the former and creating the theme song for the latter. The song in question, "Beat Bop," is widely considered the genesis of hip-hop’s avant garde — a sprawling end-to-end burner of eclectic instrumentation (electric guitar, violin, various types of percussion) and Rammellzee unleashing his oblique "Gangsta Duck" and "W.C. Field" raps.
Loosely strung together by a narrative of a pimp warning a young child about the perils of the streets, the 12-inch was "produced" by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who initially raised Rammellzee’s ire for accepting the graffiti art throne without ever having bombed a train car. The song was initially intended to be a battle rap between the two. However, Rammellzee famously claimed to have crumpled up Basquiat’s contribution, laughed at his inept lyrics and enlisted K-Rob instead. But Basquiat had the notoriety and the money — handling the cover art himself, and the limited-edition 500-copy run remains one of the most sought-after 12-inches in hip-hop history.
Opting for a monkish lifestyle, Rammellzee spent the next three decades largely holed up in his 2,000-square-foot Tribeca studio, painting, sculpting and creating futuristic body armor that made him look like a character from "Voltron." There were occasionally forays into the outside world: an appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s "Stranger Than Paradise" and a string of import-only releases on tiny Japanese and German labels. While hip-hop culture became big business, he rejected its commercialism, telling 149st that "we failed what could have been ‘Our’ culture … too much ‘mannerism’ not enough ‘burner’!!! Our futurism! We should have only stuck to doing the ‘letter’ and joined together to fight the light dwellers."
Interviews requests were frequent, but rarely granted, with Rammellzee preferring to hone his philosophy of gothic futurism in private. Embodying the notion that there is a thin line between tin-foil hat and genius, his conception of the universe often appeared as a byzantine tangle of conspiracy theories, arcane prophecies and mathematics. He viewed the graffiti writers as heirs to Medieval monks, destined to liberate the alphabet from standardization. He was obsessed with the notion of sonic sound wars and the historical struggles between the "letter" and the "number." Rammellzee fought chaos with chaos, creating his own strain of Afro-futurism, inhabiting a galaxy populated only by George Clinton, Sun Ra and Lee Perry.
It remains unclear whether he was born 600 years too early or 600 years too late. We probably won’t know for another 60. But right now, it’s evident that no style was wilder than Rammellzee’s