As first relayed on Fab Five Freddy’s Twitter feed yesterday, iconoclastic hip-hop musician and forward-thinking graphic artist Rammellzee has died. The news was confirmed today with a message on Rammellzee’s MySpace page. He was 50 years old.
Rammellzee came up in the days when graffiti, DJing, rapping, and b-boying all commingled as separate extensions of the same sweeping cultural force, first getting noticed as a graffiti artist whose tightly controlled canvases reflected his theory of Gothic Futurism (and later “Iconic Panzerism”), where words and letters were robbed of context and shaped into fighter jets or tanks to represent their symbolic battle against the restrictions of language. According to Jeff Chang’s hip-hop scene document Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Rammellzee got his start as an MC when he was invited, along with Fab Five Freddy, to take part in a multimedia show organized by photographer Henry Chalfant; fellow artist Doze recounts first hearing Rammellzee rap thusly: “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ This fucking guy was like, ‘Werrnnnnnnt werrnnnnnnt! Rock rock! Plop plop fizz, oh what a relief it is! Bob! Jellybeans! Spam! Ham! I figured, this guy is off his wig.”(Doze also recounts a dress rehearsal for the show that ended in a standoff between Puerto Rican and Dominican crews, which escalated once Rammellzee and his circle pulled out machetes.)
So maybe Rammellzee was a little bit crazy, but he was also an artist light-years ahead, crafting one of the most influential and sought-after hip-hop singles of all time with 1983’s epic 10-minute “Beat Bop”: Initially conceived as a battle between rivals Rammellzee and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the latter ended up being overruled by Rammellzee, who—along with K-Rob, who eventually replaced Basquiat on the record—reportedly read Basquiat’s dreadful lyrics, laughed, crumpled them up, and threw them back in his face. Nevertheless, Basquiat agreed to pay for the recording and pressing, and even designed its famous cover. “Beat Bop” subsequently became the main theme for the documentary Style Wars, and eventually, a sonic blueprint for scores of hip-hop artists to come.
Of course, Rammellzee may be best known for his appearance in 1983’s Wild Style, where he presides over the Rock Steady Crew while waving a sawed-off shotgun. The guy knew how to make an entrance.
Over the years, Rammellzee released scores of 12-inches and guested on dozens of other rappers’ records, alongside crafting his own albums with the Death Comet Crew and his metal-rap project Gettovetts, a collaboration with noted producer Bill Laswell. After DCC reunited in 2003, Troubleman Unlimited released This Is Riphop, a compilation of all the group’s previous recordings; a year later, Rammellzee issued his first-ever solo album, Bi-Conicals Of The Rammellzee. In between he continued to produce mind-fucking visual art, give interviews that often sounded as though they were being translated from some alien language, and even popped up in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (as “Man With Money”). His was a uniquely weird world, and like Doze said, he was indeed off his wig—in the best possible way.