Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Rammellzee - R.I.P.

In 1983, New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat produced and provided artwork for what was to become the only record ever released on independent label Tartown. That record, Beat Bop, a collaboration between rappers Rammellzee and K-Rob was limited to 500 copies and went on to become a holy grail for collectors. More importantly, it influenced numerous rappers, most notably Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. It's a record that will be played again this weekend after the news that Rammellzee has passed away at the age of 49.

Rammellzee – his real name long obscured after he changed it legally – was much more than just an old-school rapper. Before he ever committed his vocals to vinyl he was an established graffiti artist, peppering the A train in Queensbridge, New York in the late 70s with his trademark spiky letters. He was featured in the two landmarks of hip-hop cinema, Henry Chalfant's graffiti doc, Style Wars and Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style, toting a shotgun as he rapped on stage in the latter.

A fascinating eccentric with an unusual dress sense, he was prone to Lee "Scratch" Perry-style flights of conversational fancy. Rammellzee also developed a theory he called Gothic Futurism, in which graffiti writers, inspired by medieval monks, would work to liberate the mystical powers of letters from the constraints of modern alphabetical standardisation. His graffiti work would go on to be displayed in galleries worldwide, while his treatise, Iconic Panzerisms, set out an anarchistic approach to language and letters.

Rammellzee took his beliefs to extremes and lived his life that way too. He was seldom seen without one of the ski-masks or costumes that festooned his home, speaking to both friends and enemies while in character. His occasional musical forays – Gettovetts, Death Comet Crew – were increasingly experimental and fractured. His influence, however, was still felt far and wide. It's widely believed that Beastie Boys based their nasal whines on the rap style he used on Beat Bop, while Cypress Hill would lift samples, song choruses and B-Real's distinctive rap voice from segments of the same track. Twenty-seven years after its release, and days after the death of its star, Beat Bop is a record that still sounds like nothing else on Earth, made by a man like no one else on Earth.