In December 1999, we visited Rammellzee at his Tribeca home/studio – an industrial loft space famously christened, the “Battle Station.” Our mission: to interview the legendary emcee/graffiti writer/artist/sculptor/philosopher-theorist about the making of “Beat Bop” – his classic 1983 collaborative single with fellow writer/emcee K-Rob and the song’s producer, street art icon, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Given its participants, “Beat Bop” is a recording with mystique virtually encoded in its DNA. Highly collectable in its elusive original Tartown Records’ incarnation thanks to Basquiat’s unmistakable work on its picture sleeve, the 10-minute masterpiece’s trippy, reverb-bathed post-punk funk – unforgettably punctuated by Rammel’s mutant nasal rhyme forays (or “gangster duck” style) – epitomized the experimental ethos of early ’80s downtown New York. A time when hip-hop’s dissemination from the Bronx across neighborhoods, train lines, boroughs and well beyond put the world on notice: shit was about to change in irrefutable ways.
We’d licensed “Beat Bop” for a compilation album we were in the process of putting together, ego trip’s The Big Playback (Rawkus, 2000). So our visit to the Battle Station – a feast for the senses that even the first-hand descriptions of frequent Station guest, and our visitation liason, Dave Tompkins, couldn’t adequately prepare us for – was predicated on celebrating the song. But Rammel kept it mad real with us, to say the least. Not only did he categorically dismiss “Beat Bop’s” artistic merits and eventual influence on acts like Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys (though he’d grudgingly waver at different points in the conversation), but his memories of creating it were generally less than romantic. Equally thorny were his recollections of Basquiat – whom he relegated to the role of agent or puppet of “the light dwellers” (his term for privileged dictators of culture). Obviously, theirs was a more complicated relationship than we’d anticipated.
Of course, it was all completely fascinating. (“I feel like I’ve been to see the Fisher King,” a wide-eyed Brent Rollins mumbled afterwards as we dazedly walked out of Rammel’s and out onto Laight Street, the Holland Tunnel’s neighboring exit spitting out an endless flow of Jersey-fleeing vehicles.) Unfortunately, space limitations prevented us from using the interview for the liner notes to The Big Playback. The project ran its course, the interview tape eventually stowed away.
Time since has flown. The two-year anniversary of Rammellzee’s passing arrives this June. Currently on exhibit in NYC are his famed “Letter Racer” sculptures – the physical manifestation of his theory of Ikonoklastic Panzerism, in which the alphabet is re-envisioned as wheeled weapons in the war against expressive oppression. What better time than now to dig back into the vaults. Here, presented for the first time, is our Q&A with Rammellzee, as well as a few snapshots taken during our visit. Taken as a companion to pieces like “Eat a Planet and Go On To the Next One” – Tompkins’ fascinating, exceedingly thorough Rammellzee chapter from his book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach – we hope it provides another glimpse of insight into the history of one of hip-hop’s true originals. Rammellzee – RIP. Rock on.
What are your recollections about the whole process of making “Beat Bop”? How did you meet Jean-Michel Basquiat?
Rammellzee: Jean-Michel wanted to do a rap song because rap was coming into power at the time and that was one of the things besides writing on the trains that he didn’t know how to do. He didn’t know how to do wild style or a true burner like some of these things in here [points around room]. And I was brung into the city by Fab 5 Freddy to interrogate this guy.
And the basis of the interrogation was…?
Rammellzee: What he knew about art. Why was he in the power play position? And to tell him: you need to leave this shit alone and let the real troopers who did do something on the trains get past you and Keith Haring and let these fools know there’s an ikonoklastic war about to happen…
During the process of interrogation I had made a bet with him: I can do what you can do, you can’t do what I can do. He had brought three canvases, set ’em up and got me the paint in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery, which was his first gallery [exhibition in] like 1982. And in the basement he decided to let me paint these canvases, and Annina Nosei sold all three at his price. My prices where nowhere near his because he was going off and selling well. She came into the gallery and she told him, “I sold three of your best artworks.” I said, “Give me my money!” [laughs] “Now you gotta do what I do!” He never did what I could do. He switched from trying to do [burners and wild style] and went to do the song.