Rammellzee Interview (R.I.P.)
Rammellzee & K-Rob – “Beat Bop“
from Beat Bop 12″ (Tartown, 1983)
For those who have yet to hear, avant rap and graffiti legend Rammellzee passed away on Tuesday. Details still are hazy at best but it appears to be a sad truth. Ramell always maintained that the word was a form of mathematics and there’s no series of equations that could properly do his life justice. I tried at the Village Voice but don’t think I came close to doing him justice. He was a legend in two games and probably the single most unique human I’ve ever been blessed to have an awkward phone conversation with. As such I’m bumping the said conversation below.
To me the most fascinating part of this interview was not the mythological Rammellisms – the tale of crumbling up Basquiat’s lyrics, the live-performance-as-bank-heist theory, the dentistry aspirations – but rather when he began to crack jokes about his wife getting on his case. It was like he briefly became Al Bundy, a victim of domesticity. That’s was what seemed incredible about interacting with Ramm – for someone who was always wearing masks and worshipping mechanics there was also a vast amount of humanity right there on the surface. Or maybe he was just a robot trying his best to seem human. One other funny interaction that didn’t make the final edit but I think was sort of indicative of where Ramm’s head was at: halfway through the conversation he told me he only agreed to do the interview because he thought it was going to be with Nas, the rapper. This is odd because I set it up via email, so the pronunciation similarities should have been overshadowed by the spelling difference. I suspect this was another instance of his deep deadpan humor but I can’t be entirely sure.
Hit the jump to read the Q&A, which first ran here on 4/24/08 and then check the Tumblr where a full scale Rammellzee tribute has been going down.
Rammellzee just might be hip hop’s first renaissance man. The Far Rockaway rapper/graffiti writer/performance artist has the distinction of appearing in both of the tomes of old school cinema – Wild Style and Style Wars (you may recall him waving a sawed off on stage in the former). Since then he’s gained acclaim in the worlds of art and sculpture, but his most infamous music moment is still probably “Beat Bop,” a ten minute duet with K-Rob. The initial test pressing, financed and designed by Jean Michel Basquiat, is as desirable in art circles as it is in hip hop ones, exchanging hands for upwards of four figures. Musically, it’s worth at least that much, as I’ve raved in the past. After the jump The Rammellzee discusses the making of that record, his dentistry aspirations and why interviewers need to leave him alone.
N: Let’s talk about “Beat Bop.” That, to me, is one of the craziest records of all time.
R: Yeah, so I’ve been told. I hear that a lot, but to me, it was just simply a test pressing with Jean Michel and K-Rob for Jean-Michel’s solo compilation. He wanted say his own verses, me and K-Rob read them and started laughing and we crushed up his paper with the words he had written down and we threw it back at him face first. Then we said we’re gonna go in these two booths, and [I said] ‘I’m gonna play pimp on the corner’ and K-Rob said ‘I’ll play school boy coming home from school’ and then it went on. Jean Michel Basquiat put up the money for it and from there we sung to it. He did not sell it immediately. But when he did sell it he didn’t tell anybody. It was to Profile records. [But originally] it was a test pressing. We were just having fun.
N: So you never expected it to really catch on?
R: I didn’t expect anything out of anything. I just used to go over his house and chill. He was an up and coming artist, I was an up and coming artist… well I was an up and coming con-artist. And we just were doing things at the same time. But I didn’t expect it to be anything more than a test a pressing. It was something he wanted to do so we did it. I didn’t like the words he wrote and neither did K-Rob and both me and K-Rob at the time were 5%ers and there was nothing more to say. So we laughed at him. But yet he was paying for it all. I never made a dime of that damn record. I still haven’t made a dime off that record and it sold more than 150,000 copies.
Only thing I can say is he spelled my damn name wrong. I got two “L”s in Rammellzee. Rammellzee is a quantum mechanic equation, you don’t spell it with one L. You’ve seen the cover? It’s spelt wrong.
N: As far as distributing it, were you guys giving out at shows or what?
R: Oh no. I had to go up to Profile records and I was there with Treacherous 3, and Jeckyll and Hyde was in the room. And I was talking to them and talking to the producer. Simply because I was making a lot of money [at the time], the producer says I don’t need to make anymore. I said ‘now how the hell is that?’ I’m supposed to make as much money as I’m supposed to make, because I’m a human. And they didn’t understand that. So I left and I found out when Jean Michelle died that he never even cashed the check from Profile records. It was laying on the floor. So I never got money from it through that. I didn’t really care because, like I said, it was a test pressing. I didn’t know he’d put it out on Profile records. It went out, it sold, it was never played on the radio. Well, it was played on the radio in Berlin. That’s the only place I ever heard it, in a car, while I was being drove into Berlin.
N: At what point then did you realize that it had become so influential?
R: Oh… ’87. 1987. I didn’t know it was gonna be a hit and now it’s famous as we both know.
N: Was there any desire to parlay it’s success into a more consistent recording career? I know you were on and off the music scene for years to come.
R: I redid “Beat Bop 2” with K-Rob about two years ago on The Biconiccals Of Rammellzee and I thought it was fantastic the second time around. I thought that this time time me and K-Rob were doing fine without crushing up papers and being stalled by a person who wanted things to be done his way.
N: Who put out that record again?
R: Gomma Records, German people.
N: It seems like you have a big following over there.
R: Oh me and Berlin is cool. They love me in Berlin. Amsterdam is a place I perform a lot, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, they dig me there. And Japan. They love me there. It is a strange way of thinking of how things can happen overseas that happen here. I don’t play mostly in the United States, I play mostly overseas. Almost like a jazz musician in the 60’s and 70’s. I feel like a prisoner being shipped out of the country. They take me out of here, they still taking me out of here. They want me to leave (Laughs). They don’t like me being in the country.
N: Why do you think that’s the case?
R: Like I said, jazz musicians were shipped out of the United States and they went to Europe or they went to Asia or Brazil. They didn’t want us in the country. It’s just like being a graffiti writer. They did not want us to stick around, they wanted us to go other places. It’s called dispersion.
N: I imagine that has also worked to your advantage.
R: It got me flying all over the world. My mother didn’t understand why I was flying all over the world, because she didn’t understand that particular song and the other songs. My aunts were The Flirtations and they would do a lot of performances in nightclubs in London and Hong Kong and from there when I told them that I was actually doing shows after I got into my teens, they called me a liar, but yet I wasn’t. You know I wasn’t because you’ve heard the song. They just didn’t understand how a young kid did a lot better than they did in the club scenes.
N: How did you begin performing?
R: I wanted to be a dentist, but because of that song, “Beat Bop,” it took me places. People liked either my voice or what I was saying, I’m not sure still. It’s now what almost 30 years [old]? It continues to be a heavy seller, so I continue to… avoid it. Because I can’t do a duet without K-Rob. People want me to sing it but I can’t do it. I’ve only performed that song twice, because I don’t know where K-Rob is. That’s why we did Pt. 2, I found him. It must’ve been in about 2002 K-Rob’s very hard to find. He’s very much into prayers and preaching, he’s a full fledged muslim, so you’ve gotta catch him. The same thing would be with Shockdell. You have to catch these people. If you can’t find them, you can’t find them. Me I play mostly with Buckethead and Bill Laswell and that’s who you hear. I play for Praxis, with Bernie Worrell. I do what I do with them, I do what I do with Brain, who’s a drummer. I don’t really do music. I never ever really did music. I build tanks, I design letters to fly, I was building my dolls, building my masks. I now have 21 different masks and I go on tour with Death Comet Crew and go on tour by myself. But I mostly do paintings.
N: It’s wild you have this whole other area of notoriety just off the music though.
R: I am from a political group called The Hidden and people call me or email me all the time and it stocks up and you get about 120 interviews on the telephone, one of them is yours. And I’m happy to hear from you, I would like to say that. But people need to leave me alone. (Laughs)
N: Oh it’s like that huh?
R: Well you get 120 some odd interviews, what would you do?
N: But it’s gotta be a good sign that people are interested.
R: Oh I say that also. If they stop calling you, somethings wrong, if they keep calling you, something must be right. I can live with that. But I got other things to do. You have to worry about the other things you do. Because if I’m doing four canvases, you can’t stop in the middle of the concentration. You’re painting and there’s lots of spray paint, lots of glue, lots of resin. And if you’re traveling everywhere… you’d do the same thing. Slow em down, stop em, or raise the price on what you’re doing. I raise the price on the art, I raise the price on music all the time. You’d do the same thing. But I try to separate my jobs from painting, from sculpture – two separate jobs – and from music. And people seem to like to pile things up on top of one another, I like to keep things separate. Maybe I can find a spot where I can get a vacation, maybe lay on the beach or something like that.
N: There must be something of an overlap as a creative person.
R: There is, but then you got a wife! And the wife wants to go everywhere you want to go, and she wants to talk a lot. And my wife happens to be an agent in film, photography, hair and models and she’s also into stage prop designers. And I’m all of them in one body. And you try to keep the wife out of it because of her profession, but she gets in it anyway. The idea is to be separate and there’s pretty much no way to do it. I can’t hide anymore, if you understand.
N: How did you get to the point where you were working on all these projects?
R: I keep painting. I like to paint. I know certain people like Henry Chalfant, Tony Silver, Lee Quinones… Style Wars was something Henry Chalfant did with Tony Silver and it catapulted, I was launched. The group that I belonged to, The Hidden, said I shouldn’t be doing these things, but there was no way to stop it. It seems like the more resistance I had, the more I became popular. Now we just did Wild Style, the 25th anniversary, of course we had a great time,but they only allowed me to do two songs, because they thought I was gonna scare the people. In fact that’s exactly what they told me to do – scare the people. So I did six minutes 45 seconds, knocked ’em out. It’s like robbing a bank. You hit the bank, you rob the money and you leave. No encores. You have the understanding of knowing that, if you rob a bank, you don’t go back for an encore. No, you’d leave the bank and you’d get the hell out of the country (laughs). But people want you to do encores after robbing the bank and I just don’t agree with that type of lifestyle. Who walks back into a bank after five minutes? That’s stupid. My idea is intelligence. I like to deal with quantum mechanics. That’s what I do. I couldn’t drill into teeth, so I make sure they bite.
“Gothic Futurism rocks the galaxy.”