Yes, there are 8 million stories in the naked city, but they’re still not enough to do justice to Rammellzee. A postmodern samurai, sage and saboteur, Ramm—as he was known to friends—spray-painted his first tags on the A line in the mid-’70s. He was a native of Far Rockaway, Queens, but planted his roots in the Boogie Down Bronx, where the nascent hip-hop underground embraced him with open arms. As the Red Bull Music Festival hosts a major retrospective of Rammellzee’s work, his art—which transformed urban decay into a futurist multiverse of image, language, music and myth—remains light-years ahead of the rest.
Early on, he made it clear that he was much more than just a graffiti bomber: His practice weaponized the alphabet (or, in his words, “Alpha’s Bet”) and propelled the art form out of the subway and into distant realms. Take his name, stylized as RAMM∑LLZ∑∑, a mathematical equation. “It’s all 20 different maths in a story,” he explained, rather inscrutably, to Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn in 2004. “It’s quantum, as far as I’m concerned.”
His street-born philosophies, Ikonoklast Panzerism and Gothic Futurism, guided everything he created as an artist and emcee until his death in 2010 at age 49. Working from his downtown Tribeca loft, aptly dubbed the Battle Station, Ramm used found objects (such as discarded dolls, old clothes, scrap metal and skateboard parts) to build his customized art: the souped-up skateboards known as “Letter Racers,” the action figures dubbed “Monster Models” and the exoskeleton-like “Garbage Gods,” which he would wear as costumes during live performances.
Legend has it he challenged rival Jean-Michel Basquiat to an art battle, and won. In the basement of Annina Nosei’s Soho gallery, Rammellzee and Basquiat faced off over who could bite the other’s style more convincingly. Ramm painted three canvases that, according to him, sold immediately at Basquiat-level prices.
His film appearances are brief but memorable. Rapping in the closing concert scene of Wild Style, Ramm freestyles with a shotgun in hand, holding the crowd in sway as the Rock Steady Crew cuts up the dance floor behind him. He also makes a typically enigmatic cameo in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. “He’s a genius,” Jarmusch has said. “The kind of guy you could talk to for 20 minutes and your whole life would change. If you could only understand him.”
On the music front, his song “Beat Bop” with K-Rob is an early hip-hop classic. Funded and produced by Basquiat in 1983, the record features Ramm’s “gangsta duck” voice, which influenced the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. He went on to record with Death Comet Crew, Gettovetts and Bill Laswell’s Material, but released only one full-length album of his own: 2004’s The Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee, which mapped out his views on Gothic Futurism in mind-bending detail.
“I think Rammellzee’s time is coming. He’s still a little too ahead of it,” says Ahearn on the phone. “He was a visionary on so many levels. Essentially, he’s like a pure combination of a punk sensibility with what I can only say is African shamanism. It’s part of what his paintings are—that sense of things being unleashed.”
Or, as Ramm himself put it: “No guts, no galaxy.”
“RAMMELLZEE: Racing for Thunder” is at Red Bull Arts New York, 220 W 18th St. Wed–Sat noon–7pm (nyc.redbullmusicfestival.com). Free. May 4–August 26.