His birth name is not publicly known, and the few who do know have declined to reveal it. He came into his own as Rammellzee, among other pseudonyms, when he joined the crews of graffiti writers on the A train in the mid-70s. As an MC, he was immortalized in 1983 hip-hop film Wild Style, inspiring the explosive deliveries of The Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat produced and designed Rammellzee’s best-known single, “Beat Bop,” which provided the soundtrack to classic graffiti film Style Wars. To this day, “Beat Bop” sounds like the far-out vanguard of hip-hop.
In fact, Rammellzee was too far out to become a celebrity like Basquiat, who he regarded somewhat contemptuously as a poser. In the ’80s, Rammellzee turned from writing on trains to building sculptural letters from plastic toys and scavenged materials; they looked like futuristic cars or spaceships. He called them Racers, and when an interviewer asked what they meant, he responded:
Alpha’s Bet is not over yet! The Three dimensional “burner” should have been all of our philosophy. Writing for “fame of name” is a poor excuse to be a monk and is the reason why this culture is called sub-culture. So, if giving this sub-culture a scientific and historical backbone is a philosophy, then so be it.
Wait, monks? Science? Philosophy? What’s this all about? No one knows, but from what we’ve been able to decipher, Rammellzee had a theory that graffiti originated with medieval monks, whose illuminated manuscripts were so ornate the Pope and bishops couldn’t read them. Which shows what far-out plane this guy was on—way up there with afrofuturist prophets like Sun Ra. Rammellzee theorized that letters needed to be liberated from the rules of language, which sounds like something Derrida would have come up with, if Derrida had been into writing his name on Queens-bound trains in the middle of the night.
The term of art for a night of graffiti writing is “bombing,” and Rammellzee extended that military metaphor into an entire vocabulary of urban aesthetic warfare. He called his Racers “Tanks” and his tactics “Ikonoklast Panzerism.” He gave rare performances in full body armor resembling something between a samurai and a Transformer. His legendary TriBeCa loft, known as the Battle Station, was a sculpture in itself, the embodiment of his arcane, poetic, lunatic theories. Since he passed away in 2010, his legacy has finally received a resurgence of attention from the art world. MOCA recreated the Battle Station in its Art in the Streets show. The New Museum used “Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet” as the name of an exhibition. The Racers appeared in Printin’ at MoMA and a Rammellzee solo show at The Suzanne Geiss Company, where they were displayed hanging from the ceiling in fighting formation. Now we have another opportunity to unpack what Rammellzee was up to: a career overview at New York’s Children’s Museum of the Arts.
An overview of Rammellzee’s work, The RAMMELLZEE Galaxseum, is on view through February 3 at the Children’s Museum of the Arts, New York.