Since his early 80s Bronx classic "Beat Bop", artist, rapper and Gothic Futurist Rammellzee has been engaged in a literal war of words against the forces of authority and capital. In this rare interview, he introduces his stunning array of self-made armoured combat outfits, outlines the medieval origins of his complex philosophy of animated letters and looks back at his youth spent paintbombing the subway. This article originally appeared in The Wire 242 (April 2004).
Once upon a time in the Bronx, before HipHop had a name, or came to be defined by the Five Elements of MCing, breakdancing, B-boying, turntabling and the painting known as graffiti, it had Writers. These scribes wrote on the trains of New York's subway system. Mostly they wrote their names: a host of colourful noms de plume. They rendered bold abstractions of the alphabet in spraypaint and magic marker, causing the letters to inflate like gaseous bubbles and explode outwards with multidirectional arrows. If any figuration appeared, it would be cartoon characters and caricatures of the Writers themselves. At their most ambitious and epic, these Writings covered entire carriages from top to bottom, including the windows. Outside the culture, these mobile murals were seen as mere 'graffiti'. Within the culture, the act of writing on the trains was synonymous with 'bombing' them. As the name implies, bombing was an aesthetic form of urban terrorism. Since bombing involved defacing and vandalising city property, it was also considered a crime by the authorities, so much so that those powers eventually put barbed wire, attack dogs and undercover cops in the trainyards to foil raids on the carriages during Gotham's graveyard shift. It took the city a decade of aggressive policing, and a new line of Writing-proof trains made in Japan, to drive Writers away from the system forever.
In its heyday (roughly 1970-85), Writing seemed a permanent fixture and irrepressible feature of life in the city. At times the Writers functioned collectively, like a Renaissance guild, routinely exchanging ideas, techniques, energy and adrenalin for their consuming mission to 'bomb all lines'. Their efforts paved the way not only for HipHop as an artform but also for the scale of commodification and self-promotion that defines today's HipHop.
The originator of Writing is generally thought to be a Greek immigrant who made a name for himself around 1970 by plastering the walls of the metropolis with the tag "Taki 183". Inspired by his example, a fame-hungry generation of alienated, disenfranchised youths in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem began throwing their tags up on city walls. One day, some genius of ghetto selfpromotion got the bright idea that if you really wanted to have your name seen around the city, why not throw it on the side of a parked train car? By 1976 this idea was taken to its zenith by hundreds of graf crews who took up the challenge of trying to bomb as many as 16 cars in one night. While Gotham slept, Writing crews, sometimes in pairs or groups of up to 30 strong, executed their work in the yards and underground tunnels. If your fellow Writers considered your bombing beautiful, you had made a 'burner'. Those who couldn't produce burners were considered 'toys'.
There is another theory of Writing's origins which says it all began with the medieval monks of the 14th and 15th centuries, who produced illuminated manuscripts in the script we now call Gothic. In this version, the monks were prevented by the Catholic church because their letters had become so ornate that the Pope and his bishops could no longer read them.
This set of beliefs emanates from a gentleman and HipHop icon known to the world as Rammellzee.
To understand Rammellzee, especially for the uninitiated, it's best to begin with basic facts. Ramm was born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens. He began writing on the trains in the mid-70s, influenced by legendary Writers like Phase One and Dondi, who became something of a mentor. In 1980 he stopped writing on trains and, like many of his peers, began showing his paintings and sculptures in international galleries and museums. Around this time he began developing the notion that Writing was actually an act of war, a military assault he codenamed 'Gothic Futurism' and 'Ikonoklast Panzerism'.
Fans of HipHop, and of the film Wild Style, first became aware of Rammellzee not as a theorist or a Writer but as an MC. In the film he freestyle-duets with his partner Shockdell in the nasal bark he calls 'Gangsta Duck'. This performance is thought to have served as the template for the vocal styles of both The Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill.
In 1983, Tartown Records, under the aegis of producer Jean-Michel Basquiat, released a 12" called "Beat Bop" by Rammelzee Versus K-Rob, a one-off that immediately entered the canon of HipHop masterpieces. The song went on to become the unofficial theme song for the documentary Style Wars, the definitive statement about Writing culture that still stands as the most revelatory film about HipHop ever made. Strangely enough, Ramm does not appear in the original, though in the two disc DVD version he is discussed in detail by Dondi in an outtake and given his own exhibition space in one of the extra features. Ramm also appears in Jim Jarmusch's feature debut Stranger Than Paradise. In the original script for Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, there is a recreation of his rather infamous interrogation of Jean-Michel, brought on because he and other writers felt Basquiat had been unduly crowned king of graffiti painting by the art world despite having never sprayed a burner up on the trains.
The moody music that plays behind the two MCs on "Beat Bop" is a
sighing, whinnying Ambient shuffle full of funk and suspense that
creeps through your head like a slow moving ghost train. While
K-Rob's lyrics detail urban corruption and misery in a subdued
variation on Grandmaster Flash's "The Message", Ramm's oblique
streaks of surreal verbiage suggest William S Burroughs doing
cut-ups on acid. In the 80s Ramm recorded sporadically with Bill
Laswell and Death Comet Crew. The latter joint presaged the dark
cinematic settings RZA crafted for The Wu-Tang Clan by a decade. On
Bi-Conicals Of The Rammellzee, released this month on
German label Gomma, Ramm reunites with K-Rob and Shockdell. The
beats on Bi-Conicals, created by several different
producers including Death Comet Crew and Munk, sound a bit too 1982
retro/electro/"Planet Rock" for my taste, but it's wonderful to
hear Ramm return to recording. This is not to say the
Bi-Conicals are not without zany lyric charms: for
example, when Ramm preaches the gospel of Gothic Futurism or duels
with Shockdell over living space on "Pay The Rent". Potentially
more satisfying is a Japan-only CD, reportedly more dubwise in
approach and mimicking the massive reverb envelope utilised on
"Beat Bop". Currently, however, there is no Western distribution
for this, and label details could not be secured at press time.
For as long as I've known Ramm – going on two decades now – he has lived in a 2000 square foot space in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan. The narrow, ramshackle building, abutting a loading dock, has three floors. Fittingly, Ramm lives on the top: the mad monk in the attic. The crib's only window faces south. On 11 September 2001 he had a clear, elevated view of the Twin Towers' collapse from a distance of no more than 20 blocks.
Still tall and rangy, though with the inevitable middleage spread that 44 years can put on a brother, Ramm remains a man of mystery and profound contradiction. Yet he is not without appetites, a human history and a superhuman ego to complement his prodigious gift of gab. He loves his Old English 800 as much as the next gangsta rapper. "Not because it gets me drunk," he professes in his heartiest Viking voice, "but because it's beer!" Like his brethren among postmodern African- American apostles George Clinton, Sun Ra and RZA, you can take his playful philosophies as seriously as you want. He cracks himself up constantly. Ask him how he came to believe the Pope is the enemy of the letter and he'll guffaw, "I don't know!" and mean it. He'll admit to being as mystified as anyone by the stuff that spontaneously exits his mouth. He never writes anything down and though he speaks of having derived his terminology from "dictionaries", the only publications visible in his domicile are magazines with articles about him and a pornographic calendar I had to move aside before taking a seat on his couch. What you'll mostly find in his home is 25 years' worth of paintings (on canvas and carpet), sculptures (most prominently a four foot high gold painted replica of an Egyptian ankh symbol), costumes and toys. A profusion of spraypainted and glued mask artefacts made out of junk and skateboards salvaged from the scrapheap hang from the walls and the ceiling, taking up about two thirds of the room (he claims there is even more work in his mother's garage in Queens). A newer series features the letters of the alphabet rendered as threedimensional wildstyle transformer weapons on wheels. You can feel the sweat and the anal, outsider art obsessiveness that went into constructing all these pieces. They are in the vein of African power-sculptures, assemblages with hidden powers and meanings waiting to be activated by their builders and makers.
Ramm grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, in a working class
neighbourhood close to JFK Airport. He describes his family as
mostly made up of "cops and military police", with himself and a
cousin (who did time in NYC's most infamous prison, the Tombs) as
the criminal element. His initiation into Writing's master level
came via the legendary Dondi.
"I came down from Queens to the Bronx," he reminisces, "because that's where the culture was coming from. All the guys who also rode the A Train – Phase Two, Peanut Two, Jester – all these guys influenced me in this manner of Writing. I used to cut out from school and meet other people who were toys. We were using flashlighters with erasers and storemarket ink. It would leak all over your pockets, but you could hit a train. 'Course, when you got home you got your beat because your pants were all fucked up. One day a guy heard me talking about writing on the train and he said, 'I know Dondi'. I hit the window right behind him to prove I was a Writer. I went to Dondi's house and he didn't want to let me in until this guy said, 'No, he's great'. I had a great time with Dondi for about four or five years. Dondi saw something developing – he couldn't see how the idea of an arrow turning into a missile could have come from someone from Far Rockaway. [He thought] it should have [come from] somebody from the dead in the culture, from the hierarchy. I was far away. I shouldn't have those thoughts in my mind. If I'd been born in Brooklyn," he adds, "I wouldn't have come up with my style of Ikonoklast Panzerism. I would have been too close to too many masters.
"I was part of United Graffiti Artists along with everybody else," Ramm continues. "I was known as Stimulation Assassination: Tagmaster Killer. I owned the entire 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 lines. The letter music notes and weather notes that were done down there reached a point where you didn't need to kill a person. The piece itself became a weapon: the letter itself. So fame was the most interesting to take out. How do you know George Washington? You know him through a name. You shoot the letter on the train at the other name and it takes out that name. So therefore homeboy has no identity. Why should I kill him? He'll just be dead anyway because nobody will know who he is. He'll just be a walking zombie.
"Don't let him be dead," he asserts. "Because that's what they want to do to you. They sell your art, they sell your music and exploit it and then all you have left is exploitation. So why don't you at least have your own name? Give that to them and what do you have after that?"
Ramm believes that when Writing moved from the trains it gained
the world's attention for 15 minutes but lost its soul. Not so much
because the Writers got pimped and disposed of by the galleries but
because, except for himself and the painters A-1, B-1 and C-1, the
original Writing culture discontinued the path of armouring the
letter and furthering the war they had started on the trains
against a biologically diseased alphabet. As he told the online
grafzine @149th St, "We failed what could have been 'our
culture'. Writing for fame or name is a poor excuse to be a monk
and is the reason why this culture is a subculture. I went [to an
auction] in 2000. Everyone who was anyone in this 'subculture' had
works for sale. No one sold except for a few. I felt that the
'culture' died right there. There was too much mannerism, not
enough 'burner'! Our futurism! We should have stuck to our
principles, left by the monks. We should have only stuck to doing
'the letter' and joined together to fight the light dwellers, but
we will always be 'Kings from the Dark Continent'. It's hard to
become a real live painting in B-boy style but I managed, and we
all could have managed."
If you are fortunate enough to see Ramm perform, you will see him dressed in full body armour – mechanised costumes whose details and personae express his philosophy in visual form. In his heavy metal B-boy samurai gear, Ramm freestyles and cavorts, at times with a vocoder attachment which makes self-evident the connection between his Gangsta Duck delivery and George Clinton's Sir Nose D'Void Of Funk persona. Looking at these creatures arrayed in his apartment, I ask for a formal introduction to each one as Ramm walks down the line.
"These are gods called the Ramm Ell Zee," he intones. "Each one of them has a part to play in the mythology called Gothic Futurism. Some of them are from different time periods. The Purple People Eater over there is China, the Cosmic Bookie. We all gamble one way or the other. He places his bets with the Horrors, and the Horrors gamble galaxies. The Wielder is dealing with Chronologics. He spins around and deals with Ovulization. He has to deal with the bet called 'Womb Versus Man'. What he does is calculate all movement in the universe, or as I call them, the transverses. Ovulization, or the cosmic flush, is the same thing as when a wombman has her period. Times burns out as a cosmic flush called 'men o pause'. This is a trick made by the clergy: Man versus Womb Man.
"There's Wind, she's a mother of natures. The one with the white beard and the pitchfork is a loan shark. He takes bets and hands them to the Horrors. There you have Destiny and Destiny, the double headed wombed man. What they do is separate themselves like Adam and Eve.
"That brings us into the style of Gothic Futurism and the first two people, and their attitude towards an apple or orange. Anything round is silly because since space has no curvature and there's no down or up, the only thing that could actually represent that is a steeple. I believe the first spaceship is a steeple." Cosmology or mere child's play? You be the judge. Ramm don't care 'cause Ramm don't stop. I'll only say that every time I suspect he is putting me on, the scientific theory checks out.
For many, our first encounter with Ramm's militant and contentious body of thought came via the May 1983 issue of Artforum, a special edition about the future in which he was quoted at length by writer Edit Deak. Many of us weren't ready for this articulation of HipHop's message. No matter how much we loved Writing, rapping, turntabling and breaking, and despite our ardour for the sight of a ten-carriage-long series of burners unfurling from the tunnels during morning rush hour, Ramm had us scratching our heads in confusion and wonderment. He dropped knowledge that wasn't easy for the average bear to assimilate. In that issue of Artforum he not only revealed his philosophy of Writing's military function, but suggested he'd done the math, come up with a unified field theory of space-time, electromagnetism, biochemistry and mysticism.
"The monks started what we do," he told Deak. "We extend off
their science. The bishops in 1582 stopped their knowledge because
they couldn't read the monks' tax papers. They were getting too
fancy so the bishops said 'I can't read this to tax the people'. If
you look in the dictionary you'll see that the bishops stopped the
monks because their power was becoming too strong with the letter.
Those damn monks contradicted what the kings wanted. They wrote it
the way they wanted to write it, in their style. The calendar monks
sent a letter to the one place God cannot go: Hell. The light we
had draws from a knowledge that was dim down there, so the
knowledge was very faint but yet it was real, and with its energy
passing through our bodies, we received it."
Composer and painter Danny Hamilton believes Writing stopped being interesting once it stopped being about vandalism. To hear Ramm tell it, the essence of writing on the trains was all about taking something back – not Krylon spraycans from local art supply and hardware stores, but the alphabet itself, whose true symbolic nature was mathematical, not phonetic. Ramm believes our native tongue was imposed on the letter by our biologically diseased species, especially the Roman Catholic church. As Einstein did with his equation E=MC2, Ramm employs the letter as a standin for universal electromagnetic forces. Surrounding the Earth, the charged particles we know as the ionosphere determine the structure of every living thing, from the weather to DNA. Before the Writers on the trains were stopped, just like the monks before them, they were subconsciously armouring the letter against exploitation and misdirection – hence the repeated imagery of arrows and missiles. Emblazoned with these symbols, the trains became moving combat vehicles akin to the German tanks of World War Two: Ikonoklast Panzerism.
Rammellzee believes that information is encoded within the mathematical structure of the alphabet that will allow human beings to leave the planet ("this mould," as he calls it), freed from the demands of both the church and the human reproductive system. As long as science, religion and biochemistry are bound together, he believes human beings will be unfit for interstellar travel. Like Sun Ra and George Clinton before him (whom he acknowledges as conceptual forebears along with Gene Simmons of Kiss, AC/DC and the Hell's Angels), Ramm believes mankind's true home is among the stars. If that means we must all exchange flesh for robot parts to get there, he's cool with that.
In 1985 he told me, "Rammellzee is a military function formation… I am ramming the knowledge to an elevation and I am understanding the knowledge behind the Zee. Since we are dealing with Roman letters, we have to go back to the day when the Romans were using the ram to break down doors. Our situation today is to break down a door of knowledge hidden behind society. We're going to work our way around it instead of breaking it straight up. Whereas before you'd be trying to break through and you would be on the bottom of the pile. We're talking about where graffiti originated, where hardcore war went down, with markers against markers and letters against letters. You think war is always shooting and beating everybody up, but no, we had the letters fight for us.
"All my art and all my teachings are about Gothic Futurism," he
continued, "and the knowledge of how a letter aerodynamically
changes into a tank. I tell people, phonetic value does not apply
to any letter's structure because the sound is made by the bone
structure of the human species, which has nothing to do with the
integer structure quality. The letter is an integer. Chinese
letters are carbonetic, but ours are siliconic. Arabic symbols are
disease – cultural chemical symbols. They cannot be armoured. They
cannot be made Ikonoklast. They cannot be made into a vehicle in
motion. Silicon based symbols can be moved forward and have no
phonetic value. What they're saying in Arabic equals the structure
of the symbol. What we're saying does not equal structure, but the
difference in values between silicon and carbon."
HipHop evolved in a war zone within a society in love with its own firepower. The culture of Writing reflects the context and the pent-up aggression of its alienated, disenfranchised urban soldiers. "Our symbols could be armoured because this culture has military power," he says now. "Our generation's poverty and despondency made us turn a letter into a missile. Whereas the Japanese were more spiritual, they were 'peace peace peace' after they had a bomb dropped on their ass. The first act of terrorism was America dropping the bomb on Hiroshima."
Furthermore, he persists, "The letter appeared from the first dimension. The first dimension has total power over everything because it is total electromagnetic energy. It is an integer by itself. No one controls the alpha-beta. If you drop the [last] 'a', it becomes alphabet. That's what they did, but is it total control or is that foolish control? Bigotry and the rest of that bullshit."
On Rammellzee's Website, you can download a formal paper expanding on these thoughts entitled "Iconic Treatise On Gothic Futurism". In a document strictly for the hardcore enthusiast with some basic gleaning of theoretical physics, Ramm lays out in great detail the knowledge and power he believes reside within the 26 structures of the alpha-beta, from A to Z. Although Ramm never calls a spade a spade or the white man the devil, at times you can feel his Afrocentricity seeping through his quantum intellect.
"There's a point where people will steal the idea of the ratio envelope, the number and the letter, combine it together and say since we own this, we own you," he says. "Numbers were stolen from India, brought up to the Arabic countries and they sabotaged it then. Zero was stolen from the Mayan Indians. We have this government that doesn't want you to remember alphabeta, they want you to remember the alphabet. We're not going to speak their bullshit anymore. We want our own sound for the letter now. We want you to take the letter, put it in the computer and find the sound that emanates from that integer which is called the aura of the letter. Do that and you get ultrasonics. Ultrasonic sound wars is what they're going to have soon. I'll probably be the first one to do it. I just finished building a tank that shoots ultrasonic sound – it's called a Weather Note. It's a metropostasizer. It controls the atmosphere. It also acts like a sundial, points out the cloud projections, then shoots the cloud. Disintegration of clouds comes from radioactivity. Microwave that shit and it puts out a sound burst that's too thick for the atmosphere. Depending on whether or not it's an iodine cloud, you reverse the polarity of that shit. Ultrasonics, instead of going at high frequency, goes at a high hum. And it gets trapped by heat and auto-emissions. It's similiar to making a tornado."
Before dismissing Ramm's verbal confections as the quasi-fascist fantasies of a robot fetishist, take note of a project of the US Department of Defence known as High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), based in Alaska. Its main installation consists of 360 72-foot antennae spread over four acres and fuelled by a rich reservoir of natural gas. HAARP's antenna towers are designed to beam radiowave radiation into the ionosphere, creating a charged particle build-up that can be directed towards specific targets on Earth. The disruptive electromagnetic pulse created by atomic explosions can now be accomplished with the music of the heavens. It is to the world of sound what nuclear bomb technology is to the atom.
At least 12 military/corporate patents have derived from HAARP research to date. US Patent #4686 605, held by HAARP scientist Bernard Eastlund, describes "Method and Apparatus for altering a region in the earth's atmosphere, Ionosphere and/or Magnetosphere". HAARP technology has diverse weaponry uses – surveillance imaging, deep sea submarine communications, guided missile communications interference and, most alarmingly, human behaviour. According to geophysicist and US military advisor Gordon JF MacDonald, "Accurately timed artificially excited electronic strokes could lead to a pattern of oscillations that produce relatively high power levels over certain regions of the Earth. In this way one could develop a system that would seriously impair the brain performance of very large populations in selected regions over an extended period." By MacDonald's reckoning, "The key to geophysical warfare is the identification of environmental instabilities to which the addition of a small amount of energy would release vastly greater amounts of energy." The US Air Force, which oversees HAARP, says, "Electromagnetic systems would be used to produce mild to severe physiological disruption or perceptual distortion or disorientation. In addition, the ability of individuals to function could be degraded to the point where they would be combat-ineffective. Another advantage of these systems is that they can provide coverage over large areas with a single system. They are silent and countermeasures may be difficult to develop. One last area where electromagnetic radiation may prove of some value is in enhancing abilities of individuals for anomalous phenomena." Suddenly Ramm's symbolic sound-war machines don't seem so far-fetched. If the government is out to play us with HAARP, Ramm's ideas beg that we at least prepare certain conceptual countermeasures. For all his anti-Christian warp and woof, gravel and guff, he ultimately reveals himself to be a utopian.
"We're advanced in terms of science and technology," he says, "but the attitude of the population is still Gothic. We still do not know what we're doing. We still do not know how to leave this planet the right way. We'll bring religion out into space and it'll be stopped. Because in the 1400s the word religion was restriction on a legion. Gothic is the architecture of the letter that was lost back in the 14th century. You can have four alternatives to human nature – genocide, plain old socialism like bees and ants have, love and dictatorship, which is what we have now, or you can have a lot of high powered mega-structured knowledge where everything becomes not a socialistic bee-type state but a militant state with megastructures. That's the way it should be – mass thinking, mass brain power as one."