Period Piece: Rammellzee and the End


Arts & Culture

Gash-o-lear, 1989–98, mixed-media sculpture with wireless sound system, keyboard gun, pyrotechnic jawbreaker, and missile launcher, approx. 7'. Courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company, New York

In January 1940, a German double agent warned the FBI, “Watch out for the dots! Lots and lots of little dots.” During World War II, German Abwehr agents used microphotography to reduce classified military documents down to a dot, entrusting the period with sensitive intelligence such as tank specs and bomb sites, as well as meeting coordinates, a time and a place. Administered to the page by syringe, the dot traveled under the guise of punctuation and was then enlarged by its recipient—blown up in a world that would ultimately be reduced to rubble. The end of the line harbored secrets.

To an aerosol artist like Rammellzee, this would be the last stop on the A train in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he sprayed his first tag back in the late seventies. The letters—EG—stood for “Evolution Griller.” I once shared the dot’s steganographic past with this Queens-born rapper/letter engineer, a man once described as “micro” for his detailing of subway cars and history. Rammellzee had no time for punctuation, but all night for talking military engineering, tanks, dentistry, deep-sea bends, gangster ducks, and loaded symbols. Hunched over a beer inside the Battle Station, his Tribeca loft, he asked if I was with the Defense Department and grumbled, “Too much information in the room is not good policy.” Under his baleful watch, the only time a sentence called for a period was when declaring the end of an era. With Rammellzee, a single thought—often concerning the welfare of the alphabet—might span centuries: from Visigoth invasions to Panzer battalions to a subway tunnel beneath an African slave cemetery to a band from Buffalo called Robot Has Werewolf Hand. All between a burp and a nod, from a polymath who referred to himself as an equation.

Admittedly, I’d never had a beer with an equation before, much less listened to Black Sabbath while said equation discusses Grimm’s law and ponders unsolved bong busters like, Which came first, the word or the void? (A conversation between Rammellzee and critic Edit deAk in a 1983 issue of Artforum reveals some great moments of idiomatic ridicule: “I want to know what’s what’s what’s what and what’s what!”) As was often the case at the Battle Station, you had no idea what was going on but just went with it, with the understanding that it may not bring you back in one piece, and if you worry about such things, you’re in the wrong spot.

A good place to begin, from a relatively safe distance, would be one of hip-hop’s greatest, if not weirdly interminable, twelve-inch singles. Produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat and released in 1983, “Beat Bop” was intended to be a conversation between Rammellzee and Bronx rapper K-Rob, a demented after-school special of sorts, concerning a kid and a pimp—one heading home, the other, out of his mind by way of his nose, in five different voices (Rammellzee called this sinus modification “nasal passaging”). By the 10:10 mark, when the needle finally drifts off, you realize that “Beat Bop” has no intention of ever really stopping; their rapping merely fades, as if taking this quacked madness somewhere else, for all perpetuity, leaving us behind in its dusted dust and reverb.

RAMM-ELL-ZEE, 1984. Photo by Arno Vriends. Courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company, New York

Rammellzee has been called a “vampire eating a bacon double cheeseburger.” An enigmatic presence in New York’s downtown art scene, he wasn’t just another crazy guy with three pairs of Geordi La Forge glasses perched on his very busy skull. He imagined train cars linking different phrases, a sort of “Conjunction Junction” on aerosol fumes. He sharpened graffiti’s Wild Style letter-arrows into barbs and harpoons, a defense mechanism (he called it “armamentation”) against other subway writers and the control-freakish tendencies of language itself, which Rammellzee traces to bubonic plague–era archbishops attempting to dunce the peasantry. After Mayor Ed Koch acid-washed the subways in the early eighties, Rammellzee turned to other methods for keeping the letter in motion: aeronautic skateboards. Mounted on four wheels, the letters were fashioned from curbside toys and chucked costume jewelry, another take on hip-hop’s something-from-nothing. Immersed in resins, epoxies, and glue, he seemed to be waging a one-man war against the ozone layer. Then came the masks and the characters to inhabit them, making it nearly impossible to separate the man from the morphology. Rammellzee didn’t just flip the script, he dropped an atomic elbow on it.

Sadly, being timeless does not equal immortality. When he passed away two summers ago at the age of forty-nine—due to accumulative ingestion of toxic particulates and alcohol—Rammellzee left us with plenty to puzzle over. His Gold Letter Racers, currently up at MoMA, are piloted by twenty-six dinosaurs and dolls, in alternate boy-girl order, all forward-facing, head to tail, each a contorted letter formed from pieces of wood. The Z is most legible, oddly enough, at least to the average Times New Romaner. Its head is also the only one turning outward and making eye contact with us, as if saying, So long, suckers!—while zipping on by.

View of "Rammellzee: The Equation," 2012. Photo: Matthu Placek, Courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company, New York.

Two other alphabets are arrayed in full fleet at the Suzanne Geiss Gallery. This marks their first New York trip outside the Battle Station after stealing the show at MoCA’s street-art exhibition in Los Angeles last summer. They are Ramm’s contributions to urban beautification, along with paint-bombing subways and his own trash-removal service. Suspended from the ceiling, his Letter Racers hover just above scalp level, so that you have to look up, or out, as the case may be. Together, these battleships form a giant arrow pointing toward the entrance/your head, just in time to greet the solar flare that was scheduled to disrupt Earth the night the show opened. (Ramm once told me he was waiting for a “master blaster cloud” from the galaxy Andromeda, but sun-charged particles at four million miles per hour will have to suffice for now. One can’t be picky with their cosmic arrivals.)

Playing along in the background is a loop of Rammellzee tracks. On “Lecture,” he talks about monks using a voice that shoots lasers through the catacombs and about the concept  “Ikonoklast Panzerism,” in which the letter becomes an armored tank, a “symbol destroyer,” protecting itself from abuses of its power. According to Spread Spectrum Communications, a “primitive laser” for transmitting human speech was discovered in a Panzer tank after General Erwin Rommel’s capture. This often happens: Rammellzee manages to appear in places where he isn’t. Or wasn’t. Did he die or merely just relocate? No need to go looking too hard. He’ll find you on his own.

The self-proclaimed “Garbage God” also haunts A Canticle for Leibowitz, a cold war science-fiction classic by Walter M. Miller Jr. In the nuclear aftermath of 3124, monks in Utah attempt to reconstruct a bygone cipher. “We are the centuries,” wrote Miller. “We are the chin-choppers and the golly-whoppers. We are your singing garbage men … chanting rhymes that some think odd.”

“To wipe out a language and make a new one is hard work,” Rammellzee once told me, referring to his manifesto “Gothic Futurism,” in which the alphabet revolts against being institutionalized, locked into the system that is magnetized to our fridge doors. “The hours are long. The idea is to read this stuff, for humans to have something to read, not just blow them away. We have our history. We know what we’ve done to ourselves. Now we want to know how much time we have so we can make sure we can live past ourselves. You have to know we built these words, monks, church, whatever you want to deal with … Fear is math and it goes further and further and faster and faster. Man drinks for a reason, word.”

Rammellzee often ended his statements with word, a blunt object of punctuation, a means to the end. The dot becomes a period and so also a time, a term, and finally a word, subdefining itself into oblivion. “Wordplay is a gamble,” Rammellzee would warn me. “I will make sure everything counts.” E-mailing me in a font so brightly pink as to be nearly unreadable, Bootsy Collins wrote, “Rammellzee is on purpose. He is a speck of magic galaxy dust from another time.” Or a period, if you must. The end of an era is merely the tip of the arrow. Resistance is futile.

The last time I saw Rammellzee alive, the terms were not so good. He’d since been ousted from the Battle Station and was living with his wife, Carmela Zagari, in Battery Park City. To get there, you followed the perimeter of Ground Zero and found yourself in a building whose tenants include various upper brass from the NYPD. Rammellzee went from having the First Precinct as a neighbor to being able to plunder the commissioner’s trash. That day we toured the residential garbage bins (a private collection), and then snuck out the back door to a local bar to requisition a Crown Royal cap for one of his racers. Several unserious beers later, we’re back in his lobby. He told me to wait—he had to run up and get something. I watched him board the elevator, looming behind heavily powdered women with their expensive purse dogs, a cloud of fume and fuss. An acrylic doo-rag on his head, his sneakers speckled with paint, the doors closing on his grin. He did not return. Maybe his goal to “assassinate infinity” was just another way of saying it was time to go. Maybe Rammellzee had reached his point.

Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback.