Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cosmic thing

I recently caught the (8 year old) Nick Broomfield doc Biggie and Tupac and while Broomfield employed his trademark schtick throughout the film (i.e. saying very little so that his interviewees fill the void and inadvertently say more than they planned; acting slightly dumber than he really is, to the same end; and filming at all times rather than setting up shots, again in the hopes of catching interviewees off-guard), his conclusion that the obnoxious Suge Knight of Death Row Records was behind the killing of the equally obnoxious Tupac Shakur overlooks one obvious and fundamental flaw-- if Knight had indeed ordered the hit on his major cash cow, why was he stupid enough to place himself alongside his intended victim in a car in Las Vegas?

The entire unsavoury business stands in marked contrast to the conditions that gave birth to hip hop some 18 years earlier. While it’s an old story, told often, it’s worth remembering that the genre was initially a way for impoverished New Yorkers to transcend the mundane and petty realities of gang activity, and offered a form of escapism. Science-fiction, video game and comic imagery abounded, and hip-hop took its aesthetic cues from the earlier cosmic templates laid down by George Clinton—just think of Afrika Bambaataa’s cosmic shaman outfits, Newcleus’s interplanetary jams, and the Jonzun Crew’s spacey beats.

Perhaps the most out-there figure in early hip-hop was Rammelzee (aka Ramm Ell Zee), who has recently passed away (peacefully, through ilness) at the age of 49. A maverick figure, with his permanently-attached ski-goggles and Transformers-via-Oxfam garb, he existed on the fringes of avant-garde hip hop for over 25 years and left behind a small but perfectly-formed body of work. His early graffiti work led to a friendship (or rivalry) with Jean-Michel Basquiat who produced (and provided the artwork for) Ramm’s first foray into vinyl, the hallucinatory and unsettling Beat Bop with the mysterious K-Rob. Later occasional work with Bill Laswell and the Death Comet Crew (featuring Ike Yard’s Stuart Argabright, who went on to produce Rammellzee’s debut solo album, some 21 years after Beat Bop) kept Ramm's reputation alive, but the sporadic nature of his recorded output and his insistence on cleaving to his own personal iconography of letterforms, cosmological signs, quantum mechanics and, frankly, utter gibberish, served to keep him a marginal figure in a hip-hop mainstream more interested in Cristal, bling and bitches. A shame really, as footage of his work (below) shows that in a parallel universe, hip hop could have developed further along this path rather than the one its protaganists chose to take, and been more about ideas and Philip K. Dick than about materialism and dick with a small d.

Download Hisstory by Material and Ramm Ell Zee (mp3) (deleted Jan 2011)

Ramm Ell Zee personal site

A definitive interview by The Wire

Obituary from LA Times

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