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  Rammellzee  (1960 - 2010)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: graffiti painting, sculpture, costumes and masks

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Ikonoklast Panzerism Mettropposttersizer, 1984
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following obituary is from The New York Times, July 1, 2010

Rammellzee, Hip=Hop and Graffiti Pioneer, Dies at 40,
by Randy Kennedy

Rammellzee, an early graffiti writer, hip-hop pioneer and performance artist whose style influenced the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, died on Sunday in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he grew up.  He was 49 and lived in Battery Park City in Manhattan.

He died after a long illness, said his wife, Carmela Zagari Rammellzee.

Rammellzee first became known in graffiti circles in the late 1970s for hitting the A train and other lines around Queens with his signature spiky lettering.  He appeared in one of the most important graffiti and hip-hop films, Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style.  In 1983 his on-again-off-again friend, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, was involved in the production of "Beat Bop," a 12-inch single by Rammellzee and K-Rob that became one of Rammellzee's best-known performances and is widely considered a hip-hop touchstone; Basquiat also illustrated the record's cover.  The song plays over the closing credits in Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver's graffiti documentary, Style Wars.

Rammellzee was an elusive, self-mythologizing figure who was rarely photographed without wearing one of his elaborate science-fiction-inspired masks and costumes, which he made along with the sculpture and paintings that became the mainstays of his career in later years.

He cast himself as an urban philosopher whose overarching theory, which he called Gothic Futurism, posited that graffiti writers were trying to liberate the mystical power of letters from the strictures of modern alphabetical standardization and that they had inherited this mission from medieval monks. (Some historians of early graffiti, like Hugo Martinez, contend that Rammellzee exaggerated his role in pursuing this mission and that he was little involved in subway or street painting.) Mr. Ahearn, who met him in the early 1980s, called Rammellzee "an extremely charming person and very lovable."

"But he didn't separate his fantastic work from his life," Mr. Ahearn said. "So when he spoke to you, he often spoke in character, and that could sometimes be upsetting."

He legally changed his name to Rammellzee ? which he described as not a name but a mathematical equation ? when he was younger, Mr. Ahearn said.  As to the name he was born with, Mr. Ahearn said that he knew it but would keep it to himself, as his friend would have wanted.  Ms. Zagari Rammellzee likewise declined to reveal it: "It is not to be told. That is forbidden."

Besides his wife, Rammellzee is survived by his mother, a brother and a stepsister, though he disliked divulging even such basic biographical information about himself. "He just ventured out on this planet in his own dimensions," Ms. Zagari Rammellzee said.

In 1984 he had a small part in the Jim Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise as a kind of deus ex machina, bearing a cash-stuffed envelope toward the end of the film. I n an interview in The Washington Post the year the movie came out, Mr. Jarmusch said he considered Rammellzee a mad, overlooked genius.

"He's the kind of guy you could talk to for 20 minutes and your whole life could change," he said. "If you could understand him."

The music blog described Rammellzee's work on Wednesday by saying, "Think Sugar Hill Gang meets Philip K. Dick."

For more than 20 years Rammellzee lived in a studio loft in TriBeCa that he called the Battle Station, where the walls and ceiling were virtually encrusted with his sculpture and other artwork, including toylike wheeled versions of letters that appeared to be armored and able to fly into combat.

The critic Greg Tate once wrote that Rammellzee's "formulations on the juncture between black and Western sign systems make the extrapolations" of academics like Houston A. Baker Jr. and Henry Louis Gates Jr. "seem elementary by comparison." In an interview with Mr. Tate, Rammellzee said he counted among his cultural forerunners Sun Ra and George Clinton, along with AC/DC, the Hells Angels and Gene Simmons of Kiss.

His nasal, half-comic vocal style, which became known as gangsta duck, was widely imitated during the early years of rap. In 2003 he performed at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan with Death Comet Crew, a group with which he collaborated frequently in the early years, and in 2004 he released "Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee," his first full-length record.

Ms. Zagari Rammellzee said his illness had slowed him down over the last few years and prevented him from pursuing a prodigious list of ideas. But she added that he never viewed death as an end, only a change in forms.

"His energy has just gone out to the Van Allen Belt, I'm sure," she said, "and pretty soon it's going to come back to us again."

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