Sunday, October 13, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 016: Rammellzee vs. K-Rob - "Beat Bop"

Rammellzee vs. K-Rob - "Beat Bop" (Tartown, 1983)
“Beat Bop” was originally going to be the eighth entry in this series, but I’ve been putting it off for months. It is for my money the best song of the first five year period of hip-hop as a recorded art form, before Run-D.M.C. landed with “Sucker M.C.’s” and changed the entire sound of the genre overnight. In spite of its acclaim, it is still criminally slept on. In fact Rammellzee, as a rapper, producer, and graffiti artist, and post-modern multimedia art titan, is criminally slept on by all but the most dedicated hip-hop heads and gallery dwellers. Writing about “Beat Bop” is a no-brainer.

Yet trying to do Rammellzee and “Beat Bop” justice is a daunting task. “Beat Bop” is a ten minute epic that justifies its length and feels much shorter, rendering the early hip-hop avant-garde at its most accessible. Rammellzee himself was a notoriously mysterious and oblique figure, and K-Rob has nearly been lost to history like so many of his generation of hip-hop. What’s more, Jean-Michel Basquiat is credited as the producer of the song, and his art graces the cover of the original promo-only vinyl pressing of the song that was released by Tartown, but his actual involvement in the recording has long been a point of contention.

Go way back to 1960, in Far Rockaway, Queens, and you’ll find the birth of an interstellar being masquerading as human. Cut to twenty-two years later, and you’ll find this being operating under the name Rammellzee and rapping in the closing scene of the movie Wild Style. Beyond the movie, he was making his rep as a graffiti artist and ingratiating himself with the downtown art community in the company of Fab 5 Freddy. Rammellzee’s group of harsh electro rap masters, the Death Comet Crew, began recording its first songs that same year, although the first of these songs were held back until 1986 and most didn’t see release until 2004.

Rammellzee was hanging out in the right circles downtown so it was only a matter of time before he ran into Jean-Michel Basquiat. As far as bringing graffiti to the galleries was concerned, Basquiat was indisputably the guy. Pretty much all of the artists in that scene weren’t considered to be doing their job if they were only doing one thing. A musician also had to act and sculpt. A painter had to have a side gig in a band. Basquiat was just as versatile as the rest, starring in the great but mostly forgotten film Downtown ’81 and performing as part of the avant-grade electronic outfit Gray (whose music was featured prominently in Downtown ’81). His association with Fab 5 Freddy put him in touch with Rammellzee around 1983, and the two quickly developed a competitive relationship.

Both Rammellzee and Basquiat argued that they were the better rapper and artist, and to settle the case on the former Basquiat agreed to put up the money for studio time as his paintings were already fetching five and six figure prices in galleries around the city. Rammellzee brought in K-Rob, a fifteen year old kid who had been building a rep at block parties as one of the best rappers out. Together Rammellzee and K-Rob laughed Basquiat out of the booth (his rhymes were apparently nowhere near up to par) and took on the respective roles of pimp and street kid for their ten minute back-and-forth epic.

Rammellzee claimed in a 2008 that he and K-Rob were just having fun with the recording, and the loose vibe that dominates the entire song is one of its best qualities. Though they had never met before they stepped into the studio that day, both rappers were on the same page immediately, working easily with one vision for “Beat Bop.” K-Rob is in full “The Message” mode, rapping about what he was seeing around him on a daily basis in New York City and making it clear that he was one of the best rappers of the eighties whose career never really went anywhere. Meanwhile, Rammellzee quickly gets too out there for the pimp character he was supposed to be playing, setting the stage for every abstract rapper the followed in his wake.

The beat, which is credited to Basquiat, was actually edited together from live instrumentation by Rammellzee (Basquiat got the production credit for ponying up the cash). Basquiat brought in one of his friends, Al Diaz, to play most of the instruments, including the funkier-than-hell bass line that drives the track. By acting as an anchor, the bass leaves room for the percussion to do much more than keep the beat, and the ever-shifting rhythms keep things fresh for the whole ten minutes. Violin, guitar, and a bunch of other sounds drift in and out of the mix, and heavy reverb is applied haphazardly to the vocals. The results are psychedelic in a way that no one in hip hop had ever achieved up to this point.

After paying for the studio session, Basquiat ordered a run of five hundred copies of “Beat Bop” with the vocal version on the a-side and the instrumental on the flip. He individually screen printed all of the covers, and he and Fab 5 Freddy began getting the record into the hands of tastemakers around the city. Madonna and David Bowie became noted fans after Freddy handed them copies. People who were already close with Basquiat, including Debbie Harry, also got into “Beat Bop,” but Basquiat also made the shady choice of selling the rights to the song to Profile Records who in turn refused to pay Rammellzee and K-Rob anything. Those five hundred original Tartown copies are now the most valuable rap records in the collections of anyone lucky enough to own one, and the song’s influence has become far reaching. B-Real of Cypress Hill adopted his nasally voice after becoming enamored with Rammellzee’s character Barshaw Gangstarr, the Dragon Duck, who is featured prominently on the song. The Beastie Boys also credit the song with inspiring their adventurous approach toward busting the genre’s conventions, not to mention getting the name of their song “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak” from one of Rammellzee’s lyrics. And although it has never been confirmed, it seems like a bit too much of a coincidence that Def Jam Records was founded just one year after the hippest rap song of 1983 had the first use of the words “def jam” on record.

K-Rob released two great solo singles after “Beat Bop”: “The Day K-Rob Came Back” in 1985 and “I’m a Homeboy” in 1986. Rammellzee’s influence is palpable on both songs, and he worked well with the new drum machine focused post-Def Jam sound, but he converted to Islam and left the music industry soon after. Rammellzee moved on from the Death Comet Crew to the Gettovetts, who put out the great if slightly uneven rap/electro/rock fusion record Missionaries Moving on 4th & Broadway in 1988. After the Gettovetts record, Rammellzee focused on his painting and sculpture for fifteen years before returning with two solo records fifteen years later. This is What You Made Me (2003) and Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee (2004) aren’t great, and the yelling that he favored over his more pliably funky flow from the “Beat Bop” days does a lot to drag the records down, but they both show that he never wavered from his musical convictions regardless of where the rest of hip-hop was going.

The most exciting part of Bi-Conicals is the second song, “The Rammellzee vs. K-Rob: Beat Bop Part 2.” K-Rob hadn’t lost a step during his nearly two decade retirement, and Rammellzee tones down his late period vocal delivery to fit what is a fairly standard early 2000s boom bap beat. It is nothing revolutionary, but it’s a fitting reunion for the two old collaborators.

The Gothic Futurist Rammellzee moved on to another dimension in 2010. K-Rob still resides in New York City.

Here is the “Beat Bop” page of Ed Piskor’s amazing semi-weekly webcomic Hip Hop Family Tree. You can check out the rest of the Family Tree here. Fantagraphics will be releasing the first collected edition of Hip Hop Family Tree on November 16, and you can preorder that here.

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Shadowz in Da Dark
Asia Born
Mystik Journeymen
L Da Headtoucha
Big Twan
Cashless Society
Black Attack
Pop Da Brown Hornet
99th Demention

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