The following is part four of a series of interviews with key figures in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s downtown New York circle in the 1980s. The interviews were conducted in February by Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator Liz Munsell and writer and musician Greg Tate, who together curated the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” on view at the MFA through July 25. ARTnews has published all four interviews from the series this week.
In 1985 I was working as editor/creative director on a magazine project called B.Culture for Linda Bryant’s Just Above Midtown (JAM) Gallery. By that time Rammellzee and I had become well-acquainted after I wrote the Village Voice review of “Beat Bop,” his now legendary 1983 rap music collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, K-Rob and Al Diaz. Having just a few years earlier read the epic transcription writer Edit DeAk did with Ramm for Artforum, I knew his monologues about graf as interdimensional warfare were an apex of modern performance art and Black esthetic theory.
When told I was going to interview Ramm, my good friend, Warrington Hudlin, filmmaker-producer (‘House Party’) and director of the Black Filmmaker’s Foundation, asked to accompany me. Our encounter with Ramm took place in his loft studio/shrine, known as “The Battle Station” on Laight Street in Tribeca. I can’t recall if either of us posed an actual question to Ramm, but without much prompting he gave us a whirlwind two hour exegetic tour of his mind’s (and mouth’s) capacity to conjure complex theorems that blurred the lines between subway art, race and culture wars, diseased language, the illuminated calligraphy of 14th-century monks, and sculptural high-tech sonic weaponry.
Ramm changed the terms of engagement with respect to the conversation about graf or subway art by dismissing those terms and saying what we were looking at on the trains was symbolic warfare and in his forecasting art historical language was “Ikonoklast Panzerism” and “Gothic Futurism.” “Ikonoklast” means symbol destroyer and “Panzer” derived from the tanks the Nazis invented, which were crucial to their success in invading Poland and France.
“Gothic Futurism” also provocatively harkened back to the Futurists of early 20th-century modernity, an art movement identified with fascistic and militaristic inclinations. As Ramm’s thinking makes clear, he viewed subway art and hiphop as a total movement representing a multidisciplinary and racialized and working-class military campaign against capitalism, Western Civ 101, and white supremacy.
Ramm saw wildstyle train writing as reclaiming, through extreme abstraction, the integrity of the alphabet—mathematical symbols related to architecture and not literary tools—from the ‘biologically diseased culture and language manipulation ’ of Western civilization. Gothic Futurism connected the work done by b-boys and b-girls in the darkness of the train yards to the calligraphy of the 14th-century monks who wrote illuminated manuscripts for the Catholic Church—calligraphy that distorted the alphabet to the point of indecipherability.
Ramm believed the monks’ knowledge had been fast forwarded through space-time to his generation of Gothic Futurists who weaponized the trains by grafting their paintings onto them. Later, once his years on the trains were done, Ramm continued the war of hiphop generated symbol versus Western language symbol though performance in his technologically enhanced battle suits. —Greg Tate
View of the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” showing (center) a sculpture by Rammellzee.
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
RAMMELLZEE, as told to Gregory Tate and Warrington Hudlin:
I started doing trains when I was nine years old. I was part of United Graffiti Artists, along with everybody else. I was known as Stimulation Assassination: Tagmaster Killer. I owned the entire 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines. The letters, music notes and weather notes that were done down there reached a point where you didn’t need to kill a person. The piece 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 letter and it takes out that name. So, therefore, homeboy has no identity. Why should I kill him? Let him live: 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. That’s the only way to do it. 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?
I’m still at war. I’m still busting them out. I’ve still got my originals. What they have is called a Recision Hyper. I cut open a statement of graffiti, put in my word Ikonoklast Panzerism and sew it right back up. I’ve still got my art.
I’ve got nine different markets for Ikonoklast Panzerism: The Music Note, the Atomic Note, Weather Notes, Sign Overtures, Beat Boys, Badge of Steel, mathematics and the knowledge of the square ratio envelopes with pictures of what I look like onstage and what we do on the trains. Nine different markets and they can’t touch ’em. I overstructured them.
Jean-Michel is the one they told, you must draw it this way and call it black-man folk art, when it was really white-man folk art he was doing. That’s what he draws . . . white-man folk art. He does not draw black-man folk art, because they told him what to draw. He may sell enough to live well until he dies, but what they did was label him off as a product and now he’s their product. So he’s being prostituted constantly. And now they don’t like his work anymore because it’s folk art and folk art is dead. They are going back to the tradition of oil painting. They are finished with the Picasso extensions which is what Jean-Michel’s work is.
They called us graffiti but they wouldn’t call him graffiti. And he gets as close to it as the word means-scribble-scrabble. Unreadable. Crosses out words, doesn’t spell them right, doesn’t even write the damn thing right. He doesn’t even paint well. And to paint inaccurately is scribble scrabble. You don’t draw a building so that it will fall down, and that’s what he draws, broken-down imagery.
If it wasn’t for structure you’d fall apart. Things are falling apart now. That’s why the Gothic era has returned itself. We have jumped back three years as a culture now. The music just went back three years, the painting just went back three years. If you want to do that, why not go back 300 years and you’ll find people’s entire outlook is 300 years old. We’re advanced in terms of science and technology but the attitude of the population and the control 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 in 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. Supersonic jets were supposed to be made back in the 14th century. But we wanted to be human and base everything on human nature so we designed from the bird, when we could have designed off the triangle. With quantum physics you can use the triangle to get into the bird. They just dropped the nose down on the jet. Instead of doing that they could have had Delta wings, which is what they had 2000 years ago— Delta fighters. But nobody believes that anymore, do they?
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. Like what they’re doing to the World Trade Center now. In about 10 or 15 years it can be expanded to extend all the way uptown. That’s what it should be—mass thinking, mass brain power as one unit.
Beat Boys is extremely like an opera. It can only be collaborative if you do it as a war affair. The music behind Beat Boys is extremely violent. I have a drawing of a robot launching two turntables. When you hear the sound go vamp, that’s the laser disc shooting out. It becomes sunfire.
The dancing is dodging of missiles or rockets or anything like that. If you do it right, it becomes a dance. We didn’t bring it as far as a martial art because we were fighting as a style, and not as an embellishment of personality. We could have brought it to a martial art but they brought us up out of the subways and said don’t make it so violent please. So, they stopped it, backed it up, sent it back to being a love thing again. A thing which it never should have been. Word. B-Boy culture says the rough music starts first and then you go into love. No, it’s the other way around. We leave the girls and then we go and fight just like in any regular army.
Since I was five years old I have been doing works of war. And when you do works of war you have to know about textile science. That’s because it’s chemical warfare which is the last war you’ll see before they have Sound Wars.
Ultrasonic sound wars is what they’re going to have very soon. I’ll probably be the first one to do it.
Rammellzee: Gash-o-lear, 1989.
© Rammellzee Estate/Photo Lance Brewer/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
There’s a tank I just finished building in Italy that shoots ultrasonic sound. And this joint is $400,000 worth of weaponry. 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 just reverse the polarity of that shit. Ultrasonics, instead of going at a high frequency, goes at a high hum. And it gets trapped by heat and auto emissions. It’s similar to making a tornado. The faster you get and the more the ratio level goes up and everything starts gathering, the more you get a cloud that makes a sound. Not the wind being pushed around it, but the wind being pushed from within makes its own sound. Like the opposite is the eye of the hurricane. It makes no sound and everything around it does. It’s a clear day in that eye but hell all around.
People say I’m drawing sexual images as missiles. I say please. I can build this thing. If I’m shooting scum I want you to understand it’ll blow your house down. That’s a powerful type dick.
All my art and all my teachings are about Gothic Futurism, 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, nothing at all. The letter is an integer.
Chinese letters are carbonetic; but ours are siliconic. Arabic symbols are disease cultural chemical symbols. They cannot be armored. They cannot be Ikonoklast. They cannot be made into a vehicle in motion. I am the person who builds the weapons inside the war. Futura 2000 is a mapper further out in space looking down upon the war, writing the history as a map. Phase Two has the Carbon side of the war. I have the Silicon, and Futura is above magnifying that.
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. The letter appeared from the first dimension. We didn’t put it in the first dimension. The first dimension has total power over everything because it is total electromagnetic energy. That is an integer by itself. No one controls the alpha-beta. If you drop the ‘a’ it becomes ‘alphabet.’ That’s what they did but is that total control or is that foolish control? Bigotry and the rest of that bullshit?
There’s a point where people will steal the idea of the ratio envelope, the number and the letter, and combine it together and say, since we own this, we own you. 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 alpha-beta. They want you to remember 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 out the sound that emanates from that integer which is called the aura of the letter. Do that and you get ultrasonics. Then you won’t have no alpha-beta to speak. Then you have to find a letter that makes you work for it instead of the letter working for us because that’s tricknowledgy. The phonetic value is tricknowledgy because how you write double U over here and write two V’s as an integer, while in Europe you write two U’s and you’re writing double V? That’s total tricknowledgy. And it’s just because of segregation. They want to keep people in their place.
Society took us all out of the subways and told us to do canvases— their phonetic value, their tradition. After doing all of that work in the subways for eight or nine years you really don’t want to work for these people so they can just have everything and say we got it all so goodbye. What’re you gonna do, think you’re an artist? Then they want you to go back to school so you can learn how to paint the same old goddamn way? Go back to school? I am a school. I ain’t going back to that shit. No bet. I’m not going to go through their definition of pain and painting.
I got excluded from the Area club because they got the juice and they don’t need us anymore. They did it in the music just like in the art. So, what happens now is suffering and Gothic. Not knowing what’s going on and walking through the bushes.
I continue to call myself a Gothic Futurist. Gothic is the primitive architecture and futurism means mechanism. At least that’s what I read when I did read. Because I was always known for saying things before I read them and I cried later because I saw them. At a very young age I pulled words out that made me cry. Words that I thought I made up and then saw in a book. You are not supposed to come into an English class at an early age and the teacher sits you down and says you so bad, you teach. And you teach. I’ve given many a lecture that way. Rocked the entire English dictionary.
I said the letter Sigma would change after being bombarded by the aerodynamic structures of 10,000 of us in the subways over a ten-year period. That letter changed into tank because we bombarded it with a certain amount of aerodynamic knowledge in the dark. It changed into a Sigma where before it was an E. In the dark that letter moved aerodynamically and turned into a Greek letter again. Where did E go? It went into S except now that’s Summation Operator. Now summate the operation of convenience. That’s economics. Word. You listen to that and you think about it. Might make sense, might be total bullshit. You’ll find out, won’t you? But if it’s working out, don’t tell me. Might hurt my feelings. Might mean something to too many people and they might want to beat the shit out of me. They fucked Einstein’s ass up when they made that bomb. You can’t help it if science is that good and the damn fools want to make a weapon out of it.
Rammellzee: Super Robber, 1985.
Private collection/© Rammellzee Estate/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Einstein played the Wizard’s Game of Fool. It’s called Planet Collision. Extreme cosmic clash. His dice was math. He liked to roll numbers. He said you can do anything you want with the word around the letter. I said, very good sir, I did–Ikonoklast Panzerism. I made something you can’t speak anymore because it didn’t have a phonetic value in the first place. And you, Einstein, should have remembered that.
You know Japanese robots unfold and become trucks? Well, this was done on the trains. We know the Japanese got this from themselves, but we did it in the subways in the dark so I’d consider us to be more original than them.
I may be curating the outside of a museum wall in Tokyo. It’ll be two towers of Panzerism with lasers that shoot and go completely around this five-block building. I’ll have two or three tanks floating like a mobile about 20 feet of the wall. I asked for about a $15,000 budget. They were turning down people who were asking for millions. Compared to that, I’m cheap and I’ll probably do better work anyway. Because I know what they’d do. Put some sticks or some other bullshit up, charge $1,500 just for materials. Then say they want a million dollars. I say, you want to go for that when you could have this and have a good time. Because I’d stand up there, boy, dressed in one of the crazy-ass costumes and do one of the def-est muh-fuckin’ Gregorian chant. China-Japanese down. I call it insect music because they call me an insect. When I’m onstage they say I look like a hornet, because I have two doo-rags, swords and I’m very exo-skeletal looking. It sounds like the beating of wings.