Before MF Doom, before Electromagnetic MCs, alongside the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York City street artist Rammellzee became an urban legend and a folk hero among the city’s art and nascent hip-hop scenes in the late 1970s, but he may not be as well known outside the Big Apple. That’s about to change, as the iconoclastic, over-the-top creator, sculptor, and wannabe rapper is now the subject of a Red Bull Arts exhibition, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder, as part of Red Bull Music Festival New York. The exhibition is accompanied by a nine-minute documentary film written and directed by Oscar Boyson and produced by the Safdie Bros’ film studio Elara Pictures about the unusual character, which you can watch above.
The documentary features interviews with many of Rammellzee’s New York art scene contemporaries and critics, as well as anecdotes about his outlandish costumed identities, his elaborate trash sculptures, and his inspired street art and graffiti. It also contains “Beat Bop,” Rammellzee’s foray into the world of music-making, which turns out to be as prescient as it is eccentric. Predating the modern digital age of rap, where the use of multiple voices, personas, and distorted vocals is as commonplace as 808s, “Beat Bop” was considered too unorthodox for its time, but sounds like it could have been made yesterday. Even his costumes are still inspiring artists today — just check out Fergie’s “Like It Ain’t Nothin‘” video from last year featuring a familiar-looking, pop-locking trash-bot.
Produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat and featuring cover art from the same, the track is a hip-hop rarity from the culture’s beginnings and worth checking out the documentary for by itself. It’s often been cited as influence to any number of early New York rappers including the Beastie Boys and has been referred to as “the Holy Grail of rap records.”
The Red Bull Music Festival New York also included lectures and discussions with some of the music business’ biggest names as well as shows highlighting bubbling subcultures in music, from reggaeton to female-fronted rap shows.