July 9, 2010
(Image: Urb magazine, 1993—my first feature.)
Q: Are you going to see the new Transformers movie?
I bought “Beat Bop” while on a family Christmas trip in 1983. I was 14. Having lost my parents to Macy’s, I escaped to a nearby record store (which may have been Rock & Soul) and blew my Christmas shopping money on 12 inches. A guy who kind of resembled the manager of the First Avenue club in Purple Rain (“What’s this one-song shit!“) recommended five records: “Fresh” by Fresh 3 MC’s, “Rock the House” by the B-Boys, “Death Mix” by Afrika Bambaataa, “Bad Times” by Capt Rapp (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), and “Beat Bop,” which was credited to Rammellzee Vs. K-Rob.
I’d never heard of a song being by something vs. someone. The conflicted verses. Many questions. Who was making with the freak-freak? Rodeo big duck? What’s a Rammellzee? Why is his pinky nail so long? Who’s driving this German tank?
In eighth grade, my asthmatic friend would recite all the jabberwocky of “Beat Bop,” occasionally hitting his inhaler while quacking around in his green Sergio Tacchini flip-flops.
I first met Rammellzee when I was in town for the New Music Seminar in 1993. I was with Randolph Heard, a former copy editor for Hustler, then working for a Larry Flynt hip-hop magazine called Rappages. En route to Rammellzee’s Battle Station, we stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Randolph talked about the giant chicken statue in Flynt’s basement. And then something about Ultramagnetic MC’s first visit to the Rappages office, all of them dressed for summer, save for Kool Keith, who had arctic mirrors welded to his bald head—the rest of him furred up, as if he’d just mugged a dogsled.
When the elevators opened into the office, the Four Horsemen just stood there.
The Yeti hunter said, “Enter the spaceship.”
I loved that story so much I accidentally tossed my wallet in the KFC trash with the nugget tray. It kind of turned into a thing, with my arm half-eaten by the Thank You flap, and the guy behind the register, mildly entertained, as if watching some grisly zoo accident. The Garbage Gods were watching.
The rest of the day’s events are accounted for in the book. Men from Zurich challenged Rammel to a transversal alphabet drag race using letters on zip wires.
I remember the fumes.
I remember meeting Rip Cord Rex, a character with nitrous tube eyebrows and a spare tape deck that cushioned ejected from his brain. (Alyssa Milano’s hair clip had been borrowed for the teeth.) Rammellzee once showed me a Polaroid of Rip Cord Rex wielding a leaf-blower under a strobe light. He was wearing a kimono. I was then told that Rip Cord Rex liked to steal engines. (This recalled a Sesame Street episode in which Cookie Monster and his jiggling eyeballs drove a stolen steam engine through a game show.) Not surprisingly, Rammel had a miniature toy train with Cookie Monster, the engineer, leaning his blue head out of the window.
That’s how things worked around the Battle Station.
You talk into electric fans, eat bad mushrooms (duds) and put on a 47-pound Jules Verne helmet that seemed to be missing its Krakken. The helmet was welded together by the Morse Diving Company in 1923. I thought I was going to fall through the floor.
You realize it’s best to not try on the masks.
You’re told that this guy is an equation and are reminded of a Peanuts character named 5.
You hear about dentistry, epoxies, oil rig fissures, deep sea decompression, and rescuing baloney-sandwich idiots from the rip tide.
You remember the time you got carsick in back of your mother’s Buick wagon, and how the electronic tailgate got lockjaw.
You learn about the Mettroposttersizer, a planet smasher that triggers “the Wizard’s Game of Pool,” leaving the solar system in a molten state and putting a black eye in the sun. Also known as “a good reason to drink beer.” Sometimes referred to as: “Might be a good time to leave.”
Not so fast.
You listen to a 1984 recording of Rammel and Phase 2 on the vocoder in a basement in Vienna, and notice that Led Zeppelin (“Dazed and Confused”) and Royalcash (“Radioactivity”) have bled through from the other side.
You get sozzled.
You consider things like Word is born is term is time is period is punctuation is ending, and hope your editor saves you from yourself.
You are given a plaster dimetrodon and are told it is part of the letter A.
You are told not to be a scallywag, boss, yet find yourself impaled on a phrase, again.
You have no idea what’s going on, but just go with it, with the understanding that it may not bring you back in one piece, if ever, but if you worry about such things, then you’re probably in the wrong place.
You then leave the Battle Station and make sure the city is still there and that the sky hasn’t gone crooked and is still happy to see you.
I remember Rammellzee growling at me, “When you start thinking too hard, the culture dies.”
Later that afternoon, I stood in a park at the Zulu Nation Anniversary, thinking too hard, watching O.C. do “Time’s Up” in a downpour.
According to Ralph Miller, a retired phonetic engineer at Bell Labs, the letter z is a noise, not a sound.
Of Friends at the Institute
I used to proofread Product Inserts for a pharmaceutical company out in Zebulon, N.C., allegedly near Terminator X’s ostrich farm. One day I received a handwritten fax and a question: “Can science achieve a unified theory of complex systems, permanently skeptical of friends at the institute?”
This was followed by four pages of rhymes about “self-replicating lightning” and “truly complex amoebic bond traders, appearing at the border.” There was no cover sheet, but according to the name at the top of the page, it had been sent by the Emperor General.
Emperor General was Sir Menelik was Scaramanga was Chewbacca Uncircumcised (?), a rapper from Brooklyn who made a few appearances with Kool Keith on Dr. Octagon. Keith once called me collect from a pay phone near LAX, on Valentine’s Day. It was after 3:00 a.m., North Carolina time. I accepted the charges.
I once introduced Menelik to Zee, thinking, well, you know.
Eat A Planet
Last year, I sustained a severe neck injury while trying to finish the Rammellzee chapter—and the book—on my 40th birthday. A terrible idea. Trying to invent a chapter title wasn’t much easier. Rammell suggested “Death of a Monk.” I went with something less terminal: “Eat a Planet and Go On to the Next One.”
He shook his head. “And now we both raise our eyebrows together.”
I reminded him that those were his words, his math. His teeth. He’d said it after telling a story about how he once vibrated his diaphragm too hard when using the vocoder. It made him upchuck his contents under pressure.
He blamed McDonald’s, the planet, and of course, the word whatever.
“Garbage up! Garbage out!”
And with that Rammellzee said, “Time for beer!” and rolled back and executed a crooked reverse somersault from the edge of his bed, aimed in the vague direction of the kitchen, his surf footie akimbo, and Rammellzee himself, hitting the floor, with grace, right on the word beer.
So long, Rammellzee.
I will miss our annual Halloween phone calls.
“I have to go back underwater. We’re turning buildings into spaceships and we’re not telling you.”