In the book Hip Hop America, Nelson George tells a story about Lovebug Starski, an early ’80s hip-hopper in the midst of hyping his comeback album, circa 1995. Starski was demonstrating some of his new rhymes for George over beats from a boombox, and Method Man, who happened to be on the scene, hopped on the beat just after Lovebug. The way George tells it, Meth did it in the spirit of fun, just to get in on the cipher — but his mad-science style unintentionally served to demonstrate, for George and presumably for Starski, that Starski’s straightforward, old-school party flow had about a snowball’s chance in hell of appealing to a new generation of listeners. Hip-hop, George concludes, is changing at a rapid pace, constantly innovating and progressing — and is, therefore, a young man’s game. This is becoming less and less the case — LL Cool J is the quintessential example, with hits in three decades, and Busta Rhymes is in contention for Elder Statesman designation, while De La Soul continue to hold out. Careers in general have become longer as the once light-speed stylistic advance of the genre slows down to roughly Mach 6. Still, though, few if any of the very earliest hip-hop creators have produced relevant work since their heyday.
Rammellzee was easy to peg as the one to buck the trend. Now 44, Ram was a second-generation graffiti artist, studying at the feet of the legendary Dondi. When he recorded 1981’s visionary “Beat Bop” along with K-Rob and cover-artist (and possibly producer) Jean-Michel Basquiat, he gave the world not just one of the most collectible hip hop releases ever, but a blueprint for the apocalyptic, witty, and experimental aesthetic that was handed down through Schoolly D to current artists like Anti-Pop Consortium and El-P. He then went on to produce some of hip hop’s earliest and most relevant visual and sculptural art, including most famously a series of full-body suits of samurai-esque armor, constructed from urban detritus and representing the pantheon of figures in Ram’s elaborate Gothic Futurist mythology — itself a major achievement in the tradition of black Atlanteans like Sun Ra and George Clinton. If anyone could be expected to have something worthwhile to say after a near 20-year absence from recording, it would be this guy.
On Bi-Conicals, he proves conclusively that there is such a thing as timelessness even within the rabidly innovative confines of hip-hop. Unlike Busy Bee, Ram was so far ahead of his time on the first go-round that he’s still got a couple of laps on most rappers, so while the tones and inflections of the early ’80s linger, there’s little of the throwback to Bi-Conicals. He’s changed and even arguably updated his sound since the last time he recorded — his voice is considerably louder, angrier, and rougher around the edges 20 years on, and pitch-shifters and echoes are deployed to accentuate the emergent guttural frequencies on tracks like “Do We Have to Show a Resume?”. His famous Gangsta Duck style is particularly altered — once cited as inspiration for the high-pitched antics of both the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, the Duck that surfaces on “Cheesy Lipstick” is more demon than joker, like Donald on PCP. Occasionally you’ll miss the more understated Rammell of “Beat Bop” (and I definitely missed the “Get freaky, yeah baby / Jus’ freaky, yeah baby!”), but these aren’t steps back — just a more pointed, maybe even bolder take on the alienation that Ram’s sound was always about.
It’s an alienation he must feel even more now than in his youth. According to a recent profile in The Wire, Rammellzee has spent the last twenty years living in the same tiny apartment, constructing his art from junk, largely forgotten by the public. There is talk that he retains a grudge against Basquiat for stealing the hearts of the downtown crowd without ever having bombed a train. He considers himself a monk for art, and doesn’t necessarily rail against his relative obscurity — but it inevitably surfaces on Bi-Conicals, along with a more general increase in lyrical absurdity and pseudoscientific obscurity. “Resume” is probably the most directly personal track, as Ram confesses: “Money, the evil and root of all / They spoke of it, and then I denied me the full fame and glory . . . for I do not like money”.
Though it’s remarkable that Rammellzee still has a dope flow and fiery creativity all these years later, it’s downright astounding that he’s managed to hook up with a passel of producers who so effectively blend the raw immediacy of early-’80s downtown experimentalism with modern production prowess. With a profusion of electronic handclaps, over-phased robovocals, and precise but dirty electronic drums, this album wouldn’t have sounded entirely out of place had it been released by Def Jux. Some tracks go well beyond that template, such as the frantic, stop-start, James White-esque “POGO”, by Munk. There are occasional samples, as when K-Rob returns to the fold to freak a lighter, swinging cut that also appeared on Busdriver’s “Get on the Bus”, but even then the lighter, organic tone is specifically meant to contrast with Rammellzee’s rebuttals, which come over frantic, angular, stuttering smears of sound. I don’t know some of the producers’ names, but Stuart Argabright and his Death Comet Crew, who bring one track each, were among the Rammellzee’s best collaborators during his heyday, and produce some of the best stuff here, actually achieving the hard, dark edginess that Bill Laswell reached tentatively towards on Intonarumori.
With its wide-ranging evocation of a rabidly progressive ’80s-that-could-have-been, Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee would likely appeal to the Williamsburg crowd and their nationwide coattail-riders. But despite its electronic roots and occasional retro throwdown (“Pay the Rent” coulda dropped in ’84), it’s got far more in common with the punk-disco hospital of the Rapture et. al than the moribund electroclash infirmary. There’s real creativity here rather than simple kitsch-mining, and after a bit of adjustment you’ll quickly forget that Rammellzee is not some young turk out for his on a debut album — because he brings as much passion and innovation as any rapper half his age, and a fingerlick more than most.