Rammellzee, an early graffiti writer, hip-hop pioneer and performance artist whose style influenced the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, died Sunday in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he was raised. He lived in Battery Park City.
He was 49 and died after a long illness, said his wife, Carmela Zagari Rammellzee.
He became known in graffiti circles in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for hitting the A train and other lines around Queens with his spiky-lettered work. He appeared in one of the most important graffiti and hip-hop films, Charlie Ahearn’s “Wild Style.” In 1983 his on-again-off-again friend, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, helped produce and illustrated the record cover for “Beat Bop,” a 12-inch single by Rammellzee and K-Rob that became one of Rammellzee’s best-known performances and a hip-hop touchstone. It became the unofficial theme song for Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s graffiti documentary “Style Wars.”
He was an eccentric, outsize figure almost never photographed without wearing one of the elaborate science-fiction inspired masks and costumes that he made along with the sculpture and paintings that became the mainstays of his career in later years. He fashioned himself as an urban philosopher, whose overarching theory, which he called Gothic Futurism, posited that graffiti writers were trying to liberate the mystical power of letters from the strictures of modern alphabetical standardization and had inherited this mission in part from medieval monks.
“He didn’t separate his fantastic work from his life,” Mr. Ahearn said. “So when he spoke to you, he often spoke in character and that could sometimes be upsetting.” He legally changed his name to Rammellzee when he was younger, Mr. Ahearn said. As to the name he was born with, Mr. Ahearn said that he knew it, but would keep it to himself, in keeping with his friend’s wishes.