Basquiat's 'Beat Bop': An Oral History of One of the Most Valuable Hip-Hop Records of All Time

How K-Rob and Rammellzee came to battle it out on 1983's beautiful, bizarre art-rap classic

"Beat Bop"
WRITTEN BY
Andrew Nosnitsky

Jean-Michel Basquiat's history with rap music goes deeper than Jay Z's punch lines and bragging rights. That engagement was most visible in the "Beat Bop" 12-inch, a ten-minute sparring match between MCs/graffiti artists K-Rob and Rammellzee, which the legendary Brooklyn artist produced in 1983. Initially released independently in a reported run of just 500 copies on Basquiat's own Tartown Inc. imprint — and featuring his exclusive artwork — the original vinyl has been known to change hands for upwards of $1,500, making it among the most valuable rap records ever made, though a relative steal for a vintage Basquiat print.

Stripped-down and spaced-out, "Beat Bop" is somehow both completely a product of its time and place — the early-'80s downtown intersection of hip-hop and hipsters, art and commerce — and not of this earth at all. It's a conversation between polarities: K-Rob, a comparatively unassuming but incredibly talented L.E.S.-raised 15-year-old battle rapper, who was already building a rep for himself at park jams; and Rammellzee, a Far Rockaway representer several years K-Rob's senior, best known for waving a sawed-off shotgun onstage in the defining hip-hop film Wild Style, but whose life was an even more complex work of art, involving three-dimensional graffiti, masks cobbled from exploded action figures, and a rotating cast of alter egos.

On "Beat Bop," K-Rob played good kid to Rammell's mad city, offering a vivid "The Message"-esque panorama of Manhattan's crime and poverty; Rammell countered with abstract pro-cocaine rhetoric delivered in a voice and persona that he called the "Gangster Duck." Shortly after the Tartown release, the record was reissued — sans Basquiat artwork — by defining early-'80s hip-hop label Profile Records, and in the 30 years since, its influence has trickled down into the more zooted works of Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys (maybe you've heard the line "B-boys makin' with the freak-freak"), while its legacy became further shrouded in myth and mystery. Basquiat died in 1988 at 27 years old; Rammellzee produced art in his TriBeCa loft until he passed in 2010. Here, I've added an interview I conducted with Rammellzee years ago to more recent conversations with some of the record's principle contributors and various folks on the scene, hoping to make some sense out of the ongoing "Beat Bop" legacy.

Rammellzee: It was simply a test pressing. I didn’t expect anything out of anything. Jean-Michel put up the money for it.

Al Diaz, "Beat Bop" percussionist and Basquiat's fellow tagger: For a while, when Basquiat started getting really popular, he was kind of holding court at Crosby Street with a lot of graffiti cats. His place was a party house for people like A-One and Toxic, inner-city kids, most of them black. Basquiat wasn't no ghetto kid — he grew up very middle class — so I guess this was kind of his way of filling that part that was missing in him, that part that he probably felt like he had missed out on because he had been surrounded by the white art world. I think it was an identity thing for him to have all these guys around. Some of them, his relationship with them would burn out after a point, but it was mostly a party. A lot of coke, a lot of drinking, a lot of getting high and hanging around.

Rammellzee: I just used to go over [to Basquiat's] house and chill. He was an up-and-coming artist, I was an up-and-coming artist… Well, I was an up-and-coming con artist. And we just were doing things at the same time.

Glenn O'Brien, journalist: I knew Rammell quite well and… he was a crazy motherfucker. He was just nuts. He was extremely talented, he had this whole theory about graffiti – Ikonoklast Panzerism. I still have his manifesto, this impenetrable discourse on his theories about the letter. He was working with resins and he never wore a mask or anything, so I think maybe he was affected by his art materials.

Diaz: Rammell was Ramm. He had a very, very surreal view of the planet. More power to him, but… I remember one time I was at an auction at the Puck Building, and he started going in on one of his monologues, and [fellow graffiti writer] Tracy 168 said, "Aww man, cut that shit out — nobody knows what the fuck you're talking about! Get the fuck out of here with that nonsense." And I was like, "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this guy is from another planet." He was like the Sun Ra of graffiti. He was definitely out there. I think he was a little bit paranoid, but he seemed to have a good heart.

Rammellzee: I don’t really do music. I never ever really did music. I build tanks, I design letters to fly, I was building my dolls, building my masks. I now have 21 different masks, and I go on tour with Death Comet Crew and go on tour by myself. But I mostly do paintings.

O'Brien: [Ramm] saw himself as really an important artist, but I think he was probably a little jealous that Basquiat was making money. So ["Beat Bop"] kind of came together as a showdown — that appealed to Basquiat's boxing aesthetic. And both of those guys did a shitload of coke.

K-Rob: I was in rap from the beginning, man. I can't even remember my life without rap. I started rapping maybe at, like, 12. I was [also] a graffiti artist – "Crane" – so I wasn't scared to go anywhere. I used to rap in parks, I used to rap in all boroughs, I used to travel and battle people. I was one of the youngest guys, going up against guys who were like six or seven years older than me.

Diaz: [K-Rob] was a kid, man! He had a baby face.

K-Rob: One day I happened to be at an event in [the East Village venue] Negril, and it was everybody in there. Everybody. Russell Simmons, Zulu Nation, Futura, Dondi. Madonna was in there. There was this guy, I can't remember his name now, but he was originally supposed to make a record with Jean-Michel. He was an old guy, bigger guy than me. After he finished rapping, he shut the mic off and wouldn't let me get on the mic. My boy went up there and said, "Turn the mic on right now and let my man Crane rap, or I'll get Fab 5 Freddy to fuck you up!" This big guy from Zulu Nation was in the DJ booth, and he came down and was like, "What you say, little guy!?" We was kids! But they was like, "Okay, what beat you want to rap to?" I told them to put on a beat by Fearless Four, "Rockin' It" [hums melody]. The mic came on, I started rapping, and everybody stopped what they was doing and was looking like, Crane, that's you?!"

After that, Jean came up to me and was like, "Hey, hey, hey, K-Rob, you're really, really good — I want you to stop by the studio such and such day." I'm like, "Who's this guy? Who's this guy with the dreads?" Nobody was really wearing dreads out in public at that time. But everybody was flocking around this guy. He was like the Eddie Murphy of the art world. After I finished talking to him, people came up to me like, "What did he say to you? What did you say to him? Do you know who that is? That's Jean-Michel, Michael Bas-kwat." I had heard of him through Keith Haring, but only vaguely. It didn't intrigue me. "Do you know who that is?!" Please, man — where I come from, we ain't dick-riders. We on our own dicks, excuse my French. He gave me his number; I threw it in my pants pocket and went home.

Play

 

Diaz: It was after the "SAMO" thing [a tagging collaboration between Diaz and Basquiat that ran from 1977 to 1980], when we'd gone our separate ways, that I had really started to get involved in playing music. I started making my own percussion instruments, kind of vibraphone-type things, but more homemade, with the electrical conduit pipes and aluminum bars. The Lower East Side was really happening back then. I hooked up with, like, the early version of Liquid Liquid and played with an experimental guy named Elliott Sharp… Not that I'm a gifted percussionist, but I had all these cool-sounding different instruments and I could hold a rhythm.

Basquiat [and I] were estranged at the time. I don't know — there was probably some bitterness on my part [with] him becoming the face of SAMO. But he asked me to play on this record he was doing, and I went for it without hesitation. It was actually a paid session; he paid me for the session. It was a basement studio — I think it was on 34th Street — in Midtown somewhere. But we were there for about eight to ten hours.

K-Rob: I went down there, and it was amazing. I'm coming from cutting up records and rapping on stuff like that, but it was all these musicians in the studio!

Diaz: Sekou Bunch, I think he was a house musician at [the studio], came up with the riff, the little skanky guitar riff and the bass line per Jean's approval. Eszter Balint — she was the girl in the film by Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise — came a little later to the session and played the violin. I played a rack with cowbells, a go-go bell, and woodblocks that were all on a percussion rack, and timbales. I can't take credit for the congas: There was a cat, a young Puerto Rican dude, who was hanging out at the studio, some guy who never got any credit and I can't possibly remember the guy's name.

K-Rob: Ramm came through with a trench coat and dark black shades on, looking like Inspector Gadget… Jean introduced us, and he gave us some papers to read. I can't remember what it [said], but it was so far-fetched. It was some corny shit. Me and Ramm looked at it like, "Get a load of this motherfucking guy! Really?"

Rammellzee: We crushed up his paper with the words he had written down and we threw it back at him, face first. Then we said, "We’re gonna go in these two booths," and [I said], "I’m gonna play pimp on the corner," and K-Rob said, "I’ll play schoolboy coming home from school," and then it went on.

K-Rob: We just started flowing. Me and Ramm was going back and forth and having fun with it. It just felt so [right], like I was in space. It was like I was hydroplaning in space. You know how rappers [now] go in and say, "Yo, you do your take, and I do my take?" Nah, it wasn't like that. It was two microphones set up in the same room. [At one point] Ramm was hogging the mic, and you can hear me in the background like, "Eh, haha," 'cause I'm like, "Yo, Ramm, you rapping too motherfucking much — let me get back in!"

Rammellzee (to Ego Trip, 1999): [Basquiat] wanted to rhyme, too. And when he went to go pick up the mic, we all started laughing, and he went back over there and sat down and started rocking [in his chair] again.

K-Rob: No, [that] never [happened]. Jean trying to come in there? Oh, that'd been horrible. He would've gotten spanked! That'd be like me trying to do a painting for Jean. He might've [been able to say] something that was different, talked on the record or something. But I don't see him rhyming. He didn't have the swagger. He stayed where he was at and let us do our thing.

Al Diaz: Basquiat had his hand on it; he was very present. In some account that I read, it made it sound like he just took a back seat, which is absolutely not true. [Ed.: Rammellzee himself had perpetuated this myth for many years, though he would later confirm Basquiat's musical involvement.]

K-Rob: Jean-Michel made the beat. Listen to the beat: That is Jean-Michel. That's the type of person Jean-Michel is.

O'Brien: [Basquiat] loved music. He DJ'd a lot, he used to DJ at Area, the club. He listened to music all the time. If you went over to the studio, there was always a record playing. So I think he was… interested. His band Gray was really an interesting band — even though they weren't real musicians, they had this great musical sensibility, and I think that, in a way, "Beat Bop" has a bit of that Gray sound to it, that sort of dub-space thing, a lot of space in the music, a lot of echo.

Diaz: Most of the instruments were actual instruments that were played with a lot of heavy processing like chorus and digital delay… the percussion was mostly cowbells, woodblocks, timbales, and some congas, but there was a lot of effects on [them], such heavy effects so they didn't sound anything like [what they were]. The woodblock sounded absolutely synthetic.

Cory Robbins, founder, Profile Records: This DJ named John Hall used to come by [the office], and one day he said, "There's this record you should know about called 'Beat Bop,' it's by this artist Jean-Michel Basquiat," who I had never heard of. He was able to get a cassette or something. I thought it was cool as shit. It was druggy, it was so out there. All of a sudden there's lots of echo, and then the echo's gone. Nobody made records like that. No record producer would make a record like that. It didn't follow any rules. It was long and it didn't have a hook. It was so free-form. There's no record like it. I said, "Cool, where do I get it?" He said, "You can't get it, it's only sold through some art gallery."

I think I called the Mary Boone Gallery, and they gave me Jean-Michel's address, but they wouldn't give me his phone number. So I sent him a mailgram saying, "Please call me about putting out your record." A couple of weeks went by, and the phone rang, and it was him. I introduced myself — I had a label, and we had some success with rap music at that point — and I said, "I'd like to put your record out." He says, "Oh, okay. Okay!" I'm like, "Well, wait, we have to make a deal." A few days later, he just comes into my office unannounced, and he gives me the master tapes. I said, "We didn't sign the record yet, I'll hold onto these, but I can't do anything with them until we sign a contract. I'll just put them in the cabinet and hold them until the deal is done." He was very sweet and very trusting.

I sent him a contract — the contract's like 40 pages long. It was a typical record contract, and weeks go by, and I don't hear from him. Then he calls me up and goes, "This contract's too long, I can't sign this." I said, "I'll come over tonight and explain it to you, if you have questions we can go through it." So I go to his loft on Crosby Street, and there are paintings just everywhere, like a hundred paintings in stacks. I take out the contract and say, "Here's page one, this is what this means." I get to page two, "This is what this means." Page three, he goes, "Oh, that's fine, I'm just gonna sign it." "I'm happy to explain everything…." "No, no, no, it's fine." So, he just signed it. We put the record out. I gave him a check for $1,500, which is what the advance was on the record, which was kind of typical.

Diaz: It went to Profile, and the cover changed at that point. There were no more of the black-and-white Basquiat collectors-item covers — it was just the old Profile single covers, the regular red and black with the "Pro" [logo].

Robbins: The worst thing I did was… He said, "I'll make new artwork for your release." And I said, "No, no, no, we're just gonna put it in the Profile jacket." And that was really stupid. That [painting] would probably be worth millions now. But I'm in the record business — I knew very little about art back then.

So, we put the record out, and it doesn't do that much. It's kind of an underground record. We licensed it to Island [in the U.K.], and they put it on a compilation, a big compilation. [Ed.: It's likely that Robbins is referring to the Street Sounds Electro 2 compilation.] They sent us royalties, and I think he was entitled to, like, half the royalties. So, over a few years, we sent him like $5,000 in royalties. I hadn't seen him in a while. Then I ran into him at Great Jones Café, which is still around. I think, by then, he had moved to Great Jones Street. And he said, "You know those checks you keep sending me? I haven't cashed those, because they're made out to Tartown Inc." That wasn't really a company. So he said, "Can I give you back these checks and have you make a check out to me?" Our offices were around the corner on Broadway and Astor. So he did, and we did. But that's how loose he was, very trusting, and I guess he didn't care that much about money. If he didn't run into me that night, he might've never told me.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983 / Photo by Lee Jaffe/ Getty Images

K-Rob: Aww, man, it was so much money [around]. It was to the point where money didn't mean anything. Money didn't mean anything to Jean-Michel. Money didn't mean nothing to Ramm. Jean-Michel gave me checks after the record came out. Imagine giving a kid thousands of dollars at the age of 16. He don't know what to do with it. What the hell he gonna spend it on? Some Lee's? I didn't understand the concept, I didn't understand royalties or whatever. Jean was my protector. He came back like, "Yeah… Profile Records are interested in the record… What do you think?" I'm like, "It's a go, whatever, when we gonna make another record?" I had no desire to get back in the studio with Ramm. It was kinda like we battled and that was it. I was just thinking that me and Jean was gonna do records.

Diaz: It was a side project for Jean, and I think, after a point, he lost a little interest in it. I remember going up to Crosby Street, and seeing boxes and boxes of the record just sitting around.

Rammellzee: When [Jean sold] it to Profile, he didn’t tell anybody.

Robbins: Later on, Rammellzee called me up and said, "Jean-Michel didn't have the right to sell this record." But he didn't make a big deal about it — he came over and was friendly. I said, "I didn't know," and we paid him, and he got royalties and everything. I don't know if I ever met him again.

Rammellzee: I never made a dime off that damn record. I still haven’t made a dime off that record, and it sold more than 150,000 copies.

Robbins: It was not a hit at all — it sold like 5,000 copies, or maybe less. We [would've] lost money on it, if not for that money from England. In America, it really didn't do anything. But as little as it sold, here we are, 30 years later, still talking about it. So there was something special about it — it was probably ahead of its time.

K-Rob: A lot of styles came from "Beat Bop." A lot of people said we influenced them, from the Beastie Boys to all these people, but we just did our thing. We did what we do. It wasn't like we was trying to be nobody.

Rammellzee: I wanted to be a dentist, but that song took me places. People liked either my voice or what I was saying; I’m not sure still. It’s now, what, almost 30 years? It continues to be a heavy seller, so I continue to… avoid it. Because I can’t do a duet without K-Rob. People want me to sing it, but I can’t do it. I’ve only performed that song twice, because I don’t know where K-Rob is. K-Rob’s very hard to find. That’s why we did "Part 2" [on 2004's The Biconicals of the Rammellzee LP] — I found him.

K-Rob: That was something Ramm wanted to do. It was kinda odd almost. It was his answer, like the record he wanted to do instead of what Jean wanted to do. I don't know what the hell that was about, but since he was my good friend, I just went to the studio. To tell you the truth, I didn't even care for the beat [produced by Jan "Jaws" Weissenfeldt of the German funk group Poets of Rhythm]. As a matter of fact, I think me and Ramm could've done a better job just throwing a beat together and then flowing to it. But it was my boy Ramm — maybe he saw something in it.

Rammellzee: I thought it was fantastic the second time around. This time, me and K-Rob were doing fine without crushing up papers and being stalled by a person who wanted things to be done his way.

K-Rob: That was the first time since [the original "Beat Bop"] that we had rapped together. Everybody had always approached us over the years, they wanted us to do a record. We ended up being real good friends later on, [but] even when I started producing, I never thought about [us] doing a record. That was the past. I don't know; I wish we would've did something else. But hey, shoulda coulda, right?

Rammellzee: It’s like robbing a bank. You hit the bank, you rob the money and you leave. No encores. You have the understanding of knowing that if you rob a bank, you don’t go back for an encore. No, you’d leave the bank and you’d get the hell out of the country. [Laughs] But people want you to do encores after robbing the bank, and I just don’t agree with that type of lifestyle. Who walks back into a bank after five minutes? That’s stupid. My idea is intelligence. I like to deal with quantum mechanics. That’s what I do. I couldn’t drill into teeth, so I make sure they bite.

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