Put simply, the Beat Bop 12" is one of the stone tablets of hip hop. Originally released in an ultra-limited run on Tartown Records, which — paired with its skewed street-level funk and visionary, impressionistic raps — virtually guaranteed that it would quickly attain the status of hip hop holy grail (the original, in fact). It's been called 'hip hop's artiest and its rootsiest record' by Woebot and 'the Rosetta Stone of trip hop' by Peter Shapiro. I call it my favorite rap 12" of all time. Possibly more than any other record, it crystallizes the entire Terminal Vibration aesthetic in its absolute purest form, packaged to perfection with a little bow on top. Call it wildstyle, freestyle, or any other style you like. Whatever you call it, Beat Bop is a stone cold classic.
For all its arty inclinations, the record actually has its origins in that most hip hop of things: a braggadocio-fueled feud between a pair of pitched rivals. In this case, the feud was between Rammellzee and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two quintessential New Yorkers coming from flipsides of the same coin. Rammellzee was an up-and-comer, an all city graffiti artist who'd even appeared in the epochal Wild Style, trading verses with Shockdell during the film's climactic final performance at The Amphitheatre (and the most electrifying moment in the entire movie). With his turn with the Death Comet Crew still a year away and his concept of 'Gothic Futurism' still yet to make a splash on a wider scale, Ramm was simply a young visionary on the rise.
In contrast, Basquiat was already the toast of New York’s downtown art scene, his graffiti-inflected work as SAMO was already being shown in art galleries, and he was endorsed by no less a luminary than Andy Warhol. In the spirit of the times — and in spite of the waves of acclaim from the art world — Basquiat was something of a gentleman dilettante, willing to try his hand at seemingly anything. He played in no wave group Gray and dabbled in the nascent hip hop culture... which brings us to the feud in question. The story goes that Basquiat was throwing down — claiming that he could out-rap, out-dance and out-paint anybody — and the young Rammellzee took exception. Rammellzee called him a fraud. Ultimately, they decided to settle up on wax, and Beat Bop was born.
When the time came to record, it was decided that Ramm and K-Rob would trade verses, while Basquiat would handle production duties (not to mention the design of the record's striking sleeve). The sound here is certainly art-damaged, with Sekou Bunch’s robot bass and rolling guitar funk threading Al Diaz’s shambolic percussion in a remarkably hollowed-out soundscape, haunted by the ghostly strains of Esther Ballet’s violin. Perhaps more unexpectedly, it's deadly catchy. Pared down to a cozy five minutes in a radio edit, it could've gone toe to toe with Run-DMC and Whodini in the crossover sweepstakes. A true avant pop moment in the tradition of Eno and Bowie in Berlin, it would be equally at home on the dancefloor at The Roxy as it would on side two of Remain In Light.
If you might indulge the simile, Beat Bop is to Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s
The Message as John Coltrane’s Sun Ship was to Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus: an ultra-tight perfection of a particular metaphor (early rap in the case of the former, peak-era bebop in the latter) answered with a kaleidoscopic explosion abstract-to-the-max loose-limbed multi-jointed freeform psychedelia. With the N.Y. art scene and the burgeoning hip hop underground at the height of their dalliance — not to mention the whole new wave/post punk intersection, also in full swing by this point in time — Beat Bop’s freeform next-level sonix represent the quintessential soundclash between these twin worlds.
Of course, Rammellzee and K-Rob’s verses are equally mind-blowing. K-Rob’s lines twist and turn through bustling city streets to focus in on various characters — 'homeboys going bakin' on Thursday night, girls waiting at home for Mr. Right' — before moving onto the next in a flash — 'drug addicts, dope dealers taking over the streets' — with definite shades of Masta Ace Incorporated’s
People In My Hood. There's even a proto-conscious tinge to his verses that predicts the likes of Guru and KRS-One:
All the time that you been hanging out with your friends,
You never took the effort to see what’s happenin'.
Crime, crime, crime can’t get it off my mind,
Cause it’s a thing we have to face all the damn time.
People always say 'why do they break the laws?'
Gonna tell you right now it’s cause of all y’all.
In many ways, it's another abstract echo of The Message, in fact.
Meanwhile, Ramm’s verses spiral off into the fifth dimension inna barrage of abstract imagery and streetwise non sequiturs, slipping into sing-song couplets and nasal, sarcastic asides, proto-Kool Keith machine speak even, words sucked into a vortex of reverb before being dropped back on the street corner. 'I know ZZ that can rock quick, like an iconoclast had your rhythm to the stick,' 'Cause I'm down like the double def re-manipulate,' 'I'm the mellow D down with the funky sound, that can mace your brain with my diamond-studded crown,' 'Shake shake rock body rock the hip and the hop, like RPMs my nose don't care about the rhythm that breaks.'
The Brother From Another Planet, indeed.
The whiplash contrast between Rammellzee and K-Rob’s styles, paired with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street-level futurism, comes on something like a digital-era rap take on Sly & The Family Stone’s
Africa Talks To You "The Asphalt Jungle", a marathon abstract funk unspooling effortlessly toward the ten-minute mark, vocals bouncing across the surface of the tune seemingly on the fly. This digital funk dwells in an analogue playground, a Before And After Science reimagining of the environment they find themselves in. Slowing their respective era's uptempo funk way down to a snail's pace, the groove rolls out as if beneath a microscope to reveal an inner space world all its own, the players on a spectral stage outside time in a narcotized lacuna as the everyday world rages on above.
There's no easier task than to hear the roadmap to the future in there. The most obvious progeny might be Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys — crews that lifted lines and styles straight from the record in equal measure — both signposts to blunted hip hop's original turn (DJ Muggs and The Dust Brothers, take a bow), but shift the time circuits forward and there's pathways leading up to the turn of the century and beyond. From the technoid machine soul of Timbaland to records like Cru’s
Live At The Tunnel and Def Squad’s
Full Cooperation, all the way into Outkast’s Afrofuturist flights of fancy and the skewed surrealism of SA-RA Creative Partners, there's more than enough half-life radiation/inspiration to go around. Even Kendrick Lamar’s freeform jazz circa good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly seems to keep the flame alive right up to the present day.
Flip the record over for the long-range instrumental, and it's immediately apparent that nearly all the best trip hop is the record's spiritual successor. From The Wild Bunch and Tricky in the U.K. to DJs Spooky and Shadow stateside, the wildstyle abstract b-boy visions cast a long shadow over the global sprawl of '90s bedroom hip hop dreamers. Come to think of it, the Jungle Brothers’ J. Beez Wit The Remedy — the quintessential slab of freaked-out hip hop — is very much a post-Beat Bop record, from the Laswell production on down to Sensational’s wild card presence (the ace in the hole a la Rammellzee). And it's lost not one step in the intervening years. If anything, Beat Bop sounds more at home than ever in the ever-changing present of the 21st century. Like The Message, only more so.
Of course, the long and winding trail of influence and storied progeny is just the icing on the cake. The bottom line is that Beat Bop is an undeniable stone tablet, a lightning sword of death, a hip hop holy grail. Oh yea, and one of the greatest records ever! Made on a shoestring, pressed up on an ultra-limited test run, it puts ALL big-budget star power sliver spoon MCs to shame. Close up shop and go home. Game over.
Beat Bop is the original underground rap 12", the Ur text, prefiguring the whole Company Flow/Antipop Consortium/Dr. Octagon lot and sketching out the overcast landscape where crews like Terranova would later dwell (it's no brainer that it would be close to the Parallax heart).
It's the Gothic blueprint, the strange attractor,
the Terminal Vibration machine hurling in flawless freeform motion.
It's Rammellzee vs. K-Rob.
It's Beat Bop.