D-ONE Talks RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ
This week on LOVE Magazine’s website, the fashion publication continue their takeover series which sees friends and collaborators of LOVE take creative control for a week of unique individual input. The latest Takeover has been headed by London PR leg-end, Mandi Lennard, who’s published a couple of great interviews with relevant artists and designers. Included is the following interview with South African designer and artist, Dr. Zulu, aka D-ONE, who shares his thoughts and knowledge on Gothic Futurism, the art movement founded by the late, great RAMMELLZEE. Check it out below:
ML // What is your understanding of Gothic Futurism?
Dr Z // Simply stated, Gothic Futurism is an art movement founded by Rammellzee. It is a continuation of gothic illuminated letters and it seeks to push the evolution of letters through motion and speed in a symbolic war against standardisation.
ML // And Ikonoklast Panzerism?
Dr Z // This is the formal military title for ‘letter racers’, which is an extension of graffiti that describes the evolution of letters, off the trains, and into three-dimensional ‘flying tanks’.
ML // So when did you first hear of Rammellzee?
Dr Z // It was around ‘97, before graffiti was trendy or fashionable, and just at the inception of the internet in South Africa. I spent a lot of my spare time researching the history of hip hop and the graffiti movement because I knew that there was more to it than I had access to in my country. Plus I was really inspired by this learning process and this world of information that was now instantly available online. Once I had scratched the surface, I wanted to find out how deep the rabbit hole went. I was fascinated with the stories surrounding Jean-Michel Basquiat [Rammellzee is depicted within several Basquiat paintings] and the tension between him and other ‘writers’ which ultimately resulted in Ramm (with B-One and C-One) interrogating him about his work. I then found a site with Rammellzee’s Ionic Treatise and although I did not really understand any of it at the time, I appreciated his originality and intellectual perspective. I could see that there was some truth in his theories and this confirmed my suspicion that hip hop and graffiti held important global cultural relevance. Ramm was clearly part of its backbone and as we all know, 3 decades later hip hop is one of the main unifying cultures on the planet.
ML // How did you come to be working with him?
Dr Z // In ’06 I was on tour with Sneaker Pimps, the travelling sneaker and hip-hop show in New York. I wanted Ramm to perform at the show and maybe tag up some kicks so I reached out to him. He agreed to meet up and he took me to his uptown storage facility. There I helped him pull out his dusty letter racers and watched as he lined them all up in the hallway to form the whole alphabet. I’ll never forget that while I was helping him take some letters down from a huge pile, a really heavy one with razor sharp spikes fell from the top and almost impaled me. I nearly got killed with a capital letter ‘K’ that day! Haha.
It wasn’t until 2010 when Futura suggested I show Ramm my Lego sculptures that I was put into a position to ‘bet’ for a letter. I chose the ‘D’ and after about 6 months, he ended up recruiting me as D-One. I apprenticed primarily through conversations over the phone and email whilst reading and researching in the library. It was more than an apprenticeship I suppose; more of an education and it had very little to do with graffiti. I am really grateful to him for that.
ML // How was he as a person?
Dr Z // Well at first, he was extremely intimidating; he had a larger-than-life persona, a really loud deep voice and a reputation for his short temper. I used to talk way too much around him to conceal my nervousness. Haha! But he had a way of making you feel very comfortable by joking around a bit. He was really cool like that.
ML // What is your understanding of his work? I mean, did you get his ethos and do you feel you are someone fully in tune with what he was doing?
Dr Z // I mean, Ramm was on his own level. He was a genius and a real mathematical wizard (he also lectured quantum mechanics) so I could only claim to have a slightly elevated understanding in comparison to him. He called it an “assassin’s knowledge”, but yes, I think I am more or less in tune with his vision of Gothic Futurism anyway. I caught a glimpse of it really early on and he guided me through the more advanced areas himself. I will probably still spend the rest of my life considering it all and how to apply the knowledge in an original way.
ML // What was your relationship like?
Dr Z // Well I guess I was as more or less just a fan at first. Thereafter I progressed as a student and then we developed a closer kind of friendship, but I knew my place. He did end up treating me like a friend though, and when he passed away his wife Carmela treated me the same way.
ML // What did you think of the Suzanne Geiss exhibition? [I saw RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ 'THE EQUATION' in March last year in New York, which explored his work and manifestos, with some mind-blowing highlights, notably a room of 52 suspended Letter Racers, and a wall of paintings featuring an illuminated manuscript alphabet.]
Dr Z // Unfortunately I missed it, but from the photos it looked really great. Carmela did a really excellent job of picking up where Ramm left off by working with formal institutions to ensure the legacy lives and thrives for generations to come. From the Jeffrey Deitch ‘Art In The Streets’ exhibition at MOCA (LA), which was the first museum in the USA to show Ramm’s work, to MOMA in NYC and ‘The Rammellzee Galaxeum’ at Children’s Museum of the Arts, she had an undeniably important role in formalizing the movement of Gothic Futurism.
ML // The Rammellzee room at ‘Art In The Streets’ was insane; I never imagined such a huge body of work, and so many sculptural pieces. What is your design background?
Dr Z // I studied industrial design which was good basic background for me, but I was met with some creative resistance there. I suppose I was always trying to break the rules and experiment too much. Straight after that I designed high-end luxury interiors even though I was more interested in graffiti, art, street wear fashion and skate culture.
ML // You’re now living in South Africa, right?
Dr Z // Yes I’m based in SA, specifically Cape Town. Not an ideal location for work so I spend some time traveling around a bit. It is a really beautiful place with an interesting dynamic of people and politics. Even though it has certain issues, it’s home and I represent it!
ML // What are you up to there?
Dr Z // I’m now heavily involved in the sneaker/street wear industry and Shelflife, the store I founded in South Africa. On my desktop at this exact moment, are a design project with New Balance Japan and some stuff with labels KiksTYO, KIKS China and Sneaker Pimps. My work ranges from commercial design, branding, art and photography, to marketing, PR & events. Plus I’m just about to launch my own independent street wear label “Dr.Z & Co.” I’ve also got a small collaboration coming up with local brand 2BOP.
ML // How did New York touch you?
Dr Z // My personal lasting impression is that New York lives and breathes hip hop. It’s an unavoidable immersive part of the cultural experience. The longest I’ve spent in NYC was 2 months, staying in an apartment in Manhattan owned by French artist André Saraiva. At the same time I was on tour with Sneaker Pimps so I got to hang out a little with Futura, Stash and many other prolific artists and creative’s who were down with the show.
ML // Do you miss it now?
Dr Z // Yes I now have a lot of friends there!
ML // How does Ramm inspire your work today?
Dr Z // His work has given me the motivation to create with purpose and deeper consideration. If my art is going to be included under his Gothic Futurist umbrella, I need to ensure I give the legacy the justice it deserves.
ML // Why did you decide to make the Letter Racers in Lego?
Dr Z // Although I had already met Ramm in 2006, I had no involvement with him at the time. In 2008 I did a small exhibition which was basically an experiment in simply sculpting graffiti wildstyle letters. I decided in my own capacity that aside from Ramm’s theories on the subject, wildstyle letters should ultimately be constructed or sculpted into something 3-dimensional. I felt all traditional letter graffiti, no matter how intricate or ‘burner’, was still just a blueprint on a wall.
Graffiti artists use techniques such as, perspective, shadows and highlights to make it look as real as possible. I thought I’d go one step further and actually build it. Very few artists actualize their designs in sculpture, but Ramm was one who did from the start. This is why my Lego letters were instantly compared to his letter racers that he made from garbage & recycled objects.
I used Lego because I was fascinated with the technical aspect, puzzle-like process, and the relatively easy way that it could be built up and pieced together. Plus, in my mind Lego as a material already had the all visual and mechanical properties that graffiti was imitating. It was only after talking with Ramm about my prototype Lego letters that he confirmed my original designs had nothing to do with his letter racers. Furthermore he offered me the opportunity to work with him to develop my style into ‘Ikonoklast Panzerism’ which is the highest, most evolved and developed of the hierarchies in letter design.
Lego offers advanced mechanisms and parts like gear systems, motorized engines, lighting and even miniature weapon systems. So my letters all have built-in power sources and can actually race against each other. I engineer them to be strong and structurally sound too. To be very clear, these are not toys they are symbols.
ML // Do you feel he’s bestowed his honour upon you?
Dr Z // Without a doubt it is an honour. I am grateful and humbled to be considered as one of his students.
ML // Does that mean you are in a way continuing his work or the spirit of his work today?
Dr Z // I could only hope to continue and evolve through what he has taught me.
ML // Was it his intention to have an apprentice to continue his work after he was gone?
Dr Z // I believe it was his exact intention. The letter must continue to evolve. “Alphas bet is not over yet…”
ML // Were there any other apprentices?
Dr Z // They are the TMK. “TAG MASTER KILLERS”. Even though I’ve never met any, the ‘generals’. A-One (RIP), B-One (Kool Koor) and C-One (Toxic) are well known. We don’t need to know each other; we just have a role to play and job to do. I like to think that there are many others like me out there somewhere locked away in their labs like mad scientists, waiting for the opportunity to unleash their work on the world, haha. I’m sure that we are very individual with different skill sets and varying degrees of knowledge, so if we ever got to meet it would be a very positive exchange.
ML // How’s the alphabet obsession?
Dr Z // I have already built the letters D, R, Z and sigma (Σ). I am currently in the process of building the rest of the alphabet, all in Lego, which is really costly as you can imagine. So part of the reason I did the video [see below] is to announce that I will be making them available to private commissions and special orders by application or invitation. Alternatively, I will be making other artworks and merchandise available through my site.
ML // Is it frustrating that people don’t know who he is if you mention you worked with him?
Dr Z // Yes, it is a bit frustrating. He is surely one of the greatest artists and most interesting minds of this era, but in future I believe that his work will be studied in all art schools. His considerate contributions to the art culture of the world cannot be overlooked for much longer.
ML // Did you, at the time, appreciate the gravity of his work and his significance as a creator and visionary?
Dr Z // Admittedly, anyone first discovering Rammellzee’s work might initially question their own intellect or perhaps his sanity. It was a conscious effort of his to scare people with his “intellectual horrors” as part of the appeal; his hook! Haha… I was very aware of his genius after researching some of the statements in his documents, although they are all encrypted in his own syntax. I was able to decipher enough to realise that there was a message of real substance hidden between the lines. It all checks out!
ML // Did he play music while he worked?
Dr Z // I know he listened to many genres and often worked to Beethoven’s 9th. I must mention much of Ramm’s own music and rap (he appeared on over 40 albums) was simply another way of educating people about his theories of the alphabet.
ML // He was known as a recluse; was that because he was on a mission with his work; living for work, channelling his creative angst?
Dr Z // Ramm was not unlike the monk scribes of the clergy in the Middle Ages that had the sole task of illuminating manuscripts.
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