Departing the Wu-Tang

ODB: hip-hop's latest fallen icon

ODB's death robs hip-hop of one of its grittiest, most tormented soldiers

"If the energies of Satan and God were to combine, what kind of energy do you think it would produce? My energy."
— Ol' Dirty Bastard

Ol' Dirty Bastard was born Russell Jones in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on November 15, 1968. Like many of the other poor Brooklyn black kids of that era, Jones was raised on hip-hop and government assistance. By the late 1980s, Jones adopted the name Ol' Dirty Bastard because there was no "father to his style," and in the early '90s he joined his cousins RZA and GZA to form the Wu-Tang Clan, one of hip-hop greatest crews.

At the time, California was the center of the rap world and it was Wu-Tang's Enter the Wu-Tang, along with Nas' Illmatic and the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, that shifted the balance back East. At the New York New Music Seminar in '94, ODB pondered a new world inhabited by grimy poets like M.O.P. and Mobb Deep. "See, I'm like a prophet in rap," he said. "See, it was destined for a dirty motherfucka to come through to just show mutherfuckas really how to be dirty again, people going to attract to one thing. You know, if it's dirty they're going to it. Then all that clean shit is going to be out of here again."

Unlike some of hip-hop's popular fallen soldiers, ODB's lyrics weren't preoccupied with the looming specter of death. His sing-song, sometimes nonsensical delivery was inbued with a Redd Foxxian playfulness that covered everything from courting to battling, from a Wu-Tang perspective. In the hip-hop universe, he was an uncompromising character who liked it raw, kept planets in orbit, and ignored the laws of the industry that banked on his product. His 1995 solo debut Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was met with unexpected acclaim and went gold for Elektra Records. To further promote the album, the label dropped the Illstyle Live! disc where ODB shared his views on the record game.

"Fuckin record companies be using niggas as fuckin puppets. I ain't no mutherfuckin' puppet, man. I'm the Ol' Dirty Bastard. Niggas is so used to getting used as a motherfuckin' puppet, it's like niggas be ready to get 'pupperized.' Shit got to change, man. You go to the motherfuckin' record companies, motherfuckas want you to motherfuckin' rhyme, they want you to have a hook, then rhyme and a hook. Fuck that. Let niggas just do what the fuck they want to do, man. The white people gonna like it any motherfuckin' way cuz white people like anything a nigga do. Let a nigga be free, let a nigga be free. That's why Ol' Dirty Bastard is the baddest motherfucka, cause a nigga got to be free."

In 1998, ODB's life became wild headline fodder. He was shot by robbers in Brooklyn, arrested for making 'terrorist threats' in Los Angeles, saved the life of a 4-year-old girl who was trapped under a car, and bum-rushed the Grammys by stepping in front of award-winner Shawn Colvin and delivering a bizarre, instantly-infamous unacceptance speech that apparently continues to inspire ungracious losers (e.g., Kanye West at the recent American Music Awards): "I went and bought me an outfit today that costed me a lot of money because I figured that Wu-Tang was gonna win. I don't know how you all see it, but when it comes to children, Wu-Tang is for the children."

ODB's second album Nigga Please dropped in '99, launching the careers of Kelis and the Neptunes, and going gold. But around this time it became evident that ODB was catching as many cases as he was nicknames (Big Baby Jesus, Dirt McGirt, Ason Unique, Dirt Dog). Later that year he was accused of firing a gun at New York police officers, arrested in LA for wearing a bullet-proof vest, and picked up in Queens for possession of crack cocaine. After a failed stint in rehab, he ultimately wound up doing two years in Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and was finally released in the spring of 2003.

Being a black male artist in America carries serious weight. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Charlie Parker didn't survive heroin and Sly Stone couldn't get past the cocaine. Russell Jones may or may not have been clean at the time of his death, the cause of which at press time was still unknown, but as recently as a year ago he was caught on camera admitting, "I don't know how to deal with life without drugs." The hip-hop generation has lost its Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta, but he won't be forgotten. As ODB said, in characteristically elliptical fashion, in 1995: "I'm that nigga that's running. Motherfuckas chasing me with horses, knives, guns, all that shit and I'm still running, son. I'm the motherfucka that swam 9,000 miles, nigga. I'm home, nigga. My mind is my home, that's why I'm the illest motherfucka."

By M. Solis

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.