"My words can't be held against me/I'm not caught up in your law." Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Nigga Please"
It's been a very rough year. Too many interesting folk have died in 2004, and if the sad passings of Laura Branigan and Rodney Dangerfield hit hard and close to the heart (and they did), then how could anyone have imagined that a nation in crisis would lose the ODB as well?
It was one line in a news ticker, making the peripheral vision work overtime: "Wu-Tang Co-founder Dead." Immediately, I started running through the Wu-Tang Clan in my mind, shuffling through possibilities even as I clicked the link. Russell "Ol' Dirty Bastard" Jones died last Saturday in a Manhattan recording studio, after complaining of chest pains. There hasn't been a definitive statement as to what killed him, though it's safe to say that he died just from being the ODB.
Cocaine and booze had been a big part of his life and career, and his chthonic persona might have led some to think he would be a tragic hip-hop casualty. I always thought that Dirty might leave this earth early, but that it would be in a manner truly befitting his sense of style and grandiosity. The scene in the trailer for Alexander, where Colin Farrell takes on a herd of stampeding elephants...that's how I imagined Dirty might go out. In a blaze of glory.
How do I envision a world without Russell Jones? College for me is cut-and-pasted to Wu-Tang beats. Four years at NYU and cash ruled everything around me. It wasn't my scene just then, but slowly paths were aligning. The first time I heard the ODB highlighted on his own was that strange-ass Grammy-nominated remix of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" he guested on. This crazy man's flow was like nothing I'd ever heard before. Then came his fairly genial bum-rush of the Grammy stage during Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech, proclaiming that "Wu-Tang is for the children." Then there was the World Wide Remix of Busta Rhymes' "Woo Hah! Got You All in Check," which was a meeting of the minds that made me sit up and take notice. ODB proclaimed his sound as "on that outer-space shit like when you watch Star Trek." I couldn't help but agree.
To put it in cinematic terms, if Lil' Jon is the John Carpenter of hip-hopa great craftsman specializing in repetitive synth hooks and down-and-dirty epicrythen Dirty was its Alejandro Jodorowsky, the mad genius channeling Channel Zero from another dimension. I defy anyone to find the time signature of any ODB flow. Dirty's flow was like nothing else in hip-hop, a cosmic blend of cadence, syntax, and slurred whimsy that suggested elements of Dr. Seuss, Bobcat Goldthwait and Catullus.
That last comparison is not meant as hipster irony, I promise you. Dirty shared with Gaius Valerius Catullus a gift for taking gossip, street talk, and sexual braggadocio and turning it into enduring art. It's not that far a leap from Catullus' poem 32 ("Amabo mea dulcis Ipsitilla...") to Dirty's near-Zen couplet from "Got Your Money": "I don't have a problem with you fucking me/But I do have a problem with you not fucking me."
1999's Nigga Please album was the moment that the outsized ODB personality, deranged flow, and musical collaborations all synched up, resulting in one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. Wu-Tang's RZA, the Neptunes, and Irv Gotti all brought the beat, but the blood, breath and voice were uncut ODB. "If I don't get 2.3 million dollars by Monday, I'm a bring on the Armageddon!" he declaimed, over a (brilliant) sample from the theme from T.J. Hooker. It was not the place of any mortal MC to argue. He did Rick James' "Cold Blooded" with more freakcraft and funk than even Rick James did, and he even sang the blues ("Good Morning Heartache") in a manner that encompassed blues that the naked eye can't even see.
There were scandals, of course: the ODB taking a camera crew and several of his children (he had at least a dozen) in a limousine to receive his allotment of food stamps; going in and out of rehab programs and prison; taking hoochies to brunch with his Mom on Mother's Day and broadcasting it on VH-1. The cover of his first solo album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, was a variation on a food-stamps ID, which is certainly a unique image. But could anyone expect conventionality from the man who took Phil Collins' "Sussudio" and covered it into the ground?
During his incarceration, I wrote a letter to the ODB, expressing my admiration for the Nigga Please record and telling him to stay strong, which is silly, because who am I to try and offer advice to the ODB? I did it nonetheless, because sometimes it's nice for artists to know that people dig their stuff, and because it might be nice for an incarcerated person to realize that someone they'd never met hopes that they're okay. And now he's dead.
For the past year, Dirty (working primarily under the name Dirt McGirt) developed a clothing line, signed a new deal with Roc-A-Fella Records, did a guest spot on J.C. Chasez' debut solo single, had his own VH-1 special, and worked on a new record. Given the way that an artist's death is far from the end of his career in today's music industry, I hope the new stuff will prove a fitting capper to one of the most unpredictable forces in contemporary music.
It's a small moment in an album of grand things, but on "I Can't Wait," Dirty offered shout-outs to all the branches of the military, to the people "playing my music/In the submarines and the boats." Shout-outs to the military are nothing new, but there's something that feels exactly right about the very idea of submarines, fathoms beneath the surface of the sea, bumping the ODB in the endless night of the ocean. The thought moves me still.