Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB by Jaime Lowe

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“A nigga don’t come out of jail and get his toes done,” ODB is quoted in a new biography, as he pointed out the earth-tones and the feng-shui waterfall in a manicure parlor. “How are the kids gonna feel about this?”

Prior to Russell Jones’s fatal cocaine overdose (and possible suicide) in November 2004, his hype man and best bud, Buddha Monk, joined him on drug binges and divvied up the doses to prevent him from OD-ing. By the end Jones, known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, was fractured and burnt out on fame, questioning his own authenticity.

Jaime Lowe, author of Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB, witnessed Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s spirit-crushing “comeback” show in New York in 2003, at which the rapper appeared drugged and severely mentally ill. Buddha Monk did more than backup ODB’s vocals; he essentially performed the show himself, karaoke-style.

Grown out of an assignment for The Village Voice, Lowe’s biography explores the notion that ODB, one of the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, suffered from untreated mental ailments, possibly schizophrenia. His wild man/trickster persona masked the need for diagnosis: “Rock stars acting crazy is like a banker counting money… These are the performers who define their product by drawing outside the lines… The job of the clown, after all, is to disguise tragedy with a real good juggling trick.” ODB’s delusional braggadocio, accounted in erratic speech patterns, was encouraged by his peers. They shrugged it off: “Ah that’s just Ol’ Dirty.”

In his prime, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a rapper who appealed to people who didn’t even like hip hop. His voice and attitude were as much punk rock and soul as they were rap: “Each song is infused with urgency and hilarity and him. That’s why hip-hop misses ODB so goddamn much: he put all of himself into his work. So much so that there wasn’t much left over.”

As a boy, Jones was brought up with the teachings of the Five Percent Nation (a sect of the Nation of Islam that believes that “the black man is God”) and moved through various personas, absorbing the previous ones along the way. He began as Ason Unique, literal incarnate of God, then morphed into Ol’ Dirty Bastard and, later, more fractured characters (Osiris, Big Baby Jesus, Dirt McGirt, etc). In the end, he tired of his image and wanted someone else to take over the job.

Lowe recounts many amusing tales, such as ODB accidentally entering the Los Angeles studio where Pras (from the Fugees) was recording the soon-to-be hit single, “Ghetto Superstar,” for the Bullworth film soundtrack. ODB was due in NY that day—but his coastal confusion was serendipitous, and led to him adding vocals on the now-legendary track. His work with Mariah Carey, playing the charismatic buffoon to her squeaky clean persona and operatic range, is also duly noted.

Equally amusing, but more disturbing, is the account of stuntman and trained clown Steve-O’s official tribute to Ol’ Dirty, and Wu Tang protégé Raekwon’s livid response to it: Steve-O (of Jackass and Wildboyz) entered the stage naked with his penis between his legs and did a backflip. Raekwon demanded that Steve-O return to the stage and apologize, lest he face physical repercussions. Not everyone knew how to share ODB, dead or alive.

Like a thriller, Lowe’s narrative moves tensely toward its subject’s impending demise. A stint in jail after his second album appeared to have crushed the spirit and soul which had infused Jones’s music. On the run from the law for various minor offenses, he made a famous incognito cameo at a Wu-Tang show, dressed up in a yellow parka “like Kenny [from South Park],” but while giving out autographs at a fast food drive-in, the gathering crowd drew attention to him, leading to his capture.

Lowe provides smart and fair accounts, not beating around the bush when discussing the brutality of the Dannemora, NY prison where ODB was held. While she waited for a tour of the facilities, she overheard correction officers betting over how many stitches an inmate received after a knife attack; Lowe points out that such apathy to violence is encouraged and perhaps required to survive in prison, even for the employees.

Lowe recalls how she first got into the Wu-Tang Clan’s music to impress the boys in her high school. But her interest soon became genuine, enabling her to give astute analysis of the group’s appeal: “The foundation of Wu-Tang is in its lore, its urban mythology, its appropriation of kung fu, chess, Buddhism, Islam, bible studies, cartoons, comics, Staten Island; anything they came across was woven into an intricate web of culture and identification and a constructed community that bordered on cult. They made themselves a world when the projects didn’t provide. And they sold that world to this other world (a primarily suburban one) in rhymes.”

Her own career arc gets woven into Digging for Dirt, including her early days working on the O.J. Simpson story for Hard Copy. She includes a touching interview with attorney Robert Shapiro, who defended Simpson but also, less noted, defended ODB. The interview speaks to drug addiction and Shapiro’s views of it as a disease, not a crime. (Shapiro’s son overdosed in 2005.)

Occasionally Lowe’s biography bogs down in digression; but her interviews, analyses, and commentaries are always engaging and often bittersweet, as when she discusses the public’s fascination with celebrities and its accompanying schadenfreude: “There’s a small explicit thrill, envy almost, in watching public figures self-destruct, particularly when it involves sex, drugs, and creativity, because it represents what we want, what we wish we could do.”

Prior to his incarceration, Ol’ Dirty Bastard knew what he wanted—as a musician, marketer, and businessman. This account of his final days draws a painful picture of a very sick man who needed help but only found exploitation.

Joe Cervelin, a native of Brooklyn, now resides in the Bay Area. He awaits an international fellowship to carry him to sea. More from this author →