I was a mess. Bouncing off walls after too many Coronas at a house party somewhere in Westwood. How did I get there? Or even hear about this party? Did I come with friends? Just another night in L.A. I was in my 20s, chasing something. A little bit of heaven in the pleasures of the gutter. Waiting for the bathroom, propped up by a wall, I eavesdropped on a conversation ahead of me in line. “Yo, did you hear? ODB just died!” The world seemed to go wonky when I heard that. Walls and faces distorted like confusion scenes in movies. I was struck dumb and felt an immediate need to flee. I was on the verge of silent panic. I couldn’t have told you then why I was so disturbed about the news, but I knew something seismic had happened. That was the night I heard Ol’ Dirty Bastard died.
It’s been a while since I thought of the man. New music supplants old, and my mature ear looks for different sounds now. But a few days ago, walking the corner store to buy onions, I was looking for a new podcast. Scrolling through cover icons, I came across a colorful and crude drawing of the deceased rapper. “There’s a whole podcast devoted to Ol’ Dirty Bastard?”, I thought bemused.
Out of curiosity, I pressed play.
Episode one of ODB: A Son Unique, opens with a story of Ol’ Dirty saving a young girl trapped under a car. The 8-year-old had slipped out of her seatbelt before her mother noticed and followed her sister into the street where she was stuck and pinned underneath a sedan. The tale goes that ODB emerged from the crowd, marshaled gawkers into action, and hoisted the car up (with the help of others) to save the child. Later, the pod explores anecdotes about Dirt Dog keeping his poise in the face of an insultingly race-baiting Howard Stern interview and tutelage under some of the founders of the conscious hip-hop movement.
Archival recordings and reminiscences by host and friend of the artist, Khalik Allah, brought me back to that time. A weekend in my Mom’s living room, drinking fruit juice with toes in the carpet, watching MTV bits sensationalizing Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s life. I ate up his unabashed interviews, speaking about his virtues and vices with a childlike honesty. He seemed both approachable and alien. It was exhilarating to watch for me, an introvert who’d learned to mask it well. Only looking back now, can I recognize how much the man was a part of my musical upbringing.
I came of age in one of the coastal epicenters of hip-hop, but I wasn’t so interested in the genre. As a black kid, this was strange. So was my mohawk. In heated music conversations that seemed incredibly important then, as everything does in your youth, I was far more likely to bring up Misfits than Missy Elliot. Outside of a few artists, most hip-hop sounded like the empty rhetoric of flossin’ and gunfights. The music didn’t strike me emotionally.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard hit different.
If you haven’t heard of him, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB), born Russell Tyrone Jones, was a member of the hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. Alternatively known as Big Baby Jesus, Ason Unique, Dirt Dog, Osirus, and (my favorite) Dirt McGirt, ODB was the most wacky character of the 10-man Clan. While other members of Wu-Tang blew up—Method Man spun off into acting, the RZA scored films—ODB always seemed like a gonzo uncle with a personality and talent too large for your cramped holiday dining room. To me, that dood was fully punk rock. On the cover of his solo album, ‘Nigga Please’, standing proudly, eyes to the heavens, wearing a long curly wig and white jumpsuit stretched over his gut, ODB was hip-hop Iggy Pop cum Ziggy Stardust.
There was a brilliance to the absurd hubris of his lyrics. In the track Dirty & Stinkin he taunts: “You thought that I was weak? Huh, let me speak / My rhymes come funkier than your grandfather’s feet.” Or on Brooklyn Zoo he describes himself as some hip-hop deity: “Your ass thought you were better than Ason, I keep planets in orbit / While I be coming with deeper and more shit / Enough to make you break and shake your ass / As I create rhymes good as a Tastycake…”).
And a vulnerability emerges in the difficulties he describes and the self-deprecating skits he includes in many songs. In the intro to Don’t U Know one woman describes him as, “…Dirty motherfucker, he ain’t shit.” In another song, Raw Hide, he fumes, “Who the fuck wanna be an emcee / If you can’t get paid, to be a fuckin emcee? / I came out my momma — I’m on welfare / Twenty-six years old — still on welfare! / So I gotta get paid fully / Whether it’s truthfully or untruthfully.” There’s a poignancy in the recognition of his need to entertain (whether he enjoys it or not) to escape poverty.
The first episode finished as I opened the gate to my apartment. Besides stirring up memories in the swirling cauldron of my mind, there’s a meta-narrative to this podcast for me. It centers on how we will be remembered. As a creative person, I’m drawn to hearing ODB contextualized by someone close to him. After our works decay, our digital footprints fade under waves of data, and the initial shock and sadness have passed, how will I, or any of us, be spoken of? Will it be with poignancy? Or by close ones sharing secret moments that surprise and delight? Maybe not at all? We can only hope enough survives to fill an 8-part podcast. Maybe these were the heavy questions that had me shook that night in LA when I heard Ol’ Dirty died.