[16 November 2004]
Ol’ Dirty BastardWu-Tang Live Video Trailers
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It broke me up when they pat me on my shoulder
Said stay strong ‘cause his life is now over
I flash back to the heathens that he roll with
They shot him up and down nobody knows shit
My peers, little ears
Came up to me with a eye full of tears
Last night we was shootin dice and gettin nice.
—Killah Priest on “Snakes” from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 debut Return to the 36 Chambers
If I got a problem, a problem’s got a problem ‘til it’s gone.
—Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Rollin’ Wit You” from 1999’s Nigga Please
The Ol’ Dirty Bastard brought impressionism to rap. His rap style was a kind of scarily funny addict-talk. It verged on nonsense, but it was too familiar to be a joke. Many critics felt he wasn’t serious enough. He was born in 1968 and raised into the New York crack epidemic. I don’t mean to belittle the fact that O.D.B. was apparently an addict himself. I’m sure he knew the difference between the drug and the art, and I think we do too. What I mean to say is that the Wu-Tang Clan expressed the tragedy of circumstance they faced in Staten Island, and each of them introduced us to a striking and undeniably charismatic persona of the ghetto life, and that was O.D.B.‘s.
Some personas, like GZA’s genius, RZA’s realism, and Raekwon the entrepreneur, were easy to explain in a nutshell. The O.D.B.? “There ain’t no father to his style,” as Method Man famously put it on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang. And true that, because until his generation, the world didn’t know crack. And crack has its own aesthetic, for sure. That clumsy, itchy and scratchy character, O.D.B. put on that mask to prove that creativity and ingenuity survives even under this terrible form of oppression. Oppression? A moment of silence as we all consider the American Health Care system under Republicans, no one wants to take better care of the poor… Now we need to talk more about O.D.B.‘s unbeatable style.
America’s drug problem needed a contemporary face, and it took Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s courage for a portrait to form. It’s a bit scary. I know most people believe that his life-story confirms the autobiographical nature of his impressionistic rhymes, but I think it’s more complicated than that. A rapper’s persona is graffiti on the man when he steps on to the street. Given no supplies, the impoverished artist must make himself the art. And you can’t discount the fact that the world is evermore divided into rich and poor.
Rap should not represent the privileged. To imitate, and sometimes live the crooked crawl of the addict, was the Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s dangerous and profound choice as an artist. His wonky mottos: “I like livin’ my own fuckin’ show” and “Wu-Tang is for the children,” made solid sense if you cared to listen. Most didn’t. It was either funny or frustrating. The seemingly abstract shout-outs on the track “I Can’t Wait” include:
“A shout-out to them crazy niggas in parts of the world that I never been to…
I want to give a shout-out to the Eskimos
I want to give a shout-out to the submarines
I want to give a shout-out to the army, air force, navy, marines…
I give a shout-out to all the women
I give a shout-out to all the babies
All the munchkins
All across the world playa, God
I want to give a shout-out to all the school teachers
I give a shout-out to uhm… uhm, myself.”
I’m not sure if Eskimos listen to O.D.B., but I know what he means. They do listen to him in Africa. Thanks in great part to the success of the Wu-Tang Clan’s ethics of loyalty, independence, and originality, rap has become inspiration for people the world over. Rap’s conflicting messages of war and peace have struck a chord in countries suffering the same racial damage as the USA. From Wiley in the UK, to Senegal’s Wageble, to Brazil’s MV Bill, to Canada’s Kardinall Offishall, these are not the sublime days of the Jazz Age. This is the Rap Age. It is a ludicrous time, an extreme time, but not hopeless. Ol’ Dirty Bastard expressed the contradictions of poverty with mind-boggling slang, a literary skill worthy of Raymond Roussel. He gave this chorus to Slum Village:
“Girl, if you’re flexible, intellectual
Bisexual, can I get next to you?
If you’re flexible then, we can keep it dirty and sexual
If your man front, than we gotta knock the nigga out
Smack the nigga up, stomp the nigga out, clap-clap the nigga up”
Flexible, intellectual, bisexual, next to you… perfect. If it suited his rhyme, he twisted words beyond comprehension, like on “Brooklyn Zoo II”:
“You shouldn’t bother this
Leave me alone or like a son he’ll be fatherless
I got the Asiatic flow mixed with disco
Roll up on the scene like the Count of Monte Cristo,
And MC’s start to vanish,
I rolled up on a jet black kid the nigga started speakin’ Spanish
Yo! You wasn’t from Panana!
I asked you how you get so fuckin’ dark, you said sun-tan-ama”
“Sun-tan-ama”! Ol’ Dirty Bastard might be the Vincent van Gogh of rap. Okay, V.V.G. made no money, and O.D.B’s records sell well. Still, a lot of critics and fans misunderstand his ghetto impressionism as the idiot rantings of an utter lunatic, just as it took death for us to appreciate Van Gogh’s art apart from his life. For the family, the premature death of Russell Jones is nothing but a tragedy. As listeners, we can hope for a critical rethinking of his music. He deserves his place in history.
He was devoutly, admirably underclass. He made bad accidents of speech tell the story. But I remember Salon had a piece on O.D.B. after Nigga Please was released in which the writer Jon Caramanica chose to debunk Dirty’s status as a sex symbol, saying he had “a particular strain of black masculinity: debased, unhealthy and, most crucially, other.” Let’s face it, Caramanica’s line of thinking is just People Magazine for post-modernists. But he was far from alone in dismissing the music because of the tabloids. Caramanca writes of “the curious mystique of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Wu-Tang Clan’s nastiest member and, after a few arrests, last year’s poster boy for misguided black male aggression”. It was Van Gogh’s problem, too, that his mental anguish was blamed for his art. Today we see the reverse, that Van Gogh was a visionary who suffered under the weight of self-revelation. He changed painting with the flow of his brush. Art was the only thing that kept Van Gogh alive. He was too fragile for this world.
O.D.B.‘s life also overshadowed his music. While he was alive we joked that it was incredible he wasn’t dead. “Don’t go against the grain,” said RZA, “if you can’t handle it.” I’ve always been impressed with the complexity of this line, which I realize RZA appreciates as well. He says it a lot. Today I read it as a warning. Nothing comes without sacrifice. For O.D.B.‘s art to endure as long as it will, his own life was cut remarkably short.
O.D.B.‘s language was surreal and unnatural. On “Brooklyn Zoo” he proclaimed: “This style I’m mastered in—niggas catchin’ headaches, what? What? You need aspirin? This type of pain, you couldn’t even kill with Midol. Fuck around get sprayed with Lysol.” He begged, he punished, he lost control. The track “Rollin’ Wit You,” ends with O.D.B. asking: “Yo, did you understand that?” In “Rawhide”, he wrote about his STDs:
“I wanna see blood, whether it’s period blood
Or bustin’ your fuckin’ face, some blood!
I’m goin’ out my fucking mind!
Every time I get around devils
Let me calm down, you niggas better start runnin’
Cause I’m comin’, I’m dope like fuckin’ heroin
Wu-Tang blood-kin, a goblin, who come tough like lambskin
Imagine, gettin’ shot up with Ol’ Dirty insulin
You bound to catch AIDS or somethin’
Not sayin’ I got it, but nigga
if I got it, you got it!!
He was an original. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s influence on MCs is difficult to chart because, unlike Jay-Z, his style couldn’t be easily diluted for mainstream audiences. So there’s no O.D.B. equivalent to Fabolous, thankfully. Still, you can hear Notorious B.I.G. try out the Original G-O-D’s flow on “Gimme the Loot,” and Lil’ Jon has turned O.D.B.‘s love for repetition into a child-friendly chant. Instead of: “Big Baby Jesus, I can’t wait, nigga fuck that, I can’t wait,” Lil’ Jon says: “Okay.” The underground took to Dirty’s style better. MC’s like Dizzee Rascal, Beans, and Doeseone wouldn’t make sense without him. The most important lesson aspiring rappers learn from O.D.B. is that you don’t have to compromise originality to be successful, but success might compromise your life. “Don’t go against the grain.”
Death is the chorus of rap music. Just as death inspired and frightened the slaves to sing subversively of freedom, and gave the emancipated poor the blues, then jazz and soul, unflinching words about death have made rap both popular and unsavory. “When Biggie died,” said Ghostface Killah, “they came out with Biggie Fries.” That’s poetry to me, the fact that Ghostface sees a tribute when he eats at Wendy’s. Now that Ghost mentioned it, I can’t help but feel the Biggie Fries are a tribute as well. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate the poetry of the blunt end, but it exists. Death is the central metaphor of rap because it is the everyday risk a lot of rappers grew up around. Follow the ol’ rule and write about what you know, and you can’t deny that callous lyrics about death represent a living reality for millions of people in millions of slums. “Leave it up to me while I be livin’ proof,” said Inpectah Deck, “to kick the truth to the young black youth.” The Wu-Tang Clan changed music only a decade ago. It’s too soon for their members to be dying. On Saturday, November 13, rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard died of yet-unknown causes, presumably a heart attack. He was two days shy of his 36th birthday.
“Dirt Mcgirt… that’s my motherfucking name
Love to flirt… that’s my motherfucking game
They said ‘Who wanna be an MC?’
I’m the original G-O-D
Make young ladies scream’s my speciality
See my style, different from yours…”
~Ol’ Dirty Bastard “Goin Down” from Return to the 36 Chambers