Ol’ Dirty Bastard
ODB Hits Rock Bottom ”T-SHIRTS?! Alright, come on man. One step at a time. Do a few shows… start the ball rolling… see what happens…” Huh? If I told you the tale of a recording artist whose last studio album cracked the Billboard Top 10 in its first week of release, who recently signed with one of hip-hop’s premier labels, whose next album is slated for holiday release, with collaborations with Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Method Man, and with production by the Neptunes and the Rza — his own cousin who recently scored Kill Bill — who already has one VH1-produced reality show based on his life and more shows in the works, and whose own clothing line’s launch is imminent — would you ever guess that this recording artist would fail to have at least one T-shirt for sale at his concert? Or a poster? Or a button? But as the guy working the merchandise table at the Knitting Factory explained, it’s “one step at a time” when the recording artist in question is none other than Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Ah, the paradox that is 34-year-old Russell Jones, better known outside the criminal justice system as Ol’ Dirty Bastard (or Osirus[sic], Unique Ason, Dirt Dog, Big Baby Jesus, and most recently, Dirt McGirt). These are not mere names, mind you, but separate and distinct personalities all in one man. Ol’ Dirty Sybil, if you will. Just hours after being released from state-imposed treatment at a mental facility on May 1, the flashbulbs reflected off ODB’s shiny gold tooth as he sat next to CEO Damon Dash and Mariah Carey to announce his signing to Roc-A-Fella Records. ODB’s legal and personal shortcomings behind him (he’s been shot twice, and has over a baker’s dozen in arrests and illegitimate children), Dash trumpeted the return of a sober, new-and-improved Ol’ Dirty, claiming the acquisition of the Wu-Tang member into the Roc-A-Fella fold marked the “evolution of an empire.” So where’s the T-shirt? Opener Dillinger Escape Plan had T-shirts, and that’s just the edge of the chasm of difference that separates them from the headliner to follow. Billed by the Knitting Factory as CMJ 2003’s most compelling bill, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Dillinger Escape Plan seemed like an unlikely duo from the start. DEP plays prog rock death metal. It’s Dream Theater on a face-meltingly bad acid trip. To be able to play so precisely in rapid-fire mode, the musicians deserve commendation for being talented and ridicule for being annoying. Their sound is good for the angst-ridden, or for those with apartments ridden by cockroaches impervious to Raid. With DEP opening for ODB, I feared an Altamont-style melee between what I imagined would be two polarized fanbases — the Hell’s Angels versus the Shaolin Bloods. After all, the Wu is a violent ilk. I saw the Clan at a small club in Raleigh, North Carolina ten years ago. Twenty minutes into the show, the crowd went berserk. Chrome flashing and tables smashing, I ran for my life; and I fearfully anticipated similar antics tonight. Oh what a difference a decade makes. ODB’s fanbase has apparently fled from the rugged lands of Shaolin for the manicured yards of Bergen County. When white people are this at ease rapping the “N” word along with the MC performing, you know it’s a harmless environment. An ODB show is like a Tyson fight. You don’t much care about the prowess of the marquee performer; instead you just want the spectacle. To witness the maniac in the flesh. “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” ODB’s proponents’ biggest defense of his style and his importance as an MC, is that, beyond all others, he “keeps it real.” Unlike other fakers, there has never been any doubt by anyone that he is as crazy as he sounds on wax. ODB’s fans are boastful of his insanity, and have waved it proudly as a banner throughout all his missteps, court-imposed rehab stints, and incarcerations. But when faced with the reality of what this means, one is quickly confronted with the startling fact that mental illness is not a good thing at all. Having witnessed tonight’s performance, I can say with conviction that Ol’ Dirty Bastard should not be doing press conferences with Mariah Carey. He should not be making music with Jay-Z and the Neptunes. He should not be launching his own clothing line. He should not be on stage at the Knitting Factory. No; instead, he should be in a mental hospital, trading in his platinum Roc-A-Fella medallion for a patient ID bracelet. Unfortunately, though, the money ship has already left the dock, and in the wake of destruction behind him, ODB has no choice but to hop onboard. After all, this may be his only way to provide for himself, his mother (backstage and dressed-to-the-nines at tonight’s performance), or his aforementioned children. And we’re all facilitators — from Damon Dash to yours truly who bought the concert ticket, we all want the ODB ship to keep on sailing along. At least that was before the show. Forget seeing Dirty. Tonight, I felt Dirty. No, not in the way rap fanatics talk about understanding or “feeling” an artist — I mean I actually felt dirty. Disgusting even. Bullfight dirty. Tampa strip club dirty. Tonight’s performer was the shadow of a man, catatonically sedated, paraded on stage like the Elephant Man by his handlers and hangers-on. This was the not the man who, a decade ago, dropped Return to the 36th Chambers, one of the most off-the-wall, edgy rap albums of all time. Indeed, of the entire Wu roster, ODB’s verses were the ones always branded deepest into your subconscious. His staccato delivery of offensive lyrics, his mental meanderings, his “dying hound” singing voice — O.D.B. was originality undisputed. And, in fact, to date, no one has come close to imitating his style, except perhaps the Milli Vanilli fools onstage with him tonight. ODB’s posse (sans ODB), including members of rap outfits Sunz of Man and Brooklyn Zoo, took to the tiny Knitting Factory stage around 2:00 a.m., and proceeded to shoot off at the mouth. Not rapping mind you, just reciting your standard gangster platitudes, and trying to hype the already-skeptical crowd: ”Where all my Brooklyn Zoo niggas at?” Welcome Home You Dirty Motherfucker!” “Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up. Turn The Muthafuckin’ Mics Up, Man. Turn The Muthafuckin Mics Up!” A few limp ‘Wu” “TANG!” call-and responses. Your standard fare. Let’s face facts. As inspiring and ferocious as hip-hop can be on record, it can suck live. Unless there’s some organic musical accompaniment (the Roots), verbal do-wop interplay amongst several players (Jurassic 5), incredible backup dancers or set design to occupy the eye (Missy), or all-out violence, you’re not in for a night to remember. And so as ODB’s posse completed its rants to the docile audience, I assumed we were in for the same ol’ same. But after witnessing the man himself, the show quickly devolved from the mundane to the tragic. Seemingly out of nowhere, an offstage voice rose up high above the masses and the crowd finally started simmering. It was ODB’s unmistakable voice, hyping the crowd from beyond. But after a minute of growing excitement, the crowd became deflated when the voice’s owner suddenly revealed himself, and it wasn’t ODB at all. Instead, it was another MC (Buddha Monk) who does a spot-on impression of ODB. The needle dropped and the show began, with ODB still MIA. Midway through the first song, ODB finally walked on stage, somehow to little fanfare. Most of the uninitiated crowd (“Is that him? Is that him?”) did not even recognize him, and why would they? This was not some grand entrance, but a meek hobbling, steadied at both arms and assisted onto the stage by two handlers. ODB may have finally made it to center stage, but someone should have bothered to tell him. He was nowhere. His dazed vacant stare had everyone in the crowd scratching, instead of bobbing, their heads. While the other MC’s onstage swayed, shook, and pumped fists to the beat, Ol’ Dirty just glared around, expressionless and bewildered. When he tried to rap, he faltered. Virtually every line he began was finished by someone else onstage, because ODB simply couldn’t remember the words. Admittedly, Buddha Monk’s impersonation of him was uncanny, but no Elvis impersonator ever sold out Vegas. It was a sham, compounded by a skipping needle which revealed ODB was being verbally aided, not only by the other MC’s, but by his own recorded voice as well. The “hits” that peppered the short 30-minute set were all played in this style, and with each song the crowd grew more defiant and eventually fell to booing. Toward the end of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, ODB dropped his mic accidentally. A posse member retrieved it from the stage floor, stifling a giggle as he placed it back into ODB’s frail hand. At one point, a crowd-surfing audience member was lured on stage by ODB’s posse only to be violently pummelled when he reached it. Then, the sole female member of ODB’s stage crew started grinding on a nearby MC and flashing her breasts. This may have been an attempt to galvanize the now exiting audience but instead only inspired more wincing — the last in a series of Carnival ploys to help console the audience into not feeling utterly cheated for paying the price of admission. Throughout this debacle, ODB remained onstage but with little to do. Except for a few off-beat body sways to-and-fro, he remained motionless, like a frightened, wounded, helpless animal. Shook; as if he were still in jail, sheepishly trying to avoid confrontation. At one point, Buddha Monk pretended to communicate with his meal ticket, telling him, as if to justify ODB’s lifeless behavior, “Dirt, I don’t want you to do NOTHIN’. I want them to feel the VIIIIIIBE.” And turning to the audience, “In order to be like we be, you got to be…HIIIIIGH”. If by “high” he meant “catatonically medicated,” then maybe this Monk was a prophet after all. For his swan song, “Brooklyn Zoo”, ODB actually rhymed about 16 lines before the posse had to intercede. The words, or course, contained no passion and had simply been memorized, but at least they’d been delivered by the man himself. Definitely his biggest accomplishment of the evening, and you sensed in a faint smile that he was actually somewhat proud in this feat. Before the end of “Brooklyn Zoo”, however, ODB resigned himself, handed the mic to a cohort, and was quietly helped off stage, never to return. Whether we have seen the last of ODB remains to be seen. Despite all the hype of TV specials and record releases, ODB’s business ventures appear to be in the disarray that has marked his entire life. The VH1 special “ODB On Parole” seems to be in limbo. And Damon Dash is no fool. Despite May’s highly publicized press conference, Roc-A-Fella has cooled on its promotion of its much-hyped signing. The Roc’s website lists ODB on its roster, but includes nothing further — no bio, no features, no press releases, no hope really. All the talk of his prodigal album may never come to fruition if Ol Dirty’s mental instability becomes too high a hurdle. But since his brand alone could probably move a few hundred thousand units, odds are the album will find its way to release. And maybe his clothing line, or the gang of producers angling him for a “reality” show, will land some cream in Ol’ Dirty’s pockets. Indeed, maybe ODB will become the next Ozzy Osborne, a harmless bumbling caricature of himself, resigned to letting others trade on his brand and bygone greatness, while keeping himself peacefully medicated (and paid). But we all know better. Like Mike Tyson’s, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s tale won’t have a happy ending. Something tells me, unlike Ozzy’s, ODB’s handlers won’t be competing for daytime Neilsens with Oprah and Ellen anytime soon, or have the business savvy that comes with it. Instead, they’ll just be picking his pockets. At least the mark won’t be coherent enough to notice or care.