Music News

Betting on ODB?

When an infamous public life disintegrates, does anybody care to hear the moan? Was it always expected to be this way, especially as the life in question has been kept running along for our collective amusement?

Following the travails of Russell Jones since the rapper who'll forever be remembered as Wu-Tang Clan loudmouth Ol' Dirty Bastard was freed from prison this past May 1 has been surreal -- an id run amok in the hope it'll recapture the glory day, smugly reinforced with stereotypes of the worst nature. Even armed with hyper-aware media cynicism for protection, it's been hard watching.

As with most modern melodramas, identifying the heroes, victims and villains has been nearly impossible. All are guilty, including you for reading this article and me for writing it. Yet few, with the exception of Jones himself, have done anything illegal.

No one can blame VH1's reality TV-making cameras for shooting a hoped-for carnival of a show called ODB on Parole. Or for being scared off after one episode. Footage of the heavyset, unstable Jones berating women looking for money (he's fathered 13 children by numerous partners) and admitting to the camera that staying off drugs is impossibly hard seemed like more reality than even the cable television arm of a multinational corporation could bear.

Nor can you speak ill of hip-hop powerhouse Roc-A-Fella Records, which signed Jones (under his new Dirt McGirt moniker) to cash in on and extend his hip-hop legend. At the May 1 news conference announcing Jones' release, Roc mogul Damon Dash and glowing diva Mariah Carey made a media splash to welcome Dirt into the fold. But after one single -- a mediocrity called "Welcome Home," which saw Dirt riding a Diwali rhythm replica of Lumidee's "Never Leave You (Uh-Ohhh)," voicing little besides just-out-of-jail-and-wanting-to-fuck bravado, with none of his trademark humor or flow -- there are doubts about the experiment. And while McGirt's guest vocal on "Pop Sh*t," off the Neptunes' Clones album, did rekindle his off-kilter croon, appearances with younger Roc artists (State Property's "When You Hear That"), and an old Wu-Tang family member (RZA's "We Pop"), have been duds. (An album, with productions by Swizz Beats and the Neptunes and guest appearances by Ludacris and Busta Rhymes, is said to be close to completion.)

As for Jones' adoption by savvy mainstreamers and pop-fringe party people, for the sake of the opportunity to develop or further a nasty reputation in the shadows of his excess infamy: Well, isn't that just good business? In August, Playboy hired Jones as a guest photographer, an exercise that found the rapper fumbling with a camera and nervously sweating in front of a nude blonde, re-creating a Jim Crow sexual cliché as a photo-op. *N SYNC's other boy wonder J.C. Chasez justified the inclusion of a collaboration with Dirt McGirt on his upcoming solo album by saying that the record company wanted an event and that Dirty came to mind ("Dirty is fresh," he said in the press release. "Fresh out of jail."). Meanwhile, the publishers of Brooklyn's Vice magazine, acknowledged worldwide as the pop intelligentsia's bible of cool, put Dirty on the cover a month after his release, and sponsored his comeback show in mid-June at New York's über-chic club Plaid. That 25-minute show marks one of Dirty's artistic high points since being released.

But if Dirty's primary commodity is as a personality that's a natural outgrowth of his musical popularity, it is quickly losing its value. Or should I say, the personality has outstripped the music.

There's no denying that the original ODB myth was built partially on escapades: An aura of public violence surrounded the Wu-Tang Clan. In various appearances, Jones' personality, honest to the point of uncontrollable, rose to the fore (from the 1995 MTV interview in which Jones discussed STDs and then cashed a welfare check while his solo album was in the Top 10, to kidnapping the mike at the 1998 Grammy Awards and chastising the academy for giving the Best Rap statuette to Puffy. Of course, he was right). Jones has been arrested a dozen times, charged with drug possession, assault and "making terrorist threats" (pre-Ashcroft definition). There was also that two-month escape from custody in the fall of 2000, during which ODB actually showed up and performed a sold-out Wu-Tang show in New York, and then split again. But the law won in 2001, sentencing him to two to four years at upstate New York's Clinton Correctional Facility, a place with the cheerful nickname Little Siberia. That's a helluva rap sheet.

Yet before all this, ODB blew up because he was an undeniable hip-hop original. Lyrically, his violent outbursts and sexual desires were levied with heavy doses of self-effacement and an endearing spoken-sung flow with cadences that bespoke the rapper's every fleeting emotion. At the same time, ODB was the hip-hop world's big-tent ambassador, especially at the height of the East Coast-West Coast war. Master and practitioner of a hip-hop brut, ODB was a warped visionary unable to control his guidance mechanisms, and reliant, as Perry Farrell once famously spoke of being, on artificial highs to fuel his creativity. Jones was along for the ride.

In his public appearances of late, it's been hard for Jones to escape this view of himself, or to rise above it. He's said as much in interviews and in some excruciating scenes of ODB on Parole. Plus, consider the following fiasco: During a 3 a.m. headlining show at the CMJ Festival in New York in late October, which followed a showcase by, of all entities, pretentious screamo label Troubleman Unlimited, and a set by, of all acts, grind-core band Dillinger Escape Plan, Dirty was said to have been lethargic and visibly wasted before pulling his own plug. The job of being Dirty is overwhelming whatever other life Jones could ever know.

But that hasn't universally been the rule. At Dirty's mid-June comeback show, there was a glimpse of the man and the artist in a moment of personal reconstruction. Around midnight, with a packed club hollering his name, Dirty ambled onto a stage with his Brooklyn Zoo posse. And after some humble opening thank yous, he threw down with his old stanky style. At one point, Jones stared into a far-off space, swooping and growling his voice through "Baby C'Mon," his hand unconsciously jumping along with his irrational rhyme schemes, his muse feeding him different lines. The man and artist, who too often remained hidden in character, could be seen at last.

Hopefully, we'll see it again, and soon.

To the mainstream media, Ol' Dirty Bastard has long been a caricature. Perhaps it was inevitable. Yet what the tabloid biographers and the cynics seem to forget is that the myth of ODB is also built on a career of artistic wonders and hip-hop breakthroughs. A sample catalogue:

Wu-Tang Clan, "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993): On the Wu's classic debut, the song is Dirty's coming-out party. With all respect to Biz Markie, here was the first grimy, singing MC, with a flow that was suicidal in its lack of control, but radically on top. Dirty also played Wu's hype man, betraying a careerlong role as a hip-hop uniter, not a divider. Oh, and he co-produced this dance-floor banger.

Mariah Carey, "Fantasy (remix)," single (1995), available on The Remixes (2003): Plain and simple, the idea of streetwise MCs guesting on records by pop divas was unheard of in the mid-'90s. When announced, this hook-up elicited guffaws. More astonishing, though, was the fact that Dirty's verse on an innocuous Carey tune with the Tom Tom Club sample was off-the-cuff magic and included the forever inspirational opening line, "Me and Mariah/Go back like babies and pacifiers."

Ol' Dirty Bastard, "I Can't Wait," from N***a Please (1999): Any recital of how crunk music made its way out of the South and the Bay and onto national radio has to include this rant. Irv Gotti and Dat Nigga Reb's electro beats and TJ Hooker-sampling strings ramble on while Dirty, in his Big Baby Jesus disguise, is in heart-attack-causing mode, screaming his guts out, making the world ready for Lil' Jon.

Additional reporting by Chris Parker.

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Piotr Orlov