Ol' Dirty Bastard - Biography
By Paul Glanting
The lyrical styles manifested by Hip Hop’s most prominent have been passed down and innovated in a transferal which almost seems hereditary (i.e. the "chromosomes" of Rakim’s silky flow seemed to appear in Nas’ vivid street narratives). Hip Hop is a constantly developing genre, where tomorrow’s artists will build on today’s Hip Hop. However, the idea of a “hereditary” passage of style and technique was snapped by Brooklyn born MC and The Wu Tang Clan’s bizarre jesture, Ol’ Dirty Bastard who's antics on wax and in real-life made him arguably Hip Hop's most eccentric figure of all time.
Ol' Dirty's Fellow-Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man may have explained it best as to the origin, or lack thereof to Ol’ Dirty’s inebriated chaotic lyrics, when he said that there is no father or origin from where Ol’ Dirty Bastard draws his style. The Brooklyn born rapper brought almost otherworldly streams of conscious, humor and even absurdity to Wu Tang’s fairly straightforward tales of crime and kung-fu.
Russell Jones grew up with his cousins Gary Grice and Robert Diggs, who would later rap alongside Jones in The Wu-Tang Clan, under the monikers GZA and RZA, respectively. The cousins had a fondness for the tongue-in-cheek films in the Kung-Fu genre, an influence which would heavily manifest itself in Wu-Tang Clan’s dominant years. The three were also beginning to discover rap music and subsequently formed a group called Force of The Imperial Master, which would later be changed to All in Together Now Crew. However, Grice and Diggs acquired solo deals, both of which which would fall flat. After these deals fizzled, GZA and RZA decided to pursue music but on their own terms and once again joined Jones, who was now going by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a name taken from the film Ol' Dirty & The Bastard, which was the story of an alcoholic kung fu master searching for a successor to inherit his drunken-style.
The trio connected with a sizable group of other fledgling rappers: Method Man, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, U-God, Masta Killer and Inspectah Deck. The group dubbed themselves The Wu-Tang Clan, a reference to a region of China characterized by mysticism and martial arts, commonly featured in the group’s beloved martial arts films. On a remarkably tight budget, the crew recorded Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud-1993), which is widely regarded as one of Hip Hop’s greatest albums. Produced by RZA, the album features his ominous fusion of samples from martial arts films slicing into stomach-scraping soul music. With nine total members, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) features a wide array of styles, approaches and content. Despite this sometimes competitive collision course of styles, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s bizarre musings made him one of the group’s more visible members. Songs like “Shame On a N***a” juxtapose Dirty’s always frantic and sometimes singing rhyme-delivery, against the upfront rhymes of Method Man and the linear lyrical prose of Raekwon. Thanks in large part to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s loyalty to the obscure, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) would swing momentum back towards East Coast artists like Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep, where the West Coast had, in large part, dominated rap music since the early nineties.
Riding the wave created by their watershed debut, the various members of Wu-Tang began to release solo albums. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s solo debut Return to the 36 Chambers (Elektra-1995) gave the rapper an entire album to showcase his lyrical insanity. Kicking off with a hilariously lewd poem about a “lover”, Ol Dirty amplified his dementia and on cuts like "Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie)” where Dirty gives almost equal attention to his arrhythmical singing as he does his hardcore rhymes. The album yielded two fairly significant singles, "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" and "Brooklyn Zoo", both of which masterfully showcased ODB's dizzy delivery while not to the point of being inaccessible. It is certainly due in large part to these two singles that Return to the 36 Chambers attained Gold status. RZA, who produced a hefty majority of the record, tapped his usual soulful sources for samples, but also delved in a more off-kilter direction, following suite with Dirty. As did much of the Wu-Tang Clan’s efforts--solo and collective--Return to the 36 Chambers received a generous amount of adoration from notable publications like The Source, Rolling Stone, Vibe and The Village Voice.
Emerging from Hip Hop’s gritty underground, the off-the-wall Ol’ Dirty infiltrated mainstream radio with a guest appearance on a remix of the sultry Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”, from her album Daydream (Columbia-1995), perhaps one of the oddest musical hybrids ever.
Now with a bit of mainstream attention, the man behind the instantly recognizable slurred voice, maintained an existence which was anything but subtle; Ol’ Dirty Bastard would continue to snag press for everything from collecting welfare while Return to the 36 Chambers was simultaneously on the BIllboard Charts, to rescuing a four-year old girl from a car accident. However, despite his visibility, his presence on Wu-Tang’s follow-up to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu Tang Forever (Loud-1998) was somewhat lacking, especially in comparison to his charismatic presence on the group’s debut. Nonetheless, Dirty provided a fierce introduction (though not a "verse”) to Wu-Tang Forever’s epic single “Triumph” as well as contributing prominent appearances to songs like “Reunited” and choruses to cuts like “Visionz.” Wu Tang Forever would be the influential group’s most commercially successful album and would snag a Grammy nomination for the “Best Rap Album” category, an award which Puff Daddy ended up taking. Distraught with this outcome, Ol’ Dirty Bastard forced his way onto the stage, interrupting the acceptance speech of singer Shawn Colvin and expressed his non-sequiter logic as to why Wu Tang Forever should have beat out Puff Daddy’s No Way Out (Bad Boy-1998) for the award.
This incident would be the first of many incidents where Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s delirious existence within his music became a fairly accurate reflection of the man outside of the recording booth. In 1998, sans any logic or explanation, Ol’ Dirty Bastard announced that he was ditching his current alias in favor of calling himself Big Baby Jesus, though he would release his second solo album N***a Please (Elektra-1999) under his original stage-name. Even more reflective of ODB’s distorted reality than his debut, N***a Please was a tempest of seemingly lyrical hallucinations as can be heard on the homage-gone-awry “I Can’t Wait” and the Rick James cover “Cold Blooded.” Despite the (involuntary) esoteric quality of the album, the commercial success of the Kelis-assisted “Got Your Money”, one of production duo The Neptune’s breakout productions, helped make N***a Please surprisingly lucrative. The sales were also perhaps supplemented by the attention created by ODB’s odd antics. The excessively loose grip on reality presented on the album turned out to be fairly indicative of ODB’s real life, as his legal problems began to stockpile. Dirty had collectively faced charges for attempted assult, failure to pay child support, shoplifting, weapon possesion and he was now facing charges for possession of crack-cocaine.
Due to his legal difficulties, Ol’ Dirty Bastard missed a hefty chunk of tour dates with The Wu-Tang Clan. While incacerated, his label, perhaps duely motivated to rid themselves of the troubled rapper and to capitalize on the hype surrounding his transgressions, Elektra released The Dirty Story: The Best of Ol' Dirty Bastard (Elektra-2001), which was a greatest hits album, relased despite ODB’s only having released two albums.
As his legal troubles increased, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s appearances on The Wu-Tang Clan’s albums continued to decrease with each successive album. Having contributed minimally to Wu-Tang Forever, with Wu-Tang’s third effort The W (Loud-2000), ODB appears on just one song, “Conditioner.” Subsequently, ODB is completely absent on Wu-Tang’s fourth album Iron Flag (Loud-2001).
After being abandoned by Elektra, and while still imprisoned, a new Ol’ Dirty Bastard release surfaced. However, this would be ODB’s second consecutive release to not have any of his input. The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones (2002-Riviera) was composed of previously recorded though, incomplete Ol’ Dirty Bastard music, which was obtained by the label and completed through a lengthy list of guest appearances from the likes of Insane Clown Posse, E-40, Too Short, Mack-10 and even some distant Wu-Tang affiliates. However, The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones was fulminated by critics and suffered from pitiful sales.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard spent several years in prison. He was was released in 2003 and once out, he again changed his name, this time to Dirt McGirt. Along with a fresh alias, he also had a new record deal with Roc-A-Fella Records, the same prestigious label that was founded by Jay-Z. However, while Dirty’s wild behavior and eccentricities were amusing and marketable, they took a tragic turn in 2004 when ODB collapsed. He was pronounced dead an hour later, just two days before he would have turned thirty-six. The autopsy led to the conclusion that the cause was "accidental overdose."
Like the debacherous character he drew his alias from, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s lyrical technique had no “parent” nor did it have a successor to carry on his soulfully intoxicated rants. ODB brought humor and flexibility to a genre generally known for its rigidity. Influential within the remarkably influential Wu Tang Clan, Ol' Dirty Bastard's style is one that shall never be replicated.