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Remembering Ol’ Dirty Bastard 10 Years Later: Rap Genius, Rap Cautionary Tale

Remembering Ol’ Dirty Bastard 10 Years Later: Rap Genius, Rap Cautionary Tale:

The year 1993 is of the most revered in hip hop. The west coast brought the groovy portamento synth leads of G-funk to music’s forefront, with Dre’s Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle thundering through the speakers of every Jeep in America. In Staten Island, New York, eight emcees were dropping Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), widely regarded as one of the best and most influential hip hop albums of all time. And on Track 2, amid a Syl Johnson-prepared course of stammering horns, the world meets Russell Jones — a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus, a.k.a. Dirt McGirt, a.k.a. ODB.

I’ll fuck ya ass up
(Hut one, hut two, hut three, HUT)
Ol’ Dirty Bastard, live and uncut
Styles unbreakable, shatterproof
To the young youth, ya wanna get gun? SHOOT
BLAOW. How ya like me now? Don’t fuck the style
Ruthless WILD
Do ya wanna getcha teeth knocked the FUCK out?
Wanna get on it like that, well then SHOUT

Okay, look. Hip hop, at this point in time, was still clawing its way to mainstream acceptance. This was, after all, around the time Al Gore’s wife started putting Parental Advisory stickers on everything with allusions to masturbation. Hip hop was the outlier genre of popular music. Hardcore hip hop was the outlier subgenre of hip hop. Wu-Tang Clan was the outlier collective of hardcore hip hop. And, somehow, Ol’ Dirty Bastard managed to be outlier member of Wu-Tang Clan. Wu-Tang Clan was the Megazord and ODB was whichever Power Ranger controlled its dick.

Rapper? Sure. Singer? I, uh, guess. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was, above all, hip hop’s biggest conundrum: a dynamo of slurred vulgarity and dissonant wailing. And it was dope. The poetic acuity of a toddler presented through the muddled diction of a drunk toddler. And it was dope. In a genre rooted in polished cadence, he would often mar the rhythmic proceedings at hand to suck spit back behind his teeth. Listen to “Snakes” on Return To The 36 Chambers. He actually appears to nod off mid-verse. And, goddammit, it was all dope. These are, by no stretch of the imagination, hallmarks of a celebrated emcee. But we loved Ol’ Dirty Bastard, because Ol’ Dirty Bastard loved Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Every jarring attempt at harmonizing. Every “s” he drunkenly morphed into a “sh.” Every modicum of gratuitous profanity. Ol’ Dirty delivered it with the permitting transparency of GG Allin shitting on stage and the same misguided grandiosity of GG Allin graciously sharing his shit with the audience. This is who ODB was and your approval was not necessary. He believed, with the entire breadth of his being, he was truly “the Osiris of this shit.”

Ten years have now passed since his death of a drug overdose at 35. Wu-Tang has since continued to be a burgeoning empire, offering solo effort after solo effort of surviving Clan members and their seemingly immeasurable list of affiliates. It’s safe to assume that, in an alternate universe, somewhere along that decade’s timeline Ol’ Dirty sought treatment. And I like to imagine that Ol’ Sober Bastard would still be just as incoherent, funny, and lovable as he ever was.

But as much as we love him as a performer, you can’t help but to be frustrated with his decisions as a person. The only thing that outweighed it talent is his insistence on being completely self-destructive.

It’s easy to criticize ODB and the slew of legal issues he faced throughout his life. His life was one of chaos and instability. As entertaining as he was, whether through his music or confusing Drew Barrymore with E.T., or interrupting an awards ceremony and pulling a Kanye before “pulling a Kanye” was even a thing, he was never boring. But with ODB, it was hard to look at his behavior as eccentric and not something deeper. He was arrested numerous times for everything from assault to wearing a bulletproof vest after being a convicted felon. He was believed to have been connected to murders, drugs, and weapons. The FBI had an extensive file on him.

So it’s easy to look at all of this and question why he would continue to be involved in all of this behavior while being on top of the music world. The answer is frustrating, because that lifestyle is what shaped his career, but it was also destroying it. Remember the John Travolta movie Phenomenon when a tumor gave him extraordinary powers, but ultimately led to his death? It’s unfortunate how often that same concept plays out in real life. A talented individual uses their broken and scandalous past to create a future, but then they’re unable to break away from the demons.

Allen Iverson spoke candidly about his troubled first few years in the NBA and talked about how he came from nothing to then having access to anything he wants, whenever he wants it. It was though he had unlimited money. It’s almost unfair to expect any other result from a situation that feels like a setup for failure. We look at someone like Iverson and ODB and wonder why on earth they’d continue to surround themselves with the same people now that they’re superstars. Why would you keep going back to the same places or finding yourself in the same situations? It’s because money doesn’t change you. Money only personifies who you already are, and, without someone to mentor or guide you, you’re destined to find yourself in a lot of trouble. Money and fame don’t solve problems; more than not, it creates unspeakable hardship for those that aren’t prepared for it.

ODB wasn’t a victim of success as much as he was a victim of himself and a victim of “keeping it real.” We judge and criticize artists for selling out or changing who they are, but then in the same breath mock others for refusing to change and still behaving in a way that seems to be beneath them.

You can’t have it both ways.

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