Ol' Dirty Bastard Biography
Arrived at Welfare Office in Limousine, Arrested Repeatedly, New ODB Albums Cobbled Together, Selected discography
After rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard died of cardiac arrest in a Manhattan recording studio in 2004, an autopsy revealed a dangerous mixture of cocaine and prescription drugs in his system. To some who had followed career the career of a man often known as ODB, his death seemed an unsurprising outcome to a notorious spree of criminal behavior that spanned most of a decade. While he was alive ODB's drug-fueled crimes tended to overshadow his considerable musical creativity. As a member of the innovative hip-hop act the Wu-Tang Clan and later as a solo artist, ODB forged a humorous, often obscene, ragged-edged, but subtle style that evoked hip-hop's roots in older funk music. What Salon writer Pete L'Official described as ODB's "gold-toothed, marble-mouthed, free-associative nonsense raps" seemed to emerge after his death as his most important contributions to hip-hop musical culture.
Ol' Dirty Bastard, whose given name was Russell Tyrone Jones, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 15, 1968, and grew up in the tough Fort Greene neighborhood. His mother Cherry Jones called him Rusty and after his death described him to the New York Daily News as "the kindest and most generous soul on earth." Over his short life, he would have many names. The most famous of them, Ol' Dirty Bastard, took shape after he began to spend time on Staten Island with his cousins Robert Diggs and Gary Grice and put together a hip-hop group partially inspired by the Asian kung-fu films they all liked. That group, first called All in Together Now in the late 1980s, became the Wu-Tang Clan after Diggs read books on Eastern philosophy during a prison stint. Diggs and Grice became RZA and GZA, and Russell Jones became Ol' Dirty Bastard—because, as the Wu-Tang Clan put it on their 1993 album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, "there ain't no father to his style."
Arrived at Welfare Office
The Wu-Tang Clan issued a limited-edition single called "Protect Ya Neck" in 1992, and news of their innovative style spread from college radio stations to major labels. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers appeared the following year, with ODB preparing the way for the group's contract with the Loud label by offering an out-of-control version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" before a group of executives from Loud's conglomerate distributor, RCA/BMG. ODB showed a flair for attracting attention to the group; he once drove to a welfare office in a limousine to collect food stamps, trailed by invited camera operators from the cable-television music channel MTV.
By the early 1990s, ODB had already begun to run afoul of the law; he drew a second-degree assault conviction in 1993 and was shot in the stomach during a street dispute the following year. His injuries were minor and did not prevent him from finishing work, with RZA as producer, on his album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, released early in 1995. Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times later termed it "a wildly entertaining collection of low-down jokes and memorable rhymes." The album cracked Billboard magazine's top 10, and two of its singles, "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" and "Brooklyn Zoo," became hits. "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," though less raunchy than many other ODB numbers, was typical of his style musically: its refrain of "Baby, I like it raw" was mostly rapped but was subtly structured so that it landed on sung pitches from time to time.
ODB continued to experience success in 1996 and 1997, contributing a guest rap to vocal diva Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" and a piece called "Dog S–t" to the top-selling Wu-Tang Forever album. In November of 1997 he was arrested for nonpayment of child support; he had three children with his wife Icelene Jones, and there were reports that he fathered as many as ten other children (though only four out-of-wedlock children were located after his death). The Wu-Tang Clan took hip-hop cross-marketing to new levels, and ODB launched his own clothing line, My Dirty Wear, early in 1998. Around the same time, he helped rescue a four-year-old girl who was trapped under a car that had hit her. He also grabbed headlines that year by grabbing the microphone from singer Shawn Colvin at the Grammy awards ceremony in Los Angeles and ranting about the Wu-Tang Clan's loss to Sean "Puffy" Combs for the best rap album award.
After that bizarre incident, ODB's life fell apart. Over the course of the next year, he pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting Icelene Jones; was charged with threatening an ex-girlfriend; was arrested for shoplifting in Virginia Beach, Virginia; was robbed and shot in an apartment in Brooklyn; was arrested at a hotel in Berlin, Germany, for lying nude on a balcony; threatened to kill a security guard at the House of Blues club in Los Angeles; was charged with attempted murder after allegedly shooting at police in Brooklyn (a charge that was eventually dismissed); and became the first person arrested under a new California law barring convicted felons from wearing bulletproof vests.
The bad news continued in 1999 despite help from former O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro. ODB was jailed for a bond violation in connection with the House of Blues threats, and in New York officers found marijuana and 20 vials of crack cocaine in his car after he ran a red light. Between court-mandated stints in a pair of drug-rehabilitation centers, he teamed with rapper Pras on the hit "Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)" and recorded the album Nigga Please, another top-ten smash that landed the rapper on the radio once again with "Got Your Money." That single featured future stars, including "Milkshake" rapper Kelis and the production duo the Neptunes. The album also included a version of the Billie Holiday jazz standard "Good Morning Heartache" that, Sanneh noted, "should have sounded like a joke but somehow didn't. You could hear the sorrow that lurked beneath the surface of so many other ODB songs and stunts."
In 2000, ODB walked out of a rehabilitation facility in California and officially became a fugitive. He recorded music for the new Wu-Tang Clan album The W, but only one track, "Conditioner," was coherent enough to be included. The ODB mystique grew as he eluded arrest at the album's record-release party in November of 2000, but he was picked up at a Philadelphia McDonald's restaurant a few days later by a police officer who recognized him because her son was an ODB fan. Faced with a blizzard of charges, ODB pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in April of 2001 and was sentenced to two to four years in a New York state prison. He was placed under a suicide watch.
New ODB Albums Cobbled Together
Various levels of the music industry responded to the temporary lack of new ODB product by repackaging material he had already recorded: the Elektra label released Dirty Story: The Best of Ol' Dirty Bastard, and a small company called D-3 gathered the material ODB had recorded while on the run from police, added a largely random group of contributions by other musicians, and released the whole under the title The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones in 2002. Despite the slapdash quality of the album, it rose to the top ten of Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop album chart.
Released from prison in 2003, ODB was signed to the hot Roc-a-Fella label, owned by rapper Jay-Z. He announced a name change to Dirt McGirt and began working with the Neptunes and other producers on a new album. The album's eventual title, Osirus, referred to another of ODB's numerous aliases, which also included Joe Bannanas, Dirt Dog, Big Baby Jesus, as well as yet other variants. "I created all those worlds," he once said (according to London's Independent). The album was essentially completed, and reports indicated that ODB had gotten his life in order as its release date approached. The Hartford Courant termed it "the rapper's strongest work in years," pointing out that "'Dirty Dirty' features the same sort of manic raps that made him the comic relief in Wu-Tang."
On November 13, 2004, however, paramedics were called to a Manhattan studio after ODB, putting the finishing touches on Osirus, complained of chest pains and collapsed. His death was ruled accidental after an autopsy revealed that he had taken cocaine and the powerful prescription painkiller Tramadol. The surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan recorded a tribute track, "I Go Through Life," that was posthumously included on Osirus. After his death, ODB's sister Lamarenae Jones mused to the New York Daily News that the rapper would have wanted his memorial service held at the Coney Island amusement park. "He was a big kid," she said. "He loved riding the Cyclone."
(With the Wu-Tang Clan) Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Loud, 1993.
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Elektra, 1995.
(With the Wu-Tang Clan) Wu-Tang Forever, Loud, 1997.
Nigga Please, Elektra, 1999.
(With the Wu-Tang Clan) The W, Loud, 2000.
The Dirty Story: The Best of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Elektra, 2001.
The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones, D3, 2002.
Osirus: The Official Mixtape, Sure Shot, 2005.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 42, Gale, 2005.
Daily News (New York), November 14, 2004, p. 5; November 16, 2004, Entertainment section.
Hartford Courant, January 6, 2005, Calendar section, p. 6.
Houston Chronicle, November 16, 2004, Star section, p. 1.
Independent (London, England), November 15, 2004, p. 34.
New York Times, November 17, 2004, p. E1.
Toronto Sun, February 11, 2005, p. E15.
"Ode to an Ol' Dirty Bastard," Salon (November 16, 2004), www.salon.com (May 7, 2005).
"Ol' Dirty Bastard," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (May 7, 2005).
"Ol' Dirty Bastard," Atlantic Records, www.atlanticrecords.com/olddirtybastard/ (May 19, 2005).
"Ol' Dirty Bastard," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 19, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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