The spiritual journey of Ol' Dirty Bastard.

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Jan. 22 2009 6:50 AM

No Father to His Style

The spiritual journey of Ol' Dirty Bastard.

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Or both, he might have added, in consideration of the role he picked for his cousin. Dirty started rapping under his proud NGE name Ason Unique—a prince, an original child of the universe. But as the Wu-Tang zodiac began to constellate in the mind of the RZA, a different, lower-order persona exerted its attraction: the Ol' Dirty Bastard. The name meant that he had "no father to his style," which was true enough: The ODB rap was built around syllabic barkings and throat-clearings, curses and eruptions into wobbling song, with frequent runnings-out of breath—he had the capacity, in fact, to work against his own breath, with the effect of a boxer who throws his best punches when his feet are tied together. But the name also fixed him in the Clan's kung fu movie mythos: Ol' Dirty & the Bastard starred Yuen Siu Tien as Drunken Master, a cackling old sot of a fight tutor whose sloppy moves wrong-footed soberer opponents.

It became a lifestyle: "thirty-five years of drunken boxing," as Lowe puts it in her book. If the RZA was Wu-Tang's long-faced Prospero, holding it all together in the force field of his imagination, Dirty would be its Caliban. The charges piled up: assault, possession, shoplifting, illegal wearing of body armor, failure to pay child support. As did the aliases: Dirt Dog, Dirt McGirt, Osirus, Joe Bananas, and (the last one, the apotheosis) Big Baby Jesus.

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And the raps, as he weaved between incarcerations, got nuttier. From the beginning ODB had been on the shadow side of NGE lore. "First things first, man, you're fuckin' with the worst,"hewarned on Wu-Tang's debut "Protect Ya Neck": "I'll be sticking pins in your head like a fuckin' nurse." An image straight out of Five Percent nightmare: Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, taught that an evil scientist called Mr. Yacub created the white race by having his nurses stick needles in the brains of black babies. Now the lyrical darkness intensifiedthere's a case to be made for 1999's solo outing Nigga Please as hip-hop's first crackup album, as splintered in its insights as Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs. "I Can't Wait" is an out-of-body rant, served up by producer Irv Gotti on a bed of sizzling violins: "Nurses can't give us searches/ There won't be electric, won't be churches/ Cuz your body go against you/ Whether it's a lie or whether it's true." At times Dirty seems to be prophesying against himself, as if his mind has fractured according to the fateful percentages of NGE dogma. "Yo I take the 85 percent brain," he blusters in "All in Together Now," "Cuz black makes what makes rain/ Dirty brain is like payday to me/ God, unique baby!"

There were terrible times in jail—the "hellhole hotel," he called it—and after a three-month sojourn in the Manhattan Psychiatric Center in 2003, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A year later the owner-of-the-dirty-brain was found dead, curled in the fetal position, with a swallowed bag of cocaine breaking open in his stomach. The only meaning to it, in Lowe's telling, was cessation. Release. "How was I supposed to cry," his mother, Cherry, asks her, "when I saw him for the first time in his life at peace?" Detailed instructions for future biographers had been left in the coda to "Nowhere To Run," his 1998 collaboration with DMX and Ozzy Osbourne. A bare, snarling voice: "What, motherfucker? Don't try to psychology my shit, motherfucker. Cuz you never psychology it, motherfucker. Never. Never. Never, motherfucker. Never."

James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.