"Creation is original freshness related to God," said Ol' Dirty Bastard. No, wait—it was St. Thomas Aquinas. Could have been ODB, though: No one doubted his original freshness, and the entropic rapper was quite as prone to a theological outburst as he was to one that was deranged or dirty-bastardly. Inducted as a 10-year-old into the Scholastically complex systems of the Five Percent Nation—the breakaway sect founded in 1963 by former Nation of Islam minister Clarence 13X Smith—Dirty in his short life would stray wildly from the path, but the teachings stayed with him. Always at his fingertips were the Supreme Alphabet, the 120 Degrees, the Nine Basic Tenets. "The black man is God!" he proclaimed at the end of a 1994 performance on The Arsenio Hall Show. And to an interviewer in 1997: "I'm God. That's my identity, one of the low gods. One of the earth gods—one with a lot of wisdom." Was he high? Almost certainly. But neither afflatus nor clinical grandiosity were at work here: For the Five Percenters, otherwise known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, these were the proverbs of a simple piety.
It's a stretch to call Jaime Lowe's new Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB a spiritual biography—Lowe is as concerned with Dirty's place in hip-hop as she is with the progress of his soul. But as the narrative deepens into disaster, it's hard not to see this story in the light of a doomed pilgrimage, a religious journey that went wrong.
Born Russell Jones in Brooklyn in 1968, Dirty got the Five Percent knowledge from his cousin Popa Wu—the knowledge, that is, that there is no "mystery God" or supernatural deity, that the black man is the father of civilization and his own God, and that the human race breaks down into three percentages: the ignorant herd (85 percent), the exploiters (10 percent), and the enlightened (5 percent). Ornamenting these dogmas was the homegrown freemasonry of the Supreme Mathematics—a series of mystically interrelated numbers, letters, and verbal formulae on which the initiate would be tested and retested. The young Dirty must have been a devout student: Even at his mental nadir, decades later, the lessons stuck. "He could be high as hell," ODB sidekick Buddha Monk tells Lowe, "and someone would ask him what's today's mathematics and he would know."
Dirty's home in hip-hop was the Wu-Tang Clan, where—commercially speaking—NGE doctrine was part of the package, part of the plan. His cousin and fellow Five Percenter the RZA masterminded it on brooding solo walks around Staten Island, N.Y.: In order to conquer the world, Wu-Tang would have to be a world. Nine killer MCs pickled in late-night kung fu flicks, chess lore, Marvel comics, street life, weed cabbalism, and NGE slang eschatology—a hip-hop Middle Earth, with its own legends and grades of being. No other crew could match the sorcerous allure, the smoky Dungeons & Dragons vibe curling off those minimal Wu-Tang beats. "I lived in at least ten different projects," wrote RZA in The Wu-Tang Manual, "and I got to see that the projects are a science project, in the same way that a prison is a science project. ... And in comics, when a science project goes wrong, it produces monsters. Or superheroes."