No Father to His Style
The spiritual journey of Ol' Dirty Bastard.
"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."
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.
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 intensified—there'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.
Photograph of Ol' Dirty Bastard by Scott Gries/Getty Images.