“To the public he was known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard but to me he was known as Rusty. The kindest, most generous soul on earth.”
-Cherry Jones–mother of ODB
It is a daunting task to try and write a thousand-word obituary on a man I hardly know anything about. Sure, I remember playing basketball to Wu Tang Clan tracks when I was in high school; but that was only as a result of the pressure and persistence of a very close friend or mine who demanded his hip-hop CDs get as much play time as my overdone, and inappropriate in comparison, classic rock repertoire.
It was not long before I began to recognize my own closeted affection for the Staten Island collective, soon thereafter, and much to the surprise of my good pal Chris, I was requesting the Clan each time we got into his truck to head off to football practice, drink rye and ginger ale at a bush party, or cruise the ‘dangerous’ redneck streets of my hometown. What was this kung-fu stuff? I didn’t have a clue. What I did know was this:
Two indisputable certainties: 1) I had no idea what this guy was rapping about, and couldn’t relate to any of it. And 2) It didn’t matter, because oh baby, I too, “like it raw.”
A guy who comes onto the scene with a name like ‘Ol’ Dirty Bastard’ backed by a group called ‘The Wu Tang Clan’ presents an immediate problem–or so one would think. And while I feel guilty now for once thinking this way, the more I learn about ODB, the less guilt I feel. It was shock that became his modus operandi, a style that would separate him from his contemporaries. I speculate that the reaction I got from his music was the very response he was looking for. He wanted his audience to hear his music and watch his performance with a “what the fuck just happened” state of disbelief.
One does not jump on stage during the fortieth Grammy award ceremonies (1998) in Rockefeller Plaza to interrupt the “song of the year” recipient speech without full consciousness of intention and desired result. You see, in 1998 the Grammy’s were still not recognizing the rap-portion of the ceremony as a television worthy event; and this pissed Dirty off. Frustrated that the awards for hip-hop were handed out a day earlier, during a non-televised ceremony, despite the fact that the genre of music was over two-decades old and while immersed in American culture, ODB took advantage of this moment to share with the rest of the country the injustices of a biased music industry. While many viewers saw it as a form of “distaste,” others applauded Dirty for his stance against racial prejudices in a country and industry that is supposed to be a leader in the disintegration of exactly that.
A lot can be said about the life of Russell Tyrone Jackson that this article does not have the time nor space for. (As a side not, if you are interested I suggest Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB by Jaime Lowe, which was the primary research source for this article). I could have spent much of my time filling you in on all of his sexual escapades that led to fatherless and unsupported children. I could have gone into detail over his trouble with the law, time spent in and out of the US’s notorious and discriminatory prison system, and the somewhat lengthy criminal record he managed to acquire over his thirty-five years in this world. Finally, I could have discussed his personal battle with drug and alcohol abuse, supposed and much disputed mental instability, and the official cause of his death: “Accidental overdose from a lethal combination of Tramadol [a painkiller] and cocaine.” But none of this gets down to the core of the man known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Time is the ultimate equalizer. The further we move away from nineties hip-hop, the more we come to recognize it as a major player to a much greater subversive trend. What we often fall guilty of when thinking about these acts of subversion is that it is individual ‘people’ who make the parts to these cultural shifts. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was one of those people. In other words, while our language is mostly predicated on the idea that ‘hip-hop’ stands alone as viable, sustainable American culture, we should be thinking about the people that made it this way. It wasn’t some anomaly born out of thin air. It was a culture built on the character and subcultural styles of artists and performers like Russell Jackson.
Alas, forget my self-prescribed verbose haughtiness. It is said much better in the vernacular of the culture:
“What’s the world without Dirt? Just a bunch of fuckin’ water.”
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– Kory French