Digging in the Dirt

Just another urban legend: The final interview with Ol' Dirty Bastard

Russell Jones (Ol' Dirty Bastard) died November 13 as a result of "intoxication by the combined effects of cocaine and [the pain-killer] Tramadol." He had nine days left on parole, and was alone in the recording studio past curfew. He had just missed performing in the first East Coast Wu-Tang show in nearly five years. And this spring, Roc-A-Fella is releasing his last official record.

In October '03 at three in the morning, ODB, at his first official show post-jail, had followed metallists the Dillinger Escape Plan, of all unlikely bands. He took the stage looking like he was fresh from a coma, tears trailing down his cheeks. ODB didn't even seem to notice he was crying. The crowd chanted, begging for the hallucinatory diatribes from his drunk days. Buddha Monk and his Brooklyn Zoo posse filled in words when Dirt's jaw was slack and his mouth open in exasperation. One dancer stripped. ODB didn't even notice. He was paralyzed, lost onstage in a shell of what used to be. His eyes were quiet too, not even responding to the mostly white, hipped-out crowd shouting, begging him to dance—it wasn't much more than a minstrel show. But that was what people will remember—his cracked-out fuckups with the law and blissed-out lady-loving, a life of ghetto celebrity.

Two months later, in January, ODB and I met for what turned out to be his last interview, at his Kensington apartment on a cold, sun-blistered Friday. His manager, Jarred Weisfeld, spoke in a whisper and ushered me through a dark entryway. "Dirt's sleeping," he hushed as he sat me on a leather sofa. "I'll get him up."

It was one in the afternoon. ODB (now Dirt McGirt) hovered in the hallway, awake but groggy. He turned on the bathroom light, pausing to check out who was in the living room. He turned off the light and shuffled into the room in his slippers and a striped terry cloth robe with the tags still attached. There was a stale medicinal smell hovering. He looked like a tranquilized bear; eyes darting up and down till they mellowed and hid behind suspiciously hooded lids.

ODB was never a big fan of talking, never a fan of the press. "Ain't nothing to talk about, I was just a bad boy," he said. There was a time when ODB did enough damage for 20 crash-and-burn superstars, all chronicled neatly in his obits this past November. There was a time when he had plenty to say. Not much of it made sense, but he was happy to rush a stage and warble. Beneath the antics, he was begging for help. Back then there was a shred of hope that ODB's time in jail had calmed him.

"It's all about myself now. It ain't about mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers," he said. "When I get off parole, if I get off parole, I'm gonna try and relocate. I'm going to sit down, relax, and play music. I want to go to Hawaii." Even then, he knew his chances for survival were slim. He talked about escape like the Fort Greene boy he was 20 years ago, rhyming the streets, getting lost in a world of Wu, grasping for that imagined somewhere else. "I miss how it used to be. But I don't want that. It's cool how it is and that's it." He had hoped for a near impossible transition from jail to life. He'd pleaded with his parole board in February 2003 that he could stay straight. ODB explained that he was just offered a job to make another record. "They offered me $500,000," he said. The board expressed some concern—that kind of money can't be good for someone with a taste for crack—but let him go on the promise that he'd clean up his act.

"Dirty went through a lot of trauma and nobody knows how much because we weren't in the cells with him. . . . When he first came out he was pretty stiff, he wasn't ODB," his cousin and fellow Wu founder RZA said. RZA said Dirt was numb to the rest of the world when he first got out.

"It was a tough adjustment being cooped up like that. . . . It just wasn't my scene. I didn't like it in there. I don't like jails. Thousands of threats were made against me because I was famous, because of my walk, whatever, whoever, just because," ODB said.

Starting in 1997 his public disintegration overshadowed his enigmatic voice. First he was arrested for failing to pay child support. Then he was shot in the back by a burglar. A few weeks later he walked out of a store without paying for a pair of Nikes. He got into a fight with a security guard at the House of Blues in L.A. and was charged with "terrorist threats." He was accused of firing a gun at a cop. Then a couple months later traffic police found 20 vials of crack in his Mercedes-Benz. Instead of going to jail, he went to rehab in Pasadena and walked out two months before his court-ordered year was up. He toured the country on the lam, popping up at various Wu-Tang shows until he was caught with a mob of admirers at a McDonald's in Philly. He was a train wreck, no doubt, but he never committed a violent crime. "He was quieter after he got out of prison," his mom, Cherry Jones, said. "He grew up."

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