They were chanting for him Friday night at the Continental Airlines Arena, during the Wu-Tang Clan’s first area show as a unit in five years. The other eight had showed—something of an accomplishment in itself—but it probably surprised few that he wasn’t there. This final gesture turned out to be fittingly enigmatic: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, long hip-hop’s resident jester and, moreover, its most tragic figure, died of still-unknown causes the following afternoon in a New York recording studio, two days shy of his 36th birthday.
The numbers—his two solo albums, 1995’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and 1999’s Nigga Please, both went gold—offer a hint of his reach, but they only capture part of the ODB phenomenon. Born Russell Jones, he was one of the great pop culture eccentrics, a reliably difficult character the likes of whom rarely last long enough in the public eye to arouse anything other than passing indignation and revulsion. Instead, over the course of a decade of incredible resilience—fathering over a dozen kids, storming the Grammy stage in 1998 to proclaim “Wu-Tang is for the children!”, getting arrested for making “terrorist threats,” and, in 1994, taking MTV cameras to pick up food stamps in a limousine—he inspired fascination, exuberant embraces, and rabid, often irrational fandom.
Last year, ODB finished a two-year prison stint pockmarked with concerns over his mental health. VH1 was so certain his life on parole would be a hoot that they signed up to film his escapades for a reality series. Thing was, by most accounts, the ODB who made it out of prison was a sober one. Predictable became the last unpredictable thing he could become.
Most people wouldn’t have it, though, and he sadly remained an object of public spectacle. His continued existence as a shambolic cipher, it seemed, was a comfort to others who’d prefer to keep the dark side at a comfortable distance, for whom danger is a concept best kept abstract. And so Rusty, as his mother called him, has said good night to these foul-weather friends: You won’t have Ol’ Dirty Bastard to kick around anymore.