Digging in the Dirt


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.”

A year before his death Dirt moved out of his mom’s Park Slope house to his own apartment for the first time. His digs were sparsely furnished except for the fairy-tale canopy bed shrouded in cascading yellow chiffon. The rest of the apartment was showroom generic. This was improbably the home to the stream-of-consciousness MC with gridlocked gold teeth and cornrows that defied gravity. “People don’t see me being myself. I can’t describe it. . . . Life is boring. My life is boring,” he said. But in reality and in his head, ODB had a lot of lives—and now, they’ve been reduced to a dozen or so names chronicled on the backs of hipster tees.

When talking about the Knitting Factory night, ODB chalked it up to drug use, which is odd for someone who was still under the scrutiny of parole. “At the Neon factory? That’s when I was nice like that? I don’t know man, I don’t know, I was in another world. I wasn’t myself that night because I had some Ecstasy.”

His manager, Weisfeld, was quick to respond: “Naw, he’s just playing. When Dirt went onstage at the Knitting Factory that night, it was a pre-rehearsed thing. Dirt got up there and just decided to say he was on Ecstasy.” Why? ” ‘Cause I was on Ecstasy. That’s why,” Dirt said, standing up, now as lively as I’d seen him all day. “You weren’t on Ecstasy,” Weisfeld said. “Dirt, what’s wrong with you?” “I just do what I gots to do. Period,” ODB said. How come it doesn’t show up on urine tests? I asked. “It just doesn’t.”

“Dirt, why don’t you tell her the truth, you don’t do Ecstasy,” Weisfeld pleaded. “Yeah. OK. I don’t do Ecstasy. We don’t do Ecstasy and all that stuff,” ODB said reluctantly.

Back then, it almost seemed like he wished his problem was drugs. But clearly there were other factors. It was reported in the New York Daily News that ODB was diagnosed schizophrenic at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center (MPC) when he was released from prison. For a while, according to RZA, he took court-mandated medications.

“He’s a true expresser,” said RZA. “He don’t give a fuck, and to our society that might be dysfunctional. It’s like that movie A Beautiful Mind. In a way that guy had an alternate reality, like most hip-hop artists, like ODB. You get this idea about life that is different from the average person. We create these worlds, and we get stuck in them.”

When asked about the detour to MPC, ODB said he went “not even for a minute, just for a second.” And Weisfeld quickly followed with “He doesn’t want to talk about that.”

The next time I saw Dirt was backstage at his B.B. King’s show, a couple months into 2004. He was noticeably different. He was awake and hyper. He walked in and sat close to me on the sofa, answering one or two stray questions. He looked confused, then angry: “I did an interview with you already.”

There were six or seven people crowding the room. After a few minutes and some wild-eyed, one-word answers, he grabbed the tape recorder and held it like a mic to his mouth. “This is Dirt McGirt,” he said, “and you all know me and I don’t like answering no fucking questions. You know what I’m saying. You know how we get down and we’ve been doing this for years so let’s continue doing this.” He clicked off the recorder and got up to talk to his mom, who didn’t want to be caught backstage in the first place. She told me before ODB showed up (hours late) that he didn’t like her being backstage before a show because she babied him. A couple minutes passed, and Dirt sat close to me again and in the most serene, concerned, docile manner looked at me and asked, “You OK?”

I guess I looked baffled or shocked by the grabbing of the tape recorder. He got onstage, and performed four or five songs that Weisfeld was thrilled about. It seemed a miracle that he was onstage at all. But when he got out there, he swore and danced and garbled his every word; the audience was left wanting.

Now ODB is just another urban legend. There’s a story of how he ran out of a recording studio to save a four-year-old girl who was trapped under a car—that he lifted the car and saved the girl’s life. His friends talk about the languages he invented, the philosophies he spewed, and the rhymes that ran rampant. “He’s always been outspoken and outlandish,” RZA said. “He pushed everything right to the edge of the cliff and then he pulled it back. . . . His growl, his voice, and his delivery was one of the most unorthodox voices in hip-hop.”

It’s just too bad that such an unpredictable life ended so predictably.