Just over four years ago, the mad Wu-Tang affiliated rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones to his mother) met an untimely end, collapsing on a studio floor two days short of his 36th birthday. His complicated legacy–the fragmented clan he left behind, the wild antics he became famous for, and the bewildered fans who remain–has become the subject of a book by onetime Voice writer Jaime Lowe. Part bio, part book-length critical essay, Digging For Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB is an unlikely examination of an unbelievably complicated life. The book comes out today; we caught up with Lowe to mark the occasion.
So why ODB?
I would say it started with seeing him at CMJ [at the Knitting Factory, in 2003]. And kind of being well aware of the trajectory of his public persona, and of his general self-destructive and bizarre antics. And then seeing him put onstage in a way that was really mortifying, because he was so clearly gutted of any life or sense of himself and was up there as this kind of shell. I don’t know if you were at the show.
It was like–he was slack-jawed, he was crying, he was not actually rapping, he was just sort of–his mouth was open, and [Wu-affiliate] Buddha Monk was rapping in back of him. And it was one of the most disturbing things that I think I’ve ever seen. I was really interested in trying to figure out how he had gone from this incredibly vibrant presence in hip-hop to this really destroyed soul.
It seems like there’s a real current of anger in book–frustration with everyone to MTV to RZA in terms of playing a role in getting him to that mortifying point.
Well I definitely think, and this includes me–I think we all are responsible. Everyone who was a fan of his watched him and gawked. And it’s the same thing that is happening with Britney Spears, on a different scale. It’s happening with Amy Winehouse. It happens with celebrities all the time. It’s this concept that their disfunction is entertaining, and it’s an awful human instinct. But, you know, a car crashes and you can just sit there and stand by and watch it and not really feel like you can do anything. And in a lot of ways I think that that’s it. Nobody–I couldn’t have, RZA couldn’t have, even [scum-sucking final ODB manager] Jarred Weisfeld, his mom–nobody could’ve saved ODB. He made choices and he lived his life the way he did. And there was greatness with that, and there was a lot of destruction with that–self-destruction more than anything.
Well there are a lot of pretty great ODB stories in the book. Do you have a favorite anecdote?
I loved him at Hammerstein Ballroom [2000’s The W release party, which took place while Jones was a fugitive]–just showing up, quite clearly about to get put away after having been on the lam for months and months. I also like the smaller, human stories, like when he doesn’t have shoes on at Universal Studios and gets into a huge argument with the security guard over whether or not he can go on a ride. There’s something about that that just is quintessentially like ‘Fuck the rules, I’m not wearing shoes and that’s the way it’s going to be.’ And it was: He went on the ride without shoes.
And then there are some more depressing stories too. That Playboy scene [in which Weisfeld booked ODB to photograph a “completely naked and coifed apple-pie white girl” for the magazine within a week of his release from prison] is unreal.
Yeah, it’s awful–he was placed into this situation where it was meant to be provocative and weirdly sexual, and he really was just trying to take pictures as technically good as he could. He was just trying to do a good job! And it was sad. The whole last act of his life is something that I think is really tragic.
You see ODB’s legacy in rap and culture in a lot of different places. But at the same time you seem to fret that he’s being forgotten. I wonder what you feel like this guy left behind?
I still feel like he’s a little bit forgotten. I mean, he definitely hasn’t had the Tupac or Biggie treatment. He definitely does not have the catalogue to warrant it. He’s not going to be able to be able to put out tons of albums of old recordings. He barely recorded in his lifetime. He wasn’t a particularly prolific artist. But he opened up a lot of issues that I think are worth talking about and that can be talked about if there’s a space and a forum.
And a lot of those have to do with the black man in society. He represented in this persona this hyperbolic representation of that. He left behind this sort of spirit in hip-hop, not spirit, but the sense in hip-hop of showmanship and having fun that I think in some ways has been replaced with boasting and materialism. He really just wanted to get out there and entertain when he was at his best. He really thrived on an audience. And it was returned to him in kind.
The fourth anniversary of ODB’s death was three weeks ago. Did you do anything to mark the occasion?
Let’s see–that was the 13th? I believe that Jared Weisfeld threatened me with a lawsuit. I marked it by thinking, “OK, please stop contacting me.”
What’s the story with that?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask Jarred Weisfeld.