One of the founding members of the Wu-Tang Clan, who recorded some of the most influential hip-hop of the '90s, Ol' Dirty Bastard was the loose cannon of the group, both on record and off. Delivering his outrageously profane, free-associative rhymes in a distinctive half-rapped, half-sung style, ODB came across as a mix of gonzo comic relief and not-quite-stable menace. Unfortunately, after launching a successful solo career, his personal life began to exhibit those same qualities. ODB spent much of 1998 and 1999 getting arrested with ridiculous, comical frequency, building up a rap sheet that now reads not so much like a soap opera as an epic Russian novel. At first, his difficulties with the law made him a larger-than-life figure, the ringmaster of rap's most cartoonish sideshow. Sadly, his life inevitably slipped out of control, and the possibility that his continued antics were at least partly the result of conscious image-making disappeared as time wore on. It was difficult for observers to tell whether ODB's wildly erratic behavior was the result of serious drug problems or genuine mental instability; bad luck certainly played a role in his downfall, but so did his own undeniably poor judgment. Despite being sentenced to prison on drug charges in 2001, it's worth noting that while he was running amuck Ol' Dirty's offenses were largely nonviolent; the saddest part of his story is that, in the end, the only person he truly harmed was himself.
Ol' Dirty Bastard was born Russell Tyrone Jones in Brooklyn in 1969, and grew up in the neighborhood of Fort Green as a welfare child. As he got older, he started hanging out more and more with his cousins Robert Diggs and Gary Grice; they all shared a taste for rap music and kung-fu movies. The trio parlayed their obsessions into founding the Wu-Tang Clan, renaming themselves Ol' Dirty Bastard (since there was no father to his style), the RZA, and the Genius, respectively. The Wu grew into an innovatively structured hip-hop collective designed to hit big and then spin off as many solo careers for its members as possible. Buoyed by the RZA's production genius and a number of strong personalities, the Wu-Tang Clan's first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was released at the end of 1993 and became one of the most influential rap albums of the decade. Earlier in the year, Ol' Dirty had been convicted of second-degree assault in New York, the only violent offense ever proven against him; trouble continued to stalk him in 1994, when he was shot in the stomach by another rapper in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn following a street argument.
Luckily, the injuries weren't serious, and Dirty became the second Wu-Tang member to launch a solo career (after Method Man) when he signed with Elektra and released the RZA-produced Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version in early 1995. The stellar singles "Brooklyn Zoo" and "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" both became hits, making the album a gold-selling success. Additionally, his guest spot on a remix of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" produced one of the year's unlikeliest hitmaking teams. With the concurrent success of the other Wu solo projects, anticipation for the group's second album ran high, and when the double-disc Wu-Tang Forever came out in the summer of 1997, it sold over 600,000 copies in its first week of release. Included on the second disc was "Dog Shit," two and a half minutes of perhaps the most bizarre, scatological ODB ranting that had yet appeared on record. And then, the saga began.
In November 1997, Ol' Dirty Bastard was arrested for failing to pay nearly a year's worth of child support — around 35,000 dollars — for the three children he had with his wife, Icelene Jones (by this point, he'd fathered a total of 13 children, beginning in his teenage years). Things picked up in February 1998: he started his own clothing line, dubbed My Dirty Wear, and along with several protégés, he rushed out of a New York recording studio to help save a four-year-old girl who had been hit by a car and lay trapped underneath. The very next day, at the Grammy Awards (where the Wu had been nominated for Best Rap Album), there followed the incident that truly established the Ol' Dirty legend. During Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech for her Song of the Year award, ODB rushed the stage seemingly out of nowhere, clad in a bright red suit. He took over the microphone and launched into a rambling complaint about buying an expensive new outfit but losing the Grammy to Puff Daddy, whom he described as "good" but not as good as his own group, because "Wu-Tang is for the children." Hustled off-stage after this puzzling, oddly timed outburst, ODB was the talk of the next day's news reports, and many mainstream outlets had to find ways of avoiding the "bastard" portion of his name. He further confounded the public by announcing in April that he was scrapping his Ol' Dirty Bastard alias (which headed up a long list that included Osirus [sic], Joe Bannanas [sic], Dirt McGirt, Dirt Dog, and Unique Ason) and calling himself Big Baby Jesus. None of his explanations in interviews even verged on coherence, and the press never took the switch all that seriously; even the erstwhile Big Baby Jesus himself seemed to forget about the idea after a short time.
The rest of 1998 was a slow downward spiral. In April, he pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted assault on Icelene Jones, resulting in a protection order against him; the following month, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he missed two court dates concerning his child support payments (he finally did show up and signed an agreement to pay off the debts). In late June, ODB was shot in a robbery attempt in Brownsville, Brooklyn; two assailants pushed their way into ODB's girlfriend's apartment, stole some money and jewelry from the rapper, and shot him once. The bullet entered his back and went through his arm before exiting his body, but luckily the wounds were superficial, and several hours after receiving emergency-room treatment, ODB ignored the hospital's request for overnight observation and simply walked out. Only one week later, ODB was arrested in Virginia Beach for shoplifting, after walking out of a shoe store wearing a pair of 50 dollar sneakers. Adding insult to injury, his SUV was stolen from outside a New York recording studio a couple weeks later. Undaunted, Dirty went ahead with his plans to tour, set up his own Osirus Entertainment label, and recorded with a group of protégés called D.R.U.G. (Dirty Rotten Underground Grimies). As a result, he missed several court dates concerning his Virginia Beach shoplifting charge, resulting in an order for his arrest.
That difficulty seemed to matter less when, in September, ODB was arrested in Los Angeles for making terrorist threats. He'd been attending a concert by R&B singer Des'ree at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, and refused to be escorted outside by security who'd grown tired of his drunken rowdiness; after he was kicked out, he returned and threatened to shoot the security staff — a felony in California, punishable by up to three years in jail. Not two weeks after posting bail, ODB was kicked out of a hotel in Berlin, Germany, for lounging on his balcony in the nude (no charges were filed). He later returned to California, where he was arrested once again in November on more charges of making terrorist threats — this time allegedly threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend (and mother of one of his children). ODB pleaded not guilty in both "terrorist" cases, and returned to New York in January. At this point, it was still difficult to view ODB as a genuine criminal — not that his conduct had been exemplary by any means, but there was a possibility that he was simply misunderstood, or that the California criminal justice system was essentially criminalizing the act of being a blowhard.
Shortly after ODB's return to New York, he was pulled over for a traffic violation while driving with his cousin. What happened next was never fully clarified. The officers claimed that ODB got out of his vehicle and started shooting at them; he was arrested and charged with attempted murder and criminal weapon possession. However, the police were never able to produce a matching weapon, ammunition, or empty ammo shells to support their claims, and there were a multitude of conflicting stories reported from their side as to the exact details of the incident. In February, a grand jury decided there was not enough evidence and dismissed the case, after which an outraged ODB filed suit against the arresting officers. Just a couple of weeks later, ODB once again fell victim to the vagaries of the California legal system. After citing him for double-parking his car in Hollywood, police discovered that he was driving without a license, and when they searched him, they found that he was wearing a bulletproof vest. This was understandable, given his recent experience in New York, but California had recently passed a law making it illegal for convicted violent felons to wear body armor — and because of his 1993 second-degree assault conviction, ODB fell under that category (in fact, his arrest was one of the very first under the law). In March, now back in New York, ODB was pulled over for another traffic violation (this time driving without license plates), and police found a small amount of crack cocaine in his SUV, leading to misdemeanor drug possession charges. Five days later, ODB was pulled over and cited again for driving without license plates, as well as driving with a suspended license. In the face of this impossible legal maze, April brought one small bit of good news — the terrorist-threat charges involving his ex-girlfriend were dismissed due to lack of evidence. What was more, former O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro signed on as ODB's legal representative.
Still, ODB's run of ill luck continued. At the end of July, he was jailed in California for failing to pay a portion of his bail from the House of Blues case (in a recent court hearing, he'd acknowledged financial difficulties stemming from his legal bills). He was able to post the money and was released; however, just days later, he was arrested in New York after running a red light. He was still driving on a suspended license, but what was more serious, officers discovered not only marijuana, but 20 vials of crack cocaine. He was able to post bail, but didn't return to Los Angeles for a hearing in the body-armor case, and his bail there was revoked and a bench warrant issued for his arrest. In mid-August, ODB checked himself into a rehab center in upstate New York, hoping to address his escalating problem with hard drugs; he soon transferred to a different center in California.
Somehow, in the middle of his incredible, headline-dominating run as a bicoastal outlaw, ODB had found time to record a new album under the auspices of several different producers, including the RZA and the Neptunes. Released in September 1999, Nigga Please entered the charts at number ten, aided by his position as the undisputed king of hip-hop bad boys; it also spawned a minor hit single in "Got Your Money." In November, ODB received more good news, of a sort: his sentencing in the two pending California cases (the body armor and the House of Blues) came out to one year in drug rehabilitation and three years' probation, with no prison time. Despite the fact that a resolution was in sight, ODB complained during the sentencing hearing that he felt police had been targeting him excessively. That sense of persecution manifested itself in a January 2000 hearing in New York, related to his drug charges; apparently exasperated by all the chaos, a sullen ODB ignored the presiding judge, talked dirty to a female DA (in typically bizarre fashion, he reportedly called her a "sperm donor"), and actually took a nap, thereby erasing any inclinations the prosecution had toward leniency. Afterward, he apparently got drunk, violating the terms of his rehab program and probation conditions; upon returning to California, he was kicked out of rehab and transferred to jail. Although he could have faced prison time for breaking probation, ODB received a more lenient sentence of six months in rehab.
Up until this point, ODB had managed to avoid prison time, since he was clearly a drug addict in need of help. Yet at the same time, his apparent unwillingness to be helped meant that, for better or for worse, he was running out of chances. While he'd suffered some terrible luck in his run-ins with the law, the last straw was entirely of his own making: in October 2000, with just two more months in rehab to go, ODB made a run for it. He spent the next month as a fugitive from the law, making his way across the country and secretly recording some new material with the RZA. ODB turned up in a very public fashion at the November record-release party for the new Wu-Tang Clan album, The W (which had been dedicated to him, and featured his vocals on one track, "Conditioner"; other contributions had been deemed too bizarre for release). He took the stage in the Hammerstein Ballroom in front of hundreds of incredulous, wildly cheering fans, and only added to his mystique by managing to leave the facility without getting arrested, despite the large police presence outside. After a few more days on the lam, ODB was captured in a McDonald's parking lot in Philadelphia while signing autographs for a large crowd of fans; in fact, the crowd was so large that the restaurant manager had called police, not knowing what was going on. ODB was extradited to New York, where he stood trial on not only his prior drug charges, but also the various traffic violations and a charge that he violated the protection order on Icelene Jones in 1998. After several trial postponements, in April 2001 ODB accepted a deal from prosecutors that essentially wiped out his other offenses in New York in exchange for a guilty plea to the cocaine possession charges. He received the minimum sentence of two to four years in state prison, and received credit for the eight months he'd already served; moreover, he was allowed to serve the jail time he owed the state of California concurrently. Still, the daunting prospect of state prison was nearly too much for ODB to bear; in July, he had to be put on suicide watch pending a psychiatric evaluation, and reports surfaced that he'd suffered a broken leg after being assaulted in a holding facility.
It remained to be seen how ODB would hold up under the harsh environment of prison, and whether he would ever resolve his legal problems to the point where he could once again enjoy a productive recording career. Accordingly, Elektra issued the best-of compilation The Dirty Story: The Best of Ol' Dirty Bastard in late 2001, despite the fact that he'd only released two albums. In early 2002, some of the material he'd recorded during his fugitive days surfaced on the new album The Trials and Tribulations of Russell Jones, put out by the small D-3 label. With a dearth of actual ODB material to rely on, the album was padded out by a number of guest rappers and handled by unknown producers (even the RZA steered clear of the affair), and ODB himself went on record as knowing virtually nothing about the release. The reviews were almost uniformly scathing, calling Trials and Tribulations a shoddy piece of exploitation. In 2003 ODB was released from jail and quickly signed to Roc-a-Fella Records. The following year found him working on a new album, work that ended suddenly when ODB collapsed in a recording studio and died shortly thereafter. ~ Steve Huey