In a career that veered between hilarity and tragedy, rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard — who died in a Manhattan studio on Nov. 13 at the age of 35 — became one of the most eccentric performers in hip-hop. The cause of death has not been determined, though ODB had complained of chest pains that day. Born Russell Jones in Brooklyn, ODB first appeared in the Wu-Tang Clan and quickly became a cult figure for his unpredictable behavior and abstract, lurid lyrics, delivered in a manic, slurred style that owed more to Redd Foxx than to traditional MCs. ”From the second I met him, I knew he was going to be a star,” says Steve Rifkind, who signed Wu-Tang to Loud. Sadly, ODB’s quirks hid serious problems, and he spent recent years mired in legal and personal woes.
Two years after scoring a hit with the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the rapper released a solo album, the acclaimed Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, an oddball mix of gritty ghetto stories, off-key crooning, and gonzo humor.
Soon ODB’s erratic conduct began to overshadow his recording career. For MTV’s cameras, he picked up food stamps in a limo. At the 1998 Grammys, he interrupted Shawn Colvin’s acceptance speech with a bizarre rant in which he declared, ”Wu-Tang is for the children!” He also adopted a number of aliases, including Osirus and Big Baby Jesus. He was arrested several times — for shoplifting, attempted assault, traffic violations, and drug possession — and after walking out of a court-ordered rehab stint in 2000, he was sentenced to two years in jail. Emerging from prison in 2003, ODB signed to Roc-A-Fella Records. Coincidentally, the evening before his death, the Wu-Tang Clan reunited for their first East Coast concert in five years. ODB didn’t show up. Until the end, he insisted on defying convention, frustrating fans, and doing things his own way.
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Elektra, 1995); Nigga Please (Elektra, 1999); Mariah Carey featuring ODB ”Fantasy (Remix)” (Columbia, 1995)