Eric Reynolds
Ol' Dirty Bastard 1969-2004 First things first, man, ya fuckin' wit the worst...

From the very first time you heard him, you knew that Russell Jones was on some other shit. The man they called the Ol' Dirty Bastard (AKA Osiris AKA Joe Bananas AKA Dirt Shultz AKA Big Baby Jesus AKA Unique Ason AKA Dirt McGirt) possessed one of the most unforgettable styles in the history of an art form chockfull of memorable emcees--a barking, ofttimes half-intelligible spew punctuated with grunting, sound effects, and psychotic soul singing. Dirty's unmistakable genius stood out in a crew of all-stars--the game-changing Wu-Tang Clan, of which Dirt was a founding member, having first held it down with first cousins Prince Rakeem (AKA the RZA) and the Genius (AKA the GZA) as the proto-Wu crew All in Together Now.

If I wasn't really raw, standing here on the floor/You'd be like BOOOOO HE AIN'T NO HARDCORE...

ODB was one of those rare characters who was somehow pop-ready universal (see his turn on the remix of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy"), yet simultaneously raw like sushi--and just as he told us on his first fire-starter solo single, "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," raw is exactly how he liked it... No matter where he popped up, whether next to Fugees doormat Pras ("Ghetto Superstar"), Fishbone (Blackstreet's bizarre "Fix [Remix]") or Tha Alkaholiks (the rap bender "Hip Hop Drunkies"), Dirty was guaranteed to deliver a dose of delirium that didn't just flip the script--it ripped the lines to shreds, lit them ablaze, and pissed on the flaming remains.

Superlogical this, superlogical that/I detect a nigga dialect by the way he rap...

If you really listened to his rhymes, really went beyond the Drunken Master meets Flavor Flav-gone-Beyond-Thunderdome cosmetic, you heard a troubled genius, paranoid as a mufucka, expelling the funky, digested product of court-mandated reality... and if you could stand the smell of the "Dogshit," you were bound to find countless, glittering gems of insight. Dirt's Return to the 36 Chambers was a shrink-wrapped psychotic episode where seemingly thoughtless free-association was routinely offset by alarming instances of lysergic lucidity.

When you take North, East, West, South/Put it all together and it spell NEWS!

Back in '95, when Return debuted, you would have been hard-pressed to imagine anything being able to eclipse his outlandish persona. However, soon enough, the over-annunciated chatter of newscasters would come to drown out the sound of the music. Dirt's cross-country shenanigans are the stuff of legend, including him taking a limo (not to mention Kurt Loder and MTV's cameras) to get his county check; the rapper prereq. of getting shot; jumping through a second-story windowpane to escape pursuers (word to Erick Sermon); and of course Osiris was the recognized king of the time-honored art of stage-rushing (both the Roots and the Grammys caught infamously bad ones)... and then there's Dirt Dog's run-ins with the Beast.

Not locked up... cuz I'll have your fuckin' ass locked up!

Yes, Dirty managed to catch cases for everything from traffic violations to possession of crack cocaine, from shoplifting to terrorist threats. Skipping out on rehab, fleeing custody, brazenly popping up onstage with his Wu familia, evading police--he seemed more like an incredible series of events than a real person. The Big Baby Jesus was like hiphop's one-man A-Team--more urban myth than human, a ghetto-ass superhero busting shots at 5-0, saving little girls trapped under cars, and getting ghost before Col. Decker could snag his ass... If anyone ever lived up to the formidable mythos of the Wu-Tang, it was surely Dirty. But what about the music?

All music must obey me/All pain must obey/ me/I cripple my enemies/Got that gift of vocabulary...

Ol' Dirty's seminal 1999 masterwork, Nigga Please, contained the tortured howlings of a madman struggling to spin his pain and addiction into gold. Rabidly spraying foam over clandestine government plots, self-consciously espousing the medicinal benefits of cocaine, the man still somehow found time to deliver startling covers of Rick James and Billie Holiday. The latter, an emotionally fraught duet of "Good Morning Heartache," is mind-blowing; the synergy of Lil' Mo's bittersweet symphonics paired with Dirty's demented screeching and mumbled pleas to his lover ("baby, stop thinking bout being so harsh all the time") made for something unexpectedly, utterly beautiful.

Off on a natural charge, bon voyage...

On November 13, we lost a man unlike any other when 35-year-old ODB died of a heart attack in a Manhattan recording studio; I know I felt like I'd lost a friend. Peace to ODB's family and the entire Wu in their time of loss. RIP, Russell Jones. May you find the peace that this world denied you.

hiphop@thestranger.com