Digging for Dirt

The Life and Death of ODB

Jaime Lowe

Faber and Faber, Inc.

 
Digging For Dirt
PART ONE
DRUNK DAYS AND KUNG FU NIGHTS
1.
THE BEST SPEECH SHAWN COLVIN NEVER GAVE, 1998
Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game
—acronym for Wu-Tang

 

 

 

 

 
When ODB was asked what his plans for 1998 were, he said he was “lookin’ for new girls to put babies in.” If only … For a month, there was a stillness surrounding ODB, the mellow before the storm. No headlines, no bullets, just ODB, at home watching cartoons and CNN—President Bill Clinton was on TV denying allegations of an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, while balancing the budget for the first time in thirty years. Against all odds, the year began with a sense of righteousness and virtue. ODB spent February 24 wrenching four-year-old Maati Lovell from underneath a 1996 Mustang whose engine was pressing into her chest. The car was on fire and combustible. He was recording with the Brooklyn Zu at his cousin Popa Wu’s studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant off Fulton. ODB saw smoke from an open window and ran out with affiliates to pull the girl out from under the engine. Afterward, he went to the hospital to visit the girl and her family, declining to sign in. He just wanted to see that she was all right.
The following night, he left Brooklyn in a limo. It was a black-tie evening. Guests politely walked the red carpet, smiles frozen on already frozen faces. Aretha sang when Pavarotti called in sick. That was supposed to be the only hiccup of the show. Producers with headsets cued predictable orchestral interludes. It was the fortieth annual Grammy Awards, held in Rockefeller Plaza, a midtown castle glittery from flecks of nearly forgotten snow. Awards shows have a way of triggering my tear ducts. I can’t watch without a sense of cheesy awe and enlightenment; my investment in who wins amazes me sometimes, as does the feeling of being slighted when my favorites inevitably lose. But awards shows are really worth watching for the offscript moments, when you can tell who someone is by their reluctance or their embrace of the fanfare, when you can detect a human behind the voices and faces that otherwise serve as entertainment. With ODB in the audience there was never a doubt that something would happen. He was the one performer that wore his blemishes as badges.
And so the oh-shit moment of the 1998 Grammys was born. It was the period of televised time that halted ceremonial procedure and disregarded polite customs of clapping and sitting and waiting your turn and not showing emotion. The audience was aghast; the producers were scrambling. It was a glorious oh-shit moment. More than twenty-five million people watched it. Some understood why, how, and what the fuck? Others couldn’t even fathom his name. Ol’ Dirty Bastard took the stage that otherwise belonged to Shawn Colvin, who had just won Song of the Year for “Sunny Came Home,” an unremarkable girl-with-guitar tune. Sweet but boring, the song lilts in a conventional folk style; that it’s about a housewife burning down her home (and metaphorically her boring life) barely registers. While it held on to the number one spot on the Adult Contemporary chart for four weeks running, the song is mostly known for its quiet ability to disappear into the background of The L Word and Veronica Mars. So you could see why ODB had something urgent to say.
He was dressed in a deep red suit—a velvet Versace. His hair was braided tight and woven neatly to his scalp. No flyaways, no pipe-cleaner antennae; he looked sharp. He wore glasses, his gaze focused and serious, real serious, his right arm punctuating as many words as he could unfurl. Erykah Badu and Wyclef Jean, who had presented the award to Colvin, stood mute, likely stunned into silence. ODB took Badu’s microphone upon ascending the Grammy stage stairs. He gave Badu a kiss on the cheek and whispered something in her ear. At the same time the camera was focused on Colvin waltzing out to the stage. She opened her mouth but it was ODB’s unmistakable, undeniable voice that carried. It was the best speech she never gave. “Please calm down, calm that music down.” The camera was, originally, zoomed in on Colvin, but when it was clear Colvin was not actually attached to the voice commanding the audience’s attention, the lens realigned with ODB. He owned the moment. “I went and bought me an outfit today that cost me a lot of money, because I figured that Wu-Tang was gonna win. I don’t know how you all see it, but when it comes to the children, Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best. I want you all to know that this is ODB, and I love you all, peace.”
A statuesque model stood in the background, unsure of her role, her blank face not even acknowledging that something out of the ordinary was happening. She kept looking to her right at a production assistant who eventually rushed out to escort ODB backstage. Colvin, stunned but still a Grammy winner, said “I’m a little confused.” Naturally. It was confusing for everyone except for those who knew ODB. They knew exactly what he was talking about.
As ODB explained later, he was pissed that the rap awards weren’t presented during the main ceremony. They were given out earlier at a ceremony held somewhere else in front of a different, smaller audience. In 1998, the only way the Grammys recognized rap was if you were Will Smith. And this was two decades after the birth of hip-hop. Smith won Best Rap Solo Performance that year for “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” and explained in a post-awards press conference, “Gettin’ jiggy with it is, like, the next level of cool. It’s cool to the eighth power. Some people are fly, some people are kind of hot. But when you are the jiggiest, when you exude jiggy-essence, it’s the acme of cool.” To anyone who knows the Wu-Tang and their nine-volume definition of cool or whatever, jiggy is just nauseating. The foundation of Wu-Tang is in its lore, its urban mythology, its appropriation of kung fu, chess, Buddhism, Islam, Bible studies, cartoons, comics, Staten Island; anything they came across was woven into an intricate web of culture and identification and a constructed community that bordered on cult. They made themselves a world when the projects didn’t provide. And they sold that world to this other world (a primarily suburban one) in rhymes. And here were the Grammys saying fuck you to hip-hop, to ghetto black boys who were aggressively creative. Wu-Tang wasn’t just rhymes, not ever. It was a collage of culture—recontextualized and reimagined—into a wholly new and fantastic universe. Wu-Tang was into fantasy but they were not so into jiggy; Wu-Tang would never employ a word so seriously deaf to street semantics. And so, yeah, ODB was mad, but not at Will Smith or anyone in particular; it’s not like he cared that Will Smith was a little bit more marketable. On that stage, with the audience and his mama sitting in the seventh row watching, they saw how deeply ODB believed in himself and in the Wu. When he felt compelled, when he had something to say, he said it. It was impulsive and childlike, but honest. And really, what do the Grammys amount to, anyway? A pat on the back, a celebration of mainstream music—like they needed a boost in record sales. ODB had been nominated before and the presenter Patty Loveless snickered at the cue cards next to the cameras: “I’ve been waiting all day to say this, Ol’ Dirty Bastard,” when she announced the nominees for Best Rap Album of 1995. Consider the other selections: E 1999 Eternal by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Poverty’s Paradise by Naughty by Nature, I Wish by Skee-Lo, and Me Against the World by 2Pac. It’s surprising the academy recognized his debut album at all, not because it wasn’t critically fit and musically inspired, but because the Grammys don’t often acknowledge musicians who live outside the Billboard top ten. That’s why when he was up there, he had to mention Puffy, the most criminally corporate character in hip-hop. That man was a hustler, not an MC.
ODB brought up Puffy because no one else would. Puffy could package a song with guest vocals and recognizable samples, but his rapping was more posture than actual performance. The Onion ran the headline “New Rap Song Samples ‘Billie Jean’ in Its Entirety, Adds Nothing” and credited Puffy as the producer. He’d been riding the giant coattails of Biggie Smalls for most of his career. His album No Way Out was no exception. The entirely unremarkable single that served as a tribute to Biggie was really more of a vanity project for Puff. Even after Biggie’s death, Puffy continued to attach himself to his star performer and was tenderly remorseful via a hit single that had already been a hit single in 1983 on the Police’s Synchronicity. “I’ll Be Missing You” is nearly identical to “Every Breath You Take.” Isn’t it disturbing that he changed one word in the chorus and won two Grammies (one for the single and one for No Way Out, the album it appeared on)? Isn’t it also disturbing that in this ode to Biggie, the only screentime Big gets is in a still photo at the end of the video, almost an afterthought. He’s not pictured once; he’s not even sampled or quoted. It’s all Puffy doing his odd spastic-knee Fiddler on the Roof dance, clad in a spotless white suit shifting side-to-side in an alley with his elbows up and his sunglasses faded just right. Puffy plays to the camera, looking up, looking down, looking off in the distance, like maybe he might see a vision of Biggie on the horizon. The song is just the start of Biggie, Inc. By itself, it’s tired, the chorus is soulless, the flow truncated by sheer ineptitude. Wu-Tang Forever, however, was an innovation, a double disc that sold more than four million copies and was critically heralded as nothing short of the second coming in the form of a second album. In contrast, Puffy’s equally commercially successful No Way Out (the Grammy winner) was heavy on sampling and light on substance and intellect and real rhyming and personality. Puffy was a nostalgic favorite because of the tribute to Biggie, and it was an easy, safe, Grammy-tastic choice. Replacing that one word and wearing white was apparently enough to earn the golden gramophone. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was speaking the truth in his protest—he was claiming rightful recognition. And incidentally, Biggie was also nominated for Best Rap Album that year and also lost to Puffy.
ODB knew all along that he was going to the awards and that he was going to lose. He stopped by his producer Steve Rifkind’s house a few blocks away from Rock Center just before the ceremony. ODB was going to the Grammys with his mom in a rented white limo stocked with champagne and water and Perrier. He didn’t drink any of it. ODB asked why Rifkind wasn’t going to attend. “We lost. I already saw it in the pre-ceremony I mean, we lost to Puff Daddy. I don’t want to watch that.” Now hip-hop dominates the Grammys, but in 1998 the rap awards were distributed in a pre-ceremony like the tech portion of the Oscars. ODB collected his mom, Cherry Jones, and asked Rifkind, Why did I get all dressed up then?
ODB got on that stage for a reason, with conviction and confidence and purpose. He wanted the world to know that you can speak your mind; that some things shrouded in false grandeur need to be taken to task. After all, this is the same awards ceremony that welcomed to the stage the Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski—better known for her triple toe half loop than for any contribution to the music industry. The Grammys needed to acknowledge hip-hop and black culture beyond Will Smith and Puffy. ODB opened his mouth, unscripted and spontaneous; this wasn’t a calculated breast exposure à la Janet, this was ODB raw and uncut, impulsive and real. And, of course, he was sensitive; let’s not forget the children.
Backstage after the speech, he was handed another mic, and another forum, by Chris Connelly of MTV News, asking for an explanation. (As if he needed one.)

ODB: I dunno, something just jumped into my blood and I was up there. Puffy and all the artists are good artists, but I think Wu-Tang, hey we number one, and that’s basically it.
CONNELLY: Do you think that was the appropriate venue to say that?
ODB: Yes.

On the ride home in the limo, ODB’s mom stroked his head, which was resting on her lap. She said, “You really wanted to win that Grammy, didn’t you?” And he said, “I didn’t really care.” They stopped at Rifkind’s apartment again and ODB asked him, “How did I do?”
Rifkind smiled. It was obvious ODB did care.
Maybe by the time ODB got in that limo to ride home, he really didn’t want that statue anymore, but he certainly believed Wu-Tang deserved it. And maybe he didn’t want it because it never meant what it should. Maybe he didn’t want it because he knew it didn’t matter. It is undeniable that announcing “Wu-Tang is for the children” had more of an impact than winning. It was a lifestyle proclamation, a lifestyle for generations to come. It was a political slogan. It was free advertising. It was a secret code for followers …
“’Member when?”
“Ya, man.”
“Wu-Tang is for the children.”
And in ODB’s mind, it was for the children; it was for the four-year-old burn victim Maati Lovell, it was for the twelve inner-city children receiving full academic scholarships to college from the Wu-Tang Clan, it was for his own kids, for his nieces and nephews and cousins, it was for Steve Rifkind’s kids; any kids he encountered, ODB loved. “Wu-Tang is for the children” simply meant that the collections of MCs were more than Grammys and albums and dolla dolla bills; Wu-Tang was in it as a movement. Maybe it was self-referential. Maybe the reason ODB believed in children had more to do with justifying his own behavior. A child would run up onstage and speak his mind, but an adult knows better; an adult exists in social parameters and inhibited instincts. ODB never sat and thought, “What am I going to do?”; he just did. And there on that Grammy stage in 1998, he lived in that fine small space between lucidity and delusions of grandeur. Somewhere between unacceptable and admirable, between brazen and buffoon, ODB flaunted freedom. Johnny Cash walked the line; ODB saw no line to walk.
Copyright © 2008 by Jaime Lowe