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The rise and ruin of Wu-Tang's live wire

Jaime Lowe's biography of Russell Jones — a.k.a. the the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard — is like a portrait of the proverbial train wreck: disturbing, sometimes embarrassing to read and yet difficult to turn away from. She gives a sympathetic reading of an obviously complicated man. The book, Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB chronicles his career as a caricature of what a rapper was supposed to be — profane, misogynist, brilliant, eventually crack-addicted.

But Lowe shows him as a product of the welfare state who never shied from that fact, a guy who wasn't afraid to show you who he was. Consider: He used his welfare card as cover art for his debut solo album, and as a publicity stunt upon its release, rode a limo to the office to pick up a government check — which, Lowe reports, he hadn't needed or collected in three years. How to respond to that? Lowe plays it as a lesson to the government paper-pushers who apparently didn't take note that A) the account had been idle, and B) their former client was making lots of money from his very popular recordings. Lowe reports that the whole plan — cover art, welfare check and all — was ODB's idea.

The author looks deeply into ODB's past to reveal his connection to the "Five Percenters," a Nation of Islam offshoot that teaches, among other things, that 85 percent of the population is ignorant of themselves, their place in the world or any understanding of God; 10 percent know some truth in these matters but teach a lie; and the remaining five percent are the enlightened, righteous teachers.

Lowe also gives considerable attention to the Wu-Tang Clan's approach to recording — the members stayed together as a group, but each was allowed complete freedom to produce solo albums with any label they wanted.

Lowe heard ODB perform for the first time in 2003, a year before his death, and — compelled by the train wreck she saw — decided to dig deeper into his decade-long rise and fall. She caught a few shows that final year, including a pathetic appearance at an Insane Clown Posse Gathering of the Jugalos at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park, where Vanilla Ice also appeared. But for the most part, she built her detailed account of ODB's life by talking to people who were close to him and matching the stories with the details of his career.

I listened to ODB for the first time because of this book. His ridiculous energy and original, rapid-fire language are utterly compelling. His life story is too, but for the worst of reasons. Crack and personal demons push his life out of control, and Lowe reports the tragic evidence. He's surrounded by smart people, all of whom simply watch — and some of whom profit from — his destructive behavior. To wit: ODB is booked to shoot a photo session for Playboy — a crass and racist attempt at synthesizing sexual energy, the felonious negro rapper stalking the hot white bunny with a fancy camera. That idea came from his final manager, Jarred Weisfeld.

Exploring a rapper's biography is only half of Lowe's accomplishment. The other half is to hold a mirror up to the culture, to show us what people — in particular those in the music business — are willing to do for a little money, even if a life is at stake.

More by Michael Gill


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