THE BLOG
11/19/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reflections on Ol' Dirty Bastard Ten Years Later: ODB as a Microcosm of American Inequality

Ten years from last Thursday, the American rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard (ODB), died of a drug overdose. This past Saturday would have been his 46th birthday. The Brooklyn-born rapper was a man of many nicknames (Osirus, Dirt Dog, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Ason, Ason Unique) but was known primarily as Ol' Dirty Bastard, because his style was "old school," his lifestyle was "always dirty," and "there was no father to his style."

ODB's posthumous legacy pales in comparison to other MCs who died prematurely (e.g. Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac). He did not have the lyrical prowess of his contemporaries. Although he was critical to the success of the Wu-Tang Clan, the innovative hip-hop collective that helped augment an already existing black interest in Asian culture, one could look within this group and come to a similar conclusion about his inferior lyrical position. His individual offerings did not have the genre-impacting influence of Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx, the commercial appeal of Method Man's catalogue, or the consistency of Ghostface Killah's work.

Yet ODB and his singsong flow undeniably left an imprint on hip-hop and American society -- a fact that is evinced by Kendrick Lamar's recent performance on Saturday Night Live where he paid homage by imitating the deceased rapper's gyrations while utilizing ODB's signature black eyes and half-braided hair style during his performance. In the past few days and past 10 years there have been some attempts to document his life but they have received scant attention from mainstream audiences.

Examining ODB, a fascinating personage in and of himself, also offers insights into institutions and logics that help shape black sociopolitical life -- specifically, the welfare state and the criminal justice system on the one hand and, not unrelated, distrust of government and racial suspicion on the other. Although Dirt's drug use and suspected mental illness obscured these insights, a critical inquiry into his life and archive highlights some of the unpleasant features of American race relations; it also illustrates the point that some of the most elucidating case studies are of those that we commonly dismiss as eccentric or "crazy."

WELFARE AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Before there was TMZ, there was MTV News with Kurt Loader. One of the show's most notable clips, and one of Dirt's most memorable antics, featured him picking up food stamps in a stretch limousine. In the segment, Dirty rides in luxury with his wife, children, and what appears to be clear alcohol (which he calls "juice"). Fresh off of Wu-Tang's successful debut album, as well as a $45,000 advance from his record label, Dirty describes himself as rich and proceeds to cash in on welfare benefits.

The segment was supposed to offer an amusing glimpse into Osirus' unique worldview. But to detractors, the clip displayed black undeservingness and the inefficiencies of welfare administration. The Dirt Dog was taken to represent everything that was wrong with the welfare system (although the late Richard Iton notes, "another possible implication was overlooked: recording artists are rarely fairly compensated"). While a seemingly outrageous act on its own right, ODB's ostentatious trip to the welfare office must be further contextualized.

First, the cover of ODB's debut album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version prominently featured a picture of his welfare card. The portrait -- which is now a mural in a gentrifying section of Brooklyn that Dirt probably would not recognize were he alive -- alludes to the publicly defiant "bad nigger" tradition that stretches back to black boxer Jack Johnson and exists today in social media-induced displays of black criminal behavior.

Second, the apparent middle-finger to the social safety net occurred at a critical moment in the 1990s: during bipartisan calls for welfare reform and months before President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created draconian rules and requirements for welfare recipients and "ended welfare as we know it."

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To say ODB was the face of welfare reform would be a stretch since that designation was unduly attached to black and brown women through the trope of the welfare queen. Nevertheless, whether knowingly or unwittingly, ODB's MTV clip provided dog-whistle fodder for whites' already misinformed views about blacks' putative addiction to welfare.

The segment also speaks to some of the many reasons why people "cheat welfare" which include but are not limited to: its inadequacy as a safety net; greed; genuine as well as misguided feelings of entitlement; the controversial view that welfare is a form of reparations (hence Dirt's comments "you owe me 40 acres and mule anyway"); the perception that there are no risks to cheating; and as a means of resisting the state. Welfare attempts to regulate marginalized groups' behavior and impose labor discipline, but in the case of the unruly ODB, this attempt appeared futile.

ODB also had a complicated relationship with the other component of government that some argue regulates poor people and colored folk in tandem with welfare administration: the criminal justice system. A good chunk of ODB's penal problems appears to be a result of his own doing. While cocaine (which he claimed in one song "cleans out my sinuses") seemed to be his primary issue, some of his self-inflicted involvement in the legal system stems from: being drunk and disorderly; threatening different women in his life; failure to pay child support; making terroristic threats; shoplifting; getting kicked out of a drug rehabilitation program for being drunk; escaping another drug rehabilitation program; and being a fugitive from police after his escape. Herein lies a truth that conservatives take glee in and super left folks evade: some people simply break the law.

But some of his entanglements in the penal system seem to be a product of happenstance. In 1999 he was arrested for unlawfully wearing a bulletproof vest. One could hardly blame him for possessing such armor. He was shot at by police a month before, was actually shot on two separate occasions in 1994 and 1999, and presumably had the recent shootings of 2Pac and Biggie on his mind. For many African Americans and Latinos, involvement in the criminal justice system is just an issue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For others, the threat of bodily harm, coupled with unreliable police protection, leads them to unlawfully take matters into their own hands (e.g. body armor, retaliation, illegal gun ownership). Some might rightfully find such behavior inappropriate but the trauma of past violence and the specter of future violence can lead many people to break the law. Dirt was no exception.

Finally, some of ODB's criminal history may have stemmed from police surveillance. Some of his arrests curiously began through traffic stops. These stops could be a simple consequence of Dirt's erratic behavior and rule defiance, except expressed in a vehicular fashion. Alternatively, these stops could be attributable to an equally plausible reality: black and brown folks' consistent subjection to police surveillance and pretextual stops. When coupled with speculations about the existence of a hip-hop police -- a supposed task force that monitors the movements, affiliations, and financials of rappers -- it is not unreasonable to believe that some of ODB's penal problems were a byproduct of biased policing.

GOVERNMENT DISTRUST AND RACIAL SUSPICION

For those who think it is conspiratorial to rethink ODB's encounters with the state, that leads me to my next point. Dirt McGirt's oeuvre of albums, interviews, and miscellanea entailed an interface of preposterous conspiracy theories and anti-white sentiment. Sure, it's hard to take Osirus seriously when he raps "kill all the government microchips in my body" or professes "if I die the CIA did it. That's real... children go run and tell the other children." Such suspicion of conniving behavior is often dismissed as buffoonish due to a lack of evidentiary support. But blacks' sometimes-contentious interactions with state bureaucrats (e.g. the criminal justice system, public school teachers, welfare administrators, and health care bureaucrats) can sometimes move such theorizing from paranoid to understandable. Indeed, trust varies by race and as Shayla Nunnally has argued, blacks' experiences with the attendant uncertainty, risk, and unfairness that comes with institutionalized racism impacts their trust in government.

ODB's crude hyperbole was an eccentrically magnified version of black distrust that is rooted in contemporary and historic wrongs. The Tuskegee experiment -- a 40 year U.S. Public Health Service study that involved researchers who deliberately failed to treat black syphilis patients despite the existence of a cure -- was in effect until the day after ODB's 4th birthday. The project ceased primarily because of a whistleblower. State-sponsored sterilization of poor and/or minority women is another source of the kind of black cynicism ODB harbored. The distribution of cocaine in American cities by United States-funded Nicaraguan Contras (which is the subject of renewed interest, and which the CIA has somewhat acknowledged) might not address ODB's specific allegations but they do raise questions about government complicity and/or inattention to black suffering.

Subsumed under this suspicion was an anti-white sentiment, a conflation that was in one sense odd considering the audience and labels that paid his bills, but logical considering his welfare antics. If he could unscrupulously collect money from the state, he could collect from white suburban teens and old white executives. His second and last album released during his lifetime was supposed to be titled The Black Man Is God, White Man Is the Devil, which was an ode to the Five-Percent Nation (a Nation of Islam offshoot). Nevertheless, his label found it to be too incendiary and oddly found the eventual title Nigga Please to be more palatable. On "Rolling with You" the Dirt Dog engages in a bigoted diatribe that admonishes black listeners for not recognizing "that these white people are trying to take over your shit!" To be sure, it would be unsophisticated to conclude that all white people are malevolent in the same way that it would be erroneous to conclude that all black folks are criminals; it is unreasonable to advocate for recognition of black heterogeneity while denying whites this same nuance.

At the same time, Dirt McGirt was also performing during a moment of 1990s neo-black nationalism and publicizing feelings that resonated with many dispossessed folk in black and brown communities. These sentiments were largely driven by class and racial inequality -- specifically the simultaneous atrophy of welfare, the destruction of public housing, the disappearance of stable jobs, and the impairment of public health bureaucracies that characterized the late 20th century. For many people across racial groups, scathing anti-white sentiment is difficult to hear, impolite to talk about, and easy to dismiss. ODB was hardly the most articulate spokesperson to denounce white supremacy, but he did comment on it, which was rare even in the artistic world. He was the last of a dying breed of mainstream hip-hop iconoclasts who spoke about white animosity and brought such discussions out of their coffers.

THE COMPLEXITY OF BLACK LIFE
All that I've described so far -- ODB's involvement in the criminal justice system, welfare fraud, suspicion of government, and anti-white sentiment -- could have been inspired by drug addiction. Cocaine and alcohol were his substances of choice. It is unclear how much these substances impacted him; his drug abuse is also difficult to disentangle from questions of mental health. The popular consensus is that ODB had some kind of mental illness. This is not new terrain for hip-hop, especially considering Zak Cheney-Rice's observation that "crazy," "sick," and "ill" are considered compliments in the culture. Depression, suicide, despair, and fixations with premature death are prevalent themes in this form of music (think 2Pac, Biggie, DMX, Scarface).

Although, it is well-worn to comment on the lack of discussion of mental health in the black community, Cheney-Rice is astute when he notes, "the fact that we must question rappers' mental health in retrospect means we're failing to do so in the moment, and that reinforces our collective ignorance around these issues." Dirt's life is emblematic of the distinct and interrelated issues of drug addiction and mental illness, as well as public health bureaucracies' inability to monitor these issues vis-à-vis black folks.

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This is not an attempt to lionize such a troubled figure. Dirt had a host of issues that have been the bane of many black communities and general society. He constantly deployed homophobic language. He was excessively misogynistic and often imagined women as sex objects. He fathered 13 children and had constant issues with child support. But the legacy of a man who helped Mariah Carey shed herself of her squeaky clean image and assisted in making R&B/hip duets popular, stole a kiss from Erykah Badu before hilariously interrupting the 1998 Grammys (before Kanye), saved a four-year-girl after a car accident, and walked around Brooklyn with no shoes looking to "get high," raises important questions about how we talk about deceased artists and public figures.

One only has to look at Michael Jackson's child molestation allegations, Whitney Houston's drug addiction, James Brown's domestic violence, and 2Pac's wavering between sexism and feminism to get a glimpse of the dilemma. Do we castigate them because of their imperfections? Ignore their shortcomings? Attempt to delicately balance their contributions and their failures? In my opinion, if popular culture is a reflection of society, then we should fully recognize their perfect imperfections. Although rarely acknowledged, ODB's tragic life offers lessons into the complexity of black existence and the United States' turbulent history of hardwired social inequality.