Interview: Jaime Lowe, Author of Digging For Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB
Just over four years ago, the mad Wu-Tang affiliated rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones to his mother) met an untimely end, collapsing on a studio floor two days short of his 36th birthday. His complicated legacy--the fragmented clan he left behind, the wild antics he became famous for, and the bewildered fans who remain--has become the subject of a book by onetime Voice writer Jaime Lowe. Part bio, part book-length critical essay, Digging For Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB is an unlikely examination of an unbelievably complicated life. The book comes out today; we caught up with Lowe to mark the occasion.
So why ODB?
I would say it started with seeing him at CMJ [at the Knitting Factory, in 2003]. And kind of being well aware of the trajectory of his public persona, and of his general self-destructive and bizarre antics. And then seeing him put onstage in a way that was really mortifying, because he was so clearly gutted of any life or sense of himself and was up there as this kind of shell. I don't know if you were at the show.
It was like--he was slack-jawed, he was crying, he was not actually rapping, he was just sort of--his mouth was open, and [Wu-affiliate] Buddha Monk was rapping in back of him. And it was one of the most disturbing things that I think I've ever seen. I was really interested in trying to figure out how he had gone from this incredibly vibrant presence in hip-hop to this really destroyed soul.
It seems like there's a real current of anger in book--frustration with everyone to MTV to RZA in terms of playing a role in getting him to that mortifying point.
Well I definitely think, and this includes me--I think we all are responsible. Everyone who was a fan of his watched him and gawked. And it's the same thing that is happening with Britney Spears, on a different scale. It's happening with Amy Winehouse. It happens with celebrities all the time. It's this concept that their disfunction is entertaining, and it's an awful human instinct. But, you know, a car crashes and you can just sit there and stand by and watch it and not really feel like you can do anything. And in a lot of ways I think that that's it. Nobody--I couldn't have, RZA couldn't have, even [scum-sucking final ODB manager] Jarred Weisfeld, his mom--nobody could've saved ODB. He made choices and he lived his life the way he did. And there was greatness with that, and there was a lot of destruction with that--self-destruction more than anything.
Well there are a lot of pretty great ODB stories in the book. Do you have a favorite anecdote?
I loved him at Hammerstein Ballroom [2000's The W release party, which took place while Jones was a fugitive]--just showing up, quite clearly about to get put away after having been on the lam for months and months. I also like the smaller, human stories, like when he doesn't have shoes on at Universal Studios and gets into a huge argument with the security guard over whether or not he can go on a ride. There's something about that that just is quintessentially like 'Fuck the rules, I'm not wearing shoes and that's the way it's going to be.' And it was: He went on the ride without shoes.
And then there are some more depressing stories too. That Playboy scene [in which Weisfeld booked ODB to photograph a "completely naked and coifed apple-pie white girl" for the magazine within a week of his release from prison] is unreal.
Yeah, it's awful--he was placed into this situation where it was meant to be provocative and weirdly sexual, and he really was just trying to take pictures as technically good as he could. He was just trying to do a good job! And it was sad. The whole last act of his life is something that I think is really tragic.