Wu-Tang affiliate Buddha Monk and Mickey Hess have combined forces to produce the definitive Old Dirty Bastard biography titled The Dirty Version, set to release on November 4th just a few days from the 10th anniversary of his passing. The book details many of the Wu-Tang Clan member's most famous stories, like picking up his welfare check in a limo, as well as delves into the mind behind some of the most memorable rap songs of the 20th century. Was he as crazy as his stage persona would have lead you to believe?
The book is currently available for preorder at Amazon, but you can ready the entirety of the seventh chapter, called "That Good Old Government Cheese" below.
Dirty put his welfare card on his album cover.That was the kind of thing Dirty did to put himself out there and let the fans know he was real. He said on Wu-Tang's "Dog Shit," "Got meals but still grill that old good welfare cheese," meaning even though he had money he was keeping it hood. He said it on his song "Raw Hide": "Who the FUCK wants to be an MC if you can't get paid to be a fuckin' MC? I came out my mama's pussy, I'm on welfare.Twenty- six years old, still on welfare." Well, after Dirty passed, his father gave an interview and said how much that line hurt and embarrassed him—he said the family was on welfare early on, but he and his wife had worked hard to get the family off welfare, and he couldn't understand why his son was on MTV bragging about being on it.
See, Dirty though, he was proud he was on welfare. He put his actual welfare card on the cover of his album. His dad and mom may have worked their way out of the welfare system, but once Dirty moved out on his own and married Icelene he had to go right back into it. So Dirty put his identification card for food coupons and public assistance on the cover of his album. That was his actual card, only with his name and address replaced with the name of the album. It was the greatest thing that a man could ever think of: a welfare card selling gold and platinum.
Dirty was always at the heart of what was going on. He was the product of a neighborhood where the kids grew up on welfare. I remember during President Clinton's first term he was promising to end welfare, or at least change the system to where you got two years of financial support and job training and then you were expected to find a job. "We have to end welfare as a way of life," he said in the 1994 State of the Union address, "and make it a path to independence and dignity."
But independence and dignity worked different where we was from. When you grew up on food stamps and so did most of the people you knew, there was no shame in paying for your food that way. So when Dirty came up with the idea of taking a limo to pick up his welfare check, everybody thought it was funny. We thought the idea was funny, but Dirty put the plan into action. He actually got on the phone and called MTV to film the whole thing. He wasn't even thinking about how it might damage him or hurt his image. Elektra had paid Dirty a $45,000 advance on his album, which was more than the income limit to stay on welfare. And there was the money from Wu-Tang Clan's album sales on top of that. But Dirty hadn't filed his taxes yet for the year so he was still collecting welfare based on his income from the previous year. He was going on TV and announcing he was a welfare cheat. I was right there, telling him, "Yo, Dirty, don't do this. I'm telling you we're gonna pay for this sometime in some way."
"Nah, you're too nervous, Buddha. Don't worry about it."
I was like, "Yo, it's my job—and I'm not even getting paid for it—to watch out for you and keep you from doing stupid shit like this."
"Why wouldn't you want to get free money? Why not get something from the government for a change?"
Dirty was wearing a sky blue hunting cap with earflaps, drinking liquor in the limo on the way to the check-cashing place with his wife and kids. Icelene had on sunglasses and a white hat and a puffy coat. They took little Barson, Taniqua, and little Shaquita inside and cashed their $375 welfare check and got their food stamps.
Dirty asked, "You got the camera on? It's on? Good. It's free money. Why wouldn't you want to get free money? The people that want to cut off the welfare, man, I think that's terrible. You know how hard it is for people to live without nothin'. You owe me forty acres and a mule anyway. For real. I'm in this rap game to get money. You know what I'm sayin'? I got babies. It's time to take care of my babies. I didn't think it
would work. I swear. But it worked—we got food stamps!"
The second he finished saying that, I was shaking my head, like, Dirty, oh man . . .
Not that his message about making money was anything new for a rapper. Rappers have never been shy about making money from music. Wu- Tang said "cash rules everything around me," but before them the group name EPMD stood for Erick and Parrish Makin' Dollars. Too $hort said if they didn't pay him he'd never rap. Biggie said as a young black kid in the slums you have three ways out: "Either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot," or you're rapping your way out, like Biggie and Dirty and me.
The critics complain that rap has become too much about showing off your fancy cars and expensive jewelry—and I agree that those things have distracted people from the beats and the rhymes and the stories the rappers tell—but when you look at how a lot of those rappers grew up, they never dreamed in a million years they'd have enough money to buy those cars. Why wouldn't they show them off ? Dirty wasn't flashy with the money he made; he was honest about where he came from . Dirty's people were African American and Native American—America had fucked him over. Now he was just stealing back the little bit he was in the position to steal.
MTV News titled the segment "Ol' Dirty Bastard Gets Paid." It made a big splash. When it aired, me and Dirty were in Germany. We'd just finished doing one show and had arrived in the next city to get ready to do the next show. Elektra Records called and asked Dirty, "Yo, are you watching television right now?"
" 'Cause the president is talking about you."
Dirty said, "WHAT? Buddha, come to my room, come to my room!"
We turned on MTV News and they were showing footage from a President Clinton speech, him promising welfare changes and talking about how America will not stand for people abusing the system. So it's the president of the United States talking, and then they cut to Dirty getting out of the limousine, going in to pick up his welfare check. Then they cut back to the president, talking about how we have to crack down on people getting public assistance.
And that shit just fucked me and Dirty up. I was sitting there like, "Yo, nigga, I told you not to do that. From now on you gonna start listening to what I tell you, 'cause you're gonna fuck this shit up."
Dirty's caseworker saw the MTV footage and cut off his welfare. Just picture that moment. His caseworker was maybe sitting at home having a beer and Russell Jones comes on television taking a limo to pick up his welfare check.
But in the hood, though, people loved it. When we flew back home to New York, we were walking down the street in the hood and everybody was like, "Yo, Dirty, I just got my food stamps. I'm on the same shit you on!"
I said, "Oh no, you see the epidemic you just started on the streets?"
Dirty said, "That's good. Now they don't gotta look at it as a bad thing.
People are out here on food stamps finding a way to get that money. Steal from the rich to give to the poor. The government likely owes them this money anyway. Yo, we just helped our people. And look at it like this: for every person that says that to us that's another record sale for us. They believe in our movement."
People in the hood got what Dirty was doing, but to welfare's critics he'd just reinforced the stereotype of the welfare cheat that they were using as a platform to try to get rid of the welfare system. The politicians against welfare claimed that brothers were collecting their checks while making an unreported salary selling drugs, and that the welfare moms were having babies just so they could sit at home and collect a check instead of go out and find a job. When approached with that kind of thinking, Dirty's stunt didn't look like any kind of political statement—it only confirmed the negative stereotypes of black folks in the hood stealing money from the hardworking, taxpaying Americans. Sure, Dirty's welfare stunt sold some records, but at what cost? Dirty had always been known as wild and unpredictable for his rhyme style and his onstage persona, but the welfare check marked a turning point for him in that people who didn't even listen to rap knew his name and were waiting to see what he'd do next.
It was no coincidence that Dirty's next video would show him dressed in a straitjacket and confined to a padded room. In the public mind, Dirty became that crazy rapper who took a limo to pick up his welfare check. It became a career-defining event in a way that I think Dirty was proud of, but he wished people could see past that five-minute video to look at the rest of his message and his music. He had always put his real life into his music—he prided himself on being the same dude on his records as he was in person. But after the MTV News segment aired, he started to feel like people looked at everything he did as part of a performance. He felt like people started to look at his life as an extended publicity stunt, and there was no room left for him to be a private person.
Dream Hampton, writing in the Village Voice, went so far as to speculate on Dirty's sanity: "I'm not sure Ol' Dirty articulated with any clarity his politics on welfare reform. It's pretty bananas to expect clarity from hip-hop's self-proclaimed drunken bastard, I know. The question is, can insanity be revolutionary if it lives within the Black body of an unpredictable crazy motherfucker? If our nuts can't be trusted, can they be dismissed?" After Dirty took that limo ride on MTV News, the critics either wanted to call Dirty crazy or call the whole thing a publicity stunt. Either response was dismissive.
People throw that word crazy around too lightly when it comes to Dirty. Admittedly, he set himself up for it, calling himself crazy as he introduced himself to the world on the "Intro" track on Return to the 36 Chambers: "This fuckin' guy that I speak to you about is somethin' crazy. He's somethin' insane." But Method Man on "Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber" said, "I be that insane nigga from the psycho ward," and nobody calls Meth crazy. It was just another way to brag. Dirty was crazy meaning outlandish and unrestrained, not psychotic. Dirty was funny, but he was serious too. During the MTV News segment he went from drunkenly crooning the Friends of Distinction's "Check It Out" to looking directly into the camera to ask welfare's critics, "You know how hard it is for people to live without nothin'?" He might not have written a political manifesto, but the man made his point.
The Dirty Version is available for preorder at Amazon.