Ten Years After His Death, New Yorkers Still Love Ol' Dirty Bastard

Considering the tenth anniversary of his death is right around the corner, I went out into the streets of New York to see what the people of Dirt McGirt's hometown have to say about his legacy.

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Nov 10 2014, 3:11pm

In music, insanity sells. We want our rock stars to be wild. A legion of today's rappers—Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Lil Wayne, and many more—have followed this tradition and incorporated, on purpose or not, their "craziness" into their art. But I'm going to be an old head for a second and say that all the so-called "insanity" of today's rappers pales in comparison to Ol' Dirty Bastard.

Born in 1968 in Brooklyn, ODB was one of the founding members of Wu-Tang Clan, along with his cousins RZA and GZA. He was known for combining slick lyricism with his own half-sung, often bizarre delivery. As Method Man said, he was the Ol' Dirty Bastard because, "There was no father to his style."

ODB's music was so abrasive and unorthodox, it's surprising that he was such a marquee artist in the 90s. I mean, the key topics of his songs were unprotected sex, drugs, violence, and being on welfare.

ODB's highlight reel is extensive. There was the time he rode in a limo to pick up his welfare check. And there was that time he interrupted the Grammy Awards to protest Wu-Tang's loss to Puff Daddy and to proclaim that "Wu-Tang was for the children." His rap sheet included assault, theft, drugs, attempted murder, terroristic threats, unlawful possession of body armor, and shooting at the police. And, of course, on the other side, there was the crowning moment of his career, "Fantasy," the chart-topping song he did with Mariah Carey that was proof that anyone, no matter how dirty he was, could make it.

ODB's crazy public persona certainly took a toll on his private life. Wracked by paranoia and drug problems in his later years, he finally succumbed to an overdose on November 13, 2004.

It doesn't like seem ODB gets enough credit for all the influence he's had on the game. As his son, Young Dirty Bastard, a semi-notable rapper himself, told me over the phone, "Everyone is trying to mimic his style right now... It ain't a bad thing, it's a good thing. Lil Wayne wants to be like him, Lil Jon wants to scream like him. All his craziness... That was basically him showing his true natural powers and true natural instincts to be himself and be an original."

With the tenth anniversary of his death coming this week, I wanted to go out into the streets of New York to see how the people of Dirt McGirt's hometown feel about the late artist.

First, I headed to the Stapleton Projects in Staten Island to talk to the locals about ODB. It's a notorious Wu hangout that was once referred to as a "concentration camp" by RZA and the place "where the ambulance don't come" by Ghostface Killah.

Jamel, a producer

Jamel: [Yelling at woman who was standing in the way and telling him not talk to me] Listen bitch, I ain't worried about no police! I ain't doing nothing for the police to be worried about me.

VICE: What does ODB represent to you?
Oh man, ODB? I can tell you about ODB. As a matter of fact he pulled up right over here...

You knew him?
I was young at the time, but he cool. I messed with Ghost and them, back in the day. Rest in peace ODB. He was a good man, everyone's got their trials and tribulations that they go through.

He pulled up on this street?
Yeah, he pulled up right here. I wanted to go to a show with him, and he pulled up in the car. He was telling me, "Go ask Ghost if you can you come." Ghost pulled up at the store over there, right here on Broad Street. I asked Ghost, "Can I go." He was like, 'There ain't enough room in the car.' So I ain't get to go. But I did get to go to shows with him [after that], when I was only like 15 years old.

ODB had a reputation as a real crazy dude. When you were around him did he act like that?
Yeah, he would, if you got on his bad side. He wasn't a bad guy like that, but you know, everyone has their moments.

James, an entrepreneur

VICE: What does ODB represent to you?
James:
I think he represents the come up. Somebody as crazy as him, being able to lead the slums and build off of his passions, represents hope. That's what he stands for—being able to obtain your goals. I think that is huge, cause he was a fucking crazy lunatic.

Any favorite memories of him acting insane?
When he was doing the video shoot with Mariah Carey. Because Mariah Carey was such a superstar at the time, none of these rappers could get even get close to her. And there he was, acting a fool. [starts singing] "Me and Mariah." I didn't think that was the move at the time, but he killed it. It shows that even with his crazy attitude, he was loved and respected.

What do you think ODB means to New York?
He represents the slums, man. Coming from the bottom and making it to the top. He represented what a lot of people living in the projects, being on welfare, wanted. His first album notoriously had a welfare card as its cover. That's what a lot of us had, a lot of our parents had. So he represented the struggle, and leaving the struggle. It represented what New York is all about—coming in here and making something out of nothing.

Everything is lost, everything is watered down. They don't know where they come from. Everything now is about money.

Everyone I talked to kept telling me to head to Brooklyn, where ODB was from. So the next day, I went to the Bedford-Stuvyesant neighborhood I asked several people on the street about ODB, and they all lit up at the mention of his name. They said if I continued down Franklin Avenue, I would see his mural. Along the way, I talked with the people I met.

Kamia, a photographer

VICE: What does ODB represent to you?
Kamia:
Crazy, unadulterated fun. He didn't care. He couldn't sing, but he sang all the time. He didn't care what people thought of him, and he was successful because of it. I appreciated him.

Do you have a favorite song of his?
Yeah. [starts singing] "Ooh baby, I like it raw."

Mark, a barber

VICE: What does ODB represent to you?
Mark:
ODB is someone who really had a chance to speak about what he felt and say a lot of things that people didn't have the heart to say, as far as poverty and being on welfare and things of that nature. He showed what it was like out here. Regardless of how much money people was making, he was showing that people was still struggling. He kept it real.

Do you think rappers today owe a debt to him?
Most of them do, but they lost the tradition. Everything is lost, everything is watered down. They don't know where they come from. Everything now is about money. It's not genuine. Ol' Dirty Bastard was a genuine rapper.

That's why I don't listen to music today, because I can't relate. Despite what these rappers say, nobody is coming out the hood driving a Maybach. Everybody out here is struggling. These are real hustlers. These ain't no internet or video hustlers. All that other shit is fake to me.

Willy, a "good dude," and BMW, a musician

VICE: So you guys know ODB?
Willy: Yeah, I was locked up with him in the Queens House.

What's the Queens House?
That's the name of the penitentiary where we was at. And he's a good dude. He was right across from me. I was on this side, he was on that side.

Did you ever interact with him?
Well, we didn't get a chance to talk all like that, but I did speak to him. We did shake hands and he gave me his autograph. He's a good dude. He always used to talk about when he did the song with Mariah. [starts singing] "Me and Mariah."

BMW: But before he got with Mariah, he was down with the Wu-Tang. You should have seen the block party that he threw over here. We used to play music with him.

We'd DJ out here. And one time, a while ago, we was playing some music over here, and every block brought their music. And Wu-Tang took down their music, came over here, and started hanging out with us, even helped us put our music away in the van. It was real nice. ODB, he's real cool, and I miss him. He was one of a kind.

After a while, I found the ODB mural. It was a reinterpretation of his first album cover, the iconic picture of his welfare card. I went to the corner deli and started to do interviews, and everyone there got excited. They told me that ODB grew up on this street. They said that if I waited around a little, I'd meet his uncle, who still hung out on the block. I waited for a half an hour and started to get nervous that he wasn't coming. But they reassured me that he would.

Finally, an old man crossed the street slowly. Everyone hushed up. The man next to me started whispering and nudging me. "That's his uncle," he said. His uncle walked up. "Young homie here is doing a story on ODB," one of them said. The uncle warmly shook my hand and introduced himself as "Cuffy."


Cuffy, ODB's uncle

What was your relationship with ODB like?
Cuffy:
I'm his uncle. He's my nephew. My sister carried him and was his mother.

What was he like as a person?
He was a clown. He's like me! I used to dance and shit. I never rapped, but he picked up all the dancing and all that clowning stuff from me. I used to sing at all the places in the city.

Did you listen to his music?
Yeah. Some of his music, I didn't even know was him. Like when he did that song with Mariah Carey.

What did you think of it?
Oh, that was great. I liked that one.

When you first heard it, what was your reaction?
I was like, who the heck is this? Someone said, "That's ODB." And I was like, "Nah, that ain't no ODB." And they said, "Yeah, that's ODB!" He sounded real good.

What do you think about his legacy today?
Everybody across the street taking pictures of [his mural] and everything, all day. He's more famous dead than he was alive. They're out there every day taking his picture. White and black, and young and old people are out there all the time taking his picture.

What was ODB like as a kid?
He was dirty! I remember when he was courting a girl, he was arguing with her and stuff. I stopped them from arguing and I said, "Leave that girl alone and wait for that stuff until you get married..." But then he got into drugs and stuff and that was it. He got too heavy into drugs. I tried to help him.

You tried to help him?
Everyone tried to help him. He didn't want to stay in rehab. That's why he got locked up for two years. When he came out, he started on them drugs again and shit.

I actually talked to some dude over there who was locked up with him.
Yeah? He grew up in that house over there [points down the street]. That was my mother's house. His mother was there. He came up there. He was raised up practically almost all over there. But he was on Staten Island too, and he used to hang out a lot with his cousins and stuff.

I went away for about seven years, or something like that, and when I came back, everyone loved him.

Were you real proud of him?
Oh yeah, I was proud of him. When I came out of jail and shit, I sat down and told him, get up out off that stuff. Get off the drugs. And he told me, I'mma do it uncle, I'mma do it. And one day the radio came on and ODB had died. That was it.

After talking with Cuffy, I walked down the street to the house ODB had lived in as a kid and took a picture of it. Someone walking by asked me if I was doing a story on ODB. "That's his house," they said. I nodded, and snapped a picture. "He was great," they said. "Real crazy."

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