By Jaime Lowe
Faber and Faber, 288 pages, $25
Pharrell Williams put it best when he said Ol' Dirty Bastard was "insanely genius, geniusly insane." But Jaime Lowe's new biography, Digging For Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB, offers a more complete history of a man spiraling down a rabbit hole of drug addiction and fame.
Lowe illustrates the real person behind the highly constructed persona of ODB, aka Russell Tyrone Jones, and investigates a troubled life exacerbated by turmoil and chaos. ODB, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, was often criticized for an image obsessed with profanity, violence, and the degradation of women. Yet for the same reasons he was adored by millions.
Personally, I have been a Wu-head since before I even reached the 9th grade. My bookbags and lockers were cloaked with Killa Bee paraphernalia. Pictures of Raekwon, Ghostface, and GZA were exploding out of my fresh Trapper Keeper. I was salivating to critically rip this book apart. But what I found was surprising.
Lowe writes brilliantly and compares ODB to figures I'd never thought possible. In the prologue, she likens ODB to a Shakespearean fool, which I first resented, because the last thing I wanted to see was ODB being associated with some dead white guy's stock character. But, she explains, ODB invented a nonsensical language that in effect expressed a clear vision of the world, though that vision was often punctuated by bouts of madness.
Later in the book, she attacks headlines that reported ODB's death and framed his life as a cartoon. She rightly asks why ODB couldn't be remembered for who he was and for his contributions to the cultural lexicon. Hunter S. Thompson didn't get that treatment, she says.
It has been four years since ODB's death. Now we finally have our first thorough examination of his life. Among the final chapters, Lowe comments on Wu-Tang's family reunion concerts, and how they were partly set up to remember him. But we don't want to really remember all of him, she says — his loneliness, substance abuse, and severely damaged body.
Digging for Dirt is a testament to ODB's whole being, not just some drunken black jester for white America's entertainment. —Mark Glenn