(I had resolved to post more regularly, and fell ill over the weekend, only coming around fully today with just some residual head-throbbing that only bothers me if I attempt to move, sneeze, cough, focus my eyes, or speak; therefore, in another cheesy move, and furthermore as I intended to recognize today's anniversary already, today's episode of Untethered is a re-run, with significant alterations)
Hip Hop's Marquis de Sade
My words can't be held against me
I'm not caught up in your law
--Ol' Dirty Bastard, Nigga Please
Today is the third anniversary of the death of Russell Tyrone Jones, more commonly known as Ol' Dirty Bastard. To some unfamiliar with his music or disinclined to appreciate rap, to the extent they know of him he is seen as just another eccentric produced by an art form that seems as much about creating odd characters as it is about making music. But to those who know, ODB, along with the mastermind producer behind the Wu Tang Clan, RZA, was responsible for two of the most idiosyncratic and brilliant (if raggedly uneven) hip hop records of all time. Return to the 36 Chambers, the Dirty Version and Nigga Please are racist, misogynistic, violently debauched (and debauchedly violent), confused and self contradictory collections of lunatic rants which achieve a mad, murderous brilliance.
ODB seemed to have more nicknames than songs: Dirt McGirt, A Son, Osirus, Big Baby Jesus to name a few, seeming to recognize the schizophrenic psychosis which both drove and bedeviled him. His lyrics were a farrago of black militant ideology, superstition, sexual voodoo, and unrepentant celebrations of drug use and violence; childlike, irrational, and stubbornly thick headed--and dangerous. A reading of his lyrics might suggest an intellect stunted by brain damage or excessive drug use, but in hip hop it’s all in the delivery, and when an unbridled, feral ODB gave vent to his madness within the funky but strangely refined musical context provided by the incomparable RZA, the listener was given a one of a kind, deadly honest glimpse into the dark violence of nature freed of the civilizing effects of socialization.
Nigga Please, his 1999 release which featured the hit, Got your Money (produced by the Neptunes), exhibits an obsession with voodoo-like superstition and sexual domination, seeking to mystify pimping as a triumph over female nature through mind control, will, and sexual prowess. Dirty was hip hop’s half-literate Marquis de Sade, appalling and immoral, treating the listener to vivid accounts of his escapades. The seductiveness of the beats drew you in and held you close while an urban Mad Hatter forced you to view the darkest and most secretive desires of human nature.
As any rap fan knows, yet not necessarily admits, nothing will draw favorable reviews or induce sleep quicker than a Roots record. Yet the myth of a unified, trans-global "socially conscious" political movement behind rap persists. In last month's Foreign Policy, the glossy USA Today of the globalist set, an article about this supposed movement appeared like an unintended eulogy for that dream (the author didn't get past paragraph one before using the phrase, "hot beats"). As if the persistent success of Fifty Cent and the playlist at BET isn't evidence enough of the form's lyrical decline from already modest heights. ODB hadn't the critical faculties to analyse, much less understand, the political questions of these more ambitious and critically recognized artists, even as he sometimes drew from the same well of militant reaction, and it served him well. He understood what the form was about: primitive narcissism. Needless to say, its status as a black art form limits the public respectability of such an opinion.
ODB has spawned multitudes who seek to adopt his defiantly feral stance, what Malcom X called the “wild nigger” who both appalls and fascinates the more effectively socialized white masses. They are embarrassing caricatures, minstrels pandering to the naive white suburbanites who seek to hitch a ride on the exhilarating savagery of urban black America. ODB was oddly appealing because he seemed to lack the sophistication to affect the phony stance of a lesser artist. He was sadly unsuited to live in civil society and absolutely committed to a fusion of his art with a subculture of drug use, casual sex, crime and violence that he viewed as his birthright in defiance of the strictures of the greater culture. He was rebelling alright, but unlike most of his peers, he made no pretense of the nature of his rebellion. His motto was summed up decades ago, by Marlon Brando, another mere pretender, in The Wild One, when in reply to the question as to what he was rebelling against, he replied, "whad'ya got?"
Hip hop’s champions will forever be overestimating the importance of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur out of a perverse need to frame idiotic street violence as political struggle (they each died at the hands of assassins believed to be acting on behalf of the other, just months apart), when in fact what defined them was the true most likely nature of their deaths--an ego-intensive power struggle within the community of America's own Little Big Men, minor potentates battling for control and status.
But for me it is this less regarded but more authentic artist who never tried to dress his narcissism up as rebellion who stands out, and the loss of whom I mourn. ODB was unapologetic about his immorality, but neither did he seek to justify it. It simply was; and he, in his half-aware way, sought to plumb the dark depths of human nature, and after one venture too many that’s where he will forever remain.