The last time I saw the rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who collapsed and died in a recording studio last week at age 35, he was nodding on a couch inside a Westchester condo, Mrs. Doubtfire on the TV. The famously gold-toothed ODB—erstwhile member of Staten Island’s occultist Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop collective (they claimed their split-level was a Shaolin temple)—was supposed to be sequestered at his mother’s house in Park Slope, as per a judge’s order. Except Mom was out of town on her honeymoon, and ODB had gone AWOL. Located by his various musical front men, the rapper was then stashed in the suburbs for safekeeping.
Not that it seemed like ODB (his “official” name, newscasters loath to sully the airwaves with the word bastard) was about to start hitchhiking on the Major Deegan. Asked how he was doing, the rapper could do nothing but raise a weary eyelid and say “Haldol,” in reference to the tranquilizer he was taking.
It was a desultory scene, iconically so: The music-industry retainers keeping watch over their burned-out, possibly suicidal (he’d tried it before) charge, trying to squeeze one last drop from the lemon. Even then, the flamboyant conjurer of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” was speaking of himself in the past tense, saying that if any of his future grandchildren—he was rumored to have as many as thirteen kids of his own—asked what he did with his life, he’d reply, “I was a rapper . . . Not that they’ll know, because soon rap will be gone with the wind, like everything else.”
Sucker emcees like to quote John Derek’s gangster line from Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” ODB got two out of three, because he was a mess when he checked out. But his passing has generated a surprising outpouring of cross-cultural bereavement. No doubt much of this owes to ODB’s wacky legend: Not every subject of a nationwide manhunt (arrested on a vast array of charges over the years, he’d broken out of his rehab clinic) can secretly make a record as scabrously entertaining as Nigga Please, then show up unannounced to perform with his Wu-Tang brethren at the Hammerstein Ballroom, give the cops the slip again, only to be caught a few nights later in a Philadelphia McDonald’s dutifully signing autographs for fans.
Some argue that ODB was a bit too willing to act the fool, allowing himself to be filmed by MTV arriving in a limo to (successfully) collect food stamps at the welfare office. But there was a lovability factor to ODB. For better or worse, he was the vulnerable, goofy, ultimately sad Ringo of the rap world. But in a world of Ghostface Killahs and DMXs, sometimes you need a little Ringo.