Ol' Dirty's dirty side

Jaime Lowe's Life and Death of ODB
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 9, 2009

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Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB | By Jaime Lowe | Faber and Faber | 288 pages | $25
Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand the inside. And when it comes to East Coast hip-hop, Bay Area–born former Sports Illustrated staffer Jaime Lowe is a relative foreigner — not just to the Wu-Tang Clan but to the culture surrounding New York's premier rap dynasty. Lowe is as passionate about Ol' Dirty Bastard's life and music as most Wu devotees, and more knowledgeable, but she's not hypnotized by the group's brilliance. For this biography, that distance serves her well; few Clan fanatics could have shone such objective light on a life as equally tragic and triumphant as ODB's.

Digging for Dirt is a spinoff of an article that Lowe began for Rolling Stone in late 2003. When Dirty overdosed in November 2004 and the magazine ran a standard obit instead of her long-shelved feature, she brought the profile to the Village Voice, which published it soon after. She was inspired to cover Dirty by a 2003 Knitting Factory show at which he appeared to have been lobotomized, so she never intended to produce a joyous picture. But when he died halfway through her research, she was compelled to address his struggles with addiction and insanity. Like most cats who watched Dirty closely, Lowe was fascinated by his perpetual disruption of both musical and social conventions, and by how those contrarian compulsions landed him in prisons, institutions, and ultimately a graveyard.

When matters stray from Dirty's mental illness, however, Lowe offers anecdotes that show how he was incomparably "willful and spontaneous and gifted" in a society where most of us "sit behind gray cubicle walls, refreshing our computer screens hoping for manufactured excitement." There's the story about his barging on stage at the 1998 Grammy Awards during adult contemporary star Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech, and a gem from Pras about how he jumped on the Billboard topper "Ghetto Superstar" by "accident." The list uncurls: his high-school days with Phife and Q-Tip, his stint working maintenance at Universal Studios in Florida.

Lowe is a crack researcher (especially when you consider how notoriously impossible Wu members are to get in touch with) and a tremendous writer — qualities that distinguish Digging from a field of overwritten, over-analytic, under-thought hip-hop books. Whereas many of her contemporaries — out of arrogance or to pacify rap-ignorant editors — assume a posture of omniscience, she acknowledges that hers should be merely one of many Dirty tributes.

"I'm not a huge, huge hip-hop head," she tells me over lunch in Manhattan. "I'm a white, Jewish girl from California who spent three years writing about ODB because I thought my perspective was important. The story that I told is really different than what RZA would write — and he should write a book too. But as it stood, there was nothing. The obits were all just headlines: he had a lot of babies, he was arrested a lot of times, and then he died. That's why after sitting for two years I finally did this."

You would think that Dirty's closest acquaintances would know that there's no stopping people who really want to say something, but since the December publication of Digging, his mom and Jarred Weisfeld (his former manager) and others have leveled public allegations at Lowe. Mostly they're arguing that she shouldn't profit off Dirty's life, but they also claim that she's disgracing his legend by discussing his schizophrenia. In attacking Lowe, his friends, family, and associates have proved her point: the people around ODB were (and still are) unwilling to confront the sickness that caused his untimely and unglamorous passing.

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