Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Epitomical Artist of Our Time

...is Ol' Dirty Bastard.

I don't mean the best necessarily. Not the most popular certainly. But the epitomical. The perfect representation, the epitome, of an artist from the late 20th/early 21st Century.

He created  the Wu-Tang Clan with his cousins the RZA and the GZA. They made a classic, culturally significant debut album and several successful, mostly classic, solo albums. Brilliantly, they all signed a deal to one label as a group, with a clause stating they could sign with whatever label they wanted as solo artists, giving them much more freedom and money. This strategy is still used by many artists nowadays, especially rappers.

Besides the cultural significance and commercial success, ODB also received a lot of critical success. He is a Grammy nominated, platinum-selling rapper who wrote all his own rhymes; even more impressive when you consider lyrics like: "Bluh bluh bluh bluh bluh, bluh, better stop/Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-Dirtiest place to be/You white Flintstone, bitch."

Clearly, he is a talented, successful, and influential artist. But is he the epitomical artist?

Yes. I already said that. Pay attention. Now here's why he epitomizes artists of our time. 

Crossover Appeal
To be a defining artist of one's generation, that artist needs to be successful. If you took one look at Ol' Dirty Bastard, from his ridiculous hair and teeth to his ridiculous name, you would assume he would be the last guy to have a mainstream, top 40 pop hit; yet, in the same year he had a hit rap single with a video of him bugging out with other Wu members in a dimly lit hallway, and another hit rap single comprised almost entirely in gibberish, he also appeared on a hit pop single with the one of the most successful musicians ever: Mariah Carey. It was an unusual and unexpected collaboration, but the outcome was magic. Mariah helped bring Ol Dirty, and the Wu, to the suburbs and the little white girls (and their parents' money) within. Oh, and Dirty absolutely stole the show. You can go anywhere, right now, and say, "Me and Mariiiiiiiahhh," and someone will finish the line for you. You probably just did it now.

This was an "Ebony and Ivory" moment for hip hop. It was bridging the gap between rap and mainstream pop music. Like "Walk this Way" allowed rock fans to accept rap and allowed rappers to venture into other genres, "Fantasy Remix" made it acceptable for a grimy rapper to appear on an R&B song. Another Wu member, Method man, may have gotten the Grammy voters approval with the "All I Need" Mary J. Blige remix, but Dirty really started the trend and perfected it at the same time.

He also made a rather coherent and entertaining contribution to R&B singer Jon B's song Everytime a month before he died, leaving evidence that he may have put out quality material if he lived longer.

And let's not forget Dirty's (once-again) show stealing appearance on "Ghetto Superstar" with Pras from the Fugees and Mya, off the amazing soundtrack from Bulworth. ODB wasn't afraid to work with anyone, and it usually turned into an immediate classic.

Horrible Collaborations
Not always, though. All the greats do random songs with questionable people, either for publicity or relevancy or just for money, especially rappers, and especially as they age. Look how many work with Bieber and Miley these days. They are not doing it for artistic integrity. ODB's song with Mariah, although certainly an attempt to appeal to the mainstream, was a good song with a credible artist. On the other hand, ODB had no shame taking 30 grand from those horrible clown rappers ICP and giving them incoherent mumbling over a 2 day studio session, which they turned into four lines on one of their unbearable songs. Google it if you want, it's not going on my page.

Criminal Shenanigans
The minimum requirement to become a "real" rapper is having a criminal record. Dirty had a criminal rap sheet longer than his rap rap sheet. The minimum requirement for "really real" rappers is getting shot. ODB got shot in 1994 and again in 1998, long before 50 Cent made getting shot an immediate path to rap super-stardom.

And of course, criminal activity is not exclusive to rap.

I'll leave this completely unrelated photo here.

Artists in general are known for getting into trouble with the law, but Dirty made artists getting into trouble with the law an art form unto itself. 

The same year he had an album in the top ten on the charts, he appeared on an MTV segment in which he took two of his thirteen(!!!) kids to the welfare office in a limousine to pick up his welfare check. I guess his debut album cover should have been a dead giveaway: Dirty wasn't playin around when it came to collecting from the government.
Pictured: a man who takes entitlements seriously.

No one even compares to Dirty in this category, and the streets would forever love him for these types of antics. 

In another "Hero of the Hood" moment, after escaping from a drug treatment facility, he recorded some music with RZA, did a show at a major venue in NYC, and was finally caught while performing and signing autographs in a McDonald's parking lot in Philly. 

Recently, an FBI file was released, documenting ODB's suspected connection to three murders, a shootout with the NYPD, and a RICO Act investigation against the Wu Tang Clan. Holy shit! What other musician ever had a RICO investigation against them?

Of course, the flip side to him being such a criminal (mastermind?) was that he often didn't show up to shows because he was on probation. And crack.  

Yeah, his crackheadedness was not an act, unlike some so-called artists these days.

Again, photo unrelated.

He not only behaved, looked, and sounded like a crackhead, Russell Jones was an official crackhead. It's part of what made him such a great artist, or it was caused by his artistry. Or both. Who knows, but damn, artists be doin drugs! Like Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Ray Charles or Lil' Wayne (an artist who was directly influenced by the weirdness of ODB) drug addiction was central to the perception of ODB as an artist and to his creative process. Throughout history, artists and drugs have gone hand in hand, and ODB was a living representation of that symbiosis.

But like Clapton, nose to hand would be more accurate.

Award Show Interruptions
Everybody remembers Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs. It even became a meme: "I'mma let you finish..." Of course, Kanye wasn't the first (not even at an MTV award show) nor was he the most quotable. If Twitter was around when ODB interrupted the Grammy's, the servers would have crashed (I used the video of the incident to start my last post, which gave me the idea for this post.) Nowadays, interrupting awards shows is par for the course. Once again, Dirty pretty much started it, and he did it on the biggest stage possible for a musician. He also had an actual purpose. Everyone thought he was just babbling when he said "Wu Tang is for the children" (see? much more memorable quote) when in fact he was spreading the love and wisdom of the Wu. What most people never knew is that on the night before the Grammys, Ol' Dirty Bastard saved a 6 year old kid's life. He visited the kid in the hospital for weeks until the press found out.

Kanye might be a great artist, and I thought his stage interruption was hilarious, but he never saved shit.

Nicknames/Delusions of Grandeur
The entire Wu Tang Clan is known for popularizing the accumulation and utilization of numerous nicknames. Ol Dirty alone had over ten thousand nicknames. For his last incarnation, he named himself Big Baby Jesus. That's pissing in the face of the Savior on a larger scale than the Beatles could even dream of. And now guys are calling themselves all sorts of variations of god.

In some cases, they even make songs proclaiming "I am a God" and tell people to hurry up with their damn croissants. That level of absurdity can only be attributed to the influence of ODB.

Notice the position and pose of the artists in the above images. Damn...I never realized how much Kanye copied ODB till just now.

Big Baby Jesus aka Osirus aka Dirt McGirt aka Ason Unique aka Dirt Dog aka Peanut the Kidnapper was an artist who didn't care about convention and attacked taboos. He recruited Pharrell (way before the gigantic cowboy hat) to produce the majority of an album named "Nigga Please". He is the Richard Pryor of rap, saying anything he pleased in order to shock and amuse (their drug habits build the connection, too). Just going to a store and buying an album called "That Nigger's Crazy" or "Nigga Please" is a socio-political statement. Nas tried to do something similar years later but chickened out and called his album "Untitled" instead. It takes balls, or a serious drug addiction, to release a major label record with that word on it, and ODB had both.

Reality TV
Here's undeniable proof that ODB is the epitome of our celebrity culture, if not the epitome of an artist: he had a VH1 reality special about his life. True to ODB, it was filmed while he was on parole and living in his mother's house. This is the type of show washed up artists would kill for these days.

Early death
Lastly, and most importantly when it comes to being a legendary artist of a mythic stature: he died too soon. You can be a great artist and live long, but a true artist dies young, leaving us all to wonder what they could have been, instead of finding out what they actually turn into.

Forget sympathy for the Devil, have some sympathy for your fans and  stop already!

And in the case of legendary artists like ODB, looking back at their lives, there seems to be no possible alternative ending. Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are other examples. It's hard to imagine Jimi as a 60 year old man. His death is so iconical it's as if it had to happen when and how it did. The same goes for Dirty. Russell Tyrone Jones wasn't meant to live till old age. 

Towards the end, a writer for The New Yorker said ODB was a "folk hero" because of his words and actions, especially his interactions with the law. There's also a numerological conspiracy surrounding his death (that I completely made up) which always adds to folk hero status: Dirty's death was foretold in the introduction of his solo debut album. In an audio clip from a kung fu movie, a character says, "We have only 35 chambers, there is no 36." Another voice replies, "I know...but I want to create a new chamber." ODB died 2 days before his 36th birthday at RZA's recording studio, 36 Chambers Records.

But despite what the first voice says, Dirty did create a new chamber: a level of artistry that all can aspire to reach.

ODB was the 36th Chamber.

He is the epitome of an artist from our time.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed

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