Oh Baby I Like It Raw (Just Not That Raw)
“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Winston Churchill famously said of Russia. After reading The Dirty Version by Buddha Monk and Mickey Hess, I feel the same way about Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Or, to put it more bluntly, the enigma is Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the mystery is the shadowy band known as the Wu-Tang Clan, and the riddle is Buddha Monk and why is he telling Dirty’s story?
Buddha Monk was not a member of the Wu-Tang Clan but he was one of Dirty’s closest associates before his rise to fame, a crucial member of the production team that made Dirty’s first solo album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, a hit, as well as a companion throughout Dirty’s long slide into infamy that would eventually land him in jail.
Born Russell Jones (his mother always called him Rusty), Dirty first became acquainted with Buddha when the Jones family moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn near the intersection of Putnam and Franklin Avenues. Buddha was attracted to this strange, music-loving family whose patriarch, Dirty’s grandfather, was Chief Fred Cuffie of the Shinnecock Indians, and included future Wu-Tang members the RZA and the GZA.
The Dirty Version is not an autobiography; rather, it is written in the style of a first person memoir of a rapper, DJ and producer whose story coincides with Dirty’s. As a result, Buddha spends a considerable amount of time establishing his bona fides, but there’s a level of intimacy in these tales that surprises and occasionally astonishes.
“We wrote rhymes while we were drinking. We wrote rhymes while we were smoking. We wrote rhymes while we were fucking.”
I’m pretty sure the passage above doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. However, Dirty fathered 13 children. Buddha has eight. No one can say they weren’t enthusiastic about the enterprise. (And, yes, they liked it raw.)
The release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1992 signaled a shift in the way hip-hop was packaged and produced. While’s Dr. Dre’s blockbuster The Chronic featured clean lines and a performer who never let you forget who you were listening to, the Wu-Tang Clan’s album art featured a group of men in black hoodies and stocking caps, their faces rendered menacingly indistinct. Coupled with their dark, violent lyrics steeped in lore cribbed from Kung Fu flicks and the rhetoric of the Five-Percent Nation, they burst on the scene with the subtlety of a brick through a windshield. Their message was clear: The Wu, whoever they were, were coming for you, and you better protect your neck.
The Wu-Tang Clan did two things that were new to hip-hop: they put the collective before the individual and invoked the imagination over materialism. They did this with stories from the streets shot through with fortune cookie mysticism. The Wu-Tang Clan weren’t just composing songs, but creating a world as rich and complicated as any comic book universe with a host of anti-heroes with names like Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Inspectah Deck. Listening to the Wu-Tang Clan was a passport to a place one wasn’t going to find anywhere else – on or off the streets – because it didn’t really exist. You had to use your imagination to get there.
The most distinctive-sounding voice in the clan belonged to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, so-called because “there wasn’t a father to his style.” He didn’t rap so much as sing-shout in haphazard rhyme and whose signature move was not giving a fuck. Dirty’s lyrics were straight forward but ornamented with neologisms and eruptions of spontaneous grunting. He raps over others and contradicts himself. At times, he sounds like the Wu-Tang’s drunken uncle. Even if you have only a cursory knowledge of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s catalog (and I’m certainly no expert), you’ve probably heard his nonsensical proclamation “Shimmy shimmy ya, shimmy yam, shimmy yay” which is immediately followed by the circular logic of: “Give me the mic so I can take it away.” It’s a lyric that would make Yogi Bera proud.
This probably won’t come as a surprise to his fans, but Dirty’s life was as chaotic and uproarious as his stage presence. Because Dirty’s style was so clownish and unorthodox, i.e. the most out-of-step with the Wu-Tang mythology, fans expected him to be the same in real life, and Dirty obliged – to a point. He was approachable and he enjoyed the trappings of his hard-won fame to extravagant excess. Like many who struggle before finding fortune, he denied himself nothing when it came, which led to even greater struggles, which ultimately did Dirty in.
“As Wu-Tang got bigger and bigger there were more people around offering drugs, and the more Dirty was looking to blow off steam with drugs and women, and there was plenty of both.”
Like the book’s subject, The Dirty Version has issues, especially in its depiction of women. Buddha frequently invokes the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation to treat women with dignity and respect. But neither Buddha nor Dirty could be called shining examples of sexual restraint. In fact, their behavior was often deplorable, especially Dirty’s, who was married to his high school sweetheart, Icelene Barnes, with whom he had three children long before he became famous.
As Buddha explains, “A lot of women wanted to be with Dirty. Not just hos and sluts, but women who really loved him.” He continues, “On tour, Dirty would get high at the hotel and call three different bitches to see which bitch was available to come to the hotel for the night.” These aren’t song lyrics or quotes from Dirty or stories from his crew, this is Buddha Monk in 2014.
Of course, anyone who reads The Dirty Version is likely familiar with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s work, where he or she will find language much more inflammatory. But does that make Buddha Monk’s misogyny any less offensive? I don’t think it does. Not only is it demeaning, but it cheapens the narrative because it’s told by someone who categorizes women: bitches and hos on one side, and women deserving of respect on the other. Passages in which Icelene is quoted are particularly painful. “I called the police on [Dirty] so much that they said, ‘Okay, what did he do now?’”
The last third of The Dirty Version chronicles Dirty’s descent into drug addiction, criminal misconduct and ruin, and it’s the strongest part of the book. The authors place Dirty’s drug use and paranoia in the context of the shootings of Tupac and Biggie Smalls. In the aftermath, Dirty became convinced that he was next, and with good reason: he’d been shot twice and shot at by the NYPD’s infamous Street Crimes Unit, which did nothing to allay Dirty’s suspicion that everyone was out to get him.
“’I feel like the fish in the fishbowl, like I’m by myself in this fishbowl and people coming round staring at me like I’m a goddamn alien or some shit.”
But instead of dealing with his problems, Dirty ran from them, and his band mates, his clan, turned a blind eye. As Icelene states, “You can’t stage an intervention with the people your husband gets high with.”
When Dirty was famously arrested in the drive thru window of a McDonald’s in Philadelphia, he had outstanding warrants on both coasts and was sent to jail. While incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility, he was prescribed Haldol, the same antipsychotic drug that David Foster Wallace was on. The man who once appeared in a music video with Busta Rhymes raving in a straitjacket was so strongly sedated that visitors reported his condition as “catatonic.”
That an entertainer arrested on nonviolent drug charges was subjected to heavy sedation feels like a scene out of an alternate future. Although he had something of a come back after his release, Dirty was never the same. He died of an unintentional overdose in a recording studio like a sad old rock star, the unfortunate consequence of mixing the wrong chemicals.
The Dirty Version, for all its warts, paints a hugely compelling story of a man who refused to play by society’s rules and got a tragically raw deal. For his many transgressions he paid a terrible price, robbing the fans of a unique artist the likes of whom will not be seen again.