ODB: In Search of Wu Tang
New Novel podcast ODB: A Son Unique, which tracks the life story of musician Ol' Dirty Bastard, has been winning plaudits for its sensitive approach to one of hip-hop's most compelling yet confounding characters. Andrew Dickson met host Khalik Allah to discuss how the show came together
The story of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Wu-Tang clan has become a keystone of rap legend. The group burst to fame in the mid-1990s, straight from the mean streets of New York, and promptly developed a reputation for trouble, brushes with the law, and the kind of raw, tough hip-hop sound that defined a generation.
ODB – “Dirty” to fans, friends and foes alike – was the rawest and toughest of the lot, associated with stunts such as crashing the Grammys stage in 1998 after the group failed to win, being filmed on MTV taking a limo to pick up a welfare cheque and food stamps, and mixing the sound of a brutal argument with his wife into the backdrop of a track. Then, almost as soon as he’d arrived on the scene, Dirty left it – dead of an accidental overdose in 2004, two days shy of his 36th birthday.
That’s what we think we know – and all those incidents are true, as it happens – but the premise of a new, eight-part Novel podcast is that there’s a great deal more to Dirty than the myth. ODB: A Son Unique, produced in partnership with NBC and Talkhouse, aims to probe much deeper, diving deep into Dirty’s life and trying to get at who he really was. Was he sinner, saint, somewhere in between? An emblem of Black America? Everything all at once?
The show tries to explore what the music really was, too, by exploring Dirty’s role as a prophet and pioneer of hip-hop, discovering how he developed his unique sound and talking to many surviving Wu-Tang collaborators, among them Buddha Monk and Raekwon.
Fronted by filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah, who knew ODB and was mentored by the group’s spiritual father Popa Wu, the series also attempts to tell a much broader story about African American creativity and a media that often seems to want to ignore it or put it in a corner – a particularly important topic in the light of movements such as Black Lives Matter, marking its tenth anniversary this year.
To find out more, I got together with Khalik to explore the themes and ideas behind the series, and how it feels finally to have it out in the world.
AD: How did the project begin for you, Khalik? Did you ever expect to be making a podcast?
KA: I have to be honest – it kind of came out of leftfield. It wasn’t something that I was expecting to do at all. I'm a filmmaker and a photographer; that’s my career. But then Novel approached me and asked me about potentially hosting a podcast. A producer friend from LA got in touch and said, You should speak with these people. Even when I met with the team, I wasn’t sure: I'm not Morgan Freeman, I'm not James Earl Jones. I'm not a professional radio host. But Novel were really understanding of that, and wanted me to bring myself to the story, particularly my relationship with Wu-Tang and ODB, and that was really interesting. So I decided it was time to step out of my comfort zone.
AD: You’d known Wu-Tang since you were much younger, is that right? What was your connection to the group?
KA: I was listening to Wu-Tang since I was 8 or 9 years old, ever since 36 Chambers came out, really. Back then everyone was glued to the TV watching MTV, seeing them perform, the interviews and stunts they did. Then in my early 20s, I was in the Wu-Tang Mansion in Jersey. I remember being in the studio with RZAand a bunch of different members. But it didn’t feel a safe space for me artistically; it was an honour and a privilege to be among Wu-Tang, but it wasn’t sustainable in terms of me going my own way. So I went into the streets and began my career as a photographer and as a filmmaker, made a number of films that had nothing to do with music or Wu-Tang. I stayed friendly with a few brothers, but not everyone.
But Popa Wu, who was kind of a mentor for the group, was somebody who I was really close with since my early twenties. Wu was Old Dirty Bastard’s older cousin and RZA’s older cousin. I actually only met ODB a couple of times; we never got close. But Popa and I were really close. I made a film about him, Popa Wu: A 5% Story, and after he died in 2019 I put it out for free online. People started wanting to speak with me for documentary projects on Wu-Tang, or to license material, and it just kind of cascaded from there.
We used some of the interviews I recorded with Popa Wu back then in the podcast, and I spoke with some of the surviving members of the group too. So it kind of came back full-circle. Making the podcast, I got to reconnect with those brothers, revisit that history.
AD: Was it challenging to go back to a story that was quite deep in your past? A lot of the music you were listening to in your childhood, I guess; did it feel strange revisiting it at all?
KA: Actually, it was so interesting to revisit the story, partly because we wanted to honour Dirty Bastard’s life and shine a different light on who he was. So many things we hear about him, like when he stormed the Grammy stage in 1998 after Wu-Tang lost, are important elements to the story. But we wanted to go much deeper.
AD: Listening to the podcast, it’s that depth that comes through: you want to show how complex an artist he was. And a complex man, too.
KA: Absolutely. ODB was a very complex and unique individual, somebody who I regard as a genius, honestly, and we wanted to shine a light on that aspect of him as well. We spoke to a lot of people who were around him and knew him well, and what comes through is something much more dynamic than was portrayed by the media, for example. So often they turned him into a caricature, you know: this rapper who’s kind of a joke, a prankster who doesn’t know any better. Like when Howard Stern interviewed him and really condescended to him after he stormed the Grammys. Sure, he was performative; he was an entertainer. But there were so many other layers to him, and that’s what we wanted to show.
AD: You play some of that interview in the podcast, and it’s kind of shocking how much they talk down to him. So much of the media did that in the 1990s and 2000s, especially with Black artists, and particularly if they were hip-hop artists too. And the fetishising of the lifestyle – the clothes, the guns, the money, all those cliches. I know it’s a long time ago, 25 years, but still it’s pretty shocking to hear now.
KA: Thing is, I remember that whole time, you know what I'm saying? I remember what it felt like seeing that. Other times he would shit on interviewers or mess with them a little bit; he was so intelligent about it all and knew what he was doing. There's one time he's on the couch at MTV and he's just having a good time with the interviewer, wilding out, not even really answering questions – just kind of dancing around, saying what he wanted to say. But the media does what it does, especially with rappers. They typecast Black people and project illusions onto them, project fear onto them. And they use rappers as pawns to drive their own ideology, which oftentimes is not respectful of the culture. So I wasn’t shocked, no. I knew what it was like.
AD: You get into this in the series, but there’s also the cliche about certain parts of New York, isn’t there – the mean streets of Bed-Stuy or Staten Island, where lots of Wu-Tang came from. In the 1990s, a lot of the media talked about it like it was a war zone.
KA: Oh, yeah. It's kind of like how Tupac used to speak about a rose rising up from the concrete. Sure, things were tough in those places, there was a lot of poverty and crime, drugs, racism, particularly at the time. But it’s also a beautiful place, and so full of culture and artistic expression.
AD: ODB’s story is obviously very sad in the end – you cover what happened, the accidental overdose, how he died. Was making the series an emotional experience for you?
KA: I think one of the last studio recordings we did, when I was putting in the voiceover, where we played a song that Raekwon had dedicated to Old Dirty Bastard after he died. It's called “Ason Jones”, and it's on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, volume two. On that song, Raekwon is just rapping about his fallen soldier, his brother, Old Dirty. The team played it for me in the studio through the headphones, and I got really emotional, choked up. It’s such a genuine song, showing a true brotherhood and true friendship between Raekwon and Dirty, you feel how much he misses him. As I heard it again, I was just like, Whoa, OK. I was a little taken back by that.
AD: In a way that’s the point, right: after it all, we still have ODB’s music. And it’s still incredible.
KA: Oh yeah, totally. On the way to the studio recordings, I would always play Brooklyn Zoo to get into the right headspace, and it felt like it just came out, you know what I mean? It’s like the track’s just been released, brand-new, even though what that was, 1995. It still feels fresh.
AD: You’ve talked about sensing that ODB is a strong presence for you, even though it’s nearly 20 years since he died. Did you feel he was with you as you were making the podcast, in a way?
KA: At times, yeah, It definitely did. But at times, I felt like maybe he didn't even care. Sometimes it felt like he was saying, “Well, who cares what the world knows? The truth is beyond the world anyway.” But in the end I wanted to tell the truest story that I could about ODB. And I really hope anyone who listens to the series feels that he’s there in the room, somehow.