Russell Jones, better known as Ol' Dirty Bastard, died 10 years ago today, two days shy of his 36th birthday. A decade before that, while Bill Clinton was vowing to "change welfare as we know it" and a Republican-dominated Congress was about to give him what he later called a "far from perfect" version of that wish, ODB not only rapped about being on welfare—he made his welfare card the cover of his first solo album.
"Dirty ... was proud to be on welfare," writes Buddha Monk, his childhood friend and hype man, in a new biography co-written with the hip-hop scholar Mickey Hess.
Clinton had made welfare reform a centerpiece of his 1992 presidential campaign, vowing to break what he called a cycle of dependency on government payments to the poor. But the issue had already been around for decades—on the campaign trail in 1976, Ronald Reagan bemoaned the scourge of welfare fraud, citing the example of a Chicago woman the local media had dubbed the "welfare queen" who made $150,000 a year and used multiple aliases to bilk the government. When Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, they demanded tougher reforms than what Clinton had proposed, including stricter time limits for remaining on the welfare rolls.
It was against that backdrop that ODB released his first solo album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, on March 28, 1995. By then, he had already achieved some notoriety as the man MTV later described as "the most outrageous" member of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers came out in 1993. As Buddha Monk writes: "Dirty's style of rap was unique. His rhyme style ranged from drunkenly slurred to growled, crooned, and warbled to shouted, grunted, and screamed—often all within the same verse." His Clan-mate Method Man said the nickname—one of several Jones used throughout his career, including Big Baby Jesus, Osiris, and Dirt McGirt—had been born from the realization that "there ain't no father to his style."
Around the time of the release of The Dirty Version, ODB invited an MTV film crew to hang out with him—including a trip, via limousine, to the welfare office, where he cashed a $375 welfare check and picked up food stamps. "Why wouldn't you want to get free money?" he asked the camera in part of a segment MTV aired on March 30, under the title "Ol' Dirty Bastard Gets Paid."
He also weighed in on the legislation then being debated in Congress:
The people that want to cut off the welfare, man, I think that's terrible. You know how hard it is for people to live without nothin'? You owe me 40 acres and a mule anyway. For real. I'm in this rap game to get money .... I got babies. It's time to take care of my babies.
By Buddha Monk's account, Dirty himself was surprised he managed to collect his food stamps. His friend explains how he did it, despite having received a $45,000 advance from Elektra Records for The Dirty Version—which at one stroke put him over the maximum income to stay on welfare—as well as a cut of the Wu-Tang Clan's best-selling debut album, which had gone platinum the year before. It was actually pretty simple: He hadn't filed his taxes yet. "He was still collecting welfare based on his income from the previous year," Buddha Monk writes.
Buddha Monk tried to talk him out of it. ODB, he writes, had wanted to show that there was no shame in being on welfare. "People in the hood understood what Dirty was doing," Buddha Monk writes, "but to welfare's critics he'd just reinforced the stereotype of the welfare cheat that they were using as a platform to try to get rid of the system."
When, in the summer of 1996, Clinton announced his intention to sign welfare reform into law after having vetoed two previous bills, he said welfare should represent "a second chance, not a way of life." And he boasted that due in part to his efforts, "there are 1.3 million fewer people on welfare today than there were when I took office."
By then, ODB was one of them—his caseworker cut him off after he saw the MTV segment. But Dirty wasn't done talking about it. He responded in a verse on Wu-Tang Clan's "Diesel" that's alternately deeply paranoid and brashly confrontational, in which he accuses the government of having killed the rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, repeats "Someone help me! ... Someone help me, please!" and then addresses Clinton directly: "To the president, you say I'm a welfare fraud/You motherfucking right! Let's burn this dark house white!" The song was first released in 1997, then showed up again on the best-of compilation Legend of the Wu-Tang Clan, which came out in October 2004.
A few weeks after Legend was released, ODB collapsed in a recording studio in Manhattan. He was pronounced dead half an hour later, in what was ruled an accidental drug overdose.