They gathered to celebrate the short, clamorous life of one of rap's most eccentric talents, here at a church in Harlem. Russell Jones, better known to hip-hop lovers as Ol' Dirty Bastard, was mourned Wednesday by fans and family still coping with the shock of his fatal collapse in a recording studio on Saturday, two days shy of his 36th birthday. The cause of his death is not yet known.
"He was adventurous and steadfast and strong," said Saadiq B, who worked with Jones as a tour manager and was standing on the sidewalk outside St. James Presbyterian Church. "He wasn't scared to be different."
That probably understates it. Jones seemed to live by a set of rules that bore little resemblance to rules abided by everyone else, and that was both the source of his greatness as a performer and his ruin. He was well known for his spectacularly colorful and constant scrapes with the law, but to those who assembled Wednesday, none of that could overshadow his music, or his contributions to the pioneering Staten Island rap collective Wu-Tang Clan.
"He'd show up and grab the mike," recalled Cappadonna, known as the 10th member of Wu-Tang, who had come to pay his respects. "And he'd take over the place. He had that much presence."
Nobody has ever rapped like ODB and nobody will again. His performances were like escapees from an asylum -- attention-grabbing, barely coherent and in a hurry.
He would hurtle words, his voice a breathless wheeze, or he'd sing off-key, a parody of a crooner, or he'd scream for a moment like a guy being bearhugged. His lyrics were always profane, frequently hilarious, often pro-drug and sometimes racist. Mostly, he just ranted about whatever was on his mind at the moment, sense be damned.
"Plug it up, cocaine, make ya speakers blow / Party amps getting' sniffed up now wit it too / When there's somethin' in my camp, a wireless amp / High as a ramp / Speak to Wu like stamp," he rapped on "Pop [Expletive]" on "The Neptunes Present . . . Clones," a compilation album released last year.
What the song is about is anyone's guess, but the spasmodic energy, the cluster bombs of words and his casual regard for meter and rhythm made the tune one of the best rap tracks of 2003.
He was in on the joke, and yet forever flirting with what seemed like actual madness. For a while, he told interviewers that he wanted to be called Big Baby Jesus, though he dropped that idea. Most recently, he performed under the name Dirt McGirt.
"He was just free," said Chuck Creekmur, an ODB fan and contributor to allhiphop.com, Wednesday. "Other people posture and pretend, and he didn't. He was free of those type of constraints. I loved that about him."
Jones was a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan, a group that melded the pan-Asian aesthetic of kung fu movies with urban street culture, and revolutionized rap. The group's debut, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," released in 1993, spun off solo careers and a whole catalogue of lifestyle products.
On his own, Jones didn't make many records, and even for the trouble-prone world he emerged from, his crime-to-rhyme ratio was absurdly high. He ran afoul of the law countless times from the late '90s and on. There were some workaday charges on his rap sheet -- a second-degree assault, some drug busts, an arrest for failing to pay child support.
But there was real dramatic flair to his more memorable run-ins. After he escaped custody on the way to a rehab center in 2000, Jones opted against the low-profile approach taken by the typical fugitive. Instead, he turned up to perform at a Wu-Tang concert in New York City and, despite a heavy police presence, nobody with a badge realized that a wanted man was in the house. Even after he told the crowd, "I can't stay onstage too long tonight -- the cops is after me."
One attendee at the show that night reminisced about it Wednesday. "That was regular Dirty," said a man who identified himself as Lounge Mode. "He'd just pop onto the set and do what he do."
Jones was later arrested in the parking lot of a McDonald's in Philadelphia, where he was signing autographs for a crowd of fans.
For years, his life was a series of perp walks and court appointments. He'd break the law in California, then turn up in New York, stopped by the cops for running a red light in a car with 20 vials of crack.
At first, it seemed like an exercise in image enhancement for the guy tagged as the zaniest of the Wu-Tang Clan, but then it became obvious that he couldn't stop. Then it got sad.
At a court hearing in 2000, he shouted "Sperm donor!" at a female prosecutor, and later fell asleep. He was one of the first men arrested under a 1999 law in California that made it illegal for a felon to wear a bulletproof vest. At the House of Blues in Los Angeles he was charged with making "terrorist threats" after threatening to shoot up the place.
His truly indelible moment, though, earned him headlines instead of handcuffs. At the Grammys six years ago, Jones interrupted Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech, swiping the microphone from her hands to protest the Wu's loss to Puff Daddy in the rap album category.
"Please calm down," he told the startled audience. "I went and bought me an outfit today that cost me a lot of money, because I figured that Wu-Tang was gonna win." It was an injustice, he ranted, because "Wu-Tang is for the children. We teach the children."
Those words, according to Saadiq B, were no joke.
"The guy really loved kids," he said. "And kids loved him. Because he was a character and kids love a character."
After serving two years in jail on a drug charge, Jones was most recently working on a new solo album. But his reputation for erratic behavior and temperamental outbursts was such that in September, Spike TV announced the launch of a series called "Stuck to ODB." The premise: a $25,000 prize for any contestant who could stay within 10 feet of Jones for five full days. Three episodes were shot, none of which has aired.
The concept for "Stuck to ODB" didn't seem as funny Wednesday, as a crowd filed past a casket marked "Russell Tyrone Jones."
ODB was wearing a white suit with a red handkerchief in his breast pocket, and even in this funereal context it was shocking to see this unceasingly antic man lying still.
"He was a double-sided individual," Saadiq B said, as he prepared to walk into St. James church. "A lot of people want to report things that were negative, but that's just showing and proving that he was human. On the other side, there are a lot of people who through his energy were inspired to be something that they thought they could never be."