Russell Jones is a 48-year-old art director who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
In the early winter of 1996, he and his wife began to receive some unusual phone calls late at night. They would pick up the receiver and a voice would shout “Yo, Dirty!” or just “Dirteee!” and then hang up.
Mr Jones was horrified, he thought that maybe his number had been scrawled on a toilet wall somewhere as a sick practical joke by a callous friend.
But a few weeks later, Jones’s young cousin, who was conversant in hip-hop, stopped by.
“You know that rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard?”
“Uh, not really.”
“His real name is Russell Jones. That’s why you get those calls.”
“No way. It can’t be.”
It was. Russell Jones, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, had just left the group Wu-Tang Clan and had a hit song called “Brooklyn Zoo.”
He called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard because “there ain’t no father to his style” — a distinctive combination of song and rap.
Something of a folk hero, ODB would occasionally return to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, East New York, and hand out money on the streets.
He also got into a lot of trouble—an assault charge, a bullet in the stomach. His fans would dial information and ask for the number of Russell Jones in Brooklyn.
They’d get the wrong Russell Jones, the one who describes himself as “meek” and “white.”
The conversations often unfolded this way:
“Yo, Ol’ Dirty?”
“No, this is not Ol’ Dirty, but you have reached Russell Jones.”
“Oh, are you going to see him later?”
The callers always assumed that Jones would somehow run into O.D.B., even after he said he couldn’t rap.
Most refused to believe him. “Where you at? I’m gonna come over and hang out with you,” they’d say. “Trust me, you’ll be very disappointed when you see me,” Jones would reply.
He thought about getting an unlisted number, but, as a freelance illustrator, he needed to be in the book.
If he hung up on the callers, they just called back. Eventually, he decided to enjoy the fruits of mistaken identity.
There were the drunken admirers from Denmark and the little girl who wanted to do a school report about ODB and his accomplishments. The most frequent calls were from young women who expressed a desire to break into the music business.
Like a bad French movie, Jones’s life began to intersect with ODB’s in other ways. He learned that ODB’s mother lived on a nearby street, and that he and ODB belonged to the same video store.
Jones really didn’t mind the notoriety of being paired with the self-destructive rapper. After all, he was much better off than his brother Tom Jones. “His life in the seventies was a living hell.”
Jones began to notice a pattern in the calls. There would be a few weeks of calm, and then the phone would start ringing five or six times a night.
When this happened, Jones would say to his wife, “I think the ODB did something.” During these years, ODB seemingly couldn’t finish a day without getting arrested and thrown in jail.
His incarceration did not stop the fans from dialling. “Ol’ Dirty is in prison!” “Yeah, I know. It’s harsh.”
Even people who should know where to find ODB began to have trouble tracking him down. Vibe magazine wanted to send a limousine to the house.
And then there was a call from a tuba-voiced man: “This is Method.” Methane? Methadone? “Yo, Rusty, how you been, we need to get together.”
“I’m Russell Jones but not who you think I am.”
A pause. “OK, well, tell my man to call me.”
After further protestations, Jones took down the number. Later, he learned that he had been talking to the hip-hop artist Method Man.
Towards the end of his life ODB was enjoying a comeback. He was recording new songs and had finished shooting a reality TV show (in which a contestant had to stay within ten feet of him for a week) when he collapsed in a recording studio and died. He had overdosed on cocaine and painkillers.
When the news broke, Jones took calls from distraught fans: “He was amazing. He was original.” Eric, a self-described rapper from the West Coast, phoned twice: “When you see the family, extend my condolences.”
Over the years of answering these calls, Jones often wondered how the Dirty Bastard was doing.
One day, he ran into him on the street. “It was an incredible moment,” Jones recalled. “There was this guy with mini-dreads who had his shirt off.
He was wearing cutoff overalls and Timberland boots without socks. He was lurching around with these huge wide steps. You could tell he was a star. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He had charisma. And I said to myself, ‘That’s Russell Jones. That’s the ODB’