When Hip-Hop fans were first introduced to Ol’ Dirty Bastard with the 1992 release of Wu-Tang Clan’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck” and its accompanying video, there was no ambiguity about him. With gritty lyrics like, “The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is dirty and stinkin’,” he immediately let it be known he was “straight from the Brooklyn Zoo.”
And in truth, between his Jerome-from-Martin-esque grills, braided hairstyles that looked like they were never finished, and an eccentric rap style that left you wondering if he was high, drunk, or both, ODB’s self-assessment seemed pretty accurate.
Though he hailed from Brooklyn, ODB—real name Russell Tyrone Jones—spent much of his time in Staten Island with his real-life cousins Bobby (RZA) and Gary (GZA) bonding over their mutual love of rap music and vintage kung-fu movies eventually becoming a founding member of the Hip-Hip collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan.
His 1995 RZA-produced debut solo album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, which includes the hits “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” in addition to his surprising appearance on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” (Bad Boy Remix) catapulted the rapper’s fame and success. But with that, his personal demons followed suit.
Described as “the loose cannon of the group, both on record and off. Delivering his outrageously profane, free-associative rhymes in a distinctive half-rapped, half-sung style, ODB came across as a mix of gonzo comic relief and not-quite-stable menace.”
His personal, yet very publicized problems included crack cocaine addiction, being shot during a home robbery, saving a child from an oncoming car, countless arrests, escaping from rehab, jail stints, and rumors of fathering up to 13 kids with multiple women, claims denied by his wife of 13 years and mother of his three children, Icelene Jones.
On Nov. 13, 2004, ODB died of an accidental drug overdose from a mixture of cocaine and the prescription painkiller tramadol two days before his 36th birthday shocking the Hip-Hip community and leaving the Wu-Tang Clan with one less brother.
Needless to say, when Wu-Tang: An American Saga debuted on Hulu in September 2019, fans were anxious to see who would take on the larger-than-life portrayal of Ason Unique/Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Enter TJ Atoms, a 26-year-old North Philly native with no prior acting experience. Still, with his charming smile, “free spirit vibe,” and an uncanny connection to the Clan, the young talent’s casting as ODB seems almost kismet.
“I was in the trenches. I was a poor kid. I had no acting experience. I didn’t know how to get out, but in a parallel universe, I was who I am today,” explained Atoms of his clothing line, Parallel, which he named after mind tactics he used to trick himself into living his truth.
With new music also in the works, the rising star spoke to VIBE about how “coming from the hood” better equipped him than formal acting training for the role of ODB, the pressure of playing the late legend and bringing depth to the usually comedic character, and how wearing those iconic grills gives him Superman-like powers.
VIBE: First things first, where are you from?
TJ: I’m from North Philadelphia. I grew up on 16th and Allegheny. I went to the same middle school as Kevin Hart.
OK, cool. Do you reside in New York now?
Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn right now. I love Brooklyn. Brooklyn is definitely like my second home.
Just the other day, I was on YouTube, and you know how the YouTube rabbit hole goes. And for like an hour I ended up watching this footage of [the opioid crisis and open-air drug market in] Kensington, Philly.
Oh, that s**t is crazy, right? Kensington and Allegheny is literally 10 minutes from where I grew up. I was over there because my homeboy lived out there. But that wasn’t my hood. I was there by choice. And that’s a big f**king difference because that’s an environment that’s like, whoa! It’s crazy out there. You either doing drugs or you’re selling drugs or you doing both. There’s no middleman out there. Philly is crazy, but making it out of that part of Philly is crazy.
How did you get started in acting?
If I wasn’t skateboarding, I don’t know where I would be at right now. It helped me get out of my environment physically. I’d skate to Center City, the downtown area. One day I was downtown, just chilling. Some lady came up to me who was like, “Yo, you fit this part that I’m doing for this music video. I need you in it.”
I did this video for August Burns Red. It’s called “Fault Line.” You probably never heard of them, because it was a heavy metal rock band. These dudes are screaming and it’s like rock ‘n’ roll for real. We lit this car on fire. We beat it with bats and s**t. And I’m 18 at the time. It was one of the coolest things I ever did in my life at this time. And I just fell in love with it. After that, I talked to people, and they told me about Backstage, which is a site for actors. And I found my agent through that, and I just been rocking ever since.
Prior to your role as ODB, were you familiar with or a fan of Wu-Tang’s music, specifically, ODB?
Yeah, I was a big fan. I remember when ODB died. He died on my mom’s birthday. I was a kid. I don’t remember too many people dying, growing up, but I definitely remember where I was at when ODB died. Also, I was in this rap group as a kid and we rapped over Wu-Tang beats and we remodeled our logo after the Wu-Tang symbol. I’m connected to the Wu-Tang way in a deep, deep way.
What was the name of your childhood group?
No way! That’s insane. The universe is amazing.
The universe is crazy. It’s crazy.
This interview just took a detour because I wanted to ask you, prior to the show, did you have experience with rapping in real life? And clearly, the answer is yes.
In the show, do you use your own experience with rap? Are you embodying ODB? Or is it a combination of both?
It’s a little bit of both. Because I’ve been rapping for over 10 years, I know how to deliver it. I know how the tempo of everything should be. But as far as the cadence and the style and the real delivery, I’m definitely embodying ODB because the way he does things is so unorthodox from what people usually do. So, yeah. I feel like if you didn’t have rap experience before you tried to play this role, I don’t know if it’ll work out because it wouldn’t be as authentic. I feel like me having the rap experience helped with the whole portrayal of the character.
You touched on his very unique and unorthodox style. Was it difficult to mimic? Did you have any specific ways that you tackled trying to portray his rap style specifically?
Man, it was super difficult trying to imitate ODB. For one, it’s like, ODB! So, there’s a lot of pressure to really know the character. My whole thing was, I was coming from the hood. I had a great opportunity to change my whole life and I was going to do whatever it took to change my life at that time. Because it was, like, super dangerous in Philly…it’s still super dangerous in Philly. So, I think I owed a lot of credit to just coming from where I was coming from at the time. I don’t know if I would have did it if I was a regular actor and I was already trained.
Honestly, right now you’re giving me ODB vibes. I don’t know if that’s you personally or if it’s who you have become as a result of playing ODB, but tell me about how you have, essentially, embodied this character and brought him to life. Particularly with him having passed away, I’m sure there’s added pressure portraying his role, specifically.
It’s a lot of pressure playing ODB, man. Because I bet a lot of people did not expect it to go as it went. So, I had that pressure on me, but I just said my prayers, and I took a deep breath, and I just went with it. I did a lot of research. I studied his whole mannerism. I studied his son. I talked to his family. And I just took everything that I already knew watching Wu-Tang growing up and I used it to fully embody the character.
The character gets perceived well by the audience because it’s authentic, it’s a raw character. You know what I’m saying? A lot of the s**t that we doing on the show, I did in real life. So, it was an authentic portrayal.
What are some of the similarities between you, TJ Atoms, and Ason/ODB?
Me and Ason, we got the free spirit vibe in common. ODB didn’t give a f**k, he didn’t give a f**k about a lot of things. I feel like that comes from a free spirit and knowledge, but he really knew at the core of his heart, who he was. He wasn’t afraid to share that with the people. And I just feel like I definitely got that in common. I’m a flawed human, but I’m not afraid to show you. So, I think that just translates on the screen. We love to laugh and have fun. Like, in real life, I’m always laughing. You’re probably not going to catch me without a laugh or a smile on my face. I think that’s one of the key qualities that I would like to give to the character. Just a free spirit vibe and just fun.
It definitely comes across on the screen as very authentic, very visceral. It’s easy to imitate the hair and try to imitate the voice, but to have his essence, you absolutely nail that.
Thank you. I almost feel like ODB f**king picked me, man. Not even going to lie. Like I said, it was a tough character to play and I had a lot of pressure on me. I’m thankful for ODB, definitely. He probably chose me spiritually to portray his character because it was one of the best casts. No bias. No lie.
How did you, and how are you handling the pressure of living up to the ODB legacy?
To be honest, like I’ve said, I was coming from a tough environment. The pressure was there, but it was like, I got an opportunity to change generations right now and show them. I got an opportunity to do something that nobody had ever done, you know what I’m saying, that I’d never known done. So, I put that on my back and I just took it and I was like, “Yo, I’m going to do this s**t. It’s going to make or break me.” And then when I got on set, there’s still pressure after you get the role, like, “Y’all sure y’all picked the right person? I don’t know if I’m ODB.”
But the character, for me, still didn’t come alive until I got the grills. And then I could really talk like him because that’s a major part of delivering the character—having that voice. And I just feel like once I got on set, I got a lot of encouragement from everybody that I was really doing a good job. So, the pressure went away after, like, the first episode. Once the director was really hyped and RZA was really hyped, I didn’t have no pressure after that. It was like, “Oh, this is a go!”
You mentioned the grills. That’s such a minor detail, but it’s absolutely critical. Is it that they actually change the sound of your voice? Does it give you a boost? What is the power of the grills as a part of his character?
That’s some mythology right there because I don’t know if they helped me change my voice or it’s part of, like, Superman throwing his cape on, like, “Alright, I’m Superman now.” I don’t know. Because when I put the grills in it gives me that little lisp I need. It gives me that little help that I need to fully deliver the character. That was a key to the character.
In Season 1, your character was a bit more of the comic relief. We only really got to scratch the surface with you and in Season 2, we take a deeper dive. Talk to me about that character arc for Ason/ODB.
Yeah, I really appreciate the fact that they got to dive in a little more too. We didn’t get too much into detail with his life, but we got the deal on what ODB really go through when he’s not with the Wu-Tang. And what the hell is Ason really doing when he’s not making music.
I love that as the story progressed you get to see even more of ODB. You get to see emotions from him. You get to see the range. This is not just a funny person. This is a smart person. And he’s really, like, a key factor in the Wu-Tang and keeping everybody together and keeping everybody on a certain type of energy level. ODB was a key to that, man. And I really appreciate the writers for diving more into his story, because I’m sure people would love to know about ODB. In Season 3, we need to dive more into it.
We all know the ODB with the wild character, but not too many of us know the ODB that’s real intelligent and really knows what he’s talking about. And he was [the] type of person that, he was such a loud character that once he started saying s**t that he knows what he’s talking about, then people probably wouldn’t even take it seriously, you know what I’m saying?
Exactly. They have him pegged as the clown.
But there’s mad interviews where ODB is making complete sense. You know what I mean? But we only know that wild ODB, so I want to see more of the ODB that’s really intelligent and a pivotal character to the culture.
Did you get any feedback or reach out to anyone close to him as far as getting insight into him as a person to add to the character?
Yes. I had to have the blessings of his family. So that probably definitely helped the character, just spiritually. Because without the blessings of the family, like, come on. What are we really doing? I talked to his mom, his brother. I talked to his sons, his daughters. I probably talked to his cousin. I talked to a lot of people in his family just to get the blessings and really touch on ODB.
Talk to me about the importance of brotherhood, not only on the show and within the characters, but also on the set and with the cast.
Man, brotherhood is crazy, because it’s a real brotherhood. I don’t think none of us really expected to be as cool as we are. I don’t know how people are at their jobs, but Wu-Tang, we are brothers. Ashton [Sanders] is my brother. Johnell [Young], Siddiq [Saunderson], Dave [East], we hang out off set, so we got mad memories outside of set. I call them when I’m going through s**t sometimes, you know what I’m saying? I check on them just to see what they life is like, but it’s a real brotherhood. I support them in everything they do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream now on Hulu.
Tune in with VIBE on Wednesdays for upcoming interviews with the cast and crew.