NEW YORK -- The rapper ODB, a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan whose erratic behavior and incessant legal troubles made him a figure as wild as his lyrics, collapsed and died inside a recording studio. He was 35.
The cause of death was not immediately clear. He had complained of chest pains before collapsing Saturday and was dead by the time paramedics arrived, said Gabe Tesoriero, a spokesman for ODB's record label, Roc-a-Fella.
The rapper would have turned 36 today. .
ODB had recently finished a prison sentence for drug possession and escaping a rehab clinic.
From his first appearance in the early 1990s, the singer -- also known as Ol' Dirty Bastard, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, or his legal name of Russell Jones -- had an unorthodox delivery that stood out even in the nine-man Clan, which featured such future stars as Method Man, RZA, and Ghostface Killah.
The Wu-Tang blueprint was for each member to pursue solo projects, and Mr. Jones's were among the best. He released hit singles such as "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" and "Got Your Money," and appeared on remixes with such singers as Mariah Carey.
"There's nobody like him in the game," RZA said in an April interview, when asked whether Mr. Jones could resume his career after prison. "He's got a lot of problems he's got to iron out, of course, but as far as a one-of-a-kind person, a one-of-a-kind artist, he's one of a generation, one of a lifetime. He's a very rare commodity."
But as his fame increased, so did his erratic behavior, and fans came to expect the unexpected from ODB.
When MTV News followed him around at the height of his popularity, he took the camera crew and several of his kids (he was said to have more than a dozen, by numerous mothers) to the welfare office -- in a limousine -- to get an allotment of food stamps.
And he received them.
In February 1998, he crashed the stage at the Grammy Awards and hijacked a microphone from singer Shawn Colvin as she accepted an award, apparently upset over losing the best rap album Grammy to P. Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy). He complained that he spent a lot of money for new clothes because he thought he was going to win. The rapper later apologized.
Over the years, he was wounded in shootings and arrested on several charges, including menacing security officers, illegally possessing body armor, driving with a suspended license, shoplifting, possessing crack cocaine, and assaulting a former girlfriend.
He is the latest in a string of rappers to die young, among them Jam Master Jay of Run DMC, who was fatally shot in late 2002, and Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, who were both shot to death in the late 1990s. Those killings remain unsolved.
In 2000, after escaping a court-ordered term in a California rehabilitation center, Mr. Jones was free for a month. He was finally arrested in Philadelphia -- three days after performing in a New York City concert with his Wu-Tang group.
He was sentenced in 2001 to two to four years in prison for drug possession, plus two concurrent years for escaping from the clinic. He was released in 2003 and immediately signed with Roc-a-Fella.
He heralded his return with a news conference alongside singer Carey -- pop fans may know him best for his memorable cameo on her hit "Fantasy," featuring such rhymes as "me and Mariah, go back like babies with pacifiers."
His mother, Cherry, said she received the news of her son's death in a phone call.
"To the public he was known as Ol' Dirty Bastard, but to me he was known as Rusty. The kindest, most generous soul on earth," her statement said. "Russell was more than a rapper, he was a loving father, brother, uncle, and most of all, son."
Tesoriero said Mr. Jones had been working on his comeback album for more than a year and was almost finished.
"Russell inspired all of us with his spirit, wit, and tremendous heart," Roc-A-Fella founder Damon Dash said in a statement. "The world has lost a great talent, but we mourn the loss of our friend."