Ol’ Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit ODB’s 1995 debut, a work of orchestrated negligence and a makeshift classic.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard was meant for the stage. In 1993, he was the only fiend audacious enough to sideline Biggie at his own birthday show, taking over the set and turning one of the greatest rappers ever into a hype man. In 1998, he interrupted Shawn Colvin’s Grammy acceptance speech to protest Puff Daddy’s win for Best Rap Album before a national audience of 25 million people. In 2000, he escaped from a rehab facility in Los Angeles, went on the lam for a month, and popped up as a fugitive to perform at a Wu-Tang Clan release party in New York City. “I can’t stay on stage too long tonight, the cops is after me,” he told the elated and astounded crowd at Hammerstein Ballroom, after performing “Shame On a Nigga.” For Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the line between mania and lucidity was always razor-thin, a slapstick high-wire act that was as exhilarating as it was dangerous.

ODB’s debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, is a masterclass in winging it. The spontaneity of his live stunts extended to his raps: You never knew what he was going to do or say next, and maybe he didn’t either. In The Wu-Tang Manual, RZA, the Wu’s producer, chief creative mastermind, and self-appointed abbot, dubbed him a “freelance rhyme terrorist.” Two forces are at war with each other on Return to the 36 Chambers: RZA’s diligence and ODB’s inconsistency. It’s an oxymoron, a work of orchestrated negligence, a makeshift classic. But beyond its place in the ODB mythology or in Wu-Tang lore, The Dirty Version is above all a brash indictment of American classism and respectability politics. Unapologetic and raw, he turned to Uncle Sam and hollered, this is the savage you created, and did it with a Cheshire grin.

Wu-Tang’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was like a rift in the space-time continuum. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, RZA designed an epic franchise with a cast of outsized characters crossing over from one project to the next, and a rich cross-cultural history: Five-Percenter raps from cross-town New Yorkers drawing from ’70s and ’80s martial arts cinema, which itself drew on the mythology of ancient dynasties. (The Wu universe would come to include a comic series, an origin story TV show, and a one-of-a-kind million-dollar rap artifact purchased by the world’s most loathed pharmaceutical executive.) The Dirty Version kicked off a world-conquering year for the Wu, which included two other solo classics: Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords. In 1995, the Wu-Tang Clan was forging their legend, and ODB was the crew’s madcap mascot.

Wu-Tang’s world of Wuxia iconography, lifted from overdubbed kung fu flicks, was the result of an obsession RZA and ODB nourished with regular trips to watch triple features on 42nd Street. ODB took his name from the 1979 film Ol’ Dirty Kung Fu, which was given the title Ol’ Dirty & the Bastard in U.S. syndication. At the center of the plot is a drunken eccentric whose aberrant behavior never compromises his mastery of martial arts, and even seems inherent to his form. ODB was drawn to the character and others like him, often taking the moniker the Drunken Master, after the 1978 Jackie Chan movie that spawned the archetype. Method Man once proclaimed that there was no father to ODB’s style: Without musical precedents, he leaned into aberration, just like his namesake.

RZA’s plan to divide and conquer the rap world began before Wu-Tang’s studio debut was even released. They’d amassed a buzz around town, the self-released single “Protect Ya Neck” brought suitors, and the most valuable Wu assets were divvied up quickly: Meth signed to Def Jam, ODB to Elektra, Raekwon to Loud, GZA to Geffen, and Ghostface to Epic. After Enter the Wu-Tang was released, ODB was supposed to be the first soloist, but he couldn’t finish his album. He spent a chunk of the money from his advance on a jalopy in North Carolina and would go AWOL for long stretches of time, taking impromptu drives and writing on the road. He would bail out of songs mid-recording, vanish for days at a time, and then pop up drunk, destructive, and unpredictable. He once took an LL Cool J plaque off the wall at Chung King Studios and pissed on it, ending up in a standoff with LL’s manager Chris Lighty. The album took nearly two years to make because of this fitful approach. ODB was surrounded by a small team doing its damndest to keep him recording, but he could not be collected and he would not be rushed.

He couldn’t have been further from Method Man’s 1994 debut Tical, an undeniably solid album from the crew’s most consistent rapper, which broke the seal on individual Wu-Tang releases thanks to ODB’s delay. RZA’s grand design spelled out the differences between Meth and Dirty: Meth would sign to Def Jam because he had crossover appeal; at Elektra, ODB would join fellow iconoclasts like KMD and Busta Rhymes. Tical, which went platinum in less than a year and spawned a Grammy-winning Hot 100 hit, was the perfect springboard for an ODB belly flop.

Years before linking with Pras and Mya, Dirty became the ghetto superstar. On The Dirty Version, he subscribed to the age-old Rakim proverb that MC meant “move the crowd”; star-power meant garnering fans, and garnering fans meant rallying people. He wanted to luxuriate in the rap-star lifestyle, to conjure the euphoria of karaoke. His verses were as irresistible as they were startling. It isn’t a coincidence “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” has been sampled and interpolated 92 times, and as recently as this year. It is fun to mimic. Method Man joked that the album’s repeated verses were the result of ODB’s absentmindedness during a long recording process, but, intentionally or not, that repetition turned his verses into hooks. “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” has verse fragments from three other songs on the album, like a reprise in a musical. His raps wormed their way into the brain in unusual ways, the product of his unusual methods.

Those methods required several measures to wring an entire album out of Dirty. RZA was the hands-off architect. Buddha Monk was the handler, body man, and engineer, tasked with getting ODB prepped and into the studio, and making sure his vocals sounded right. Mastering engineer Tom Coyne was dubbed “the referee” in the liner notes for breaking up fights. Elektra A&R Dante Ross had the demanding task of shepherding the album to completion amid chaos. “I knew I had to get it to the finish line because there are times in life when you know you only have that moment in time, and you gotta get there,” Ross said of the Dirty Version sessions. “I had to get there, ’cause I strongly suspected that would not happen again.”

ODB’s volatility created only a small window for capturing his output. He was anti-prolific, so inefficient in his recording style that it made The Dirty Version even more of a marvel—not just catching lightning in a bottle but harnessing its electricity to power a generator. It’s impossible to overstate how much his jolting vocals jump out and strike you. On “Don’t U Know,” he lurches along, his singing barely adhering to melody and meter. On “Hippa to da Hoppa,” he punctuates every bar with a grunt, then becomes conversational, then does some straight-up showerhead crooning. Across chest-thumpers like “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Cuttin’ Headz,” he becomes a caricature, a monster of pure id born of New York City’s sordid underbelly.

Whether deliberately performative or not, Dirty’s persona embraced what the rest of the world saw as undesirable. Chris Rock, in his 1999 HBO special Bigger and Blacker, used ODB to characterize the politicized distance between “black” and “nigger,” a distinction between the respectable and the disreputable, as noted by the writer and African-American studies professor Richard Iton. To Rock, as to many, ODB was a depiction of a kind of blackness that was obscene: ignorant, dependant, deviant, unkempt, unruly, and, worst of all, uncontrollable. He was a character that has persisted in the cultural lexicon decades later: the crazy black homeless man as personified in novels like Same Kind of Different as Me or the shabby, mentally ill virtuoso of films like The Soloist. Only ODB didn’t seek redemption. He was proud.

ODB made the low life into the hallmark of his celebrity appeal. In the “Intro,” he crowns himself the greatest performer since James Brown before digressing into a story about how he got burned by gonorrhea twice. On “Brooklyn Zoo,” he raps that he was “In the G-Building, taking all types of medicines,” referencing a local Brooklyn psychiatric ward. He often rapped as if on hallucinogens. “Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie)” has a sort of degenerate charm, a singsong diatribe that’s the closest this pick-up artist comes to a ballad. It wasn’t that he couldn’t sing, it was if the concept of singing was entirely alien. On “Baby C’mon,” amid ravings about Wu (and personal) supremacy, he blurts out, “When it come to the money, yo it ain’t funny/It’s what you gotta do, what you got to do.”

He was never embarrassed by being poor, but ODB was very clear about wanting to get paid. Those two truths were at the core of his biggest scandal: In 1995, as promotion for the album, an MTV crew filmed ODB taking his family to cash a $375 welfare check in a limo. The image of a rap star claiming food stamps reeked of abuse of power to the public: To middle-class black Americans, he was taking food out of someone else’s mouth; to white America, he was proof of a community looking for handouts. In a sense, it was profiteering. But more so, it was a display of government incompetence. How could a member of rap’s biggest group, who’d pocketed $45,000 as an advance, get away with this? It wasn’t so much pulling a fast one as it was highlighting a design flaw. In retrospect, it played like a comedy bit, something Eric Andre might pull. ODB had already warned them on “Raw Hide.” He was the product of a broken system, and if he saw any opportunity to make that system’s failures work for him, he would take it.

On “Snakes,” he ups the ante: “Fuck my name, who I be?/Fuck the game, it’s all about the moneyyyy!” It is obvious to anyone paying attention: ODB felt America owed him, and he planned to recoup by any means necessary. He saw slavery as time served and wanted back pay. “Why wouldn’t you want to get free money?” he told the MTV camera crew. “You owe me 40 acres and a mule anyway.” (ODB was about wealth redistribution, too: he gave his money away in the streets.) There aren’t many job prospects for a lecherous, cock-eyed knucklehead in body armor, and so he was going to take every opportunity available to him to cash in. He’d achieved implausible fame. He was high enough to stun an elephant. He felt indestructible.

The no-fucks-given debauchery of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard persona, which Ta-Nehisi Coates once dubbed “misanthropic lunacy,” made him an easy punching bag. But ODB wasn’t just in on the joke. He was delivering the punchline. His songs wholeheartedly played into the characterization. It was in the foul way he described his own talent in them: “funky like a stink bomb,” “old like toe fungus mold,” “style is evil like a wicked witch”; in the banter on “Don’t U Know,” where two women argue whether he’s bummy or charming; in his choice to make his welfare card his album cover, and in the mockery of his very name. “See this ain’t somethin’ new that’s just gonna come out of nowhere,” he says on “Raw Hide.” “No! This is somethin’ old! And dirtayyy!” He was revolutionary in his embrace of all things broken-down and deteriorating. His music assembled the secondhand (interpolated lines from Jim Croce, salvaged battle raps), the second-rate (a straining singing voice), and the shoddy (ramble raps recorded with antiquated technology) into a freak’s manifesto on escaping squalor but staying funky.

Being poor is often met with shame. Being crazy is often met with fear. ODB was defiantly unable to feel shame or fear, and so this poor, crazy bastard rebuked public disgust the only way he knew how: By doubling down on everything the civilized world hated about him. His songs harnessed the inexhaustible power of his fuckery. He stumbles around in them, on cuts like “Baby C’mon” and “Raw Hide,” as much ranting and he is rapping. Hearing ODB spit rhymes was like watching a delirious man wander into a busy intersection and, through sheer luck or divine intervention, avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic. With each daring escape, each narrow staving of catastrophe, it becomes harder and harder to dismiss his nimble maneuvers as chance.

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Before RZA, GZA, and ODB were in the Wu-Tang Clan, the cousins were in a trio called Force of the Imperial Master (later All in Together Now), and would travel around New York trading material and facing off with other rappers. ODB spent enough time going toe-to-toe with guys around town for respect to understand what would galvanize an audience. The rapper with the bigger energy, the more immediate and resounding material, and the more confrontational demeanor could command the corner, or the crowd, or the colosseum. He fought dirty. Every single verse on his debut activates the muscle memory of that sparring, as he rediscovers old battle-tested chemistry while shadowboxing with his earliest partners. ODB and GZA basically finish each other’s sentences on “Damage,” playing hard into the dichotomy of the genius and the fool. The closer, “Cuttin’ Headz,” is call-and-response melee, with RZA seemingly channeling Dirty: “Once I go berzerk, mad brothers got hurt.” It’s a great song to go out on—casual play fighting and banter between family—but RZA was far from done flexing.

His beats have long been hailed for their texture and impact—gritty, murky, and audacious—and they are all of those things. But they are also carefully arrayed and suited to their performers, especially in the early days, and specifically on The Dirty Version. The production plays up the hostility and comedy of ODB’s performances. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo” are among RZA’s best creations, and perfect for Dirty; alongside the slightly blemished but tightly wound loops, he seems emboldened to splatter them further, like a prankster graffiting the walls.

It has become commonplace in modern hip-hop to declare someone a “weirdo rapper,” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard is the weirdo rap exemplar. He was more unbalanced than Danny Brown, as unrestrainable as Young Thug, and as antagonistic as JPEGMAFIA. In a thought experiment in 2018, writer Julian Kimble imagined how ODB would emerge as a contemporary star. But such a framework ignores his unique place in hip-hop lineage. It’s like removing a domino from the middle of a lineup and expecting the rest to still fall accordingly. The Dirty Version set the stage for all the weirdos that followed. With considerable help, ODB turned his weirdness into a kind of sorcery and conjured rap’s unlikeliest satire.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version Music Album Reviews Ol’ Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, March 29, 2020 Rating: 5

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