Having grown out of inner-city poverty to become of the East Coast rap scene’s biggest stars, Dirty believed that needing financial support was nothing to be ashamed of. By putting his welfare card on his album cover, he was making a strong statement about the importance of government assistance programs and advocating for those who rely on them to survive. For Dirty, this was more than just a source of personal pride: he wanted to challenge the stigma surrounding welfare and bring attention to the systemic issues that perpetuate poverty in low-income communities. Through his music and his actions, Dirty sought to inspire empathy and understanding for those struggling to make ends meet.
The legacy: “ODB was a visionary”
Selling 80,000 copies in its first week, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version debuted at No.7 on the Billboard 200 and quickly became a gold-selling record, earning itself a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album in 1996. Over 25 years since its initial release, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s debut album remains a seminal work in the world of hip-hop and continues to influence artists today. From RZA’s innovative use of samples to ODB’s unfiltered and hilarious lyrics, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version challenged traditional notions of what a rap album should be.
“As an album, sonically, you’ll notice it really has the most bass of the Wu-Tang albums,” producer RZA told the Amazon Prime documentary crew. “We played with the bass on that album.” Not only was it forward-thinking in terms of RZA’s bass-powered wizardry, but Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s unapologetic and larger-than-life persona provided a beacon for those who felt marginalised and misunderstood, and his music resonated with a generation of listeners who saw their own lives reflected in his struggles and triumphs.
By blazing a trail for future generations of hip-hop artists, Ol Dirty Bastard’s legacy extends well beyond his debut album. “He was a scientist and a minor prophet,” RZA wrote in his book The Tao Of Wu. “People may not know this from the outrageous character he played, but ODB was a visionary.” Dirty’s unique style of rapping, which blended free-associative wordplay with soulful singing, has gone on to inspire countless rappers who came after him, including Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, The Creator.
Without a doubt, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version stands as a testament to the power of hip-hop as a form of self-expression. By giving Ol’ Dirty Bastard the sonic playground he needed to amplify his idiosyncrasies, his debut album paved the way for the rise of alternative hip-hop and the blurring of genre lines. Despite the rapper’s untimely death at the age of 35, in 2004, the seismic impact of Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version continues to reverberate throughout the hip-hop community and beyond, serving as a timeless reminder of the genre’s ability to push boundaries and challenge the status quo.