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‘Return To The 36 Chambers’: When Ol’ Dirty Bastard Dropped ‘The Dirty Version’
WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Return To The 36 Chambers’: When Ol’ Dirty Bastard Dropped ‘The Dirty Version’

The debut album by Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’ was a hardcore hip-hop classic.

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Groundbreaking for its raw, unapologetic and often hilarious lyrics, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s debut album, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, is a bona fide classic hip-hop record that has stood the test of time. Showcasing the Wu-Tang Clan rapper’s off-kilter flow and eccentric persona, the album’s unique production style continues to astound listeners thanks to its blend of classic soul samples, nose-crunchingly dirty basslines and heavy drum breaks.

However, the making of the album was not without its challenges. From Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s erratic behaviour in the studio to the PR nightmare he instigated after turning up to a welfare appointment in a limousine, the creation of Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was a wild and unpredictable ride. Here’s the full story behind this iconic album, complete with insight into its most memorable songs and a behind-the-scenes look at the drama that surrounded its release.

Listen to ‘Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’ here.

The backstory: “His lack of fear led to a strong expression of freedom”

One of the most distinctive voices in Wu-Tang Clan, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was also one of the first members of the notorious hardcore-rap posse to score himself a solo deal. In January 1993, ten months before Wu-Tang Clan released their own debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Dirty had caught the ear of the then Vice President of A&R at Elektra Records, Dante Ross, who heard the rapper freestyling on Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s underground radio show, broadcast on New York’s WKCR-FM.

Quickly snapped up to a record deal thanks to his zany and unorthodox rapping style, Dirty began cooking up some madcap ideas with his cousin and Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA. “His vocal performance, his cadence, his energy and approach to the mic, is unpredictable,” RZA reflected in an Amazon Prime mini-documentary. “It’s unique, and most importantly, it’s free.” However, Dirty’s freewheeling spirit proved difficult to lock down in the studio, and it would take two years before Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version would be ready for release.

Despite its protracted gestation – as well as claims that fellow Wu-Tang members GZA and RZA wrote most of the lyrics for the album – Dirty’s secret weapon was undoubtedly his vocal delivery. Yo-yoing from a bizarro drawl to borderline demonic mania, nobody could spit rhymes with the outright loopy and half-cocked passion the way ODB could. “I think his lack of fear led to a strong expression of freedom,” RZA told Flood magazine. “When you fear, you’re not free… It is really the last chain to break from mental slavery. He broke it. That lack of fear, it definitely appeared in his music and in his art.”

While juggling the demands of being a husband and father, as well as struggling to quell a deep-seated paranoia about rival gangs being out to get him, Dirty headed to the studio in fits and starts, sporadically venting his worries into the mic. Running on gut instinct and living on a diet of Chinese takeaways, he settled into a creative process that favoured stream-of-consciousness spontaneity – something that also contributed to the lengthy recording sessions. “He had fun making his album, and he took his time doing it,” Dirty’s friend and hype man Buddha Monk wrote in his memoir, The Dirty Version: On Stage, In The Studio, And In The Streets With Ol’ Dirty Bastard. “It couldn’t have gone any other way, or we just wouldn’t have come out with the same album.”

The recording: “We wanna show the world what exactly exists within his own mind”

Holed up in Firehouse Studios, in Brooklyn, New York City, with an array of gritty beats rustled up by producer RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard took a haphazard but undeniably fresh approach to recording Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Unlike other rappers of his day, ODB pushed for using a Neve console instead of an SSL mixing board in the studio: “Dirty was looking for a certain sound,” Monk recalled. “The Neve board would let you play your trigger a little faster and have your drops where you wanted. That gave Dirty’s vocals the character and the swagger he was looking for.”

Nowhere is this swagger better exemplified than on Brooklyn Zoo, the album’s captivating lead single, released in February 1995. Featuring jazzy piano stabs over a boom-bap beat, the song’s lyrical mish-mash of quarrelsome wordplay (“I got stacks that’ll attack any wack host”) was inspired by an argument Dirty had with his crew and recorded in just one take. With Dirty boasting to MTV how the song represented something that “never has been done in the history of rap”, Brooklyn Zoo peaked at No.54 on the US Hot 100 and remains one of the best hip-hop songs of its era.

In the rapper’s own words, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was an attempt to capture the grim realities of growing up in Brooklyn. “We wanna show the world what exactly exists within his own mind, what world he goes through,” Dirty said. What separated ODB from other hardcore rappers such as Ice-T, however, was his love of filthy and surrealistic rhymes which showcased his offbeat sense of humour. While recording the track Goin’ Down in RZA’s Staten Island basement, Dirty’s wife, Icelene, stepped up to the mic to lambast her husband for his infidelities, only for Dirty to drown her out with an impromptu rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. “That’s comic genius,” RZA later observed. “That’s artistic genius.”

At the time the album was being recorded, however, hip-hop’s East Coast-West Coast rivalry was in full swing, and many famous rappers were receiving threats from rival gangs. At the forefront of one of the most controversial groups in hip-hop history, Ol’ Dirty Bastard felt like a target was on his back. After an incident which found him outrunning a group by diving through a cat flap, Dirty was shot in the stomach in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but thankfully made a swift and full recovery. “The ill shit that he talked about in his music, he did it in person for people to see,” Buddha Monk recounted in his memoir. “It wasn’t just album talk. He lived that shit.”

The release: “Man, the record industry be tryin’ to pupperize me”

Released on 28 March 1995, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was a masterclass in foul-mouthed rap theatre done in true Wu-Tang style. Setting the scene for what producer RZA later described as “a musical Richard Pryor album”, Dirty’s spoken-word introduction channels darkly comic vaudevillian vibes with a tearful emotional outburst recounting a sorry tale of catching gonorrhoea. From the moment ODB launches into an obscene and lyrically-mangled rendition of Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Dirty’s fearlessness on the mic is jaw-droppingly evident.

Whether he’s evoking the showmanship of 70s funk on Baby C’mon, or mixing 60s organ sounds with toilet humour on Hippa To Da Hoppa (“Rhymes come stinky like a girl’s poo-poo”), Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s quirky vocal talents are on full display across the album. And, as you’d expect, the beats RZA delivers are grimy and hard-hitting. From impaling the listener with a theremin-laced iron rod on Damage to unleashing a flurry of gut-punching kung fu samples and see-sawing bass on Snakes, RZA enables ODB to shed his skin on Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and emerge with fangs sharper than those of a king cobra.

Lyrically venomous from start to finish, Dirty sinks his teeth into the mic and never lets go. His low-level growl turns into a hysterical croon on Don’t U Know, and the eerie dissonance of Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane) is the perfect sonic bedrock for ODB to let rip with some demented guffawing. At times, it’s as if Dirty is attempting to satirise the landscape of 90s pop music, particularly on Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie), which was recorded as a “joke song” to parody 90s R&B ballads.

Released as the album’s second single, in May 1995, Shimmy Shimmy Ya gave Ol’ Dirty Bastard his biggest level of media exposure to date. Naturally, the song also stirred up much controversy for celebrating the rapper’s insatiable sexual appetites (“Ooh, baby, I like it raw”). “They knew he was talking about having unprotected sex,” Buddha Monk recalled, “and this was at the height of the AIDS awareness era.” With many radio stations refusing to play the song unless ODB recorded a skit promoting condom use, the rapper felt ostracised: “Man, the record industry be tryin’ to pupperize me,” he reportedly said.

Aided by a music video that contrasted the fancy-dress flamboyance of the 70s disco era with the urban dereliction of 90s Brooklyn, Shimmy Shimmy Ya shone a spotlight on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s oddball personality and fed into public perceptions of him as hip-hop’s craziest and most notorious maverick. Easily one of the best Ol’ Dirty Bastard songs, Shimmy Shimmy Ya went on to peak at No.62 on the US Hot 100 and saw Dirty step out of Wu-Tang Clan’s shadow to become a genuine talent in his own right.

The album cover: “It was the greatest thing that a man could ever think of”

In one of his ballsiest moves, Ol’ Dirty Bastard used a photo of his welfare card for Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version’s album cover, effectively handing himself a PR time bomb waiting to explode. At the time of the album’s release, Dirty was still on welfare and collecting food stamps for his family, despite the fact that his rap career was taking off. “That was his actual card, only with his name and address replaced with the name of the album,” Buddha Monk revealed. “It was the greatest thing that a man could ever think of: a welfare card selling gold and platinum.”

The album artwork wasn’t intended as a publicity stunt, though it quickly generated negative news headlines when Ol’ Dirty Bastard appeared on MTV stepping out of a limousine to cash his welfare check. Having received a $45,000 advance on the album, many felt Dirty was abusing the system at a time when the then US President, Bill Clinton, had begun to speak out on the need for welfare reform. After seeing the rapper’s appearance on MTV, a caseworker cut off Dirty’s welfare payments, and the resulting publicity only fuelled ODB’s reputation as a loose cannon.

As for Ol’ Dirty Bastard himself, his views on welfare are well-documented. “Why wouldn’t you want to get free money?” the rapper said in an MTV interview. “The people that want to cut off the welfare, man, I think that’s terrible. You know how hard it is for people to live without nothin’?” It’s a theme Dirty explores on the song Raw Hide, a food-stamp diatribe that spells out how reliance on welfare is a way of life among poor Black communities (“I came out my mamma’s pussy, I’m on welfare/Twenty-six years old, still on welfare!”).

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.

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