OPINION: Return To The 36 Chambers, 16 years later

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March 28, 1995.

16 years ago, hip-hop music was in a good place. Method Man had become THE man of the Wu-Tang Clan, who were becoming the hottest group in the land. Yes, it was still “the land”, Wu-ness was appreciated overseas but hadn’t become a worldwide movement just yet. In the summer of 1994, as “C.R.E.A.M.” was still getting airplay, the Gravediggaz made itself known in August. A few months later, Method Man released Tical (Def Jam). News surfaced that everyone in the Wu-Tang would release their own solo album, signed to whatever label wanted to snap them up. That had been the plan, a plan that was unheard of in any genre. The Beatles all went solo but they had Apple Records, which was their own label. Crosby, Stills & Nash expanded to include Neil Young, who had been signed on his own as a solo artist after leaving Buffalo Springfield. Then when CSNY splintered off, that allowed Young to explore his solo muse while CSN all released albums on Atlantic. Then when Stills wanted to form another group, and Crosby & Nash wanted to become a duo, it too went through Atlantic. That would change years later when Stills found himself on Columbia, and Crosby & Nash made ABC Records their home. The members of Kiss wanted to release four solo albums on the same day, and with much hype and a lot of money put into the campaign, they did. In hip-hop, groups like Digital Underground and the X-Clan all had intentions of being a group while having members in the collective going solo. It worked for a few of them, but it did not equal the fanaticism that would become one of Wu-Tang Clan’s trademarks.

16 years ago, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was obviously the crazy guy in the group. In the spring of 1994, MTV had begun airing a half-hour interview with the group that was edited with live performances of the group. It was then that Wu fans discovered that for Russell Jones, he liked to keep it old school, he loved keeping it dirty, and since he was raised without a father, he decided to take that identity as one of monikers, claiming that there was no father to his style. In that interview, he said he was Ol’, he was Dirty, and by default he was a Bastard. It was self-deprecation at its best, but there was humor mixed in with the bravado. He may have seemed reserved in that interview, but once you turned on the microphone, the man was ruthless. Up until that point, rap music was still about walking back and forth on a stage and you were either “cool, calm, and collected”, wanting to “fuck bitches”, or were ready to “bust a cap on your ass”. It may have come as a surprise that when Ol’ Dirty said “first things first, man, you’re fucking with the worst, I’ll be stickin’ pins in your head like a fucking nurse” with the kind of uncontrolled pandemonium similar to a water hose moving uncontrollably, it was as if he was ready to confront anyone that came in eye contact with him. He may have sounded and appeared to be controlled, and maybe later in life he was. But in those early years of the Wu-Tang Revolution, he was the young kid who was motivated to do better because he had no father. If there was no father to his style, who would dare tell him what to do? If he was to play the role of an only child, then he was going to be an unwatched kid ready to pull out some surprises.

Looking back, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Elektra) seemed like any other hip-hop solo album, at least from the outside. It was a simple photo of Ol’ Dirty’s food stamp identification, but once you opened it up, you were in his Disneyworld. The intro consisted of him saying he would take things back to the days of Clarence Reid, a singer/songwriter known in some circles as Blowfly. Instead of singing Roberta Flack‘s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, ODB decided to take it to bed and sing it as “The First Time Ever You Sucked My Dick”. When he began to sing, obviously showing that he wasn’t a professional singer, and had the vibrato during the word “balls”, I am certain some people must’ve said “this guy cannot be serious”. I laughed my ass off, and he did too by stopping the singing and telling everyone that what you will hear will be bangin’. With a click to a sample from the English dub of Master Killer, The RZA started to plot out the continuity that would become a major part of their music for years. Throughout sound and metaphor, the listener discovered that at the Shaolin temple, there were only 35 chambers. There was not a 36th, and in kung fu movies this was absolute. In Wu-Tang’s world, their home of Staten Island, New York was nicknamed Shaolin. The voice continues, and he said that he knew this, but with bravado, he said “but I want to create a new chamber.” The abbot asks “oh, and what would that be?” Then we explore for the first time what that 36th chamber is/sounds like. It is a Return To The 36 Chambers, or in this case, we’re going back to what made ODB who he is, his origins.

No one realized on March 28, 1995 how much of an influence the sample from Richard Pryor in the intro to “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” would be. The sample was Pryor talking about how someone told him “what the fuck, you can’t even sing”. Yet in entertainment, if you’re going to make an impact on anyone, sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Even if you can’t sing, you do your best to sing anyway. A sell-out move? Perhaps, but as Pryor clearly says, sometimes you have to sing to get not only attention, but “the pussy”. Then ODB commits to getting some pussy by strutting his vocal style and singing “oh baby, I like it raw/yeah baby, I like it raw”. What the hell is this rapper from the Wu-Tang Clan doing, singing on his own album? Being a rapper and singing on it was still something that didn’t happen as frequently as it does now, it’s almost expected these days. But in 1995, you were a rapper and you still rapped, that was your bread and butter. Here he was singing, and from Malcolm McLaren‘s 1982 album Duck Rock you hear a woman on a phone saying “I like the way you talk”. In the context of this album, it seems the lady likes the fact ODB is singing. ODB is making an impression on the ladies, and it seems, metaphorically, he is about to get the pussy. At this point, he metaphorically goes in and then proceeds to go deeper. He’s immersed, and he’s not coming out until he pulls himself out. He’s Dirty, and he was setting up what would become the mystique of his music and his persona for the remainder of his life.

I will not analyze each song, but here are a few things to consider. It had been later established that each Wu-Tang member would release an album not in the style of another rapper or album, but carrying the same kind of vibe that equaled some of their personal favorites. Some would say “oh, this album has a Strictly Business feel” or “this definitely has the same power as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” or “it is like an updated Long Live The Kane. On the album, Ol’ Dirty would refer to “bring it on back”, including in “Brooklyn Zoo” (“you want to react, bring it on back”) and “Dirty Dancin'”, and it seemed that if there was a switch in emphasis on what made good hip-hop great, the guys in the Wu-Tang were saying “let’s take it back”. Whether they were commenting on the shift from the East to the West, or wanting things to stop being glossy and shiny and remain gritty and street, it didn’t matter. The Wu-Tang were hungry and ready to be heard, and if that meant taking it back a few years to allow fans to remember where hip-hop came from, they were going to do it and they did. If N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton, originally titled From Compton With Love, was the group’s abusive love letter to Los Angeles, then Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (LOUD/RCA) could not be a greater soundtrack for New York City. With Return To The 36 Chambers, ODB was a building inspector and allowing everyone to come along for the ride.

“Brooklyn Zoo” is still a nice swift kick in the face, and is very much like Eric B. & Rakim‘s “Paid In Full” in that it has a lot of content and power for a song that consists of one single verse. “Hippa To Da Hoppa” sounds like a mutated old school track from the mid to late 80’s while “Rawhide” was of the future with its slightly off-center production. “Damage” was a great example of how The RZA produced his tracks and how he would end up making what he did. Apparently the song was not made specifically for ODB, but for anyone who wanted to have the song. It was intended to be a track for The Genius so he did his track normally. Somewhere down the line, The RZA felt that perhaps ODB should do the song, using the exact same lyrics. The final mix heard on the album is not a proper duet, but rather The RZA popping buttons off and on, alternating between ODB’s and Genius’ vocal tracks. This is why some of them are cut-off during mid-stream of a word or sentence, it’s not seamless by any means but this goes back to when The RZA was all about analog production and wanting to “keep it warm”. Sometimes his productions sounded like very rough demos, but the kind of demos you’d love to hear over and over again. To my knowledge, The RZA has not released full versions of “Damage” with complete verses from ODB and The Genius, nor do I know if they have been bootlegged or circulated in MP3/FLAC form. Did other Wu members do their own vocal tracks as well for the song? There are a lot of variables and possibilities, but so far what lurks on any existing multi-tracks is unknown outside of their immediate circle.


Before the first half of the album ends, ODB decides to do a song based on an old track he had done for years where he talks about about going to school and loving the classmates that’s turning him on. Killah Priest shares his views on what he likes too, and then ODB reveals that he’s down with dirty ladies. All of a sudden, his deepest fantasy comes true when his teacher wants to teach him a course in oral sex. ODB is like “what the fuck?” but does he stop? No.

The first half is over, and while he says that Part II is coming up, most people did not hear the proper introduction to “The Stomp”, due to the songs played in the background. In the intro, ODB is now spending some intimate time with a lady, and isn’t afraid to tell her that she is now his bitch.

Throughout the album, ODB is basically unleashing what was said to be a number of his classic routines, along with old school and comedy flashbacks. It wasn’t just taking it back to old school hip-hop, but schoolyard games when things were more innocent. If anything, Return To The Chambers was meant to be comedy relief in a genre that perhaps began started to take itself too seriously. It was still a young music, but it was finding itself in suits, it was not just a mere million dollar industry, various people had grander visions of the music and the community willing to spend their money on anything and everything that had to do with the boom bap. In fact, maybe when KRS-One spoke about the Return Of The Boom Bap, maybe he too wanted to “bring it on back”.

Yet despite the humor, sex rhymes, and word play that ranged from the infantile to dropping serious knowledge, there is a moment in “Going Down” that I always felt was the center point of the album. In the song he has a woman yelling at him at a rapid pace. As a means of finding some sense of personal and inner space, he sings to himself Judy Garland‘s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. It showed, for a few seconds, that this man who had no father to raise him was very much a young kid at heart, was still loving music and life as if he was a young kid with friends who would have his back, no matter what. It was a brief crack into who Russell Jones was as a person. At the start of the album, the Pryor sample said that sometimes you have to sing to get the pussy and here he is on the album singing as if he’s wanting something better in his life, and hopes that by going over that metaphorical rainbow in the promised land, he’ll find it. You can cue up Raekwon‘s “Rainy Dayz” if you wish to continue with a bit of Wu-Tang continuity.

The vinyl and cassette version of Return To The 36 Chambers ended formally with “Cuttin’ Headz”, and a lot of times finding bonus tracks on another format are placed there to just fill up space. While “Dirty Dancin'”, originally released on The Jerky Boys soundtrack as a Wu-Tang track, is one of the bonus tracks on the CD version, it almost seems out of place. Perhaps it could have been released by “Give It To Ya Raw”, the B-side to “Brooklyn Zoo”. If there is a proper way to end Ol’ Dirty’s first album, then that honor belongs to the second bonus track, the incredible “Harlem World”. To this day, I still feel it is one of the best tracks Ol’ Dirty ever released. Yes, he obviously brings him elements from various well known songs but by using Kool & The Gang‘s “Hollywood Swingin'”, he creates a timeline that the listener must follow. He sings that he remembers something, so again we “go back” to the 1970’s. Eventually we hit the reference to a 20th century modern day C.H.U.D., or “cannibal humanoid underground dweller”, which takes us to 1984. Eventually, we realize that Ol’ Dirty has ended his adventures and we get to hear someone beating his ass as he cries out to his mom. That’s it.

It seems very random and scatterbrain, and yet within the madness was someone who was not afraid to be a man while revealing a softer side, as if he was Sears. He remained old school throughout the album with reflections of some of his musical influences, and as for being dirty, he didn’t care who he offended because he knew someone else might get off at it too. As for being a bastard, there was no one up until that point who had the guts to do what he was doing, in the way he did it. He had a level of confidence in his style that was incredible in the first four years of the Wu-Tang post-36 Chambers, but then things started to fall apart at an eerily slow pace. Maybe he felt that people were getting into the humor and prankster ways of his persona, and that’s what he ended up doing until his death. There was very much a serious side to Mr. Jones but he also knew that it was best to overshadow things with humor and twisted sexual tales. Fast forward to the song “Diesel”, originally released as a non-LP track, where he opens up the song by saying “I need help, i need help, the government is after me, I need help, someone help me please, someone help me, they already did 2Pac in, Biggie Smalls, someone help me, someone help me please”. It had been said that it sounded like he was paranoid and under the influence of something. If it was a substance of some sort, Ol’ Dirty was no longer the guy who was “trying to get up and be somebody”, he was becoming someone who wanted to hide over, beyond, and under rainbows if he could find that promised land. He sounded uglier and more disgusted. By saying the line “insecure about my ding dong, married to Babylon”, perhaps he was doing nothing more than reflecting a mirror on the community he came from and the people who may have felt the same way. Either that, or he knew that whatever drugs he was doing was consuming him, and this was nothing more than an audio diary towards his uncertain future.

Did he need to do songs with En Vogue, Mya, and Macy Gray? If anything, he stayed true to his passion for music, and if he had to sing in order to get what he felt was rightfully his, he did. He became everyone he established. He became Big Baby Jesus, he was Dirty McGirt, he was Ol’ Dirt Schultz, but he was always Unique Ason, the original U-God. Yet behind the layers of comic book stories, fantasies, and verbal attacks to the mind, body and soul, he always remained Russell Jones. Yet by being branded Russell Jones, he knew that no government name was going to hold him back from whatever he wanted to do, in music and in life. No father to his style, no true name to the shell that tried to contain him, and yet in life he was beyond life, always searching. Maybe he wasn’t searching for something more, I think he was comfortable with what he had. The ego of more was in his music, but there was some sense in the mind of his. I think he always knew that wherever he laid his hat would be home, be it mental or physical, and throughout his life he tried to find a sense of home that he could never find in the first half of his life. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was someone who had the balls to say he was willing to take a chance to create a chamber, a 36th chamber in a place where only 35 had existed. It was a bold way to say that the Wu-Tang Clan was ready to put their foot in the door to continue the traditions of what came before, but showing that the future can be incredible if you allow it to be. It’s sadly fitting that ODB died at the age of 35, two days before his 36th birthday. He did all that he could to reach the unobtainable 36th chamber, and yet perhaps in life he knew he could never get their alive. It was too big of a goal, his heart got in the way and unfortunately it was his heart that gave out on him.

He was tragedy and comedy all wrapped up into a witty lyricist who was not perfect, yet never lived as if perfection was something worth striving for. Within his flaws was an uncontrolled child who played beyond his curfew, and a man who refused to be played, although his personal demons did end up playing him for the fool he truly was not.

“You want to react? Bring it on back.”

r.i.p. Russell Tyrone Jones.

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