Before I begin to talk about an album that celebrates its 20th anniversary today, we have to go back a year before August 1, 1995.
In July 1994, The RZA showed he was much more than just being Prince Rakeem when he presented himself as The Rzarecta as a member of the Gravediggaz with Prince Paul, Frukwan, and Too Poetic. They released their debut album called 6 Feet Deep (countries outside of the U.S. called it Niggamortis) and some thought it was interesting The RZA was able to get himself on two albums, sounding distinctively different within both groups. The album was released early in some parts of the U.S., I found my copy at Tower Records in Portland, Oregon on 82nd, apparently a week or two before the rest of the country. We didn’t quite know what was to come but then the news surfaced.
As fans were beginning to absorb Gravediggaz’s album, LOUD/RCA Records released the soundtrack to Fresh, which featured solo songs from The Genius, Raekwon, and a remix of “Can It Be All So Simple”. The idea that The Genius had his own song seemed amazing, but then to hear Raekwon & Ghostface with their own track too? What was going on? On top of that, Raekwon and Ghost doubled up with a new version of what was one of the biggest hits of 1994, which got its share of airplay and mixtape circulation. I remember thinking “if The Genius has this song, his first new song since his failed debut, is there going to be more?” Also, how about Raekwon, will be be coming out with something?
When word came out that Method Man was signed to Def Jam to release his debut album, that’s when the first plans for the group were made known. In 1995, there would be three solo albums from the group, and each of them would be signed to their own label. Wu-Tang Clan were signed to LOUD/RCA. In rock circles, when a group splintered into making their own solo albums, they generally stayed within the same label: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash all stayed on Atlantic (for the time being) while Neil Young was already signed to Reprise. When Kiss dropped their solo albums on the same day in 1978, it was on Casablanca Records. Three different labels? No one in hip-hop had ever done that successfully but the Wu-Tang were make it out that every album would be a banger, every release would be a hit. X-Clan had Isis (Linque) and Professor X release albums on 4th & B’Way, while Digital Underground had Raw Fusion on HollywoodBASIC, Gold Money on Tommy Boy, and 2Pac on Interscope. Back then, 2Pac was just that guy who rapped in “Same Song” but by 1993, he already had a massive hit with “I Get Around”. 2Pac was not just that dancer from Digital Underground, he was 2Pac.
Did the Wu-Tang really know all of their solo albums would become a success? With the success of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it proved to them that fans would be willing to buy their music separately from the group, for if they were willing to buy one, maybe they were willing to get another, if not all. We would find out in 1995.
In March 1995, Elektra Records released Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers, which came out with the incredible “Brooklyn Zoo” a month before. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” seemed to have more appeal with the single version and later in the year, “Rawhide” was released as a single. As we moved closer to the summer, word had it that Raekwon’s solo album would be out soon, and he stayed home and was signed to LOUD/RCA as a solo artist. On June 27th, the label released “Criminology”/”Glaciers Of Ice” as a single, with the latter getting a video with massive airplay on BET. The song seemed quite complex and noisy, showing a style of production from The RZA that was more active than anything he had done in the past. It wasn’t as noisy as the words of The Bomb Squad but it was full and lush, if that’s a good way to describe it.
Soon after, a video for “Criminology” was released, showing Raekwon, Ghostface, The RZA, and U-God up by a waterfall and in kung fu gear, showing them incognito in a way they had never been seen before. For me, “Criminology” was the preferred song, incredibly funky and full of those string samples that were becoming very RZA at the time (a sound that Mobb Deep were also using with the orchestral samples). Around this time, LOUD/RCA released promotional commercials for Raekwon’s album showing segments of his videos and a man who did a voice-over that said “a chain is as strong as its weakest link”. The world would have to prepare for what was to come, whether they liked it or not.
The actual title for the album is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz but it was shortened to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, with the “…” to let people know something else was supposed to follow. At the time, I found myself wanting more CD’s than cassettes but for this album, I first heard it on cassette, the purple tape. What made this album distinctive was while Ghostface was already making himself (and his face) known in music videos, he was still hidden on the cover of this record, and he was “guest starring” so in many ways, it was a Raekwon and Ghostface album. However, upon first listens, it seemed like with various members heard throughout, it came off more like a group album than just a solo album and it was. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was originally planned as the follow-up to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) but during the recording sessions, when it was realized it would be more feasible to exploit the solo route, it became Raekwon’s debut.
One thing about the album should be known from the start. While it remains one of the best hip-hop albums of 1995, if not the entire decade of the 1990’s, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is not a concept album, far from it. There are loose streams of continuity here and there but it holds up primarily because it is a solid collection of incredible songs, and even those that are “weak links” still hold up. If there’s continuity throughout, one of the solid links is the production style and samples. You listen to Ol’ Dirty’s Return To The 36 Chambers and it sounds like a basement album. You listen to Method Man’s album and it sounds like a different type of basement album, one that allows itself to open the bedroom window for a breath of fresh air. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… sounds like an album of not only fresh air, but an imagination into another world, if not a dream state of what one could obtain and achieve. The idea of someone boiling up drugs on the oven to become a neighborhood chef could be considered but for me, that string of continuity came from the dialogue between songs and not the songs themselves.
If there’s a moment in the album where I felt things were about to pick up and stay there (or go higher), it would be when “Criminology” comes on. Or if that’s the point where the album moved into second gear, then I heard it, they were ready to go faster.
“Incarcerated Scarfaces” was a great song too, and it was released as a double A-sided single along with “Ice Cream” so if “Ice Cream” seemd too much (or perhaps too vulgar in tone) to some, they could tone down with the vibe of this one.
I was blown away by the vibe of “Rainy Dayz” and I am sure that a big part of it had to do with the vocals of Blue Raspberry. With her singing on Method Man’s debut, it seemed fitting that she would bless the tracks on Raekwon’s albums as well. Could she have been on Ol’ Dirty’s album? Sure, but I think ODB would’ve preferred his mom on the album. (He originally said he hoped to produce a single for his mom but that never materialized.) The funky, slightly sloppy drum samples, the strings in the background, and Ghostface talking about the cheese line while one of his lines seems removed from the song.
The album moves up with “Guillotine (Swordz)”, which sounded like something straight off of Method Man’s debut album due to the use of the same string sample. What I loved about this song is the movie sample, taken from Shaolin Vs. Lama, and the fact that the team of Raekwon, Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, and The Genius was perfect. Throughout the album, there would be certain groups of Wu members where I wish they would’ve made their own albums. That was fairly common throughout 1993-1997 so if we heard “Meth Vs. Chef”, we all wanted a full album of Meth and Raekwon battles. I wanted “Guillotine (Swordz)” forever.
The remix of “Can It Be All So Simple” originally released on the Fresh soundtrack found its way onto the album, but what made the album go to the next level was “Shark Niggas (Biters)”, which felt like the Sunz Of Man appearance that didn’t happen, or a song that could’ve found its way onto a Sunz Of Man album in between “Soldies Of Darkness” and “No Love Without Hate”. “Ice Water” was moving but while “Glaciers of Ice” was not as good to me as “Criminology” was as a single, it definitely fits in perfectly within the album.
Same for “Verbal Intercourse”. While a lot of fans often talk about Nas’ spot on the album was the best part of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, I was never huge on Nas’ royalty status but I always liked what he did, for he was the only outsider on the album.
Also, the best part of the song was not Nas’ verse but The Emotions’ sample of “If You Think It (You May As Well Do It)”. It seems like an awkward sample at first, because the vocal in the song is heard during the verses but that interruption in the song would become one of Ghostface’s production trademarks, where he would just rap over something else because he knew you were there to listen to him, not the damn sample. The RZA would often explore the Stax/Volt catalog throughout his career and what I liked too was that while the pop world would generally know The Emotions as a one hit wonder (“Best Of My Love”), he and others knew the group as having two solid albums before they made it bigger. It is those two albums that have become the source of a number of samples in hip-hop over the years. This song was just part of the contination of Emotions appreciation.
If the other songs earlier on the album didn’t prove it, “Wisdom Body” definitely made it clear that Ghostface was more than ready to not only release his own album but to have his own career. Not bad for someone who covered himself up in videos for “Method Man and “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”, to be on that “now you see me, now you don’t” before evolving into something you could always recognize. The song would become an underground down tempo groove that made you want to turn up, nod your head and just go “damn”.
“Spot Rusherz” was another great song because it’s one of the few spots where the group offered a way to hear the group’s St. Ides’ radio spot/commercial. I know I was someone who wished that St. Ides track was two to three minutes longer, but what makes “Spot Rusherz” works was how everything just sounds off, from the warped piano/keyboard sample to drums that are unsure of where it needs to place itself. If anything, the group showed they could be self-promotional, not only delivering verses that also worked as resume tapes but hey, we want you to drink a malt liquor, go grab a 40 ounce if you can and have a good night.
One of the best songs on the album found itself way on the 4th quarter, the almighty “Ice Cream”. When I first heard it, I loved it immediately for I used to think that addictive and repetitive piano sample was beautiful. I couldn’t figure it out and nor did most of the people who heard the song. Not only was that sample Wu-Tang’s equivalent of “Mass Appeal” but it too became the holy grail of samples, leading many into countless dead ends. 17 after its release, someone revealed the source as being a light jazz instrumental, slowed down and I discovered that what I was hearing was not a piano but an acoustic guitar. We may have hated Earl Klugh’s music but we all know someone’s parents or uncle and auntie who had one of his records.
It easily became one of The RZA’s finest moments, especially with his use of Blue Raspberry’s vocals also being chopped. For me, I also feel her vocals were one of the saddest, most sorrowful moments in the Wu-Tang’s entire discography. While the group was celebrating the wonders of women in a flavorful manner, Blue Raspberry was showing that not everything in life is whipped cream with a cherry on top or a banana split. There’s melancholy in her vocals and it was a way of saying, in some way, “things in life aren’t always what they seem or what you want them to be.”
The album formally ends with “Wu-Gambinos”, which was not only the beginning of the next phase of the Wu-Tang, but it also helped spark a wave in hip-hop where it seemed everyone wanted to validate themselves by being a gambino, everyone wanted to have two or three pseudonyms. The song also brought in Ghostface, The RZA, Method Man, and the one and only Noodles, a/k/a Masta Killa. One thing I considered while listening to this song was something Method Man said in Ol’ Dirty’s “Rawhide”. His first line was “Coming soon to a theater near you, it be the Wu”, and I was hoping that there would be a Wu-Tang Clan movie that summer, if not the end of the year. This album sounded like it could be the theme song to an incredible film, regardless if it was a concern film or them portraying themselves in gambino form. Not only that, but The RZA’s verse was arguably the best thing he had ever done, far better than what he dropped as a Gravedigga and people would instantly hope that he too would drop his own solo album soon. That would come in time.
While I feel “Wu-Gambinos” ends the album in a nice way. the actual album has one or two more songs, depending what format you purchased. I never felt “Heaven & Hell” was a good way to end an album but for many who bought the cassette, it was the conclusion to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. On top of that, Blue Raspberry’s sung “RZA and Raekwon and Ghost” came off a bit self-promotional and corny, even though what she sings is one of the best moments on the album too. If you purchased the CD, you got to hear a song that could be considered a fitting conclusion called “North Star (Jewels)”, featuring Poppa (Popa) Wu talking to the group with a bit of wisdom, to let them know about what they (and the listeners) experienced and what to prepare for in their next adventure, as well as life.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… did sell 130,000 during its first week according to Wikipedia and was eventually certified gold (500,000). While Wikipedia states Soundscan claims the album eventually sold over a million, he did not receive a platinum award for it (Method Man’s Tical did receive a platinum award from Def Jam.) Raekwon’s album holds up solidly and remains an album that every hip-hop artist would have to refer to and use an example of how to create a solid album from start to finish. It remains not only one of the best hip-hop albums of 1995, but one of the best Wu-Tang solo albums. It remains the Wu-Tang solo album that could’ve (and arguably should’ve) been Wu-Tang Clan’s second group album. Because of that, it is one of the best hip-hop albums of the entire decade. You know what hip-hop was like before Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… but you couldn’t hide from its influence after August 1, 1995.
There had been a small handful of hip-hop groups where they would release a solo album, perhaps maybe one or two but more times than not, the solo releases were very limited. Lucky you were to get a solo album. In 1994, the Wu-Tang Clan had changed that with the release of Method Man’s first album Tical, although you could go back four months previous and look at the first album by the Gravediggaz, 6 Feet Deep/Niggamortis, featuring Prince Rakeem/The RZA/Rzarector. It was announced in the second half of 1994 that there would be three solo joints from the Wu-Tang. Three full length albums? Solo albums? IF you were a fan of the X-Clan, you would get music by Isis, Queen Mother Rage and Professor X (Brother J didn’t release anything with Dark Sun Riders until 1995). If you were a fan of Digital Underground, you would get Raw Fusion, Gold Money, and of course 2Pac within 18 months after the release of Sex Packets. 3rd Bass fans would get albums from both MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice but by that point, they did not exist as a group. However, who didn’t want more music from your favorite group when they were still around. In 1994, we would discover what was possible within hip-hop, and then we had much more.
Looking back, it didn’t seem odd that Ol’ Dirty Bastard would release a solo album, especially when the Wu-Tang Clan made it clear that everyone in the group would not only be releasing their own solo albums, but would be signed to their own solo contracts. When Kiss did it in 1978, each of their solo albums were on the label the group were on, Casablanca. When Crosby, Stills & Nash released their solo albums, each one came out on Atlantic, the label which released their group efforts (while Neil Young did become a part of the group too, he was already signed as a solo artist on Reprise). The Beatles had all released their solo work on Apple up until the end of Apple Records in 1976 (Paul McCartney ended his deal with the label he co-founded and started to release solo work for Capitol in 1975, a year before Apple closed shop). When the Wu-Tang announced solo deals, no one knew what was going to happen, there was no map for what they wanted to do. Then we heard Method Man was signed to Def Jam. Slowly but surely, we would hear that The Genius would be releasing his second solo album on Geffen while Raekwon would remain with LOUD/RCA but for ODB, he would find his way on Elektra, becoming label mates with Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and what was Leaders Of The New School. Ol’ Dirty was off to a great start.
Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was promoted first with the release of “Brooklyn Zoo” as a single, complete with The RZA’s trademark keyboards and piano samples and playing, and as it highlighted a lyric directly pulled from “Protect Ya Neck”, the song itself felt like a blast in the face. It was very much how Ol’ Dirty described himself and his music, for the song was old school, it was very dirty, and you had never quite heard anything like that because there was truly no father to that style. The song hit hard and, like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”, it was devoted to having just one verse. While some may have bought the 12″ or CD single first (featuring the great B-side “Give It To Ya Raw”), some may have heard the song first from the music video, which came with its own clean edit. The RZA was becoming a master in creating clean versions of songs, where he would either fix up the profanities by adding sound effects or having an MC drop a clean line or verse and add that in the song to replace the explicitness. For me, I still prefer the clean edit of “Brooklyn Zoo” over the dirty album version just because it’s funny and someone made an effort to be sure the song got on the radio, which it did. Ol’ Dirty became a champion of the word “nuh” and while everyone knew exactly what word he was cleaning up, it was humorous and tame yet very effective. If you wanted to react to what he was doing, he would bring it on back, and he would for the 60+ minute album.
The album didn’t begin with a song and maybe you couldn’t quite call it an interlude, for there was nothing before it. Again, no father to his style, so he decided to read a letter which actually happened to be his tribute to Blowfly. He decided to sing a ballad but instead of singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, it became “The First Time Ever You Sucked My Dick” (from Blowfly’s Zodiac Blowfly album). As he was singing, he was having a laugh at the same time and I remember listening and not being able to stop laughing.
The first full song on the album begins with a sample where Richard Pryor saying “oh, the fuck you can’t even sing. You got the sing to get some pussy”, which was a slight clue about not only the humor of the album, but the semi-disturbed mind of Russell Tyrone Jones, done for the hell of it. The song also featured another hint from Wu-Tang’s past, a lyrical reference to “Clan In Da Front”, and the song began with almost elementary piano chords. The album version seemed unfinished with just a chorus and verse, but it would take Elektra to release the song as a single before one was able to hear a second verse. That’s the version I preferred.
“Baby C’mon” almost seemed like it was nothing more than a continuation of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, a Part 2 if you will, but hearing the Wu-Tang chant a minute into the song and the cool bass sample during the second verse showed he was willing to be a party man 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Following the placement of “Brooklyn Zoo” came the very cool “Hippa To The Hippa”, which I liked due to the use of Booker T. & The MG’s “Hip-Hug-Her”. By the time Ol’ Dirty reaches the second verse and throws out jokes and insults left and right, it was obvious that this was a guy who wasn’t trying to impress a lot of people by being a Kool G. Rap or a Chuck D., he was very much like a Biz Markie or Bobby Jimmy and we were all the Critters.
I always felt that while “Brooklyn Zoo” was one of the first big highlights of the album, the album truly makes a turn for the better with song #6, “Rawhide”, partly due to Ol’ Dirty being assisted with help from Method Man offering a hint from the original Rawhide theme before Raekwon throws out a bit of freaky and fly shit, wanting to be as hot as a Ron G. tape before Meth hits hard: Comin’ soon to a theatre near you, it be the Wu
yeah, find yourself in the square and see it’s true
actual facts to snack on and chew
my positive energy sounds peace to you
a wise man killed one horse and made glue
wicked women puttin’ period blood in stew
don’t that make the stew witches brew?
I fear for the 85 that don’t got a clue
how could he know what the fuck he never knew?
God-Cypher-Divine come to show and come to prove
a mystery God, that’s the work of Yacub
The Holy Ghost got you scared to death kid, BOO!
During a time when every other rapper was dropping science in their lyrics and interviews, this came off as something serious and profound so to hear it along with Raekwon’s verse was a bit of being elevated to a higher level. It was needed at that point on the album for while Ol’ Dirty’s jokes and references was great, one also needed a bit of time to breathe and what better way than with a bit of knowledge?
The next major highlight on the album was the song to follow, which begin with kids introducing who was to come up in the song, a duet between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and The Genius, but was it a genuine duet? Not really. In truth, The RZA recorded at least two versions of the song, one that featured Ol’ Dirty solo, the other featuring just The Genius. It was decided during post-production to combine them so that it would sound like they were battling one another, so it is possible that someone else may have done a version of the song too, same lyrics and everything. If the song was written entirely by The Genius, then most likely it’s just GZA and ODB doing the song. As The RZA used to say, his style of production was the Miracble On Dirty 4-Beats so it’s possible to hear buttons being cued during certain parts of the song or voices being muted out of nowhere, so you may not hear someone finishing a word. Regardless of those technical mistakes, the humor errors gives the song and the album a unique quality, along with the blaring keyboard that sounds like a cross between a bass keyboard and a siren, if not an old Nintendo NES soundtrack. The song jumped from start to finish and just when one wanted more, it ends when it shouldn’t but it feels nice.
“Oh, cutie got it going on!”
“Don’t U Know” begins with two women talking about what they’re attracted to in men, specifically what they like about Ol’ Dirty Bastard. However, only one woman finds Ol’ Dirty appealing while her friend cannot believe what she is saying. The lady says “you don’t see what I see, B” but quickly gets a response: “I don’t see nothin’, you wearing glasses so…” and eventually it’s all about the desire they feel that happens to be very completely different from one another. Ol’ Dirty then gets into a bit of frisky flirting, telling everyone what he wants and desires before be throws out another sexy ballad. Out of nowhere, here comes Killah Priest with his own verse. It may have seemed somewhat odd at first considering Killah Priest was known as a member of Sunz Of Man at the time, who were very politically and socially so a sex rhyme may have seemed out of line for him. Yet listen to it again and the lyrics are not raw or filthy by any means, it’s along the lines of gentle puppy love, wanting Snapple and fries with her, maybe a bold drink in the evening to dance and the club to see what happens. With Killah Priest, we never know what happens because that’s not important. Later in 1995, we’d hear Killah Priest on The Genius’ album with the song “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)” along with the great Sunz of Man singles, “Soldiers Of Darkness”/”Five Arch Angels” and “No Love Without Hate”. He wasn’t about to change what he was trying to present as an artist, and he never did, at least not hear. As for Ol’ Dirty, he was on another agenda, a sexual one.
The song continues and if Ol’ Dirty made an attempt to be sensitive with his ballad, he went in for the kill and went out to bust a nut with his verse:
“I’m just sittin’, right
in my class at a quarter to 10, right?
waiting patiently for the class to begin, right?
teacher says, “open up your texts and read the first paragraph on oral sex!”
I said “Oral sex!, what kind of class is this?!”
the girl next to me said “what’s wrong with you, miss?
this is a lesson that makes you feel fine
kinda ease your nerves and relax your mind!”
I said “Don’t try to use no hypnotic spell”
she said “Be my assistant, I’d sure rather tell”
my knees buckled heart started to drop
my dick grew at a size that my nerves couldn’t stop
I tried to run, she yelled out “FREEEZE!”
pulled down my draws, dropped to her knees
ripped off my draws as if she had claws
broke the rules that defied sex laws
she responded quick, with a slick
welcoming kiss and a ice cream lick
oh, I begged, I begged
“Easy on my balls, they fragile as eggs.”
If his ode to Blowfly wasn’t overboard enough, his last verse was very much over the edge. Hilarious at the time and still is but it would be very hard to see this on any mainstream album released in 2015 without anyone protesting. At least we knew back in 1995, this was the persona of a man who was a sexual fiend, who did a bit of drink, smoked a bit of weed and whatever he felt like doing. We knew it as a persona, at least that’s what we wanted to believe, until we learned that some of his tales were true to life, or at least his life.
The song was a way to end the first half of the album and while the song ends by him saying “part two coming up… on the next hit”, there was no actual Part 2 of the song, at least on the album. “Don’t U Know Part II” ended up finding its way as a B-side to the “Rawhide” single. It is here where he talks about not enjoying using condoms because he it doesn’t allow his penis to breathe. “Going raw” may have been something he preferred but as you hear the other lyrics in the song, you can figure out why this didn’t make it onto the album. Not that talking about how his genitals are “as fragile as eggs” is something nice, but he comes off like a borderline criminal. He reaches a level of being sleazy, but then goes beyond the line of no return. Even though it came out as a B-side, perhaps it was one of those songs that should’ve remained in the vaults yet considering the music he would release after this album, I’m certain it would have leaked out anyway. It’s safe to say that “Don’t U Know” is a bit better when it ends at Part 1.
On the vinyl and cassette versions of the album, we hear “Don’t U Know” fade out but on the compact disc, it segues directly into “The Stomp” where we hear him make a slurping sound before saying “taste the shit, taste it again, like it.” Did Ol’ Dirty admit to not only enjoying analingus, but enjoying to tongue a woman’s doodoo hole with a hole that is filthy? It seems so, and it seemed if he couldn’t get anymore disgusted, he did so without hesitation. In a way, he wanted to be hip-hop’s version of Blowfly, showing himself as a comedian, a master of sex rhymes but a lover with heart and unknown finesse.
While it wasn’t used on any album version, there was actually an intro to “The Stomp” that only surfaced on the bootleg/counterfeit pressing of the instrumental version of the album, which features Rose Royce’s “I Wanna Get Next To You” from the Car Wash soundtrack before going into The Main Ingredient’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Girl Blue”. As these songs are being heard in the background, Ol’ Dirty is talking with the lady in “Don’t U Know” who loves his funky disposition and they same to be throwing words back and forth, humorous at times but it seems they get one another for the sake of love or whatever they choose to have together. Nonetheless, this seems a more appropriate segue way then “Don’t U Know (Part II)” did although due to the use of Rose Royce and The Main Ingredient, it may have either been too expensive to use the songs as they did or maybe it was unable to be cleared due to the words spoken over the songs. This passage goes for about 75 seconds before it ends, and the album version begins, where Ol’ Dirty talks about being a fanatic of butt play.
“Goin’ Down” has him going back to his childhood in two completely different ways, starting the song with a game of Punch Hall before he touches on various old school hip-hop songs, taking things to the five boroughs before the music went maintream, before “Rapper’s Delight” blew up, singling out different locations letting people know the importance of where they’re at or where they are from. Up until this point of the album, Ol’ Dirty has shown how dirty and raw he can be but at the 2:57 mark of the song, he begins to sing Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in a way that showed vulnerability and fear, as if for a few seconds, he allowed himself to escape the Wu-Tang empire, leaving the G-Building, leaving Brooklyn for a brief moment and looked into the mirror, saw Russell Tyrone Jones and was capable of singing to himself, alone, while the woman who once was all about his disposition is now arguing at him non-stop. It is then that we are allowed to hear, for a brief moment, the true man behind the insanity, perhaps one of the few times we ever got to hear that side before leaving it behind for good.
“Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie)” may be nothing more than a joke for some but regardless of his talents (or lack of it), Ol’ Dirty wanted to be sultry and smooth by singing a serious ballad while honoring the artists from the past. It would be a style of singing that Ol’ Dirty would bring back throughout his life and career. A part of me thinks had he taken that side of him seriously, he could’ve been a decent singer but he loved to hear himself moan and grunt a lot.
The album snaps back into its hardcore brutality with “Snakes”, conclusing the third phase of the album or perhaps leading the way towards the fourth and last phase of Return To The 36 Chambers. Ol’ Dirty brings in Killer Priest, The RZA, Master Killer, and Buddah Monk and in many ways, had there were more songs like this on the album, it could have easily ranked equally along Raekwon’s debut and The Genius’ Liquid Swords. Not that it didn’t, but Ol’ Dirty was not afraid to talk about his urges, libido, and having spirited times, this was his statement and he was not about to change (nor did he).
While one never heard “Don’t U Know” in its two parts on the album, this did feature Part II of “Brooklyn Zoo”, which sounds nothing like the original at first. “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” is looser and revives lines from “Damage”. What makes the song go to a nice level of greatness is Ghost Face Killer’s verse, where he proves why he is an assassination master. Right in the middle, the song becomes a highlight reel of what happened on the album so far, before the song goes into a live recording where we hear what made Ol’ Dirty a chief when he was on stage. He never held back and was often uncontrolled even when he knew how to limit himself. Then again, as you can hear, there was never any limits for the One Man Army.
As “Proteck Ya Neck II The Zoo” begins, it already feels that the album is about to reach its conclusion, for now it is a follow up to Wu-Tang Clan’s own “Protect Ya Neck” but by bringing some incredible Wu-Fam power with Brooklyn Zu, Prodigal Sunn, Killah Priest and 60 Second Assassin. At this point, the Wu-Tang Clan made everyone want to listen to them individually but it also made everyone wanted to hear anyone who was associated with anyone from the slums of Shaolin, even if it was Ol’ Dirty’s mom (who he had promised would release an album but the project was ever initiated). At this point, we got to hear what made people attracted to the Wu-Tang Clan in the first place and none of us wanted to leave this chamber. We knew we would be leaving sometime soon.
“Cuttin’ Headz” not only sounds like a variation of “Clan In Da Front”, but it is obviously an old Wu-Tang Clan when the group first started. The RZA still sounds like Prince Rakeem and could have easily been placed somewhere between “Sexcapades”, “Deadly Venoms”, and “Ooh I Love You Rakeem” but by this song being placed here, Ol’ Dirty brought it on back and went to his musical origins to let people know where he came from. It nicely ends Return To The 36 Chambers on a slightly unpredictable note but with happiness. However, as the compact disc was officially the primary format for albums, during a time when more people were able to afford the CD’s, there was two more songs to go.
“Dirty Dancin'” originally was credited as Wu-Tang Clan featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard when released on The Jerky Boys soundtrack, where he received credit for engineering and mixing the song while The RZA produced it. Method Man dropped a verse on it too but in my opinion, I always felt the song was a bit half-assed, an effort that could have been improved but wasn’t. It didn’t do anything on The Jerky Boys soundtrack nor does it do anything on the album, even if it’s filler. “Give It To Ya Raw”, the B-side to “Brooklyn Zoo”, would’ve done better here. If “Dirty Dancing” is the weakest of the bonus track, then it presents the greatness to come on the better bonus track, and what I feel should be considered the album’s official conclusion.
At the intro, we hear Buddah Monk say that we are going to take things back to Hollywood, before Ol’ Dirty Bastard sings the first verse of Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” in his own way, with his own rearranged lyrics. This then cuts into the world we have become familiar with on the album, his “terminology/psychology”, essentially the mind and mad genius of this rapper we have come to know and love. We realize we loved him from “Protect Ya Neck”, “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'”, “Shame On A Nigga”, and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” and it would become clear we would love him as he was to wrap up the first verse in the song: they said “rhymin on the mic is the number one”
then a brother get the feeling that he want to play cool
you discombumberated diabolical fool
hog-flesh MC, go play in the mud
another 20th century modern day (C.H.U.D.)
Cannibal Humanoid Underground (Dweller)
C.H.U.D. broke loose from the god damn (cellar)
dope-fiend addict why you walk with
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
when the MC’s came to live out their name
most rocked rhymes that was all the (same)
when I elevated and mastered the time
you was stimulated from the high post (rhyme)
you got shot cause you knew you were rocked
With this part of the song, Ol’ Dirty refers to a line that The Genius and The RZA would bring back in “Liquid Swords” six months later. What I always loved about this lyrics is that Ol’ Dirty revived it in MTV’s special on the benefit album America Is Dying Slowly. The studio and live version also featured Killah Priest, Raekwon, The RZA, Master Killer, and Inspectah Deck, and normally the song would fade out. However, the entire Clan is in the TV studio, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard and we hear him saying “word up” a number of times beginning at the 2:40 mark and when this was broadcast, no one knew what was going to happen. At the 2:47 mark, we see him moving around in the background with glasses on, so one gets a bit suspicious. At 2:59, when the song is about to fade out, Ol’ Dirty walks up to the front and says “let’s stop this for a minute, let me get on into it“. At this point, no one in the group knew what ODB was going to do and they look completely surprised, very uncertain. He could have easily played the fool but he doesn’t. Instead, he begins to drop a verse from “Harlem World” and leads up to the “Liquid Swords” inception. For me, that became the moment when Ol’ Dirty Bastard truly became the genius.
Going back to the original “Harlem World”, Ol’ Dirty ends the song by taking it back to Brooklyn, letting people know what it means to be hip-hop and what it means to be a New Yorker, where you are supposed to honor what hip-hop is all about or else. His words are very in-your-face and it becomes less about his ego and more of what it means to be an MC:
“Repeat your rhymes all the time like a fuckin’ parrot
phony gold chains only rated two carats
you tell your friends that your home is like heaven
livin’ in the gutter sewer seven pipe eleven
you wear your socks twelve days in a row
turn them on the other side so the dirt won’t show
go to school, take a shit, don’t wipe your ass
blame it on another sucka nigga in your class… YOU WANNA BATTLE?
is it the pork on your fork or the swine on your mind
make you rap against a brother with a weak-ass rhyme
swine on your mind, pork on your fork
make you imitate a brother in the state of New York
chain on your brain that drove you insane
when you tried to claim for the talent and the fame
nothin’ to gain yet and still you came
suffer the PAIN as I demolish your name
not like Betty Crocker, baking cake in the ov-
sayin “this is dedicated to the one I love”
not a swine or dove from the heaven’s up above
When I rap, people clap so they push and they shove
When I rhyme I get loose, better than Mother Goose
Rock the mic day and night so you see I’m the juice
Like the two-six-eight, politicians demonstrate”
Despite how foolish he made himself out to be in the previous 60 minutes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard brought things down to the essence of him as Russell Tyrone Jones and to hip-hop, what it’s all about as a fan and a participant. The album went as high as #2 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart and went to #7 on the Pop albums chart. It would be nominated as Best Rap Album in 1996’s Grammy Awards but was beaten by New Jersey’s Naughty By Nature and their Poverty’s Paradise album, released a little over a month after Ol’ Dirty’s debut. Nonetheless, the music brought things back to the era when you’d go to a crusty movie theater as a kid to watch kung fu movies or head home to watch your favorite cartoons on Saturday morning. It brought listeners back to their youth while always being sure they never forget the benefits of being older and getting mature with age, even if it means to be immature once in awhile. Return To The 36 Chambers is going back to remind yourself and everyone why you love what you do, why you do what you do, and why you’re able to pass it along to the next generation so everyone can celebrate the good times, whatever it may be. In other words, this 66 minute album lets everyone know why it’s okay to grow old with grace, not be shy to get dirty once in awhile, and to do things on your own to show individuality because only you can be you. It’s okay to be a bastard, as Ol’ Dirty showed us in his lifetime. To paraphrase the opening sample on the album, Ol’ Dirty had 35, there was no 36. He died two days before his 36th birthday and thus was not able to make it to the chamber he created for himself. It would be too easy to say that perhaps it was meant to be but that’s unfair. Nonetheless, in honor of what he was not able to see, we carry on for him through the 36th chamber.
If you know of “The Mexican”, most of you may know of the version by Babe Ruth that has been samplled countless times in hip-hop in the last 35 years. In 2015, The Genius gets a chance to bring in Tom Morello to recreate the vibe in his own way with help from bassist Jose “Choco” Reynoso, keyboardists Isamu McGergor, and guitarists Hanni El Khatib, Dante Cimadamore, and Jerome Wilson Jordan to create something that is hot, funky, and dope all at once. This was recorded during the Dark Matter sessions that will lead towards GZA’s forthcoming album, so it may or may not appear on it. If it does, I’d like to think it’ll be there as a bonus track but you can have it here for free, while supplies last.
If you read the title and know what Pepperland refers to, then you know it most likely has to do with The Beatles, and it does. Now you look at the graphic and are saying “but wait, I see Ol’ Dirty Bastard here. What’s going on?” In this case, it’s a remix project where Beatles samples were used to create new instrumentals for hip-hop songs. Look at all of the people who are on it, it’s insane. Here’s the track listing: Part 1
Hello Hello – Edan
Mr Mustard – Big Daddy Kane
Second To None – Rakim
Taxman – The Notorius B.I.G.
Gentle Thief – Nas
Where I’m From – Large Professor
Country Grammar – Talib Kweli & Bun B
Parlay – J-Live
Twist – Salt-N-Pepper
Birthday Dedication – Busta Rhymes
Open Mic Session pt. 1 – Masta Ace, Percee P, Lord Finesse, Frankie Cutlass, Easy Mo Bee & KRS-One
Number Nine – YZ
Self Titled – Heltah Skeltah
Bang Bang – MOP
Pepper – Kool G Rap
Bring Your Friends – Public Enemy
Interlude / Bridge – MC Shan
Last Forever – Artifacts
For The Children – Freddie Foxxx
Ringo’s Big Beat Theme – Spoonie Gee
Hold Poppa’s Large Hand – Ultramagnetic MC’s
Open Mic Session pt. 2 – Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane & Rakim
The End – Run DMC & Afrika Bambaataa
Circles – Wu-Tang Clan
Brooklyn Walrus – Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Buckshot , Masta Ace & Special Ed Part 2
Secrets – Slick Rick
Beneath The Diamond Sky – The Genius/GZA
Within Tomorrow – Busta Rhymes
The Beginning – Sunz Of Man
Gentle Drama – The RZA & Rugged Monk
Becausizm – KRS-One & Channel Live
Mary Jane – Tha Alkaholiks
Bong Water – Viktor Vaughn
Love In Summertime – Ghostface Killah & Beyonce
And I Lover Her Crazy – Jay-Z & Beyonce
Ruffneck Soldier – MC Lyte
Hey! – Beastie Boys
Get Back To The City – Large Professor
Hard To Leave Home – Nas
The Flyest – AZ
And Who? – Heiroglyphics
Lonely Thoughts – The Notorious B.I.G.
Can You Dig It? – Gravediggaz
How To Smile – 2Pac & Scarface
A Day In New York – AZ, Raekwon & Ghostface Killah
Stream it in full above or if you just want to download it and carry it with you on your travels, head to MonkeyBoxing.com.
It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the Wu-Tang Clan made an impact with this album. That impact was definitely not immediately, at least not nationally. When Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (LOUD/RCA) was released on November 9, 1993, the Wu did not have any heavy rotation anywhere, outside of NYC. Those months between the album release day and the spring of 1994 would eventually cause a shift, which would mark the end of another era of hip-hop and the glorious beginning of another.
I became a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan when the video for “Method Man” was getting airplay on BET’s Rap City. I loved the raw feel of the song, could not get enough of Method Man’s flow, it was that great. I also loved his constant barrage of pop
culture references, as if this guy knew where I was coming from even though I had no idea where he had come from, at least not yet. It was with that song that The Genius said “from the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again: The RZA, The GZA, Ol’
Dirty Bastard, Inspector Deck, Raekwon The Chef, U-God, Ghost Face Killer, and the Method”, then Method Man rhymed for the next three minutes, making reference to everything from Tootsie Roll Pops to the Rolling Stones and Dr. Seuss to Digital Underground, and I did not know what was going on. I felt I had liked the rap music that was released between 1990 to 1993, there was a hell of a lot of great music in those four years and yet it felt like this approach was old school and yet new school. Method Man was truly “hitting you from every angle” and I had to have more, but at the time there was very little to
For me, the big news in hip-hop was that A Tribe Called Quest had just released their third album, Midnight Marauders. This was going to be the album of 1993, nothing else could beat it. There had also been some buzz for a group called Black Moon who had just released “Who Got The Props” as a single, a song that sounded fun and festive, a bit different from the slightly dark vibe of the album. Or if not dark, it was a bit like walking down an alley unsure of what would be lurking, but you’d take that risk anyway. Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage was an album that was a few weeks before and people would soon not get enough of them and the collective they helped create. I definitely didn’t buy Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on release date, for the group and the album was not something in demand, at least I wasn’t looking for it. Looking back, maybe it was looking for me. It would actually take video airplay for “Da Mystery Of Chessboxing”, with its kung fu imagery, for me to finally by the album. Were these the same guys who were rapping about making a bitch squirm for
supersperm? Yeah, there was Method Man with his face hidden.
This had to have been in December or early January, but I remember the moment when I popped the CD in:
“Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style. (Hmmm.) If what you say is true, the shaolin and the Wu-Tang style could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?
En guard, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.”
This was straight out of all of the kung fu movies I watched as a kid, either at theaters in downtown Honolulu with my dad, on Kung Fu Theater on the USA Network or all the kung fu movies I was renting on VHS. Then came the chant of “BRING THE
MOTHERFUCKING RUCKUS! BRING THE MOTHERFUCKING RUCKUS!” It may not have happened, but my eyes, mouth, mind were wide open and in awe from what I was hearing. There was nothing like it, this was not something I heard in songs by Biz Markie, Showbiz &
AG, Ice Cube, Ice T, Gang Starr, or Dr. Dre. This was far better. The song also had percussive snaps and brick slaps, as if it was a group of warriors in a Shaolin temple praying and waiting for someone to invade. Ghostface Killer would start up the song before Raekwon comes in and delivers, and then Inspector Deck offers greatness. The song ends with the sacred words of The Genius. They were waiting, and eventually they could no longer wait. You heard warriors fight, smacking each other left and right before came the one man army Ason Unique, a/k/a Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and getting dope with “Shame On A Nigga” before Method Man comes in with his verse. The album continued to build from there, and to hear all of these new voices and not have any sense of who was saying what was incredible. The group may have shown themselves on the cover behind masks, but
inside there was a photo, but Method Man was not a part of that line-up. At least here on the west coast, I had never seen the video for “Protect Ya Neck”, which offered a chance for viewers to see who was who and by name, as if they were teen pop
sensations. Outside of hearing them mentioning their own names in song, there was little to go on in terms of applying a face to a name.
It wasn’t until the DasEFX cover issue of The Source did I know who they were, their pseudonyms, and everything else that made them out to be hip-hop’s Marvel Universe. I had read and collected comic books as a kid, so I understood what it meant to be named this, then that, and then maybe two or three other things. The Wu-Tang appealed to me because they thought like kids, but doing things in a very adult manner. It was a bunch of guys shooting shit amongst one
another, but there was also a sense of the now, as if they knew that they could not live in the past, and thus thought about the future, what would come next for themselves and for others.
Each song on the album felt like there were reaching new plateaus, and when the song finished, they would all make it to the next level and build again. It was great to hear a song that might have two members, or another with four or five, before it leads to a song with the core eight. Then you learn that the core eight expands to a nine. It would be a few more years before that nine turned into a ten man team, but while Digital Underground did it to a point, it was always “to a point”. Plus, Shock G. was also Humpty Hump, who was also MC Blowfish, a/k/a Piano Man, and when when you heard Money B. say “well I’m Humpty Humpin'”, I was left wondering “well, who are these guys?” X-Clan had an incredible collective too, even though on their albums it was generally Brother J doing most of the raps. You also had Isis and Queen Mother Rage, and of course Professor X had his own solo album too but that was it, Brother J really didn’t get his own path until X-Clan was over. The Wu-Tang Clan seemed like a different beast, an entity, as if they were looking at hip-hop, celebrating what came before and were going to build on the successes and see how far they could go with it.
I’m someone who lived in Honolulu but grew up admiring the hip-hop from the east coast, specifically what came from New York and New Jersey. It was NYC or die, and yet I loved what everyone else from Seattle to Los Angeles, Dallas to Miami were doing, the more the merrier. In my mind, there was a slight shift on the artists that would gain acceptance, and maybe that had a lot to do with some of the shifts happening in the community. If hip-hop started in NYC, it seemed to turn into Motown in 1971 and headed to Hollywood. Nothing wrong with that, but there was a lot of music being released that became hits but I did not like. At the same time, there was much more to Cali hip-hop than MC Hammer and everyone had a chance, yet it seemed from afar that the NYC stuff was being pushed to the side. It seemed to make artists push harder to be heard and make better music, even if it meant “better for ourselves”. The Wu-Tang Clan came out not giving a fuck about anyone else but themselves, and I loved that attitude. It was in that early 1994 interview on MTV where Ol’ Dirty Bastard talked about his name, how he was old school, his style was dirty,and he was a bastard, because when he rhymed, there was no father to his style. That was attitude and a half, and yet he meant it, as if to say “I know what came before me, but I want to show you what I’m about, for the now people.”
What also made Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) interesting is that by the time “C.R.E.A.M.” had become the hit of early 1994, that’s when news surfaced about how they were going to make sure that each member of the group would be signed with their own solo contract and release their own solo albums. To me, this brought back memories of Kiss and their four solo albums in 1978, and what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did with the various combinations they made music under. This was much bigger, and I couldn’t wait. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait that long, as The RZA was working with producer Prince Paul, Stesasonic’s Fruitkwan, and fellow Tommy Boy Records’ alumni Too Poetic in a group project called Gravediggaz. This would be RZA’s thing, and while no one knew it at the time, Gravediggaz was one of two “make or break” projects he was working on in 1992-1993. His career as Prince Rakeem only lead to the “Ooh, I Love You Rakeem” single which barely caused a dent in 1991. The RZA offered the Wutang (no hyphen) to Tommy Boy Records as a possible group to work with but they passed. Tommy Boy was losing their impact on rap music, and that’s when Rakeem became The RZA and started two projects, hoping one of them would gain some glory. Due to the success of the Wu-Tang, Gravediggaz would soon pick up steam, eventually becoming recognized in their own right. Then there was word on Method Man being signed to Def Jam. His solo album would be released in the fall of 1994, and then there was word of three more Wu solo albums on the way.
It seemed too much, and I loved it because within a two year period, the Wu-Tang Clan were doing things other rap groups had only talked about or imagined. As Method Man would later say, “you talk about it while I live it”, and no one had ever done what they were doing within a hip-hop context. On top of that, if any of the guys in the Wu wanted to drop a verse/cameo in other songs, they could. Did they want to product something? They did. Have some affiliates they wanted to hook-up with? There was more than enough time for everyone, and to experience it in real time, before the MP3 became the format of choice for music fans, was something that may not be repeated in the near future. The music felt good, it sounded good, and you couldn’t help but want to find people who were into that goodness.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was about entering their world, knowing that one had to echieve certain levels before bein gable to proceed, but realizing that even if you had reached the peak, you had to then create your own path. It was as if they were also telling their fans “it’s all on you. Take it where you want and if we can help guide you towards your own path, go for broke.” That was the attitude they all had on the album, as if they were all going for broke, as if tomorrow did not exist for any of them. We all know what happened with their individual careers. We all know how Ghostface Killer (later Killah), the man who once hid his face from view, would become the most visible of the bunch. We all know how The Genius, like true geniuses, would become the hermit crab. We all fell in love with The RZA’s “Miracle On Dirty 4-Beats”. We loved what Inspectah Deck offered in everything he rhymed and was hoping he would be next to release an album in 1995. Some of us were stupefied by Raekwon’s delivery and wit. Then there was U-God, the 4-bar killer, who came and went with his 4- or 8-lines in a song, we all wondered why but we were happy with it. For a brief moment, it seemed everything that was good about hip-hop was achieved with that album. The egos were self-contained and it had a Three Musketeers-meets-Brand Nubian feel, “one for all and all for one”. Anyone who had ever felt the East Coast had lost its way, they would find the path again with the Wu-Tang. It was a celebration of Spider-Man, porno flick bitches, and Saturday morning cartoons and cereals. We all understood the power of that shot in the “Can It Be All So Simple” where the kid did a wheelie with his bicycle, when that was considered the ultimate goal. Nothing else in the world could be better than that wheelie, and you felt like a bad ass. For a brief moment in my life, the Wu-Tang Clan meant the world to me.
This year’s Moogfest gets a bit more interesting with some brand new editions to the lineup, including a rapper who, to my knowledge, doesn’t play the Moog or any type of keyboard. However, he will be performing with a 9-piece Moog band. The “he” in question is…
Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin (b/k/a Oneohtrix Point Never)
Morton Subotnick presents From Silver Apples to a Sky of Cloudless Sulfur
Buke & Gase
The weekend of October 26th & 27th will be when keyboard and synth enthusiasts will want to program their schedules to be in Asheville, North Carolina for this year’s Moogfest. Tickets go on sale this Friday, August 10th, and what would make you want to pre-order your tickets then? A change to see and hear these people:
The GZA presents Liquid Swords
Black Moth Super Rainbow
Mouse on Mars
Prefuse 73 with Teebs
Many more will be there, and I’m sure a few more will be announced as things get closer to October. There will also be weekend passes, daily general admission tickets and VIP packages available, so a number of ways to check it out that is affordable for all. For more information, head to Moogfest.org.
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.
15 years ago, on November 7, 1995, an album ended what is arguably one of the best year’s in hip-hop’s recorded history. The Wu-Tang Clan had released an album two years previous, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and in interviews they were dropping hints about world dominance. Despite what has been said and what people think they know, Wu appreciation was not immediate, they were not overnight sensations. The Genius had failed at first for being a hip-hop new jack Bobby Brown, and many laughed at Prince Rakeem. Then as the story goes, they formed like Voltron. Since Prince Rakeem, a/k/a The RZA, was a Tommy Boy artist, he wanted to bring his new group to the label. Tommy Boy went as so far as to print the name of the group on display ads in The Source in the summer of 1992. The group was called simply Wutang Clan, with no apostrophe. Seems as if the label didn’t think it would work, a rough 1992 demo of “Method Man”, complete with appropriate Humpty Hump reference (Digital Underground were Tommy Boy artists), failed to impress.
They put their resources together and recorded a song that was originally called “Blowin’ Up The Spot”, where everyone dropped a verse. Some of those verses were edited for the final version we now know as “Protect Ya Neck”. Constant driving and networking up and down the East Coast lead labels to the group, leading them to being signed by LOUD Records, then a subsidiary of RCA. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was born. Uncertain that this project would work, The RZA also hooked up with fellow Tommy Boy drop-outs Prince Paul, Fruitkwan, and Too Poetic to form Gravediggaz. Initially, Gravediggaz were dropped too, no one was quite ready to hear death and horror movie metaphors in rap music, even though the industry were cashing in on the shoot-’em-up stories of the West Coast.
In time, it was decided that for maximum coverage of a brand name, each member of the Wu-Tang would somehow obtain their own recording contracts. To make it more interesting, they were able to sign under any label they pleased, individually they were not exclusive to LOUD or RCA. In the press, people were falling in love with the different voices and flows, not sure who was who at the time. When Spring 1994 came around, LOUD/RCA released “C.R.E.A.M.” as a single, and that finally crossed them over into the mainstream spotlight. People discovered who each member was, and matched up the voices with the faces. People started to take to each member to create a fanbase and individual buzz. When this started happening, labels wised up to what Gravediggaz were about. For The RZA, that would mean double duty. A month after the release of Niggamortis/6 Feet Deep, the seeds of what was to bloom the following year were thrown in the form of the Fresh soundtrack. The soundtrack featured older hip-hop classics, but were highlighted by three Wu-Tang related songs, “I Gotcha Back” by The Genius, “Heaven & Hell” by Raekwon & Ghostface Killer, and a remix of “Can it Be All So Simple”.
Three months later, Def Jam released Method ManTical. Something was up, and it became known that there would be at least two solo albums by Wu members, with a possible three. Initially it was just Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Raekwon, who were signed to Elektra and LOUD/RCA respectively and released albums in March and August. For a short time, fans wondered who would do the third album. When it was announced that The Genius was signed to Geffen, it was immediately promoted as the greater of the three, even if the album wasn’t completed. Very few Wu fans knew The Genius had released an album on Cold Chillin’ in 1991 called Words From The Genius, and with it being out of print (but not for long), it was out of sight, out of mind. The Genius, for the most part, was Wu-Tang’s Voltron “head”, and people were deciphering his lyrics inside and out, truly showing support for their appreciated Genius.
In the 1995 equivalent of a “leak”, The Genius pressed up a 12″ single of “Labels”, a song which expressed his issues with a music industry that once signed and dropped him in an instant, telling people how you have to be careful in your path as an artist. He did this by using the name of record companies as metaphors for the hazards of his chosen field. This was more than enough for fans who were loving what Ol’ Dirty Bastard was doing, celebrating the Meth remix of “All I Need” with Mary J. Blige, and being blown away by the skills of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, which was said to have been put together as Wu-Tang’s proper second album. As the group wanted to expand their dominance, it became not only a vehicle for Raekwon, but also allowed Ghostface to explore his persona too.
When the video for the title track to Liquid Swords was released, it seemed underwhelming after ten months of intense Wu-ness. It seemed somewhat light in its approach, but it was the lyrics that proved that this Genius was not someone light on his feet. The visuals, directed by The Genius himself, showed him in a basement destroying records with specific “labels”. At the time, fans were also noticing a unique approach to their music videos. There was a sense of continuity with the group walking around their neighborhood, showing their love for the 160 building they spoke of in songs, so they were either in the basement of the building, the hallway of the building, rollerblading outside of the building, popping a wheelie outside the building, digging their nose and wiping it on the wall of the building, and in Meth’s and Mary’s case, they were on the roof and buying feminine products for an apartment in said building. The Genius was in the basement, showing perhaps that he had a grittier vibe to him.
No one could expect the full greatness of what was Liquid Swords. Its release on November 7, 1995 was celebrated on the internet, at a time when people were flocking to the Usenet and having deep discussions on mix tapes and mixers. Fans were already picking sides as to which was the best Wu-related album of the year. Many found it hard to choose between The Genius and Raekwon, although some were blunt and said they were all about ODB. In two years the Wu-Tang Empire released six albums, while various members were spotted on other people’s albums or on different soundtracks. For the next two years, it was the Wu era, and no one would ever mess with that legacy. 15 years later, people to this day still debate on which album is more important: Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Link…, or Return To The 36 Chambers. Then when fans waited another year for Ghostface to drop Ironman, everyone wanted to embrace him.
It was a great time to be a hip-hop fan. For years, I bought their music excessively and not just what was at stores, but radio promos and whatever “white label” bootlegs were surfacing. The Wu-Tang Clan were one of the first groups to find success at the dawn of hip-hop’s initial populations on the internet. Back then no one was called a “hater” as many are today, but the equivalent of that = “Wu dick rider #1”, especially if your username was KZA, FZA, CHZA, MZA, QZA, and Ol’ Dirty Musberger, or if you magically developed your own gambino persona. Yet all of the Wu dick riders showed support for their favorite group by buying the music, and also demanding merchandise that did not exist for a long time.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem like the efforts of the Wu will ever be equaled again in hip-hop, or in any music genre. Liquid Swords has become an album that defines a generation of fans, and an era of hip-hop that is now locked in time, waiting for fans both old and new to explore and re-explore many times over.
Here’s an album that surprised me, a live album by Masta Killa. When I was knee deep in Wu-ness, I thought Masta Killa could have been one of the more successful of the bunch, definitely more than U-God. For whatever reason, his camp announced a solo 12″ that never seemed to see the light of day, or was delayed and it got to a point where not much was going right in the world of the Wu-Tang. But Masta Killa has continued to represent in his own way, and Live (Gold Dust Media/!K7) shows what he has become known for.
Simply put, he remains one of the best rappers and writers out there, and on this 16 track album he goes across his history not only as the man who did the last verse in “Da Myster Of Chessboxin'” but also various cameos and of course his own solo material throughout the years. Inspectah Deck and The GZA are also here, along with Streetlife, Prodigal Sunn, and Startel, and together they demonstrate what the Wu-ness was once about. For a live album, it sounds really good too, no one doing any major screaming and both vocals and music are mixed quite nice.
Hip-hop live albums are not plentiful, but considering what could have surfaced (i.e. a bootleg concert in inferior quality), this is a slice of history done right.