Album Review: Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Return+To+The+36+Chambers+The+Dirty+Version+Return+To+The+36+Chambers+The

Rating: 8/10

If there is one equivalent for Keith Moon in the hip-hop world, it’s definitely Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Both led the restless rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, with crazy on-and off-stage antics and both abused substances that eventually led to their tragic, premature death. But whereas The Who’s drummer translated his madness into chaotic drumming, ODB’s outlet was his instantly recognizable rapping style – half-sung half-rapped, random shouting and grunting, and lyrically about whatever was on his mind at the time, however absurd in comparison with the rest of the song. In fact, that’s my favourite part about his style: the spontaneity of it, the fact that you never know what direction he’s gonna head to next.

Both his personality and his rapping and lyrical style are in full display on his debut solo album – so much so, that Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version becomes one of those records that abandons perfectionism altogether, and instead focuses on presenting an unedited version of its author. Much like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Ol’ Dirty Bastard doesn’t care about which sides of him fans are comfortable with…actually, you can scratch that, he doesn’t even try to figure out what sides of him fans are comfortable with, he just lets it all hang out.

And there’s no better proof for that statement than the 1-2 punch that is Goin’ Down followed by Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie). The first sounds like a studio outtake in search of a musical idea that someone forgot to edit out when putting the final track-list together. Dirty jumps from random mouth noise to paying tribute to the Sugarhill Gang, to quoting previous own songs, to actually completing a verse, to crooning Somewhere over the Rainbow…which begs the question: does any of it make any sense? I’ll be damned if I know, but it surely is interesting. Were this a uniform album, where any flaw could be easily spotted, it would probably get annoying. But in the context of 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, I’m just curious to see how far-out can it all get. And Drunk Game satisfies part of my curiosity because I never thought I’d hear Dirty lay out his own idea of a sentimental ballad, fully arranged with an R&B-flavored beat and actual singing.

But curiosities aside, this album has at least two tracks that no hip-hop knowledge should be complete without – Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Brooklyn Zoo, in which the insanity is balanced with memorable and forever-quotable hooks. Oh, and the beats are a wonderful fit too, not just on those two tracks, but on the whole album. RZA’s formula may have become a bit predictable by that time (as he used to produce both group and solo albums), but it’s such a perfect formula that it just doesn’t get old – eerie piano lines, hard-hitting drums, kung-fu samples…the whole package is just irresistible.

However great ODB is on his own though, the album still seems to work best when guest spots are present. That’s because they all offer a counterpoint to his craziness, working in advantage for both sides. Method Man’s laid-back verse and hooks in Raw Hide feel like a fresh breath of air after hearing Dirty go berserk in the previous songs. Likewise, Ol’ Dirty taking the lead in Snakes and Protect Ya Neck II The Zoo just as the songs are about to end makes the whole deal much more unexpected. The former in particular I want to signal as another highlight, with its excellent, if slightly underused proto-Kanye West chipmunk sample.

In the end almost all of the album works, but just exactly how much of it you will enjoy depends on your tolerance for insanity. Can you handle the artist threatening you with “a shot of Ol’ Dirty insulin” followed by the warning that “you bound to catch AIDS” from it? Proceed at your own risk.

Buy Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (CD) from Amazon
Buy Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (MP3) from Amazon

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8 replies

  1. Interesting Keith Moon comparison – ODB has definitely grown on me.
    I used to find his, as you said, half sung half rap, delivery obnoxious. But the more I listened to the 36 chambers, the more I looked forward to his parts!

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  2. Great assessment of this one. It’s an album that I was weary of when I first heard it. What with it being a solo album from that ‘larger than life’ personality. As much as I loved the stuff with the Wu, I figured a whole album of that could get old. Quick. But it works, eh? He had some utterly insane hooks (and guests) and you’re totally spot on about Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Brooklyn Zoo; hip hop essentials and irrisistable – they’re urgent, off the map bonkers and infectious. So good.

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    • Indeed, great description of the two hits. Only time will tell if the album will get old – I’m fairly new to it, but so far I have played it quite a number of times and I still dig it a lot. And ever so often I find myself wanting to randomly shout “SHAME ON YOU WHEN YOU STEPPED THROUGH..”. Haha

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      • I’ve only grown to appreciate (and like) this one more over the years, so it’s a good sign that you’re still digging it a lot after a fair number of listens. So much energy, which I think really helps it last.

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  3. not an album i particularly enjoy listening to, but that first paragraph is a left-field and well-reasoned comparison. he certainly was one of a kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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