The Messy Making of a Nearly Perfect Hip-Hop Album

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Twenty-five years after its release, Ol’ Diry Bastard’s solo debut Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version still sounds as fresh as ever. Hip-hop rewrote the musical language and pushed the limits of the English language the way only truly revolutionary art can. Then ODB came along and reinvented hip-hop. For Pitchfork’s weeky Sunday Review, writer Sheldon Pearce revisits Ol Dirty’s musical masterpiece.

As his Wu-Tang band-member Method Man said, “there was no father to ODB’s style: Without musical precedents, he leaned into aberration.” His original style came partly from being an unpredictable personality, and that meant an unpredictable life. “The album took nearly two years to make,” Pearce writes in his review, “because of this fitful approach. ODB was surrounded by a small team doing its damndest to keep him recording, but he could not be collected and he would not be…” Pearce awards ODB’s album a 9.3 on Pitchfork’s 10-point scale. I’d go further and say it’s perfect. I’d also rank Pearce’s review-essay at a perfect 10. This is what the best music writing looks like: incisive, lively, revealing, surprising, words deserving of their subject.

Those methods required several measures to wring an entire album out of Dirty. RZA was the hands-off architect. Buddha Monk was the handler, body man, and engineer, tasked with getting ODB prepped and into the studio, and making sure his vocals sounded right. Mastering engineer Tom Coyne was dubbed “the referee” in the liner notes for breaking up fights. Elektra A&R Dante Ross had the demanding task of shepherding the album to completion amid chaos. “I knew I had to get it to the finish line because there are times in life when you know you only have that moment in time, and you gotta get there,” Ross said of the Dirty Version sessions. “I had to get there, ’cause I strongly suspected that would not happen again.”

ODB’s volatility created only a small window for capturing his output. He was anti-prolific, so inefficient in his recording style that it made The Dirty Version even more of a marvel—not just catching lightning in a bottle but harnessing its electricity to power a generator. It’s impossible to overstate how much his jolting vocals jump out and strike you. On “Don’t U Know,” he lurches along, his singing barely adhering to melody and meter. On “Hippa to da Hoppa,” he punctuates every bar with a grunt, then becomes conversational, then does some straight-up showerhead crooning. Across chest-thumpers like “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Cuttin’ Headz,” he becomes a caricature, a monster of pure id born of New York City’s sordid underbelly.

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