Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)
Elektra Records A&R: We saw Russell Tyrone Jones–“Old Dirty Bastard”–sitting in a shabby wicker chair in front of his Brooklyn project. After a long swig of King Cobra, Jones shattered the bottle on the pavement. When we stopped the Passat and rolled down the window to strike up a conversation with Jones, he opened the back door and laid down. It was odd, but we didn’t want to blow it–Method Man aside, Old Dirty was the biggest presence in the Wu-Tang Clan, known for the raunchy partylike nature of his verses. People loved him. We drove, explaining to Jones that it was time to lead his Clan, sign to Elektra and crank out an album. We weren’t sure if he was awake for the whole thing, but he did speak up with some stipulations: a stipend for drugs and liquor, production by fellow Tanger R-Z-A, a trampoline and the right to still receive welfare and food stamps. After putting his hair out the second time and stopping at White Castle for Jones’ deluxe #1, we came to an agreement.
ODB: “I came out my mama’s pussy, was on welfare/26 years old, still on welfare!”
RZA: When Osiris came to me with some lyrics for Return I was outta my chair laughin, fam. Then ya boi kept gettin Ol’ Dirty’s outlines for songs, and the laughter died down rull quick. Love the nigga like a brother n all but I wasn’t eager for him to make a fool of hisself, feel me? It’s like sayin “ayo Dirt McGirt, let’s put you in some Victoria’s Secret shit, that smooth silky bra n panties shit, then walk you round Staten with a sign that says “Wu 4 U.” Can’t have him representin us like that. So I traded some bars with him on “Snakes” and “Cutting Heads,” an that shit’s p. good cuz we just spit together. Got a lotta Killa Bees on the record, really, seein as how nobody can maintain an hour all by theyselves, specially not Dirty. Yeah, I craft the beats, but real talk, I saved the best shit for Rae and Genius. Kept the songs soundin real lo-budge, simple, and uh, dirty. Sometimes kinda boring, but true life, “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” are straight classics. And only half them shits was me. Rest was ODB’s charisma. The lil niggas love it, Wu-Tang is for the children.
Fifteen-year-old: No duh I love ODB! Man, “Intro” is like, four minutes of good pussy, drugs, burning when you piss, y’know, he keeps that up for the whole CD. Kung-fu, getting drunk, WU TANG, that’s what they’re all about, right? He makes all these crazy noises like he’s like, jackin’ off, heh, he’s just crazy and off the leash, y’know? “Teacher says ‘open up your texts, you! read the first paragraph on oral sex!’/I said ‘Oral sex!, what kind of class is this?!’/Yo, next to me said ‘whats wrong with you man?, this is a lesson that/Makes you feel fine, kinda ease your nerves and relax your mind!’” Wish that’d happen to me at Buckmore! Ha! He’s not even rapping that part, he’s just talking! Like a street poet!
Officer Hugh Wilton, Philadelphia Police Dept.: Busted him in the McDonald’s on 29th and Gray’s Ferry. He was signing autographs. Jones resisted, struggled in the cuffs shouting “Ain’t that a bitch! Yah yah!” to his fans. The ride downtown was, to say the least, amusing. I couldn’t help but be simultaneously endeared and annoyed by his lunatic charm. Conversation was patchy in parts, but everything he said always had me hooked. After we put him away, I went out and bought Return to the 36 Chambers. I think that cleared things up pretty well.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)
Raekwon the Chef isn’t a Don. Nor is he a Tony Montana, a Nicky Santoro or an Al Capone. Rae is a storyteller. On Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, he and “special guest” Ghostface Killah wear the masks of high-ranking mobsters. Through the ruse they use straightforward narrative to draw up simple but well-told tales of their imaginary toughguy crusades. That, and using ice cream to describe sexy women, resulting in my favorite line in hip-hop a la Big Meth: “Ice cold bitches melt down in my clutch/They want they titties sucked, ice cream.” The marriage between Raekwon’s more relaxed flow and P. Tone’s more aggressive delivery is a beautiful one, and the wordplay is usually up to Wu-standard–“For real from the Killa Hill, locked and caged in/We’re sworn representatives, reacting like made men/Strive for wives, nine lives and lies/Max sales and enjoy the highs.” How much you enjoy this album directly correlates with your appreciation of relentless faux-gangster imagery. I’m indifferent, unoffended. Sometimes it shines, sometimes it’s all heists and ice cream and titties. Nas’ spot in “Verbal Intercourse” is legendary, over a laid-back beat he was built to spit over. Plus, it’s always a treat to hear Blue Raspberry sing, Meth and GZA rap and Cappadonna do something that isn’t a subpar full-length.
So much clarity in storytelling requires crisp production to match. RZA’s beats on Only Built are more cinematic than his previous work, denser with strings, piano, and old vocal samples, as well as faster drums to keep up with Rae’s flow. “Guillotine (Swords),” “Knuckleheadz,” “Verbal Intercourse” and “Glaciers of Ice” rank among his finest studio work. Given the nature of both the RZA and the album’s theme, there’s an overload of movie samples and confrontation skits. But if you’re this far into Wu territory, you take the good with the mediocre, and luckily these permissible flaws are the only real bones to pick with this record. The Los Angeles Times noted in their initial review that in a world where rap albums sold singles, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx stands as a complete, cohesive experience, that the individual pieces and the whole are equally compelling. Though much of it may be fiction, it feels like one of the realest journeys in the genre.
GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords (1995)
The world is ugly, the Wu is salvation. “Cliques control strips full clips are sprayed/Yellow tape barricades sidewalks where bodies lay/Madness strikes at twelve o’clock midnight/Stick-up kids on the ground broke the staircase light”–hideous portraits depicting the slummy underworld of Staten Island, this one painted by the aggressive Inspectah Deck in “Cold World.” Several bars later he describes a twelve-year-old girl’s accidental murder in a drive-by. The horrors are accompanied by samples of Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, The Dramatics and dialogue from Shogun Assassin, with Live smoothly crooning “you got me locked down in this cold, cold world.” Like all of Liquid Swords, it’s dense and harrowing. The production is game-changing: blurry synths and guitars, horns heated to maximum grind, eerie soundbytes. While heavy, nearly every track is an unforgettable head-bobber.
The haunted, grimy atmosphere is magnified by GZA’s flow and use of language. Armed with sweeping metaphors and wordplay, he elevates himself to the most sophisticated lyricist of the Clan. In “Gold,” he tells all: “He got swung on, his lungs was torn/the Kingpin just castled with his rook and lost a pawn/A regular on the block, and played lookout/For playing predator with a glock, he should have took out.” Crackheads aren’t crackheads, they’re “fiends.” GZA’s children don’t need food, but his “seeds need God-degree.” In “Investigative Reports,” his verse is structured as a crime scene, a tightened metaphor for his domination over weaker emcees. All nine Wu-Tang members perform at the top of their game on Liquid Swords, with lyricism heady and opaque enough to be dissertation-worthy.
Liquid Swords is a dizzying listen. Headphones, car subwoofers, surround sound–that GZA and RZA have put forth their entire selves to earn this album’s perfection is clear no matter the medium. It’s a leaner, more sinister offspring of its father album, 36 Chambers. The layers go on forever. GZA sees through it all, the cold truth of urban life, warnings against labels, chess, kung-fu, the government. He and the Clan synthesized their endowments, applying themselves at full. The result is so immaculate it’s scary.