Off On A Natural Charge, Bon Voyage: 25 Years Since The Return To The 36 Chambers

The most unique Russell Jones, the wizard otherwise known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, kicked off the Wu-Tang Clan’s most crucial year with a solo debut that is still ahead of its time

ODB mural at 448 Franklin Ave in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (Photo: Daniel Gafforio)

Ol Dirty Bastard established himself as the charismatic comedian of the Wu Tang Clan pretty early on and his over-the-top escapades and lyrical aptitude were undoubtedly a quintessential piece of the group’s overall success. But he was much more than all the nicknames and personas. He was a “one man army.” 

His solo debut, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, was not intended to be a sequel by any means, despite its callback to the group’s monumental 1993 debut. It does however feature several guest appearances by RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, and affiliates Killah Priest, 4th Disciple, Prodigal Sunn, 60 Second Assassin and Brooklyn Zu (a group which consisted of Buddha Monk, Merdoc, Raison the Zu Keeper, 12 O’Clock, and Shorty Shitstain). 

What really made ODB appealing was his sense of humor. He was just a regular guy with crazy energy. Even the album cover – a photograph of his New York City issued EBT card – was proof of that. 

Although the album didn’t quite weather the test of time as well as say Liquid Swords or Only Built for Cuban Linx, it was undoubtedly an essential piece in the group’s discography and overall evolution. 


AUDIO: Ol’ Dirty Bastard Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (full album)

Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version debuted at No. 7 the Billboard 200 charts and later went on to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Rap album in 1996. It was certified Platinum by the RIAA for sales equivalent to a million copies on the 25th anniversary of its release. 

Dirty had a different style of approaching things. While he could make the biggest of men burst into laughter, he was rarely looked upon as a hip-hop scholar.

His metaphor for the disruption and discord that is Brooklyn as a “zoo” is an adequate comparison to the borough where he was raised. Perhaps less subtlety it was also a reference to the actual Prospect Park Zoo. 

The album’s debut single, ”Brooklyn Zoo,” went on to become Dirty’s second highest-charting track, following the hit single ”Got Your Money” feat. Kelis in 1999. 

The original version was considered to be controversial and only aired in certain markets because of its glorification of crime. The bootlegged “Chinatown Version” told the story of Pimp Daddy, a recently released ex-con who gets wrapped up in selling illegal fireworks and ends up paying the price. 


VIDEO: Ol’ Dirty Bastard “Brooklyn Zoo”

“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is really the perfect example of how Dirty stamped his own unique brand of hip-hop, relooping vocals in reverse, making obscure comic references and proving in the process that somehow even backwards the words manage to match the rhythm. 

Buddha Monk detailed the process in his book, The Dirty Version: On Stage, in the Studio, and in the streets with Ol Dirty Bastard

“Dirty mixed rapping with singing, but he did it in a way that was funny too. On “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” he sampled Richard Pryor’s comedy album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor had a joke about how the girls would turn him down—he mocks a girl’s voice saying, “I ain’t gonna fuck you, you can’t even sing,” then he tells the audience, ‘You have to sang or somethin’ to get some pussy.’ That’s how Dirty ended his song—‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ goes from Dirty crooning over RZA’s piano tinkling, ‘Ooooh, baby, I like it raw. Ooooh, baby, I like it raaaaaw,’ to ‘I ain’t gonna fuck you, you can’t even sing.’”


VIDEO: ODB reverse channeling Donald Glover in the video for “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”

The music video itself gained a lot of attention, thanks to the work of the iconic ‘90s hip-hop director Hype Williams, who also shot the remix of Busta Rhymes “Woo-Hah! Got You All In Check.” 

The single was later remixed by Bay Area producer Studio Ton, featuring West Coast rappers MC Eiht and E-40 and has been repopularized by several TV shows and movies throughout the years that followed, most notably as the opening sequence of the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up (2007) starring Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl. 

Diving into the deeper cuts, “Raw Hide,” is an unexpectedly difficult tale about Ol Dirty’s actual life and how getting married and having children resulted in him having to get back on welfare at a young age.

MTV would exploit the then 26-year-old rapper on the rise by showcasing him driving to the welfare office to cash a check and receive food stamps while his album was still in the top ten of the music charts. After watching the footage, his eligibility was revoked and was cited as an example of welfare abuse. 


VIDEO: ODB picking up his welfare check with family in tow for MTV 1995

“Protect Ya Neck II The Zoo” is an epic recreation of the posse cut that made it all happen. Except on this one you got members of both The Sunz of Man and Brooklyn Zu – two individually powerful Wu-Tang affiliates who come together to recreate some of that Killa Bee magic. 

Another noteworthy track—“Cuttin’ Headz,” was initially featured as one of the group’s unreleased demos. Produced by and featuring RZA the track includes cues and instrumentals from “Clan In Da Front.” 

Dirty would rap about the kind of things you might think, but keep to yourself. Lyrics about HIV and heroin weren’t exactly acceptable to the culture at that time. But they were real. He struck a nerve with many Americans that had to be struck. And, yes, he made us laugh while also enlightening a few listeners to the realities of life in the Big Apple. 

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the album was re-released as a digital deluxe edition including bonus tracks and other additional features. 

Amazon Music also released its mini-documentary, Unique: ‘Return to the 36 Chambers’ 25 Years Later, which includes behind the scenes footage and exclusive interviews about the album process. 


VIDEO: Unique: Ol’ Dirty Bastard and The Legend of Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

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Daniel Offner

Daniel Offner is a contributing writer for Follow him @OffnerOffbeat.

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