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Last rhymes
Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Osirus

When the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard got out of prison for the last time, in 2003, he surprised his friends by signing to Roc-A-Fella Records. Some members of the Wu-Tang Clan questioned his move to a rival camp, and Pharrell Williams — whose first big break had been producing "Baby I Got Your Money" on ODB’s Nigga Please (Elektra) and who had hoped to sign Dirty to his Star Track label — professed to be heartbroken. Less than a decade after his stunning 1995 solo debut, Return to the 36 Chambers (Elektra), an album he never topped, Ol’ Dirty had his back to the wall. Broke, a drug addict, his movement limited by the strict terms of his probation, he recorded a number of freestyles and guest appearances to celebrate his release; these were rushed onto the streets as if he were a terrorist making tapes to prove he hadn’t been killed. On one, Roc honcho Dame Dash introduces his new recruit and asks him to spit a few lines. As soon as Ol’ Dirty opens his mouth, you know it’s him — he may sound rusty and tentative, but soon he’s working up to a lather. "My beats are funky/My rhymes are spunky/Sometimes I say well, goddamn, what’s the recipe? Well I don’t know! I asked my momma, she don’t know! She said, ‘Go ask your goddamn father!’ "

Those lines are quintessential ODB: in his songs, rhyme was at best optional. He often surprised you with phrases that seemed to describe a universe that obeys laws different from our own. ("I kill my enemies at birth," he once blurted.) The entire point of a rap freestyle, as in a jazz solo, is to produce an improvisation with the coherence of a composition. But Ol’ Dirty was to freestyling what free jazz is to bop: he was the antithesis of coherence, a rapper who thoroughly resisted rhyme and reason. He often mocked, in the scrambled tones of his voice and his departure from prescribed meter and tempo, the very notion that rap has anything to do with either. That Dame Dash freestyle was an example of how he could vaporize your expectations: first descending into a corny rhyme (spunky/funky) and then abandoning rhyme altogether — and when he did this, well, what was he doing? What if hip-hop didn’t even have to pretend to rhyme?

Sometimes it seemed that Ol’ Dirty was at his best when he’d lost the thread and his subconscious took over. The act of going from "My beats are funky" to "Go ask your goddamn father" seems beyond the act of composition — it’s just something that came out of him one day when he was standing at a microphone. Except that it wasn’t: the same verse, in a slightly different phrasing, had first appeared five years earlier on a song called "Kiss of a Black Widow," on Wu-Tang producer the RZA’s 1998 album RZA As Bobby Digital in Stereo. If ODB seemed utterly impulsive — this was a man who after months on the lam had been arrested signing autographs at a McDonald’s — the truth was always more complicated.

At the beginning of his career and again at the end of it, Ol’ Dirty Bastard warned his fans not to underestimate him. Even from his first appearance on CD, "Shame on a Nigga," from Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (Loud/BMG), he sounded ancient and guttural. Caked and gritty, shrouded in grave dust and sprinkled in zinc, his voice had a metallic grain as distinctive as Howlin’ Wolf’s. He often added a vibrato accent to prolong certain syllables; this could make him sound like a preacher wagging his finger from the pulpit, and it gave him an authority that never dissipated, not even when he clowned. He had an extensive repertoire of growls, gasps, stutters, moans, grunts, and falsettos, and he would often switch among several of these in the course of a single line, attacking a phrase from several angles at once. "I get into shit, I let it out like diarrhea/Got burnt once but it was only gonorrhea/Dirty, I keep shit stank in my drawers," he shouted on "Shame on a Nigga," foreshadowing a scatological bent that, as in the work of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins decades earlier, often overshadowed his inimitable technique. "I come with that loco/Style from my vocal," he rasped. "I’m no joker, play me as a joker/Be on ya like a house on fire — smoke ya!"

He did get played as a joker, increasingly so as his output went from surrealistically brilliant to merely erratic. But though Dirty was often called on to provide comic relief — as his duet with Mariah Carey on the remix of her "Fantasy" attests — even his comedic mode was refined. He had no precedent in hip-hop, but it’s clear he had absorbed the comedy of Richard Pryor and Blowfly: his lengthy intro at the beginning of Return to the 36 Chambers was a tribute to both, by turns mock-superlative ("Tonight you’re gonna see something you’ve never seen before," he boasts in a voice reminiscent of Pryor’s uptight-white-folks impersonations), reflective ("I’m happy to be living, nigga try to shoot me down," he says in a near-whisper), and absurdist (crooning, to the tune of the Roberta Flack weeper, "The first tiiiime ever you suuuuuucked my diiiick"). The name Ol’ Dirty Bastard was itself a tribute of sorts to Redd Foxx, a connection that was finally made on record last year when ODB rapped over a sample of the Sanford and Son theme, on a song called "Old Man" from Masta Killa’s No Said Date.

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Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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