For hundreds of years, society has needed clowns and fools. From Shakespeare’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the Monty Python team, even up to Russell Brand (just…). The fool is written off as a joke by the ignorant and short sighted, but while the dull gripe about the state of the world and everybody tunes out, the fool makes you listen by pulling down the president’s pants.
In a genre as stymied by it’s flawed obsessions of base capitalism and violence as hip hop could be, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a breath of fresh air. In the early ’90’s mainstream hip hop was heavily weighed down by either the forced grittiness of ‘Gangsta rap’, or the earnest seriousness of conscious rap. While neither were bad, and there are hundreds of absolute classics from this era, some of the fun had gone from hip hop. Even De La Soul were releasing De La Soul is Dead, a rejection of the hippie joy of 3 Feet High and Rising.
Of all the albums released in this era, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is my favourite. But imagining it without ODB, I’m not sure it would even come close. The whole crew is made up of supremely talented artists, and I’m not saying it would be bad at all, but the album would be devoid of joy and silliness, save for maybe M.E.T.H.O.D. Man. Even now, on the 1000th listen, I find myself looking forward to his insane, profane and ridiculous verses.
There’s just something about him. A million rappers could deliver a line as simple and dumb as ‘I’ll fuck your ass up!’ and make it threatening or hardcore. ODB sounds it, and you just know he’s smiling, thinking how over the top can i make this, and how much further can i push it? It’s that sense of it all being a very fun joke, and that you and he both know it that made him such a great.
The humour was always on the verge of insanity, with sections of his verses being ridiculous. The minute of him making that crackling noise with his throat that you make when you’re a kid, at the start of Goin’ Down, off his first solo effort Return to the 36 Chambers, is simultaneously confusing, frustrating and hilarious, which sums up the whole album to a degree.
By the second and final album, N**ga Please* (Originally titled The Black Man is God, White Man is the Devil) the insanity had spread deep into his personal life, sadly, though this led to several entertaining moments, such as his insistence on a name change to Big Baby Jesus. It is a patchy affair, but when brilliant, it is still incomparable to anything else. I Can’t Wait is a frenetic slice of lunacy like nothing else you could want or hope to hear. There is also a riotously entertaining cover of Rick James’ Cold Blooded. What ODB lacks in singing ability he makes up for twice in enthusiasm. It makes you want a voice like a brain damaged dog, too!
So, rest in peace ASON. The world is less entertaining, and hip hop less rich for our loss. As you said yourself, Wu-Tang is Forever.
* As I white man I choose to continue censoring this word. It’s not mine to use, reportage or not. It is not a freedom of speech issue, but one of respect for others. It does make singing along to Wu bloody difficult, mind.