Monday, June 29, 2009

My Own Private Shaolin: Karaoke Night with ODB

The relative paucity of posthumous Old Dirty Bastard releases has been kind of disappointing. As a vocalist Dirty effected a reckless charisma that could make reading the phone book sound dangerous and exciting. So why wasn't the RZA getting ODB in the studio every night and turning him loose? I got to thinking about how dope it would be if a "lost" recording of Old Dirty covering modern pop classics was discovered.

I like to classify Old Dirty with the singers of old jazz standards. Sinatra, Billy Holiday, Chet Baker, et al. Meaning in his work is conveyed not through the imagery or narrative content of his songs but through the precisely unhinged manner in which they are delivered. Call it the "not what I say but how I say it" phylum. Or more accurately, "whatever the fuck it says, no one can say it like me."

As a songwriter Dirty's brilliance lies in the creation of blunt, redundant choruses that distill his wildly meandering verses into simple idioms. Brooklyn Zoo for example is a bombardment of aimless boasts and scatter shot cultural references that are somehow reconciled by Dirty's repetitive, climactic pronouncement: "Shame on you / when you step up to / the Old Dirty Bastard. Brooklyn Zoo!" This reductive approach allowed Dirt Dog to experiment with nontraditional song formats. He could structure tracks as haphazardly as he wanted to, knowing that he could still generate isomorphism with a single, abrupt declaration.

I took this into consideration when compiling the following fantasy tracklist for a hypothetical Old Dirty Bastard covers EP, songs that would not only flatter his vocal skills, but also gel thematically with the rest of his oeuvre.

1. All Tomorrow's Parties - The Velvet Underground
Not only would the haunting instrumentation of this song blend ideally with Old Dirty's shrieking, uneven style, but it's lyrics approximate Wu-Tang's disgust with the base materialism of early nineties hip hop culture. "And what costume shall the poor girl wear / to all tomorrow's parties? A hand me down dress / from who know where / to all tomorrow's parties." This could easily be directed at Puff Daddy or Mace, artists who had more commercial success than Wu-Tang, but were viewed by the clan as inauthentic, creatively vapid, and needlessly obsessed with their clothes and shiny cars. "A hand me down dress / from who knows where" could reference commercial raps dependency on recycling tired themes and formats. Dirty, after all, prided himself on his "fatherless style" and paradoxically glossed himself Ason Unique, one who acknowledges his artistic heritage while crafting his own incomparable approach. "She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown / and cry behind the door," suggests that other rappers secretly recognize their insignificance when compared to ODB and are a bunch of weepy bitches.

2. Undone: The Sweater Song - Weezer
The lyric, "Hold this thread as I walk away" makes Undone a good choice for any posthumous covers album, and "Watch me unravel..." can be easily applied to artists like Dirty who had a taste for excess and precision tuned self destruction. Rivers Cuomo's opening mantra "I am / me be / goddamn / I am..." would go from doubtfully assertive to downright pathological when delivered in Old Dirty's rugged growl. Also its fun and easy to imagine Big Baby Jesus lying on the floor of an arena stage buck naked, grunting his way through the refrain.

3. Beast of Burden - The Rolling Stones
Another song communicating ODB's frustration with his inability to breakthrough from underground curiosity to hip hop superstar. The plaintive "I'd never be your beast of burden" could be directed at critics who thought Dirty was too erratic and unpredictable to be a reliable commodity in the music world. Record executives tell ODB that he ain't there kind of man, to which he responds, "Ain't I rough enough enough? / Ain't I rich enough..."

4. Someone to Watch Over Me - Chet Baker
A brutally ironic tribute from a man who needed a guiding hand to help curb his enthusiasm for drugs and alcohol and put him on a path to success. While this manifested itself partially in the form of RZA, too many nights Dirty found someone else to watch over him, in the form of flunkies and purveyors of narcotics. Again, he pleads vitally for acceptance in the rap game, "Although I may not be / the man some girls think of / as handsome / to her heart / I'll carry the key."

5. We Will Fall - The Stooges
One of my buddies promoted an underground Old Dirty show in Detroit in the late nineties. After the show he was given the task of delivering a pizza to the hotel suite where they were putting Dirty up. When my buddy showed up with the pie, Old Dirt Dog was shoveling ketamine up his nose while talking on two cell phones at the same time. On the end of one line was one of his baby mommas back in East New York. On the other phone was the dope man. Bored looking white girls walked around the room in their underwear. This is no doubt a scene that repeated itself night after night as Dirty toured the globe, and is one I think of when I hear We Will Fall. "And I love you / And we'll fall to sleep..." finds Dirty warmly resigned to his life between fixes, to his comforting, familiar thirst for oblivion.

6. Dominoes - Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett's laconic, almost disembodied homage to idleness, the song could be reinterpreted as a man confronting the constant threat of incarceration and forced withdraw from society. Dirty was plagued with legal troubles throughout the last ten years of his life, and no doubt suspected somewhere in the back of his mind that he would wind up behind bars. We can imagine Old Dirty locked down, meditating on the music world passing him by while he wasted time on dominoes and other banal pursuits. "Fireworks and heat someday / Hold a shell / a stick or play / overheard a lark today / losing when my minds astray / don't you want to know with your pretty hair..."

7. That's How Strong My Love Is - Otis Redding
If nothing else, ODB was passionate about his music and his lifestyle. If anyone had the chops to match Otis' passion on That's How Strong My Love Is it would be Dirty. This song is constructed to account the for unpredictable metric intensification of the lyrics, and Dirty was a master of switching his style from bar to bar. I imagine this cover running in excess of ten minutes, with most of it being the outro, as Dirty goes to painful lengths in trying to convince his listeners that his love is, in fact, that strong.

RIP Joe Bananas

1 comment:

IOB said...

This may be my favorite blog entry of the year to date. If I ever get my hands on a time machine, making this album happen is my number one goal.

To A Rapper Dying Young
By I.O. Brooker, with heartfelt apologies to A.E. Housman

The time you stole the Grammy stage
We cheered you in your righteous rage
Let others make their shameless bids
Wu-Tang was really for the kids

To-day, the flow all MCs bust
We send you down, from dust to dust
Where you may match your manic rhymes
With those of men from stiller times

Smart Dirty to depart this coil
Where fame does but so briefly boil
The flow of hip hop’s onetime king
Discarded under mounds of bling

Eyes the Shady night has shut
Shall see no more records cut
Mics in The Source have no more worth
When one’s eyes are filled with earth

Now you avoid indignity
The shameful fate of Young MC
And crews who cannot stay the game
As sadly they outlive their fame

So set, before the players hate,
Your lips upon that mic of fate
And shimmy ya with all your might
The battle shall be yours tonight

And ‘round those early laurelled dreads
‘Pac and Big and all the dead
Shall find upon that ebon down
The everlasting MC’s crown