* * * THE VOICE OF LANGSTON HUGHES Langston Hughes Smithsonian/Folkways * * * * RETURN TO THE 36 CHAMBERS: THE DIRTY VERSION Ol’ Dirty Bastard Elektra
In 1967, the year Langston Hughes died and the year before Ol” Dirty Bastard was born, Senegalese intellectual Leopold Sedar Senghor wrote, “The organizing principle which makes the black style is rhythm.” Though characterized by an obsession with rhythm, the evolution of black style is generally marked by some level of thematic or sonic dissonance meant to distinguish new developments from past styles and present imitators. This dissonance is often simply the sonic interpretation of the chaos of day-to-day African-American lives. New York is often the center of such tumult and, not surprisingly, the birthplace of black styles, from the Harlem Renaissance to or Dirty Bastards “Brooklyn Zoo”
Langston Hughes was a star of the Harlem Renaissance, generally considered to span from 1917 to 1930, a time of black spiritual discord. Blacks publicly debated who they were and sought to define “the new Negro” — new because of their recently adopted urban, Pan-African consciousness. Hughes fostered the dissonance with past black self-conceptions in iconoclastic, political work like “Goodbye Christ,” which begins, “Listen, Christ/You did alright in your day, I reckon — /But that days gone now.”
Thirteen of Hughes’ poems, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “I, Too,” are included on The Voice of Langston Hughes, along with Hughes-penned songs and passages from Hughes’ book Simple Speaks His Mind about Hughes’ simpleton urban folk hero. The Voice, largely recorded in 1955, is part of a series of recordings by Smithsonian/Folkways. The album is only for Hughes’ most devoted fans because Hughes’ oral delivery leaves much to be desired. His slightly nasal voice maintains the deliberate simplicity that makes his poetry so elegant and accessible — “I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother/They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes/But I laugh/And eat well/And grow strong” — but his presentation makes the rhythmic demands of oral communication seem beyond him.
The continuum to which Hughes contributed so much has veered widely — and probably been derailed by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. One of the nine-member Wu-Tang Clan, or Dirty claims there’s “no father to my style.” Though he is obviously part of the black oral tradition, his boast is barely an exaggeration. With his raspy, lisp-punctuated voice and half-sung half-rapped style, he may well be the most original vocalist in hip-hop history.
Ol’ Dirty’s frighteningly dissonant solo debut, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, offers muddy production and minimalist beats that take the Wu-Tang sonic mission (to bring back hip-hop’s old school circa 1985-1987) to another level. It features an MC who alternately sings fairly well and claims be can’t sing; who spends more time spouting blue comedy — “the first time ever you sucked my dick,” he sings, “the earth trembled under my balls” — than actually flowing; who screams, “I’m the baddest hip-hop man across the work!” He’s definitely in the running.
Ol’ Dirty may be the Richard Pryor of hip-hop, not simply for his off-color jokes but for the intelligence evident in his way of telling them. His lyrics are largely forgettable — on “Hippa to da Hoppa” he says, “I keep my breath smelling like shit/So I can get funky” — but his vocal impact, when rhyming or rap singing or whatever, is undeniable. When straight-forwardly singing, as on “Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie),” he does well, but it’s still deeply unnerving.
What is that song doing on the album? How does it fit? Well, it fits only in that it’s what Ol’ Dirty wanted to do, so he did it With his singing and his spoken-word bits and comedy pain, or Dirty has created something that — like De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate — is hip-hop while challenging the very definition of the term.
Like The Voice, Return is for serious hip-hop fans who can handle an album even less accessible than past dissonant masterpieces like N.W.A’s Niggaz4Life, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man or Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. If it sounds defective, it’s supposed to.