Twenty years have passed since the hip-hop earthquake that was Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Twenty years of solo successes and flops, sold-out concerts, movie appearances, sitcoms, and deodorant commercials. It’s hard to imagine having to introduce the members of the group as if they were a bunch of unknowns. And if one did come across someone who was utterly ignorant of the last two decades of hip-hop and actually wanted to know something about the greatest group ever in the history of that genre, it’s doubtful that Inspectah Deck would be the first name rolling off the tongue. For Method Man, in a 1993 interview that was included on the album as an intermission, starting at the top meant starting with Inspectah Deck
Now we think of Inspectah Dech as the third-least-famous member of the posse (or fourth, depending on how you count Cappadonna), but at the start of Wu-Tang’s rise such an outcome was unthinkable. Method was in fact right to start off with Inspectah Deck. Even if Deck wasn’t the leader of the group (a role always owned by the RZA), or its most entertaining personality (Old Dirty Bastard, naturally), or its densest lyricist (the GZA), or its pre-acknowledged star (Method Man), he was arguably its best all-around emcee. Repeated (and repeated) listens to Enter the Wu-Tang bear out that not one of the eight heads of Voltron raps with more consistency, versatility, and power than Inspectah Deck.
When one thinks of the Wu-Tang Clan’s opening shots, Ghostface Killah’s spit-filled salvo in “Bring da Ruckus” often comes to mind—“catch the blast of a hype verse, my glock burst, leave in a hearse, I did worse”—a verbal explosion reflective of the song’s sparse, angry soundscape, like a battlefield with landmines going off sporadically. The Wu-Tang Clan’s true lead-off hitter, however, was Inspectah Deck, whose opening verse on “Protect Ya Neck”, the debut single that lit up regional radio and led to the group’s unprecedented record deal, is arguably more impressive than Ghost’s and probably more important.
Inspectah Deck’s bars on “Protect Ya Neck” perfectly capture what made the Wu-Tang so exciting back in 1993. There’s the rash of pop-cultural references, from Joe Frazier and Spiderman to the Lone Ranger and Tevin Campbell. He pays tribute to a third-world military group—an underappreciated, yet persistent, Wu-Tang motif—on the line “terrorize the jam like troops in Pakistan”. And he even throws a bone to what would become the most dedicated subcategory of the group’s fanbase, disaffected white teenagers, by shouting out that he “makes more noise than heavy metal”. (1993-related aside: people usually blame grunge for killing hair metal, but isn’t the commercial success of gangsta rap, with its embrace of aggressive sexuality and comic violence, just as responsible?)
More than lyrical content, though, it’s the way that Inspectah Deck raps on “Protect Ya Neck”, bobbing and weaving with the beat like a dancer, that makes his verse so great. He dangles like a superhero between buildings on “like your neighborhood Spi-der-man”/ He sings the Tevin Campbell reference. He drops internal rhymes (“Deep in the dark with the art to rip charts apart”) with the ease of a Tim Hardaway crossover. Not for nothing was “Protect Ya Neck” Wu-tang’s first single. Although the song lacks a hook or any other bid for catchiness, its beat might reasonably be called a groove. Keen to what the opening verse of a debut single called for, Inspectah Deck catered his verse to the song’s ebullient spirit.
Listen to Deck’s other spots on Enter the Wu-Tang, and one finds a consistent ability to understand what a given song requires and to deliver accordingly. “Bring Da Ruckus” is the album’s psycho romp, the inmates taking over the nuthouse and giving voice to their most raucous selves. In his verse Deck is off-the-edge right from the start, with the couplet pairing “porno-flick bitches” and “groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits” a pretty effective compendium of Middle America’s worst nightmare. From there he’s a macho action film star (“I’m kicking like Seagal, Out for Justice”) a homicidal maniac (“Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue)” and a crazed beast (“Charged like a bull”). But he saves the scariest for last. “I’ll scream on your ass like your dad,” howled with cracking voice, punctuates Deck’s furious appearance and is arguably one of the most arresting moments on the entire album.
“C.R.E.A.M.” is Enter the Wu-Tang’s classic mid-tempo ballad, its “In My Life.” Although Raekwon’s verse has received its fair share of praise, to me it’s Inspectah Deck’s that captures the essence of a song dedicated to money not as the fruit of a glamorous lifestyle but as the puppet-master of an unfair world. The madman of “Bring da Ruckus” and knucklehead of “Protect Ya Neck” becomes an old sage, reflecting vividly on his journey from delinquent teen to juvenile offender to would-be mentor.
The images sketched here hang in the memory: 40 handcuffed teenagers riding the bus upstate, kids sharing a joint in the staircase, the troubled young man seeking out his mother for advice. Most of Enter the Wu-Tang is a kung-fu–fueled fantasy, but “C.R.E.A.M.” is a hard dose of reality. Deck’s verse is unique on the album in that it looks upon the world not with the scheming enthusiasm of a young upstart but the weary resignation of someone who’s seen too many dead dreams and broken ideals to trust anything beyond his own ability to survive.
On Enter the Wu-Tang, Inspectah Deck was a rapper at the top of his game. He seemed no less primed for a successful solo career than did Raekwon, Ghostface, Method Man, or the GZA. The inevitable question then arises: what happened? Bad luck has to factor into the discussion, as a number of the beats meant to be included on his debut album Uncontrolled Substance were destroyed in a flood in RZA’s basement studio, pushing its release back from 1995 to 1999.
To be sure, releasing an album in 1995, near the height of Wu-Tang’s influence, would probably have garnered more attention than in 1999, when fatigue was starting to set in among fans at the release of too many lesser Wu-affiliated or Wu-sponsored projects. Still, Uncontrolled Substance is more a workman-like NYC street-rap album; it lacks the magic of those Enter the Wu-Tang verses. The sporadic albums Deck has put out since, including last year’s enjoyable Czarface, continue this trend.
But even as his solo career has sputtered, Deck has continued to shine on Wu-Tang’s group albums. His opening verse on “Triumph” has achieved legendary status—GZA famously said that after hearing it, he didn’t want to have to follow. Deck has an impressively nimble turn on Iron Flag-standout “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” and he manages RZA’s mushy production values with ease on 8 Diagrams’ “Take it Back”—two highlight performances among many.
The truth could be that Inspectah Deck excels more in the dynamic environment of a Wu-Tang posse cut, working off the other rappers and RZA’s production, than he does in a situation where the onus is completely on him. Maybe there’s no better proof of this than the fact that “Protect Ya Neck”, as revealed by RZA n an interview included on the Europe-only Wu 4 Life DVD, was originally an Inspectah Deck solo track, but because it was a beat that everyone in the group liked, it became the Wu-Tang Clan’s first single. In a group that was from the outset viewed by many of its members as a platform for solo careers, there’s a certain nobility in being a team player.