Lost Ones: How A Flood Destroyed Inspectah Deck’s RZA-Produced Solo Debut (Video)
Listen to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Like, really listen hard. Then, listen to Wu-Tang Forever. All of it, both discs. Revisiting those 1990s Rap gems should not come as a menial task to many. However, the contents of those two Loud Records releases are rich soil for debate. Often times, among Hip-Hop Heads anyway, the knee-jerk discourse is: who’s the best MC in Wu-Tang Clan?
For the 1993 debut, seven of the nine members were being heard on wax for the first time. In a crew so large, so anti-commercially marketed, and so downright didactic, the lines of demarcation are almost exclusively based on skills. Sure, Ghostface Killah was the one with the mask on. Method Man was the raspy-voiced stoner. RZA was the de-facto mouth-piece. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the one who made you delightfully uneasy—an authentic menace.
Much can be said of all of the Wu swordsmen. Raekwon is possessed with the slang. GZA has the bookish intellect, vocabulary and the unwavering delivery. U-God has a mahogany voice, and in the pinch, his timing can simply amaze. Even Masta Killa, in many ways, seems to be something of a secret weapon—the last bank-robber out of the van. He gets in, gets out, always gets the money, never has to run.
So where does that leave Inspectah Deck? That’s precisely why those two first crew albums need to be listened to. Did anybody deliver more consistently, more effectively, and with more versatility than The Rebel INS? Take a long listen.
The Wu’s lone Bronx delegate (at least by birth), Inspectah Deck is perhaps the most shrouded from his props. Unheard prior to “Protect Ya Neck,” it was rapidly clear that Jason Hunter’s Rap styles vary, and carry like Mariah.
Like the catcher guiding an ace on the mound to a Cy Young Award, or the Point Guard orchestrating the unreadable offense, Inspectah Deck was a crucial set-up to the Wu-Tang Clan’s first five years. On six of Enter The Wu‘s 13 tracks, the Rebel delivered some of the most pointed, informed, and savvy lyrics. More conventional than Rae’ or Ghost’, arguably more accessible and digestible than GZA—Inspectah Deck put in work. On “Triumph,” the most widely-touted post-1993 Wu-Tang Clan group song, whose verse is the trademark?
That same year of 1997, Inspectah Deck had been patiently waiting. Following 1993’s swarm, Meth’, O.D.B., GZA, Chef, and Ghost’ had all dropped solo albums. From Def Jam to Geffen, Loud to Epic, the ‘dolo deals of the crew were producing fruit—on the charts, and in the annals of Rap. All the way, the Rebel gave the crew (by virtue of the official albums, as well as his Clansmen) his very best. From “Cold World” to “It’s Yourz,” Deck (by now a producer as well) penetrated the RZA tracks with sharp displays.
So he waited for his own—and The Abbott, now a sought-out marquee producer for The Notorious B.I.G., AZ, and Cypress Hill, had set aside a reported 130 beats for the taking. A busy man, juggling tours, merchandising, and becoming an impresario, RZA was out to help Deck, in an album cleverly called Uncontrolled Substance. It would be the perfect purist second wind to Wu-Tang Forever. “He wouldn’t really leave the house at the time,” Raekwon said of RZA in the mid-1990s. Bobby Digital (as later known) stayed in his analog basement studio in Staten Island, New York, working on the ASR 10. However, after spending much of the middle of the decade plugging at Deck’s debut, a flood would wash the work away.
As the legend has it, RZA suffered two floods in the mid-1990s. The second, prior to the recording of Iron Man, prompted The Abbott to vacate his dusty dungeon for good. “Once he lost that shit, it was a shot to us,” Raekwon said recently, personally estimating that 500 beats were lost, including ’90s works by Wu producers 4th Disciple and Tru Master. “That might be [fate] telling us to just go back in the studio and make more shit. Sometimes shit like that happens. I tell people all the time, ‘Back your shit up.'”
Ghostface was able to parlay the new environments into his own roughneck 1996 debut. But Deck, signed to Loud Records, suffered a huge setback. Playing off of the narcotic symbolism he was aiming for in his aim, INS’ once potent product was quite literally, watered down.
One can only wonder what that soaked material sounded like. As beat-Heads often stress RZA’s finest period to be 1992-1996, one can only imagine the weed-scented kicks and snares, dusty Stax Records excavations, and filthy drum arrangements. Moreover, would the personal essays of Deck have “kicked the truth” as Heads believed it? The same year Busta Rhymes eclipsed his group role in Leaders Of The New School, could Deck have not stood apart from his selfless group contributions?
That question has no answer. As the tale tells, the Inspectah allegedly started from scratch, re-recording the verses he had penned throughout the ’90s, out to recapture the magic. RZA, as the credits of the 1999 version of Uncontrolled Substance show, must not have been as enthused. Bobby Digital would produce only a couple joints, as esteemed peers like Pete Rock, V.I.C., True Master, 4th Disciple, and Allah Mathematics stepped in. Deck worked the boards considerably too.
But time waits for no man. And these things take lots of time…
By October, 1999, the Wu-Tang Clan brand was expanded. Cappadonna—with heavy involvement from RZA, had swarmed in for a major commercial sting (and critical misfire) in 1998. Along with GZA, Method Man had already released his sophomore solo set, and moreover—returned with Redman a week before Uncontrolled Substance, doing “Da Rockwilder” right up the charts. Priority Records, U-God’s label, opted to release Golden Arms Redemption the very same Tuesday as INS. Suddenly, the rebel appeared treated as a bastard swordsman. He was being lapped, upstaged, and Mr. Me Too’d.
Less than one month before Lil Wayne would release Tha Block Is Hot, six weeks after Puff Daddy’s Forever, Inspectah Deck was deeply out of his element—no fault of his own. Uncontrolled Substance was (as is) not “a party drug.” Single “Show N’ Prove” chronicled Deck’s acceptance of the Five Percent Nation Of Gods and Earths, as a dual metaphor for his path to rapping. Video single “Word On The Street” honored Deck’s late father. “R.E.C Room,” an extension of the MC’s frenzied flow six years prior, sounded just that, stale.
The MC who had waved the “W” for those six years did not get it in return—if he even asked. The guest-list on Uncontrolled Substance suggests a Clan focused on the individual interests of its members. U-God and Masta Killa milled about on an LP with two RZA cuts, as La The Darkman, Streetlife, and Killa Sin could not replicate a fraction of the excitement bar set on those mid-’90s albums. The crew had gone to the well quite a few times, and Inspectah Deck’s debut appeared parched.
In April 2003, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin producer Cilvaringz (via the Wu-Tang Clan message board) would document, “RZA lost 130 beats in the flood. They were beats for Deck’s LP, Meth’s and Raekwon’s LP… Recently Deck pulled out some disks from the flood and they worked again and he used one for his upcoming album on Koch.” Great for message board fodder, June 2003’s The Movement did not feature anything credited back to RZA, from ’90s or 2000s. In truth, Inspectah Deck’s solo career appeared to still be drying from that flood all these years later.
He’s there in the clutch, especially on Clan albums—whether acclaimed or panned. The Rebel was the first and only Clansmen sought out by Gang Starr and DJ Premier, leading to a cult hit in “Above The Clouds.” Pete Rock, another top tier producer, tapped his label-mate for single “Tru Master” to follow. Those in the know, seem to know.
Next week (June 16), Inspectah Deck will release his sophomore album with CZARFACE. The collective of Deck, DJ 7L and Esoteric has been a blessing for all parties. The same underground Hip-Hop duo Deck blessed in the early 2000s with “Speaking Real Words” became a collective he could count on. 2013’s self-titled debut afforded Deck a reunion with Preemo, a proper power-house G.F.K collabo, a much improved chart position, and an album received so well it reportedly beckoned a second CD pressing in its first year on shelves.
“It’s been twenty-two long hard years of still strugglin’,” possibly makes more sense in the 22 years since Enter The Wu-Tang than it did for Jason Hunter penning “C.R.E.A.M.” Every Hero Needs A Villain may be Inspectah Deck’s proudest showing of the 2000s, maybe more. GZA, Method Man, MF DOOM, and Large Professor are on board. Released on Boston, Massachusetts-based Brick Records, there appear to be no pressures to try to find radio, or crutch a past that arguably never was. Just as Raekwon found a resurgence in the sequel, Method Man found the mainstream in collaboration, and Ghostface Killah found a career simply in not caring what others thought, Inspectah Deck is doing it his way, on his terms, and seemingly never questioning “what if.” But we can…