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Out of their entire, lengthy and legendary catalog, there are two standout songs from the Wu-Tang Clan’s earliest albums that did more to propel the nine members’ collective career than any others.
That first track is, of course, the group’s gritty breakout single “Protect Ya Neck,” which hit radio airwaves in 1993 and would be included in their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) later that year.
The second song is “Triumph,” from their 1997 sophomore release, Wu-Tang Forever.
Without question, this jam-packed aural assault solidified Wu-Tang’s ranking in the top tier of rap crews from hip-hop’s golden era.
And while the songs are wildly different and sound miles apart musically, these two deep posse cuts share a singular similarity: They both begin with a verse from Inspectah Deck.
Starting each song with the man also known as Rebel INS was no accident.
Positioning him as the lead-off MC was a calculated move that Clan leader RZA made based on Deck’s proven ability to deliver complex yet captivating, piercing lyrical darts. Placing Inspectah Deck at the front of the pack sets the bar at a height many MCs can barely see, let alone reach. It’s a signal to listeners to expect rhymes that will have you reaching for that rewind button.
On both “Protect Ya Neck” and “Triumph,” Deck weaves abstract concepts together with flashes of imagery. He proves capable of flipping words and phrases that later become points of dissection and discussion.
But he’s also known as a fierce storyteller. Evidence of this is spread out across the Clan’s discography. The first example of Deck’s narrative skill can be heard on the group’s most popular debut album single, “C.R.E.A.M.” On that track, he details his own personal history of incarceration as a young kid, dropping the unforgettable lines: “Handcuffed in the back of a bus, 40 of us / Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough.”
For all of these reasons, Inspectah Deck is heralded as the MC’s MC and a man of unwavering ability to shred songs while maintaining a calm, laidback and inconspicuous persona. This combination of skills is why his fellow crew members Method Man and RZA often say Deck is undisputedly one of the greatest in hip-hop to ever hold the microphone.
Aside from these accolades and the nearly endless examples of Deck hitting home runs as part of the Wu-Tang team, however, the true test of one’s skill comes when they stand alone on solo projects.
And in that realm, The Inspectah continues to shine.
The first taste fans got of Inspectah Deck on his own came on the album Uncontrolled Substance, released in 1999. In it, the Brooklyn-born rapper who grew up in the Park Hill Projects of Staten Island, New York, doesn’t hold back. Over the hour-long album’s 17 tracks, he displays his warchest of skills as not only a lyricist and storyteller but also a producer.
At the time of its initial release, the album was well-received by critics and fans but failed to garner the attention and airplay many felt it deserved. There has long been speculation that Uncontrolled Substance suffered from being lost in the shuffle of the monstrous machine that the Wu-Tang Clan had become over the years, following their two top-charting group albums and several of the members also releasing solo records to great acclaim.
And, there’s also the undeniable fact that fate — and floods — played a part in Deck’s first album’s later-than-planned release. In the mid-1990s, RZA’s home studio suffered two floods. Water destroyed hundreds of the producer’s beats, including all of those slated for the first Deck solo record.
So, in the years that followed, Inspectah Deck stitched his solo debut together while touring, dipping into the studio whenever time allowed.
Despite these many obstacles, Uncontrolled Substance remains a hidden gem among the Wu-Tang members’ numerous solo albums. And it holds up sonically far better than records half its age.
Starting off strong, Inspectah Deck brings us into the album with an intro track and then the blaring horns and deep drum kicks of the RZA-produced “Movas & Shakers.” In this ode to those who push beyond their own limits, Deck confidently pounds his chest, rhyming, “This style has no origin or birth date / And scientists’ research cannot calculate / The great mind skatin’ through space and time / Vibratin’ through the bass lines that stun mankind.”
Up next, “9th Chamber” delves into Deck’s deft ability to orchestrate a posse cut. Coming in at just under three minutes, this quick-paced track packs in mini-verses from Wu affiliates La the Darkman, Beretta 9, Killa Sin and Streetlife before ending with the album author proclaiming, “We the true source, movin’ off on uncharted course / My thoughts come across with a blindin’ force.”
Slowing it down just a bit with a beat from longtime Wu-Tang Clan turntablist DJ Mathematics, the album’s namesake track features an eerie, mid-tempo piano loop and the soulful crooning of Shadii from the 1980s R&B group The Force M.D.’s. Overall, this one is reminiscent of the grimey, slow-moving tracks like “Tearz” and “Can It All Be So Simple” from 36 Chambers. But instead of storytelling like those songs, it features Deck pronouncing his verbal superiority with lines like “And those who can’t stand the heat, they seek shade / The rapture was told of how one man tackled the globe / It goes so deep it rattles your soul / I see many have come, but few are chosen for the role.”
On “Femme Fatale,” Deck flexes his production skills — featuring a stretched-out, syncopated guitar and synth loops — as he recounts the tale of a woman he couldn’t resist, rhyming, “It’s not the n---a she had, but it’s the way she had n---as / Now, I’m tangled, caught up in her love triangle … I’m showin’ her love, but it’s the feelings I’m avoidin’ / She was pretty as a wildflower, sweet as poison.”
Following that romantic side quest, Deck lays down a harder-hitting track, “The Grand Prix,” then another nod to his sexual adventures and passion on “Forget Me Not” before “Longevity,” where he’s joined by Wu-Tang Clan compatriot U-God to declare their staying power with the hook, “Not many last in the game / Wu-Tang come through, breakin’ out the same way we came.”
At the album’s halfway point, the MC — who also goes by the moniker of Rollie Fingers, occasionally — decides to go it alone on all fronts with the self-produced “Word on the Street.” In this anti-snitching anthem, Deck describes how quickly criminal escapades can go wrong when someone in the clique runs their mouth to police. The hook says it all: “This thing’s way beyond deep / Promise me you’ll keep ya mouth closed with no leaks / What’s the word on the street? / The evidence concrete / My Co-D (co-defendant) mysteriously got set free.”
After retelling how he’d been under surveillance and chased by the cops, Deck ends this high-energy track by vividly detailing a car crash and shootout that aided him in a narrow escape from the long arm of the law.
Catching his breath after that, Inspectah Deck turns down the excitement a few notches with another self-produced track, “Elevation,” before exploring temptations of the heart and, in part, the importance of platonic relationships on “Lovin You.”
From there, he jumps on the Pete Rock-produced track “Trouble Man,” which showcases a funky bass loop. Coming in as one of the album’s longer songs at more than five minutes, the beat contains several samples, including “Joy” by Isaac Hayes and “Paradise” by Sade. For his part, Deck shows his versatility by matching the energy of the smooth, sultry hook with relaxed raps about navigating life’s nonstop challenges and pitfalls.
After that relaxing break, The Inspectah jumps right back into it with the amped up “R.E.C. Room.” Produced by True Master, this bare-bones beat is reminiscent of those on 36 Chambers. Deck’s verses also mirror the Clan’s first few singles with descriptions of street life in NYC and his unquestioned confidence, rhyming, “Crowd pleaser, register off the meter / Vocal street-sweeper, buck shots through the speaker / Pleasure seekers, 50 thou’ in the stands / True fans get it hot like Jamaica sands / Conquer land, wide like an eagle wingspan / Clansman stabbin’ the track with both hands.”
Wu-Tang Clan crew member Masta Killa trades bars with Deck on the RZA-produced “Friction,” a track that includes horror movie-esque elements like chilling violin loops and unexpected claps of thunder.
Another self-produced track, “Hyperdermix,” keeps the eerie vibe rolling with a woodwind-based loop, a mid-tempo drum beat and an excellently placed sample from fellow clansman Ghostface Killah as the hook. Lyrically, Deck explores his superiority on the mic effortlessly with raps like “Never before have ya ever heard this level of raw / My metaphors touch down like the hammer of Thor / Knee deep into the war, sirens and gats roar / Livin’ life, ragin’ bull, life’s the matador / I soar, above the law, branded illegal / They still rush my door cuz I’m power to the people.”
Nearing the album’s end, “Show N Prove,” produced by The Blaquesmiths, details Deck finding self-knowledge and the growth that followed. Offering encouragement for others, he raps over the hook-heavy, methodical beat, “Through the course of time, we was dumb, deaf and blind / Now we on the incline, build with one mind / Came a long way but yet we still far behind / So uplift the mind, God rise and shine.”
Finishing strong with yet another self-produced banger, “The Cause” is a masterclass in both rhyme writing and production. The beat builds quickly and is like a ticking time bomb that layers in numerous guitar riffs and distorted, speaker-shaking bass licks. Joined on the track again by Streetlife, Deck ends this opus reminding listeners — or any would-be challengers — exactly why he’s one of the chosen few, rhyming “Recognize my name: INS, your highness / I rep for live sets, place ya bets, make ya threats / There’s no cure, even the experts are stunned / My work is done as soon as I’ve just begun.”
While Uncontrolled Substance certainly came out far later than originally planned and subsequently slid under the radar of many, it still stands out as a solid and foundational beginning for Inspectah Deck’s solo career, which has only continued to grow — including many more solo albums as well as the creation of the supergroup known as Czarface.
Uncontrolled Substance delivers on all levels and showcases how the highly analytical MC can shine not only lyrically but also as a beat producer, and as the maestro who ultimately made it all come together when others might have given up. Whether this is your first listen or you’re just pulling the album back out again, Uncontrolled Substance will remind you why Inspectah Deck deserves all of your respect.
Steven Potter is a reporter and writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. On entertainment writing, his professional experience — and personal preference — leans strongly toward rap and hip-hop culture. He attributes his love for the genre to the first album he was ever given when he was just six years old. It was a mixtape where one side was the finest breakdancing beats of the mid-1980s and the other side featured some unknown MC rapping breakdancing instructions. He still owns this tape.
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