Three Decades On From Wu-Tang’s ‘36 Chambers’, Inspectah Deck’s Seen It All

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The Wu-Tang Clan kicked in the doors of the music industry with one of the best debut albums of all time. In the 30 years since, they haven’t stopped bringing the ruckus.

The arrival of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993 is a landmark moment in rap history. The menacing first album from the Staten Island crew tornado-kicked East Coast gangster rap into its next iteration. The Wu-Tang Clan was unlike anything rap had seen before or have seen since: nine of the hungriest emcees to ever grip a microphone, furiously spitting cyphers over dusty drums, steely production, and grainy samples ripped from martial arts films.  

In the time since 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang Clan’s influence has only grown. They’ve survived five US Presidents and lived through seven Olympic Games, witnessing rappers they inspired grow into luminaries in their own right.

Inspectah Deck saw it all. A formative member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the razor-sharp Deck is all 36 Chambers, from his propulsive opening verse on ‘Protect Ya Neck’ to his crushing closer on the group’s most popular track, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ He looks back at the decades-spanning journey of the Clan as a “blessing”.

“I remember jumping around when I was 20 years old with a bunch of 19, 20-year-olds,” he says. “Now, I’m 50, and there’s 19 and 20-year-olds jumping around at our shows, still.”

“That’s amazing, to still be here and have that effect … especially with people who weren’t really around when we first came out.”

“Tonight, we’re going to have a whole bunch of young kids coming through and, whether they know it or not, they want the nostalgia, they want to be part of something.” 

Inspectah Deck is speaking from Sydney, hours before the Wu-Tang Clan take the stage for the NY State of Mind Tour alongside Nas at the Qudos Bank Arena. Almost all of the Clan have joined him on this leg, with Method Man and Young Dirty Bastard (the son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard) the only absentees.

“Tonight, we’re going to have a whole bunch of young kids coming through and, whether they know it or not, they want the nostalgia, they want to be part of something,” he says.

Inspectah Deck is, by his own admission, not the most flamboyant member of the posse (few can be when their peers are Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man) but his consistently brilliant verses became a calling card. 

“Sometimes I hear lyrics from ’97, ’98, ’99, young me … and I flash back and I see at what point my life was,” he says.

“Just the growing pains, the learning experiences, you know? Like, man, when I said this rhyme in ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, I was actually coming from jail.” The verse, drawing upon Deck’s experience in prison at 15, is a sobering look at the judicial system and among the first rap songs to explicitly address mental health. 

The enduring appeal of the Wu-Tang Clan, even among people who weren’t born when 36 Chambers blew up, speaks not only to the musical legacy of the group, but their enormous pop cultural footprint. The Wu-Tang empire has grown beyond what even RZA envisaged when he first brought the Clan together: seven group albums, dozens of auxiliary projects, a few books, and a logo as ubiquitous as the Nike swoosh and Mercedes-Benz star.

The Wu-Tang Clan have also launched a clothing line, starred in a video gameand amassed a stack of film credits, separate to the hit TV series based on the group’s real-life story. Just this week, their influence was front of mind as A$AP Rocky confirmed that he and Rihanna’s first born was named RZA. 

“That’s crazy, man. I wish Rihanna named her son Inspectah, you know?” Deck jokes. “That’s a testament to what we’re talking about right now, the impact that we’ve had over this time that somebody like Rihanna — as big as she is — would name their child after one of us.”

Wu-Tang haven’t just stayed relevant, they’ve stayed together. Over 30 years, they’ve never broken up, never had anyone quit the group and even maintained a relatively steady release schedule. Inspectah Deck chalks the stability up to a “respect for each other that goes unsaid.”

“We don’t disrespect each other verbally, we don’t put our hands on each other,” he stresses. “Sometimes, your brother gets on your nerves, you don’t speak to him for three days, that’s what family does … we’ve done this together from day one when there was no money.” 

The group’s ubiquity gives them a connective link to practically every rapper who came after them, but some haven’t always welcomed the comparisons. Years back, a brash 19-year-old Tyler, the Creator fresh off going viral for eating a cockroach in a music video, began to bristle at the unrelenting comparisons between his Odd Future collective and the Wu-Tang Clan. 

“I don’t even fucking listen to Wu-Tang,” he told SPIN in 2011. “I want to be compared to shit I listen to.”

Some might’ve expected a violent response from a group who once warned “never ever disrespect [our] crew”, but they instead sought out Tyler during a stop in Europe and cleared the air over the Odd Future comparisons.

“That was just us telling them, ‘Ay, we understand y’all. We understand what’s going on. Y’all remind us of us’. I don’t know how he took it, you know, Tyler’s Tyler,” Deck says.

“He’s a good dude and we just wanted to wish them well … because where they’re going, we’ve been there. And look at them now, he’s still on top of the game.” 

Inspectah Deck’s retelling feels like it’s coming from someone other than a man who once dubbed himself “Mr. Violence”. 

However, keeping a positive frame of mind has helped Inspectah Deck over a career that has been beset with moments of misfortune. In 1995, his first solo album was lost in a studio flood, a project RZA is adamant would’ve been a classic on par with the group’s best. The following year, Deck had a guest verse on 2Pac’s Diamond-selling All Eyez On Me album yanked so late that his ad-libs linger on the final cut (the reasons for its removal are still disputed). 

Inspectah Deck would rebound in 1997 with a virtuosic opening salvo on ‘Triumph’, the only Wu-Tang Clan song to feature every member. Widely regarded as one of the greatest rap verses ever committed to wax, Deck opens with the iconic bars “I bomb atomically/Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses” before uncorking a breathtaking chain of rhymes that don’t let up for 45 ferocious seconds.

Deck says he wrote the verse after a college tour after noticing a difference between the language he heard on campuses and what he’d hear on the streets. “I was talking to a lot of college people at that time. For me, I was listening to vocabulary,” he says. 

“I was listening to how people talked. I’d heard somebody had said something like, atomic bombs and Socrates, and this was all in one conversation. I drew from that conversation one day, and I was like, ‘I bomb atomically’ and then Socrates, philosophies, and everything started following.”

The verse had first appeared on a cypher for DJ Tony Touch, but RZA liked the bars so much that he implored Inspectah Deck to get permission to reuse them for a Wu-Tang project. Once Touch gave his blessing, Deck recorded the verse at 4am with RZA while the rest of the Clan slept.

“They woke up to hear that verse. They were like, ‘what the fuck is that?’” he says. 

“Just one by one, everybody started trickling in the studio and started getting like, ‘I want on that one’ and started adding verses. That was actually a cool one, I got to watch that one from start to finish.”

The song is, well, a triumph: a friendly showdown between 10 of the fiercest rhymers of their era, with entire Wu-Tang Clan trying to follow the blazing lead of Inspectah Deck.

Reece Hooker is a Melbourne-based writer who can sometimes be found on Twitter and Instagram.

Image credit: Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, Showtime