"I was never concerned with being no star or selling all types of millions of records. I never had goals of chasing that," Deck says from his home in New York City.
"I think maybe I should have been more focal — more focused, vocal and forward about my shit. I was the dude that didn't play the front of the cameras all the time. I wasn't the one mouthing off in the interviews all the time. I coulda extorted that a little more but ... I never peaked.
"I could come with the illest album you've ever heard tomorrow," he goes on, "and people would be — 'He's a new dude. Oh that's the dude from Wu.'"
If Inspectah Deck (born Jason Hunter) doesn't have the profile of Method Man, he's hardly been invisible. Deck held down verses on early Wu classics, such as "Protect Ya Neck" and "C.R.E.A.M."; he delivered the explosive opening to "Triumph" and arranged the ominous, piano-driven "Visionz." He's also appeared on solo albums by his fellow Wu-sters. But his own career has been disappointing.
It started strongly, if belatedly, with Uncontrolled Substance in 1999. With uplifting tracks such as "Elevation" and "Show and Prove," the album suggested that Deck might be the deepest member of the group. His crisp, efficient flow isn't flashy, but it packs a righteous, rhetorical wallop. Some of the tracks were finished as much as two years before the release, which was delayed several times.
With Clan projects W and Iron Flag following in 2001 and 2002, Deck didn't return with another solo joint until 2003's The Movement, which railed against commercial rap radio, but got zero push from Koch Records. It sold miserably.
"Being with Wu-Tang has always been a big break for me — that saved my life," says Deck. "But as far as Inspector Deck the individual, he has yet to shine. Uncontrolled Substance went gold and then The Movement sold 110 thousand copies. It was a disappointment, because a lot of people don't know it's out there. But it's a good album, it's a show album. I look at it like that. I perform it at shows and cats are loving it."
He bemoans the state of commercial rap, where producing just one single costs more than a million dollars between shooting the video and promoting the thing. Deck's next album, The Rebellion, is scheduled for a fall release on his own label, Urban Icon Records. He knows there's no way he can compete with the big boys. He's reconciled himself to being consigned to the hip-hop underground, despite his Wu pedigree.
"Dudes don't respect music in this business, because if they did they wouldn't do what they do. You know, it's all about a check," he says. "I appreciate my fans, because I've earned them. I didn't have a major label forcing my shit in your face all day. I gave them something to be a fan about."
Deck cites Talib Kweli as a rapper who would be a platinum-selling artist in a perfect world. Instead, the big money-makers are generally third-rate corporate whores.
"It's not even about rap anymore, its about the millions of dollars that rap is creating for everything else," Deck says. "And when you have people putting millions of dollars behind you, hell yeah, you better do like masta say. Everybody says the thug thing is in; it's like everybody wants to keep it real and be from the street. But niggas in the street ain't buying the records. It's suburbia and females. It's little 12-year-old, 13-, 14-year-old up to 18-year-old white kids.
"It's deep, because they live the sheltered life and they want to know the life that we're living, but they don't really want to know what it's like," he continues. "It's the Hollywood version of a thug. But the real version of a thug, you don't want that dude to be in your office. And you certainly don't want to trust that dude with hundreds of thousands."
Deck knows the streets, the life of a hustler. He went to jail. Had he not met RZA one fateful afternoon, Deck might not be alive today. But he also knows that stories like his are not special or unique in rap. What's special is that Inspectah Deck hasn't let his fortune go to his head.
"I'm not just a rapper. I don't just do the songs and then I'm out," he says. "I talk to the people. I don't care if it's 200 people in the joint, I'm gonna to blast their head ... sign autographs, shoot pics, smoke a blunt with them. I'm one of those cats, I'm not into trying to be a superstar."
With a sensibility like that of Jurassic 5 or Dilated Peoples, you might consider Inspectah Deck the Native Tongues entrant in the Wu clan, working the knowledge tip in the background. Deck's like Peter Falk's Columbo character, his keen eye hidden behind an everyman's wink.
Inspectah Deck and Afu-Ra & Planet Asia perform at Amos' Southend on Wednesday, June 8, at 8pm. Tickets are $12 at the door.