In the new book “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin: The Untold Story of Wu-Tang Clan’s Million Dollar Secret Album, The Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1,” author Cyrus Bozorgmehr documents the story of how a long-anticipated album by hip hop superstars Wu-Tang Clan ended up as a secretive single-release item sold for $2 million to much-maligned businessman Martin Shkreli.
As Wu-Tang leader RZA described it in 2014 on Twitter during the album’s production, “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”
The tale begins in 2007, with self-proclaimed “ideas consultant/business advisor” Bozorgmehr meeting up with Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh in Morocco at an art event. The story unfolds as an adventure and a mystery, involving a shadowy financial backer known only as “Mr. S.,” secretive recording sessions with guests artists including Cher, an intricate metal case designed and crafted by a famous Moroccan artist, legendary auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, an interrogation by Homeland Security at JFK International Airport, a lost laptop containing the sole copy of the album’s 15 minute preview, an exhibition at Long Island’s MoMA PS1, an eccentric millionaire, plans for a heist involving actor Bill Murray, and so much more.
“We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” RZA of Wu-Tang Clan
East Coast Hip Hop artistsThe Wu-Tang Clan launched their careers in 1993 with “Enter the Wu-Tang Clan, (36 Chambers)” a platinum selling disc that features innovative use of samples and film audio clips, swaggering raps of producer RZA, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Raekwon, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (RIP) and others over hip hop beats and state of the art production featuring the groundbreaking AKAI MPC sampler/ audio controller, along with social awareness, lots of humor amidst the macho braggadocio, and an affection for Eastern mysticism in the form of China’s legendary Shaolin Kung Fu Monks.
The brand-new secret album, titled “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin” is said to hearken back to these classic days of the Clan. Bozorgmehr writes: “The album was a testament to the classic Wu sound, a journey back into the chambers, through raw, jagged beats and a dark, stripped-back, liquid funk.”
Throughout the creation of the album, which spread out over five years, and during the auction process, secrecy was crucial to maintaining the exclusivity of the single issue album. Bozorgmehr writes: “Only two people had ever heard the album in its entirety, RZA and Cilvaringz. Not even the mixing or mastering engineers. The Clan had all heard the segments they were individually involved in. And me? Well, with a mixture of purity, integrity, and breathtaking hypocrisy, I simply didn’t want to hear it. Which saved RZA and Cilvaringz from having to lie about only two people ever having listened to it when a third had actually gotten ears on the whole thing.”
“Only two people had ever heard the album in its entirety, RZA and Cilvaringz. Not even the mixing or mastering engineers. ” Cyrus Bozorgmehr
In the end, the two CD set, more than two hours of music across 31 tracks, packaged in three ornate nesting metal boxes, a leather case, and a 172 page booklet printed on parchment, was sold in December 2015 to Shkreli for $2 million, in a deal brokered by up and coming cyber-savvy auction house Paddle8. As a condition of the sale, an 88 year moratorium on releasing the music commercially was agreed to.
One could argue that this is an elitist experiment by wealthy rappers. Yet from the very beginning, the project had a lofty purpose – to raise questions about the value of art in an age when digital media, YouTube and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have made it possible for millions of musical artists to share their work, while paradoxically making it more difficult than ever for up and coming acts to get heard due to competition. Not to mention the questionable nature of the corporate sponsorship of music, for example Jay Z’s partnership with Samsung or U2’s controversial venture with Apple on the release of “Songs of Innocence.”
As Bozorgmehr put it, in light of the sale to Shkreli, “Maybe this was the ultimate artistic statement. If we don’t support musicians as a society and all contribute to its sustainability, then it will end up in the hands of the most ruthless capitalists out there. There was a certain poetry to it. This had been an experiment in social dynamics, after all, and experiments didn’t have a right answer. Yes. The press would buy that on the day I miraculously became slim and attractive.”
“Maybe this was the ultimate artistic statement. If we don’t support musicians as a society and all contribute to its sustainability, then it will end up in the hands of the most ruthless capitalists out there. There was a certain poetry to it” Cyrus Bozorgmehr
It’s a good read; Bozorgmehr is the perfect tale bearer, a somewhat edgy persona, who having been there from the conception of the project, witnessed it all. One wonders how he and the Wu-Tang Clan will top this adventure. And with the album, still unheard except for one track, up for sale by Shrkeli on EBay (the auction ends on Sept. 15 and has a current bid of $1,001,500), one wonders when it will be heard.
Thanks to Steven Boriack at Flatiron books for the review copy.