Category Archives: AMERICAN ELECTRONIC MUSIC

Cyrus Bozorgmehr Talks Wu-Tang Clan, The Devaluation Of Music, And CounterCultural Idealism: Q and A

After leaving school at an early age, British-born DJ/ business consultant/author Cyrus Bozorgmehr traveled Europe as part of a musical collective staging rave concerts. These experiences, plus two decades negotiating projects in the business and art worlds, prepared him for a key role  in the conception, financing and sale of Wu-Tang’s controversial album “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin,” the secret, never-heard single-issue CD set. The album, nine years in the making, packaged in a finely crafted metal and mahogany box with a 174-page parchment book, sold in 2015 for $2 million dollars to notorious businessman Martin Shkreli, who turned around and put it up for sale on eBay this summer. I spoke with Cyrus via Skype from his home in Marrakech, Morocco about his adventures and his new book “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin: The Untold Story of The Wu -Tang Clan’s Million Dollar Secret Album, The Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy Number 1.

How’s everything in Morocco over there? Cyrus: “It’s all pretty fluid to be honest, because I’m kind of self-employed, so it can vary. It can be anything from watching the latest [controversies] from Donald Trump’s America to actually doing some work.”

So what in your background prepared you for this adventure with the Wu-Tang Clan? Cyrus: “ I left school at 16, never went to college, anything like that. I ended up quite heavily into the illegal rave culture for about 10 years and I kind of traveled around Europe doing huge warehouse raves and festivals, they were all for free. All very kind of idealistic at the time and countercultural. Weirdly, I did have, should we say, a fairly privileged upbringing, in the sense that my parents had lost all their money but we still had good connections. So those times that I would occasionally pop out to London and need to work I was lucky enough not to go and work in like Burger King, but I was lucky enough to get into opportunities like commodity broking, to working in a P.R. firm. I just kind of had these weird things. And one of the guys I met, when I was like 21, nearly 20 years ago, was the guy who invested in this.

Mr. S.?  Cyrus: “Yeah, I know that this comes across awfully mysterious, he just didn’t want his name in this. I’ve occasionally done bits and pieces for him, where the idea that he was investing in didn’t fit any obvious business thing and had more of a kind of creative, music world, art worldly type bent. I’d done maybe six things for him. This was like the biggest, and I went fully native on this one, in the sense that it didn’t take long for me to stop feeling like I was really representing anyone. And just like being in the trenches with the other two guys. So it kind of evolved like that.”

wu tang clan shaolin author
Author Cyrus Bozorgmehr (c) Shotaway

So it all started when you met Cilvaringz at an art event in Morocco?  Cyrus: “Cilvaringz, somehow, it was so weird, we met — Marrakech is not a big town, you know what I mean. It’s not the town that you would expect –I don’t think that I’ve ever been involved in a project internationally with somebody who ended up being from Marrakech as well.”

I just didn’t buy him at all. Literally, He was looking all preppy, you’re in a Moroccan villa, and some guy..the thing is, you meet your fair share of hustlers here..both local and expats. Like the expat community here is full of people with a big, very difficult to prove story. I put him straight into this category.”

You didn’t believe him at first, you thought he was just a guy with a story. Turns out he was really affiliated with the Wu-Tang Clan. Cyrus: “Yeah, totally, I just didn’t buy him at all. Literally. He was looking all preppy, you’re in a Moroccan villa, and some guy…the thing is, you meet your fair share of hustlers here..both local and expats. Like the expat community here is full of people with a big, very-difficult-to-prove story. I put him straight into this category.”

Back to the ’90s for a minute. In what capacity were you doing the raves? Cyrus: “We were very much a collective, I grew up with a collective called Spiral Tribe in the UK, so basically there were about 13 of us, everything from sound technicians to lighting guys. We had a mobile studio, releasing records and playing live electronic music, back in the days when it didn’t all go through a computer. You were playing a mixing desk. It was great. I used to love it . I used to have a Mackie 16 channel mixing desk, drum machines, synths, early samplers, the first Akai MPC that came out, all of that. We basically used to travel around, you basically break into a warehouse and fill it with three or four thousand people. And just do it till the cops came.”

Maybe this is why you resonated so well with this project designed to put an emphasis on the devaluation of music. RZA said he really believed that they were making something that would be like a Picasso or the Mona Lisa. Cyrus: “I mean, I’m slightly more skeptical than that. I wouldn’t go that far, I’d hesitate to compare it to a Picasso or something like that myself, but I do think it was a really important symbolic point….weirdly enough, my experience in the illegal rave scene informed a lot of my opinions on this. We had this very idealistic creed, no one payed, there was a donations bucket on the door, it wasn’t about profit, and actually, over the space of about 10 years, I saw that get very badly abused. Where you were then judged – the more you gave away for free, the less people valued it. The more they just kind of expected you to – if you went a played a club gig to supplement your income, you were somehow a sellout. People … didn’t want to pay five bucks to support the people who were doing this. So a lot of this informed how I felt about this.”

“I’d hesitate to compare it to a Picasso or something like that myself, but I do think it was a really important symbolic point….weirdly enough, my experience in the illegal rave scene informed a lot of my opinions on this.”  

The concept is partly about the lack of economic structure for musicians and artists. Cyrus: “And just the weird psychology that when something’s free, people stop valuing it. They don’t think, ‘oh wow, this is free, that’s really nice of them. This is great, I’m really going to appreciate this.’ It somehow erodes the kind of value you put on that. In an experiential way. Which is really weird.”

What became of the rave scene and your involvement in that? Cyrus: “I never made the transition to computers.  I had a Novation Bass Station, one of the early [Korg] Electribe synths, a Digitech Quad effects unit, an Akai MPC, a Boss 660, that kind of stuff. But after that to be honest, the difference was I think, production quality became as important as musical quality. And that’s when, in the ’90s, especially with dance music, you didn’t compress every last snare and high hat, you just got on with it…My relatively recent stuff is mostly DJ stuff [under the moniker ‘Sirius’], because I never really got properly back into the production.”

“And if you look at the way Martin behaved with us, he never screwed us once. He always kept his word. Meanwhile, he’s doing things that I find morally outrageous, and that’s a real dichotomy. A real dichotomy.”

One of the many things I liked about the book, is when you characterize people, even Martin Shkreli, you humanize him, you changed the way I felt about him. I actually felt sorry for him. Cyrus: “It was really weird, I’ve often found this. It’s one of those things I think that when you grow older, you accept more and more that nothing’s black and white. When I was 25, I saw things very much in binary terms. Things were good, or they were bad, or these guys, it was us and them, it was all of that. It was also the fact that we were tied in with him. We did sign this contract, and we were going to have to work with him. No matter how much of a clusterf**k was playing out. And like so many situations, when you’re looking at someone in the eyes, and you meet them personally, generally it doesn’t completely gel with either their public perception or even their actions. It’s one of those really weird things. And if you look at the way Martin behaved with us, he never screwed us once. He always kept his word. Meanwhile, he’s doing things that I find morally outrageous, and that’s a real dichotomy. A real dichotomy. But equally, I found a lot of his conduct pretty similar to what a lot of other pharmacy companies were doing, but they were just a lot more discreet about it. And I think there was a lot of hypocrisy there, matched only by his desire, you know, to become the poster boy for it.”

“It’s really weird, I had more empathy for him, cause I wrote the book, very shortly, at the end of 2015, I think that’s why it comes across that way. I’ve had a lot of criticism, ‘this isn’t journalism,’ but I’m not pretending it was. This is a memoir. And so it is emotional, it is skewed, it is a perspective, I’m not pretending to analyze this from every possible side and being really objective. It’s kind of a story that I would tell my friends over three bottles of wine sort of thing.”

Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.”

You had this experiment to see what would happen to the album if it was a priceless single copy release. How does the sale by Shkreli on eBay in September change the outcome of the experiment, or validate or dis-validate it? Cyrus: “It’s a really weird one. I think there’s several things. One, I guess the fact that there’s people out there paying money for it still — seven figures for it, I guess that’s a validation. It was always going to be an open question especially with Martin Shkreli as a buyer whether this had any resale value at all. Or whether this was just going to be kind of ‘oh this is in the news, I’m going to buy this,’ but as for reselling it as a piece of art, it will retain investment value, that wasn’t sure at all. I’m not sure what’s happened around this sale, because he went to prison the day before the thing expired, I mean that was just drama you couldn’t script. I think now the people who won the auction are wondering what the f**k’s going on.”

“…. it kind of went from high culture to popular culture. And I think the eBay thing ties into that. I quite enjoyed seeing that happen. It was like another random twist to this whole thing.”

Did the eBay sale cheapen the mystique? You guys started out talking to Sotheby’s, and Christie’s and it ends up on eBay? Cyrus: “I think it would have done, when we were doing it. We were using a set of symbols that were making a point. I think now that Martin’s got it, the whole thing’s gone so bizarrely tabloid anyway, that in a weird way, what I liked about it, something I say near the end of the book is that it came out of our very tightly controlled shaping of this concept, and then once it got sold and suddenly there’s memes, and fake Bill Murray hoax clauses, and all kinds of crazy sh*t, and Martin Shkreli’s calling people out, it kind of went from high culture to popular culture. And I think the eBay thing ties into that. I quite enjoyed seeing that happen. It was like another random twist to this whole thing. Yeah, I was alright with it. I don’t think it always needs to be with those high end mahogany hallmarks, it’s almost like it’s into a new phase now.”

In your book, you compare selling the album to an Edenic loss of innocence. How did that play out? Cyrus: “It’s a really weird one. It’s a strained metaphor again. There was conflict around this album. Not everyone was happy that performed on it. How it panned out. I can’t pretend that it was paradise from the beginning, it definitely did the transition from our high ideals sort of thing, which probably did need a certain amount of piercing, I think that’s fair, just going from that, to when this was all just an idea, and an idealistic one, to like the poster boy for the evils of capitalism getting involved and this almost anyone who’d been skeptical about this project from the start suddenly just had it all reinforced by the fact ‘of course a complete @^$% bought it, who else did you think was going to buy it?’ There was a lot of that.”

What’s your role on the album? Cyrus: “I play a spoken word thing, a very short segment, pretending to be a news reporter. It was like a news report with sound effects in the background and stuff.”

Along the way, there were a lot of lucky breaks and saves, especially around the airport at JFK and stuff. Was the whole project blessed in a way – you just told me that it wasn’t perfect, but the Wu-Tang Clan must be really lucky in a way, that things seemed to come together for them. Cyrus: “Yeah, it was an interesting one, a lot of people think that the Wu-Tang Clan, all of this, it’s like a great big commune, it’s not really. They performed on the album, RZA has always basically decided how things get marketed, sold, he controls the name, etc. So there were almost two phases to this. There was the production of the album, which I didn’t have much to do with. Then there was the conceptual side. From ‘should we do a single copy?’ to how this was actually going to work. And I think a lot of the other members of the Clan left it up to RZA and Cilvaringz and then by extension me, to kind of handle this, but they hadn’t fully signed on for all the blowback. I think in one way it’s been great publicity for the Wu-Tang Clan, if nothing else — it’s been straight on the cultural icon map since the story came out. But I think a lot of them kind of felt, slightly, that they’d been associated with someone or something that they didn’t want to be, that they didn’t really get consulted on toward the end, do you see what I mean?”

Everyone got paid what they asked; if the thing hadn’t sold, everyone would have still been paid, and the only ones out of pocket would have been RZA and Cilvaringz. There is an element of ‘who takes the risk?’ involved.”

There have been recent rumors that it’s actually a Cilvaringz album. Is that accurate in any way? Cyrus: “To be honest, that’s just utterly sensational journalism. If by that, they mean that Cilvaringz produced the album, well then yeah. That was never any secret. If they mean by that, did they know at the beginning, no one said ‘guys, we’re going to sit down and make a Wu-Tang Album,’ that’s not how it happened – it evolved. And I mentioned that. It’s a production thing. All of the Wu-Tang Clan are on the album. It is a Wu-Tang artist album.”

Did Mr. S. get his money back? How much did he invest? Cyrus:Yeah, he did! He got his money back, plus a profit share. This is the other thing that everyone likes to say. In that Bloomberg article they were making a point. They had implied that RZA and Cilvaringz kind of wandered off into the sunset with a cool two million dollars. And that’s just not the reality of it. It cost several hundred thousand to make, Mr. S. didn’t come cheap, his profit margin was significant, there was money given to charity, there was money given to the guy that introduced Cilvaringz to Mr. S, there was money given to me. There was no two million dollar payday, you know what I mean. These guys, the Bloomberg journalists, I was quite disappointed in the way they’d done it….Everyone got paid what they asked; if the thing hadn’t sold, everyone would have still been paid, and the only ones out of pocket would have been RZA and Cilvaringz. There is an element of ‘who takes the risk?’ involved.”

Can you tell me any other guest stars on the album besides Cher?Cyrus: “The Red Woman [Carice van Houten] from Game of Thrones, Barcelona Soccer Players, again it was just one of those totally organic things. The Barcelona Football Team, Soccer Team happened to be backstage at a concert, and it wasn’t like a list of let’s get all these people on as guest stars, it kind of happened organically.”

Can you tell me a funny story that didn’t make the book? Cyrus: “I kind of put it all in – funny stories were kind of factored in as part of the book.”

So how do you top this adventure? Cyrus: “I haven’t got a clue, I swear. I ended up writing The Syndicate because I had kind of the post-Shaolin blues. This happened and got sold, and I wrote a book, then I got a publishing deal, but then there was like a year and a bit of just waiting. And I got really depressed in that period and wrote another book, and you know, my other project’s pretty good, my other main project is company called Arcadia, we’ve got a 50 ton fire-breathing spider built out of recycled military hardware with a kind of Cirque De Soleil style performance show. 50 foot fireballs, lasers, lights, a 360 degree sound field, if you Google ‘Arcadia Glastonbury,’ you’ll see what I’m talking about. We do Miami Ultra every year. It’s like a stage/sculpture/installation.”

Fifty Ton Spider at Cyrus Bozorgmehr’s “Arcadia”

To find out more about Arcadia, click here http://www.arcadiaspectacular.com/events

Can you tell me about  your novel The Syndicate? It’s about this philosophical anarchism that you hint at in the Wu-Tang book?Cyrus: “Yeah, it’s very much like that. I guess that I took an idealistic version of the illegal rave scene in the UK in the early ‘90s. which was very much counterculture, it was very much kind of about kind of revolutionary political models, about taking back public space, and anti-corporate and all of that, and it was a very idealistic movement that kind of managed to self-destruct over time. And I kind of noticed, that this idea was the exact mirror of the early development of the internet– that was this kind of radical, decentralized, open source kind of space, where no one was charged, there was no guiding hand, and this was supposed to be this new liberating paradigm. It kind of half is, and it half isn’t, so yeah, it’s just an exploration of those two things, with plenty of humor and that kind of thing.”

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Thanks to Cyrus, and to Steven Boriack at Flatiron Books for setting this up!

 

“Once Upon A Time In Shaolin”: Wu-Tang Clan Partner Recounts Adventurous Creation and Sale Of History’s Most Secret Album

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 174 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.

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Thanks to Steven Boriack at Flatiron books for the review copy.

Get it at:  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,” at Amazon.com

 

Synthpop Diva Stacey Q Goes Hawaiian On Enchanting New Duet With Scott Larson

Fans of classic ’80s electronic music know Stacey Q for her charming pop hits “Two of Hearts” and “We Connect.” Yet there’s another side to Ms. Q:  Her 1997 release “Boomerang” features backing by a standard rock band, playing a mix of rock, folk and pop . (It’s a great disc, and rare — you can find one on eBay if you’re lucky.)

Fast forward to 2016: Stacey’s love for acoustic music has led to recording sessions with her longtime pal and former flame Scott Larson. The latest is the sweet and lovely “You Are Hawaii To Me,” an enchanting island getaway that’s perfect for lovers of mellow pop and classic rock — and fans of Stacey Q, of course. Four songs by Larson and Q are available for download on iTunes and Google Play. Check ’em out!

 

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