Yesterday, iconic rap collective Wu-Tang Clan announced, in Forbes of all places, that they’d be releasing only one copy of their new album, The Wu — Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. That one copy could fetch up to multiple millions of dollars, a price tag reflected as much by the LP’s container as by its rarity: it comes in an engraved silver-and-nickel box that took three months to carve. As Wu member RZA eloquently phrased it, “This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” Now, this might sound like Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape strategy on steroids, or another example of hip hop as pop culture’s most financially aspirational artform. But it’s not, because the millions this double album will fetch are not nearly as interesting as what Wu-Tang Clan will do with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin before it heads to auction.
The album, crafted in secret for six years, will make the rounds at establishments not often home to artifacts of hip hop culture: art museums and galleries all around the world. The admission price to hear the album will likely range from $30-$50, and the high-art establishments are likely to include London’s Tate Modern, one of the most influential collections of modern art in existence. Listeners will be placed in high-security environments to avoid piracy and provided with headphones to listen to Shaolin‘s 31 songs right then and there: all 128 minutes of it alongside, presumably, other Wu fans making pilgrimages. There’s also talk of these Shaolin listenings making the rounds at music festivals, where I am certain they’d be far less appreciated simply due to the sample-platter culture of outdoor fests.
Shaolin is described as encapsulating “the Clan’s legendary dark funk and avant garde sound and is produced in the original Wu Tang style of the ’90s.” (Additionally, Wu-Tang will supposedly release the long-in-the-works 20th-anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, later this year through more traditional means.)
“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” RZA told Forbes. “And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”
There have been a number of high-profile flirtations between hip hop and high art, most recently involving Jay Z and Kanye West. But the former’s concept of gallery rap — in the form of a six-hour repeat of his “Picasso Baby” at a Chelsea gallery in front of the likes of Marina Abramovic — is far more publicity stunt than artistic revolution. What Wu-Tang is proposing has the power to bring the physical back to music, and I don’t even mean the product itself.
I mean “physical” as in the requirement of being present, taking action beyond a few keystrokes to hear the art. This is experiencing music, not hearing it. It’s a big part of what’s missing in music culture at a time when our most popular forms of musical communion — outdoor festivals — are so widespread, and also so saturated by a demographic more interested in digitally chronicling the adventure than actually living it.
Similarly, Wu-Tang’s Shaolin museum listenings will be communal — but sans the selfies, Instas, and livetweets, at least for the two-and-a-bit hours the album spans. The reason, of course, is to prevent the album from leaking. But the side effect may be that it forces listeners to confront the negative side effects of digital music culture, and reevaluate the ideal setting for experiencing art.