The new and possibly final Wu-Tang album is more than two hours long. It features 31 tracks, all eight living MCs, most if not all Wu-Tang affiliates (Sunz of Man, Redman, Cher), sirens, bombs, samples from kung fu cinema, and original skits. And it took more than two years to produce, mostly because eighty percent of its vocals were re-recorded to capture the intensity of early Wu-Tang records. The album’s title: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
Here is some additional info: the CD is housed within two nickel-silver boxes that were hand-carved by a Moroccan artist and his team of ten workers over three months; there is only one physical copy of the album in existence; all digital versions have been destroyed; and bidding starts at $5 million. And we learned yesterday that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin will remain under copyright until 2103 — that’s 88 years.
So if you didn’t happen to be at MoMA PS1 last evening — among a smattering of journalists, high-bidders, and Power 105 contest winners — you will likely never experience the entire album, or even the 13-minute sample heard by Flavorwire. Unless, that is, Shaolin’s future owner decides to distribute it for free — an unlikely scenario.
“The irony of it is that we did it for the fans,” said the album’s producer, Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, who is himself a Wu-Tang superfan. He infamously dogged RZA so persistently that he became — loosely, controversially — a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
I was thinking of Wu-Tang’s fans as I arrived at MoMA PS1 several minutes late. I had been told in advance that no recording devices would be allowed in the museum, including computers or phones. This of course meant a long line, but it gave me an opportunity to see who would be attending this once in a lifetime exhibition. I saw Ebro Darden (the programming director of Hot 97), Jace Clayton (DJ Rupture), a handful of familiar faces from the art world, and a gaggle of confused “fans” who had won tickets from Power 105. Invariably, intensely, hilariously: the radio fans smelled like booze. And one of them inexplicably mispronounced RZA, “R.Z.A.”
After being ushered through security, the audience filed into PS1’s weird courtyard tent-dome, with its semi-curved, quasi-IMAX screen, projected onto which were close-up images of the nickel-silver box, a contract, a chess set, and a red wax seal. I felt conflicted; the aura was weird. Certainly I endorse rap’s claim to art, but I often wonder why they want to perform this claim in the institutions of the art world. This fragile union of cross-cultural interest reminded me of Jay Z’s performance with Marina Abramovic — which I saw live and hated — only this was less embarrassing. I surveyed the event and thought of Joey Bada$$’s recent line: “Cash ruins everything around me.”
Following a brief introduction wherein curator Jenny Schlenzka — heavily pregnant with a thick European accent — referred to RZA more than once as “Rizzor,” a tall posh British man in a burgundy suit began shouting indiscriminately into the microphone. He was a representative of Paddle8, the online auction house responsible for selling the album, and he let us know that this moment would be “anchored forever in the realms of fine art.” Schlenzka returned to inform us that we are “very privileged” to hear the first, last, and only “public” listening session of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
RZA — or R.Z.A., or Rizzor — stepped onstage, introduced himself as the abbot of Wu-Tang. He spoke about “entitlement” and suggested that younger listeners feel “entitled to music.” He hoped the aura and rarity associated with a one-off, $5 million dollar record would “change the perception of both art and music” and “provide a seal to [Wu-Tang’s] musical legacy.”
“Things have value when they are rare,” RZA explained. “Artists are rare people in our world.”
“Maybe,” I thought. “But I could throw a rock and hit one in this audience right now.” Where were the actual Wu-Tang fans?
When Cilvaringz took the mic, he told a story about the album’s genesis in a private visit he made with RZA to the Pyramids of Giza. “Halfway up the Great Pyramid Cheops,” he said, “while contemplating the Three Age of Man,” they conceived of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. It would “sonically travel back to the 36 chambers.”
Then the music began. Explosions. A voice from nowhere, ex nihilo: “It’s time to shoot back down to the 36 Chambers of Death!”
At first it was impossible to tell whether Shaolin featured radical, Yeezus-like shifts in time signature or if it was just an effect of the sampler. It was the sampler. But Ghostface and Raekwon sounded amazing. Method Man did, too, if slightly less so. Shaolin was surprisingly good. As I half-watched a bald white guy bang his head, a sense of gloom came over me. The sampler was coming to an end. And there it was: Shaolin was lost to history.
Afterward, RZA and Cilvaringz spoke with Genius executive editor Sasha Frere-Jones, who kept it light. He mentioned, knowingly, that he could have sworn he heard Cher on the record. “Cher’s on it twice!” RZA said, enamored. “She’s like Sade! Who made that woman! She’s a one-shot deal. That’s Cher. She replaced [Ol’] Dirty [Bastard].”
RZA called the album a time capsule. He referred to its cover as “the illest album cover in the history of music,” which may be true. He admitted that he was “envious” of the future owner and that he thought of placing a bid himself. Then he wondered whether Richard Branson would fly the album into space. “That’d be crazy, right!”
But the man who once called himself “Bobby Digital” also waxed about the importance of a physical object, one that won’t be released commercially, to the public, for at least 88 years.
“I wanted it to come back in the next century,” RZA said, “let them hear what hip-hop sounds like.” He also called Wu-Tang the “eight most talented MCs [he’d] ever met. They helped define a generation.”
“This whole thing is the result of a fan,” RZA added, referring to Cilvaringz. I thought of Darian Sahanaja and the reproduction of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. Then I scratched my proverbial chin.
Near the end, Sasha Frere-Jones, sounding like a true fan, asked RZA if this was really the last Wu-Tang album.
“I told you backstage!” RZA looked at Frere-Jones. “I’m done, kid!”