Wu-Tang Clan unveil sole copy of their new album

On Monday night, RZA introduced 13 minutes of the 31-track Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which will be auctioned off to a single person in order ‘to restore the concept of value to music’

“Instead of trying to sell the most records, we’re trying to sell the least,” says Tarik Azzougarh, the Wu-Tang Clan’s only non-American member (he’s from the Netherlands). Better known as Cilvaringz, he’s on stage at PS1, the Queens outpost of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with his mentor, Wu producer and ringmaster RZA, and music journalist Sasha Frere-Jones. In front of them is a cedarwood box on a plinth covered with silver nickel filigree work and a plaque in the shape of the Wu-Tang Clan’s batlike logo, which the RZA calls “the illest album cover in the word”.

However, the box is empty. Eventually, it will hold the sole copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the Wu-Tang Clan’s eighth and final album, currently in a vault in Marrakech, Morocco, and which is to be offered in a private sale by Paddle8. And that literally is the only copy, or so RZA says. If it’s damaged or destroyed, there goes the record – there is no digital backup. Whoever buys it will also purchase the rights to the songs, though there are conditions – he or she will not be allowed to “commercialise” the music – in other words, to sell it. It’s like buying a painting, explains Cilvaringz from the stage. You own the canvas and the brushstrokes, but not the right to print postcards of the image and sell them.

Cilvaringz and RZA say that they considered stipulating that the owner of the album should take it on tour for people to listen to, perhaps in art galleries, but eventually decided that these conditions would be too great for a buyer to manage. Instead, whoever purchases the album must agree never to release it to the general public without the Wu’s permission, according to Paddle8’s website; though RZA indicates that the buyer could release it free of charge if he or she wished. Finally, in 88 years (a number picked for its significance to the legendary rappers), the copyright will run out, and the music will be free to be heard – providing the album, and the means to play it, still exist.

It’s one of music’s great quixotic grand statements, on a par with the KLF burning £1m at the height of their fame. The point, says RZA, is to make a statement about the value of artists in an age where everything is available for free, and therefore disposable. “Artists are very rare people,” says RZA. “Things have value when they are rare.” To emphasise this preciousness, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin comes with lyrics handwritten on parchment and bound in leather, with a special Wu seal. “It’s a rare item,” says RZA, “and tonight you’ll have the chance to get a small glimpse.”

Indeed, the Guardian is privileged in having heard 13 minutes of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which are played at bone-shaking volume over the soundsystem in PS1’s Dome space; the chances are high that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, although, as Madonna could attest, rare is the album that doesn’t make its way on to the internet eventually. Six years in the making, 31 tracks long and featuring cameos from Game of Thrones actor Carice van Houten and players from FC Barcelona, Shaolin is billed as the return to the Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers roots – it was even recorded in their alma mater, Staten Island.

The idea for the album came in 2004, when Cilvaringz and RZA went on a trip to Egypt. Their guide allowed them to visit the pyramids after hours and ride horses in the desert, and it was while climbing on a pyramid, they say, that they decided to create something for the ages. This album is the result. It begins in bravura style with sirens and a clap of thunder, and then – judging by the excerpts we hear – is thrillingly noisy and aggressive, indeed a return to the familiar Wu landscape of sinister soul samples, whiplash drums, and dire threats and imprecations, updated with the occasional reference to Harry Potter. One of the songs we hear is magnificent, a brassy, blaring song featuring both Redman and Cher (“She took Dirty’s place,” smiles RZA afterwards). Then there’s another clap of thunder and that’s our lot – perhaps for the next 88 years.

Later, pressed by Frere-Jones, RZA says that the extraordinary way the album is being released was inspired by the immortality of art – that it’s what remains of human civilisation after we die. He loves the idea of the Wu’s album being a kind of time capsule which will be rediscovered in 500 years. Or alternatively, for it to be bought by Richard Branson and put on one of the aircraft he was supposedly sending into space. “Up there, kid!” he growls. He and Cilvaringz reveal that the album’s music was completed before the eight MCs contributed their raps, and that he didn’t reveal to them that it wouldn’t be conventionally released until afterwards. One imagines that that would cause some disquiet at the very least, but RZA assures the audience that Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Raekwon et al were fine with the prospect of their work on the record only being heard by one high-paying individual.

He concludes that there’s nothing elitist in selling Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in this way – that the aim is really to reaffirm that art has a value, and to inspire other musicians. Though Cilvaringz – an uberfan who ended up joining the Wu – says that he would hate the concept if he were a normal fan, RZA says that the album is a bit like the Statue of Liberty – you don’t have to see it, or in this case hear it – but it’s part of all our lives.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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