‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ is a cultural obscenity…
Wu-Tang Clan

A few weeks ago, the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan announced that they had been working on new material in secret for the past few years, and that it would soon be collected as a special double album entitled ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ (Clash news).

The catch: this album would not be made available for fans on any usual release date. No, this album would only ever be pressed to one copy, enclosed in a hand-carved nickel-silver box designed by Yahya – a British-Moroccan artist usually commissioned by royal families and business leaders – and it would feature the players of FC Barcelona, a club currently under scrutiny for tax evasion and illegal transfers. The album will tour around our planet’s most high-profile exhibition spaces and major institutions for an entrance fee which, according to Forbes, will be “in the $30-$50 range”.

Eventually, this polycarbonate plastic artefact – once it has finally reached the limits of its low-cost/high-profit ends – will stop touring. It will then be auctioned, and it will be sold. In an interview with Billboard, RZA revealed that the prospective bids were shaping up “at $2 million, somebody offered $5 million yesterday”. Like many collected items of ‘high art’, the winning owner will probably look to make a return of 6-10% per year by loaning it out, and then, after three or four years, they would probably sell it for around 20% more than the original price.

This bourgeois brainchild of a project seems to have been sold into the minds of the Clan by the album’s main producer, Tarik ‘Cilvaringz’ Azzougarh, who opens his deluded manifesto like the confused monologue of Brian Sewell watching Wild Style: “History demonstrates that great musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are held in the same high esteem as figures like Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. However, the creative output of today’s artists such as The RZA, Kanye West or Dr. Dre, is not valued equally to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst or Jean-Michel Basquiat.”

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Wild Style, trailer

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You’ll find this full manifesto on a website which claims to be the auctioneer. It calls itself Sluczay and is expectedly designed like the Illuminati-themed WordPress portfolio of a venture capitalist. Disturbingly, in the website’s ‘About’ section, it alludes to the idea of this Wu-endorsed cultural obscenity becoming a legitimate “private music service” of which ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ is merely the first product.

You can see why the absurdity of this project has slipped under the radar. Yes, as RZA says, “industrial production and digital reproduction have failed, and the intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero”. Plus, we’re all torn in two directions when our idols do stupid things.

However, with bids rocketing into the millions, a response of this magnitude seems completely disproportionate to the on-going debate about musicians’ compensation. Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape last summer felt like a much more effective artistic statement: to reduce output, raise cost and restore artistic value, but without exclusion.

Instead, the Sluczay website boasts about the Wu’s set being “the first high-profile album never to be commercially released to the public.” It is early days, but the thought of music entering the troubled capitalist environment of fine art – where Jeff Koons can make $58.4million off a shiny balloon dog and the market grows “quicker than subprime housing” – is a disconcerting one. This is an exclusive market that thrives on inequality. To enter an album into this whirlwind, and put those prices on music, is the act of placing music where it can only belong to the super rich. It is a complete alienation of work from the common viewer, what Robert Hughes would call “a form of spiritual vandalism”.

Of course, the devil’s advocate wonders if the Wu are even doing it for the reasons of artistic preservation they keep shovelling, or if that is just a smokescreen of bullshit masquerading as a victory for creative recognition. Getting a fee for every single listen of their album, twinned with the lower production costs of sending a box on tour rather than nine ageing rappers and their entire crew, is quite a tidy deal, and one that could fatten their pockets quicker and easier than any major album release or full tour.

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Well, the box is pretty, at least

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Perhaps the Wu deserve this career pay off after 21 years of service to music. Who are we to judge? But it can’t help bring to mind an interview Clash conducted with Chuck D at Bestival in 2012. Alluding subtly to Kanye West and Jay Z, he explained how he was becoming enraged by the way that many modern hip-hop stars were speaking only to the rich, and losing a grip on reality whilst pandering to a fantasy world. Jay Z’s move to essentially sell his ‘Magna Carta…’ album (review) to Samsung – which rightfully caused an outcry of dissent – is barely dissimilar to what is happening here. After all, there is nothing to stop a brand from winning the auction.

With RZA telling Forbes that owning this album will be like “somebody having the sceptre of an Egyptian king”, it seems that the Wu are right at the doors of a fantasy world, and thoroughly admiring its big, diamond-encrusted knocker. Hopefully, we will be proved wrong. Hopefully, the Clan will auction the album for $5 million, burn the cash K Foundation style, and then produce it properly for their mass audience of loyal fans. Or maybe use the cash to investigate how artists can start to be more properly compensated by the digital spread of their art.

Alas, a solution looks no nearer, and reality lurks its ugly head. It seems the elitist, 1% savvy, corporation-groping sector of mainstream hip-hop will finally get its first great masterpiece. ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ – a rap album for the HNWI. And to the rest of us? A modern cultural obscenity.

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Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Keep Watch’, from the forthcoming album (that IS being widely circulated) ‘A Better Tomorrow’

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Words: Joe Zadeh

Related: read a three-part interview with the Wu, from before this nonsense came out.

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