Book Reviews

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

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
Cyrus Bozorgmehr
Flatiron Books

Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories in recent musical history is that of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a two-disc hip-hop album by Wu-Tang Clan that exists solely in an edition of one. Housed in a beautiful leather-bound book that resembles a wizard’s book of spells, this album has been the subject of considerable hype, debate, and controversy—and that was well before it was bought by the man who has since been dubbed “The Most Hated Man In America.”

It started off as a simple enough concept: what can one do to reinvest artistic value and merit into music? An issue the book raises is this: what is the artistic merit of something that is expected to be sold at no more than .99 cents—if not free—and often required tens of thousands of dollars to make? It was an idea that was borne from the encouragement of friends Tariq Azzougrah—aka Cilvaringz, a Moroccan-based artist and musician—and Cyrus Bozorgmehr. When Cilvaringz shared the idea with Wu-Tang conceptual genius Robert Diggs—AKA RZA—he loved it. RZA, a visionary artist and media manipulator who gives Malcolm McLaren a run for his money, soon set about putting together this project.

If you think saying, ‘Hey, let’s make an album, and let’s make it available in only one copy’ runs the risk of sacrificing scarcity over quality, think again; as Once Upon A Time In Shaolin demonstrates, this was not a project RZA took lightly. It’s not a cheaply-made record, either; RZA and company worked on this for years, at the same time releasing and working on other projects. In fact, one doubts that Cher—of all people—would dedicate herself to appearing on a handful of tossed-off rap songs just because Wu-Tang Clan needed someone to sing on them. Furthermore, RZA and company spent an inordinate amount of time in philosophical debate about the nature of this project, what the project would mean, and whether or not what they were doing would be too much for their fans to stomach. Would this be something their audience would love once they learned of it—or would this be the straw that broke a dedicated but frustrated fan base’s collective back, a self-indulgent act meant only to line the pockets of RZA and company? After all, if “Wu-Tang is for the children,” as they once declared, what would this credo now mean if suddenly the Wu-Tang was only accessible to the wealthiest people on the planet?

Concurrent with the philosophical debates were the practicalities of the matter. This album would raise numerous legal and business questions, related to proprietary rights. Who owns the album? What rights does the owner of the sole album have? Does the owner actually own the record? What can the record owner do legally once he purchases it? These are important questions, and ones that are discussed at great detail here. Ultimately, a compromise was made: the owner could commercialize it after 88 years—ensuring that he or she—or anyone currently involved with the band, the record industry, or humanity at large—would not be able to capitalize on it, much less purchase it. Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is fascinating in this regard, but the legal wrangling and back-and-forth can make your head spin, but in a very intoxicating, can’t-put-it-down kind of way, providing a compelling look into something that seemed initially quite simple. Let’s just say this: having received this copy in the mail, I didn’t expect to get so thoroughly engrossed in its tale, but I did; the headache I had after devouring this in one sitting was totally worth it.

I won’t even begin to tackle what took place during the making of the album, as the hijinks, the mystery, and the insane near-disasters that surrounded it will make you laugh; how the record ever got completed sometimes seems like the biggest mystery of all. Oh, and if you think that part of the story is insane, it’s nothing compared to what happened after the album was put up for auction. And the best, yet most frustrating, part of the Once Upon A Time In Shaolin story is that it isn’t even over yet. If anything, it’s only just begun.

If I hadn’t read Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, I would have dismissed this sordid tale as a very creative, intricate hoax. But I have read Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, and I’m still not convinced that this isn’t anything more than an elaborate jape, as it still feels way too fantastic and far-fetched to be a true story.

Funny how reality plays out, isn’t it?

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