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
July 11, 2017
Cyrus Bozorgmehr's new book takes us on the journey of one of the most interesting artistic statements of the digital era.
The comic book level of Martin Shkreli's villainy is well documented. After increasing the price of a drug used by AIDS patients by 5,000 percent, he went on a tone-deaf publicity campaign to defend the move in the name of unregulated, free market capitalism that earned him the moniker, "the most hated man in America," and famously smirked at members of Congress when they brought him to Capitol Hill to testify about it and refused to answer their questions. Of course, being a scoundrel is not illegal, but running a Ponzi scheme is, which is what he is on trial for now.
But it is his bizarre connection to another wild story that makes him a character in Cyrus Bozorgmehr's new book, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. It is the story of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, an album by the Wu-Tang Clan, of which there is but a single copy in existence, bought by Shkreli in 2015 for a reported $2 million—though that price has never been confirmed by the group or the auction house that sold it. But that is just the end of the story, and however delightfully surreal, unlikely, and almost perfect an ending it is (the FBI, upon arresting Shkreli, announced via Twitter that there was "no seizure warrant at the arrest of Martin Shkreli today, which means we didn't seize the Wu-Tang Clan album"), it is still an enticingly unfinished ending with Shkreli currently on trial and the album's fate uncertain.
The story of how the album was conceived and brought into the world is equally unlikely and fascinating. Bozorgmehr's telling of the story begins with Tarik Azzougarh (a.k.a. Cilvaringz), a member of the extended Wu-Tang Clan family of Moroccan descent from the Netherlands. It was he who conceptualized and produced Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Just the story of how Tarik Azzougarh ended up in the Wu-Tang Clan is perhaps the most incredible and implausible of the entire book—which is saying something. Bozorgmehr would end up in a unique position to be able to tell both Tarik's story—and that of the album.
The author met Tarik Azzougarh in 2007 in Marrakech, where they both lived, just as the concept for a single-copy album was first developing in his mind. They discussed the idea, which seemed more than a little elitist to Bozorgmehr at he time, and he wasn't quite sure if the dude he was talking to wasn't being completely delusional about being an extended member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Googling him when he got home, it checked out, but they hadn't exchanged numbers and he half-expected he'd never cross paths with him again. The next time he saw him was two years later at an art biennale in Marrakech, where they discussed the idea more, and more passionately:
Cilvaringz was on the board of the Biennale, and as we strolled around the place, he grew increasingly frustrated at the kind of money that had gone into the more forgettable exhibits. From buckets to paper airplanes to a couple of old bed frames, it threw up an instant mirror to the increasingly tortured state of music.
Bozorgmehr is a gifted storyteller, but some of the writing is a little uneven at the start of the book. I'm no prude when it comes to profanity, but I feel some of the f-bombs dropped at the beginning of the book, and the lexicon in which they're deployed, are aping a style not really his own—much like his description of Cilvaringz aping the core Wu-Tang style before finding his own voice. But it's a very brief concern, as the writing gets inexorably stronger (and the continued frequent swearing seems more his own) as the book progresses. I think Bozorgmehr is really at his best when he's pondering the nature of art and commerce, and framing the bigger picture.
The single-copy idea that he had hinted at to me in 2007 remained nothing more than a fanciful notion, but by 2009 and the Biennale in Marrakech, he had begun to give it more serious thought. The experience of running a citywide art exhibition had brought the differing perceptions of art and music kicking and screaming to the forefront, and he was searching for a way to bring the halo effect of "art" to the world of music. Was it presentation? Was it rarity? Was it price? Or was it just bullshit?
But, again, they didn't exchange numbers or plan to meet again. In a book full of strange developments, the reason the author is in such a unique position to tell this story is a call he received four years later, in 2013, from a shadowy employer he only ever refers to as Mr. S (No, it's not Martin Shkreli), who wants him to act as an advisor on "a groundbreaking musical project he's funded." That groundbreaking project, it turns out, would be Once Upon a Time in Shaolin—the culmination of the fanciful notion his occasional acquaintance Tarik had discussed with him over the years. And so Bozorgmehr joined on to be the third leg of a team that included Wu-Tang's leader, RZA, and his mentee Cilvaringz, in what would become one of the most interesting artistic and commercial statements of the digital era.
It is the story of a creative collaboration, the demise of the music industry and creative responses to it. It is the story of how to launch something truly unique in today's riotously noisy, ridiculously crowded, always-on media landscape. It is a story of immense risk and resilience, of the intersection of art and business, theater and press. It was a PR coup, accomplished without a PR firm. It's about things as mundane as digital encryption and privacy protection, event planning and finding the right business partners. And it's a thriller.
A lot of other experiments happened in the music world during the time they were working on the album and its sale, and these are woven into the story, as well. The badly bungled, almost Orwellian release of U2's Songs of Innocence with Apple is discussed, as is how Jay Z botched the launch of Tidal. He explains Apple's almost identically bungled rollout of their purchase of Beats Electronics and its streaming services, which they were initially offering without offering royalties to the musicians they streamed during the trial period—a decision they immediately reversed when Taylor Swift pulled her catalog from the Apple catalog. Again, Bozorgmehr shines in clearly delineating the importance and impact of these decisions, and how they fit into the bigger picture of art and commerce:
[Taylor Swift] was the artist who broke from the pack when Apple announced that the three-month trial period would be royalty free. Surely the financial consequences of Apple's decision should be born internally rather than passed onto artists? Especially when it's one of the world's most profitable companies.
If I open a new bar by giving away free drinks for a week, then I don't expect my alcohol suppliers to gift me case after case of spirits. The loss leader of a new venture has to factor in its own financial consequences rather than say, "Okay, guys, we're trying something new, so load us up for free." It doesn't stack up.
There are some noble examples. The coolest experiment mentioned is by a band called John Moose, who released an album about a hermit named John Moose.
The band realized that since the music was so fundamentally tied to the forest landscape, the only way to experience it as it was intended was to go to an actual forest. But here comes the uncomfortable psychological twist. If you just told people to go to a forest because they'd enjoy it more, you can bet that hardly anyone would actually bother. Nice idea, we'd think, while putting a packaged meal in the microwave. But how about if you forced people to experience the music in the way it was intended? Was that just too up your ass, or would people actually thank you for the hijacking of their own free will?
The band gambled on the latter. They released the album through a GPS-controlled app that only allowed the music to play when the GPS registered that the devise was in a forest.
The clarity that Bozorgmehr brings in explaining how and why we value things as a society, and the need not only to support artists, but the psychological necessity to have some skin in the game to really appreciate their art individually, is the bedrock of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin—because that is the bedrock of the concept behind the album. And though we don't know what will happen to the album, and we know that only two people—RZA and Cilvaringz—have heard it in its entirety (Shkreli himself said he hasn't listened to the whole thing, the other Wu-Tang members have heard only the tracks they're on, and Bozorgmehr deliberately never listened to it for a variety of interesting reasons), Once Upon a Time in Shaolin clearly shows that it has been a success as a concept.
I hope the book, being released today, is a success, as well.
We have 20 copies available.