A DISCUSSION OF
'ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHAOLIN...'
WITH THE RZA & CILVARINGZ
On March 26th last year, the Wu Tang Clan announced that they would be releasing one copy and one copy alone of their forthcoming album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin...
Arguing that music had been economically and experientially devalued in a world of superficial streaming and data consumption, the Clan stepped to the fore with a radical new concept.
If society was prepared to allow the art of music to ebb away into convenient consumerism, then they would use their final album to wrest profound engagement back to the core of musical experience.
There would be only one incarnation, and it would forever remain a unique piece of creativity, craftsmanship and artistry.
A discussion with the architects of the single copy album.
COULD YOU GIVE US A STATUS UPDATE ON THE ALBUM, for the record? RECENT MONTHS SEEM SHROUDED IN SECRECY.
RZA - It’s been an interesting few months since the initial announcement. While the debate was ongoing in the public arena, we were having an intriguing series of talks in private with a variety of auction houses and art experts, but also with lawyers, publishers and music executives. 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin' didn’t conform to either music industry or art world conventions, and no-one could define it within an existing framework. Ultimately, it was writing its own rules and dictating its own destiny, but we couldn’t maintain a running public face to that process purely for the sake of headlines.
There’s been interest from commercial parties as well as private collectors. How do you feel about someone wanting to release it?
CILVARINGZ – Initially we wanted the buyer to do whatever he wanted with it. But when we realised how much commercial interest there was, we began to understand that allowing it to play out in that way would undermine its trajectory as an art piece, even if no amount of replication could touch the original. We felt that retail commercialization and mass replication would dilute the status of the album as a one off work of art and compromise the integrity of our statement.
RZA - When you buy a painting or a sculpture, you are buying that piece rather than the right to replicate it. Owning a Picasso doesn’t mean you can sell prints or reproductions, but that you are the sole owner of a unique original. And that’s what Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is – it’s a unique original rather than a master copy of an album.
CILVARINGZ – We thought long and hard about whether to defy art world conventions and transfer all rights to public release to the buyer. But we genuinely felt that a swift public release after such a radical concept would neutralize the statement we are making. So we decided that the right to release the album would be transferred only after 88 years have passed.
WHY 88 YEARS?
RZA – Anyone who knows the Wu-Tang Clan knows that we often apply numerology, mathematics and symbolism to the things we do. There were 8 original members of the Clan when we made Protect Ya Neck and M.E.T.H.O.D Man. The individual numbers of this year also add up to the number 8. The broker of this work carries the number 8 in its name. The number 8 on its side is a symbol of infinity, as it was used on our album ‘Wu-Tang Forever’. You can call it mathematical coincidence, but it’s always had great symbolic significance for us. For us it also addresses the issue of music’s longevity in a time of mass production and short attention spans. Nothing about this record revolves around short-term gains, but rather around the legacy of the music and the statement we’re making.
SO YOU FEEL THE EXTREME NATURE OF THIS WORK IS THE ONLY WAY TO REALLY MAKE A LASTING POINT?
RZA – Art is extreme. For art to change the way people think, it has to come from an extreme place. No monumental change ever started with a compromise or a small shift. It starts extreme. Once the impact is felt, then we can see about compromises, but that first statement has to hit home.
WHAT ABOUT A SCENARIO IN WHICH A PHILANTHROPIST BOUGHT THE WORK AND RELEASED IT FOR FREE?
RZA – In that case, it would be a possibility. But bearing in mind the investment the owner would be making, we consider it unlikely.
SOME WOULD ARGUE THAT THE SINGLE COPY CONCEPT LAYS ITSELF OPEN TO ACCUSATIONS OF ELITISM. WHY SHOULD ONLY ONE PERSON BE ABLE TO OWN THIS, TO THE EXCLUSION OF OTHERS, PURELY BASED ON THE SIZE OF HIS BANK BALANCE?
RZA – The end goal is actually the exact opposite of elitism. Yes, the album in itself will only be owned by someone who can afford it. Only one man can hold the scepter. But look beyond the prize and prestige of owning this album and focus on the statement it carries and you’ll see that we’re trying to reattach values to music for the benefit of all kinds of musicians. We released ‘A Better Tomorrow’ which is for all of our fans, but we created 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin' for a different purpose – I planned for the two records to balance each other.
CILVARINGZ – When recorded music loses its monetary value, it’s the little guy who suffers most. Artists at the top of the tree have other potential revenue streams. They can tour, they can license, synchronize, and diversify into fashion or film. But an independent musician starting out has none of those options. He needs the thousand copies of his album to be worth something. Recorded music is the work of art.
RZA – Exactly, and if recorded music is worthless, the independent artist can’t make a living. He has no space to meditate and create and is forced to stop making music to be able to eat. And that leaves music in the hands of corporations who work to a formula and in the hands of people who’ve already made it. Like we said – this is about the big picture; limiting the album to one copy will not immediately reattach value to all recorded music, but the debate that our approach has sparked might eventually lead to a change in the perception, value and appreciation of music as a work of art and that is why we feel the sacrifice is worth it.
CILVARINGZ – Profound experience requires investment – of time, money, passion, emotion. We always treasure the things we had to work for or commit to more than the things that are a click away. I still remember the albums I had to queue up to buy with my hard earned money – the process of investing in it deepened the experience of listening to it. And that is the other critical point here - questioning whether universal accessibility has diminished the way we experience music.
BUT WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO OWN SOMETHING LIKE THIS FOR MILLIONS OF DOLLARS?
RZA – This is not something you should want to own because of the price tag, but because it’s a fingerprint, like a strand of DNA - it stands alone. It’s a piece of history, and the seal to a legacy. The buyer would be the only person in the world to possess a historic, unheard and never to be released Wu-Tang Clan album. Not a single copy or backup of this work exists – neither I nor any Clan member has a copy. There is only one.
YOU SAY "SEAL OF A LEGACY", DOES THAT MEAN THERE WILL BE NO MORE WU-TANG CLAN ALBUMS?
RZA – Destiny bends, but it feels almost certain that ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin...’ will be the final Wu-Tang Clan album.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN "ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHAOLIN" AND "A BETTER TOMORROW" ?
RZA - They are two completely different concepts – both musically and in the way we introduced them to the world. ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’ is classic Wu and was designed to be a standalone work that encapsulates our history. ‘A Better Tomorrow’ is all about the future – new horizons and a new sound. The two together unite history and future, yin and yang. Looking back over 21 years, it was important to unify those two strands of our identity within the two albums, but they remain two totally different ideas and two different sounds.
TELL US ABOUT THE ACTUAL MUSIC ON "ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHAOLIN" AND THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND IT.
RZA – Musically, this album takes the listener on a journey back to the chambers we were going through in the 90s. Not so much lyrically as musically as brothers are living a different reality to then. But this record was produced in that fashion, it sounds different from anything that’s out today. It was about tracing and reliving certain origins. If you listen to the intro of ‘Clan In The Front’ on the 36 Chambers album, you’ll hear me shout out the entire original Wu-Tang movement. We rolled real deep back then and I invited some of those brothers on a few skits and tracks. It made the period concept of the recordings more authentic.
CILVARINGZ – I would say the album is an incredible experience. It’s not an album you just listen to or hear but rather something you experience. We decided very early on that we wouldn’t let any industry standards such as radio or song lengths affect production. We simply let the songs dictate what they wanted to become. Sonically it’s that gritty, raw, melodic, eerie, dark, Wu-Tang shit you fell in love with as a fan. Hence the title, because Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, it sounded like this.
FINALLY, WHAT'S THE STATUS ON THE EXHIBITION TOUR?
RZA – We’ve had a great response from museums, galleries and art funds from around the world, and we had begun planning a series of dates.
But after discussions with interested collectors and galleries, we realised that there were significant concerns. With retail commercialization not an option, we felt we could only allow the album to move into an exhibition phase after consultation and discussion with the eventual owner. That seemed like the only fair thing to do, rather than play it all over the world and limit his options. This way it would be his choice to either share it with the world or keep it totally private.