November 10, 2015

ELIOT | Going Down the Rabbit Hole of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

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By CHRISTO ELIOT

“Elevate myself to a higher point of energy

My supreme talent is to restore balance”

— Masta Killa

The Moroccan city of Marrakesh is one of those cities — like Bangkok and Kiev — that blends ancient world architecture and style with 21st century sensibilities. The low-profile, red sandstone making up many of the city’s buildings hide riads with modern technologies and fashions. It was founded officially in 1062, by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, a chieftain and cousin of a Almoravid dynasty king at the time. In the millennium since then, Marrakesh has become potentially the most important city in Morocco. Tourists flock from all across the globe to visit this North African metropolis, and many French celebrities own homes in the city. Most of the tourism is from people taking an interest in the city’s religious history, beautiful gardens, glittering palaces and ancient mosques. But the city also finds itself in the northern foothills of the Atlas Mountains, gateway to the enormous Sahara desert, providing stunning vistas for anyone exploring the city’s spice or textile markets.

Weave your way through the narrow, winding passageways of the city markets to find wider avenues filled with old taxicabs and mopeds trailing streams of black exhaust behind them. If you follow one in the right direction long enough, you will come across The Royal Mansour: a luxury hotel built by the King of Morocco for over a billion dollars with bedrooms running guests well over $2,500 for a night. The entrance is guarded around the clock by a manned security hut and metal gate large enough for a submarine to pass through. Hotel guests are commonly heads of state, royalty or the otherwise “stanky” rich. And until recently, a vault in a riad at The Royal Mansour, tucked in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, was also home to the only copy — digital or physical — of Wu-Tang Clan’s ultra-exclusive, two-disc, final album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, soon to be sold for millions of dollars.

The Wu-Tang Clan is a hip-hop collective from the housing projects of Staten Island that started in the early ’90s. The founder of Wu-Tang, RZA, bought a 4-track in 1987 and began to produce beats in his spare time. After recording raps with eight of his relatives and friends for five years, the group was able to sell 7-inch vinyl presses of a 1992 single called “Protect Ya Neck” to record stores and radio stations in the area. The members of the Wu-Tang Clan are RZA, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Instpectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, U-God and Cappdonna who was formally made a member of the clan three years after Ol’ Dirty Bastard died of a heart attack in 2004.

The group name came from a 1983 film directed by Hong Kong martial artist Gordon Lio called “Shaolin and Wu Tang.” The men took on the collective title Wu-Tang Clan and called their home of Staten Island “Shaolin.” The first song off their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang, opens with a sample from the dubbed version of the film:

Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style.  If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu Tang could be dangerous.

The Wu-Tang were dangerous. Their notoriety in the hip-hop underground allowed the group to become a commercial sensation and the music of choice for NBA superstar, Kobe Bryant. Even though their rise to the top was rife with controversy like murder charges (acquitted), opening fire on a group of police officers (acquitted) and dealing marijuana, the group stayed tight and became one of the most influential hip-hop acts of all time.

RZA has produced all six of Wu-Tang’s albums, and frequently collaborates with Kanye West. Other members of the group achieved clout and commercial success of their own. In fact, GZA’s first 35,000 lyrics contained more than 6,400 unique words. As a measure of comparison, Shakespeare used 5,170 unique words in the equivalent number of lines and only one rapper, Aesop Rock (who most people do not listen to), has more at almost 7,400. Wu-Tang has helped the careers of artists like Nas, Redman and Busta Rhymes, and shades of Wu-Tang can be heard in music across the entire hip-hop genre … possibly excluding Macklemore and this reinvented Bieber.

More than just a rap group however, the Wu-Tang Clan considers themselves a group of artists and pioneers. Above the raw, gritty beats, each member’s rapping showed a thoughtfulness not immediately clear through the curse words and violent criminal anecdotes. Their lyrics also preach a love for Kung-Fu movies, metaphysics and chess, and their albums included skits as nontraditional breaks in a usually continuous stream of music. Their star-status in the early ’90s enabled the group to sign onto one record label while allowing the nine members of the group to sign contracts with different labels in order to diversify the group’s revenue streams. In the words of RZA, “We reinvented the way hip-hop was structured, and what I mean is […] Wu-Tang was a financial movement.” They were also among the first groups to monetize a hip-hop clothing line, which is now a prerequisite for celebrity in the industry.

So why is there only one copy of the Wu-Tang’s final album, and why is it in Morocco? Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a concept for an album from the mind of Wu-Tang affiliate producer Cilvaringz, a Moroccan rapper and producer named Tarik Azzougarh. Cilvaringz (pronounced: Silvah Rings) is not a true member of the Wu-Tang Clan; he is closer to a pretty good high school freshman lacrosse player who might get to ride bench on the varsity team if they make playoffs. In this metaphor the varsity lacrosse team is the Wu-Tang Clan. The album is going to be the group’s final collective release, not unlike the playoffs, so Cilvaringz can be on the team. It is set to be the balancing act to the group’s 2014 release A Better Tomorrow, which has millions of plays across the Internet.

The group has seen the music industry change since their debut in 1993. When a struggling musician started, he or she would sell his or her singles for hard-earned airtime on the radio or valuable shelf-space on someone’s record shelf. The musician was forced to work hard to make something he or she felt was worth putting on vinyl, hoping it would sell, thinking it was something of value. To the Wu-Tang, each time “Protect Ya Neck” played on the radio meant someone appreciated their music. The appreciation is what made their music art.

In the words of RZA, “I don’t care if a child just finger paints and brings a painting home to his father. All he can do is write C-A-T with finger paint. The A is ugly, the T crooked, the C looks like a G. He hands this to his father, this first piece of art. His father takes that and he appreciates it.” With modern musical control like Spotify and iTunes, we don’t need the radio or to buy entire albums. With the Internet, we don’t even need to pay for music at all anymore. Now, we treat music less like art and more like a product we quickly consume and spit out like flavorless Juicy Fruit gum. As a result, the quality of our music has gone down, and it is the little guy in the music business who has suffered most.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin may only ever be heard by one person. It seems like this album is closer to Beck’s Song Reader, released only in sheet music form, than something more progressive like Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want success, In Rainbows. This album is not about art as something accessible, however; it is about art as something of value. It savors of the Renaissance, where paintings and murals and songs would be commissioned by wealthy patrons.  A Duke or Lord may walk into Leonardo da Vinci’s studio and ask him for a beautiful painting or a painting that will make his wife weep with joy or impress his neighbors, but in the case of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the Wu-Tang have flipped this script around. They are saying to the buyer, “This is us. A 128-minute long sonic sculpture, embodying a return to Wu-Tang’s “Shaolin.” Who wants it, and what are you going to do with it?”

What can they do with it? Why wouldn’t a Richard Branson or the son of a Saudi oil tycoon purchase the album and commercialize it? Cilvaringz and RZA worked put a clause in the purchase agreement where the album cannot be released for sale until 88 years after purchase as to not undermine its status as a work of art. Even though the album is on two easily copied CD’s, the owner cannot burn more and sell them. Owning Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is analogous to owning an original painting, and owning a painting does not mean you are entitled sell prints of it.

The album itself is housed in a beautifully carved nickel silver case and housing box made by British and Moroccan artist named Yahya. It features intricate Moroccan designs and the iconic Wu-Tang logo. The 51-seconds of the album available for public consumption feature a raw and gritty sound similar to early Wu-Tang and an appearance from Cher. Select visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City were able to hear the album in the spring of 2015, and more may be able to attend other museum listenings for a fee in the future. Or someone may buy it and release it for free as a statement about creative democracy. Or someone may buy the album and destroy it. We just know we can’t afford it.

A lot of fans are devastated by the fact they may never get to hear their favorite rap group’s final record and have attacked Cilvaringz and RZA for spearheading what they view as an elitist project. But those fans are focusing on the trees and not seeing the forest. There are six Wu-Tang albums for everyone to hear and dozens, if not hundreds, more from Wu-Tang members and the extended Wu family. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin hopes to change the state of music, and return it to an era where it is the songs that are of value and not the touring, commercial licensing, film appearances and product endorsements. Wu-Tang wants to turn music back into an art form from a business by making a very bad business decision: selling only one copy of a highly anticipated release.

Even after understanding (or trying to understand) Wu-Tang’s motivation behind this album, does it matter? Does it matter a hip-hop album you’ve never heard and may never hear is going to be sold to some one-percenter? We probably won’t know until after the album is sold and it becomes clear what the buyer’s plans for it are. Even then, we may not know until many years down the road and we can look back retrospectively and see its full impact. At its core, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is about producing something of value, and that is the motivation for art and almost anything else we do in our lives.

When I started writing for The Sun I had hopes of it leading to me being introduced to a pool of pretty girls I didn’t know about. I obviously know now that was pretty foolish, but I always tried to put words on the page to make people laugh, think or otherwise get away from the thoughts that may be troubling them. If someone offered me five million dollars for a signed collection of my columns, I would know I had created something of value. Even if only a dozen people read my column (seems high), I know through the occasional text messages and comments mentioning a joke or insight I have received over the past four years. All of us produce something of value. It may not be of artistic value or creative value, but if you have ever made someone smile or taught somebody something, you have added value to their life. A lot of the time it may not come with recognition like a “thank you” or friendly text or seven-figure check, but it does not mean there is no value to what you’ve done.

That said, I think RZA’s diagnosis of the music business could be said of journalism as well. In an effort to help bring value back to journalism, I will be auctioning off my column anthology, all 64,000 words and signed by me. I know I don’t have the sway Wu-Tang does in the creative community, so bidding for this one-of-a-kind collector’s item will start at a much more reasonable $10,000. Please contact celiot@cornellsun.com with any serious inquiries. It has been a pleasure writing for whomever is still reading this.

Christo Eliot is a graduate student in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at celiot@cornellsun.com. Christo’s Largely Unmoderated Creative Space appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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