Once Upon a Time in Shaolin by Cyrus Bozorgmehr

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan's Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America's New Public Enemy No. 1 BY Cyrus Bozorgmehr. Flatiron Books. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
The cover of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan's Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America's New Public Enemy No. 1

In 2014, the Wu-Tang Clan shocked the music world by deciding to sell only one copy of their new album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Wu-Tang would “tour” the physical album to select venues, and then sell it to the highest bidder. Most fans would never hear the album. This was the group’s way of rejecting the online paradigm of endless free content and of trying to get people to treat music more like art. If people weren’t willing to pay for musicians’ work, then they wouldn’t get to hear it. Music would work on a patronage system.

“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” RZA, the group’s mastermind, told Forbes upon revealing the project to the world. “And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value . . . especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”

The story got complicated when the man who bought the album was revealed as none other than Martin Shkreli, the infamous, cartoonishly sinister pharma bro whose crimes include—among other things—drastically increasing the price of a crucial drug used by HIV patients. Was this a disastrous end to the Wu-Tang’s single-copy scheme? Or did it simply prove their point that if you put music at the mercy of the market, the result would be ugly?

Cyrus Bozorgmehr’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1 promises a definitive insider’s account of this saga. An advisor on the album, Bozorgmehr begins his story with the initial meetings between RZA and the album’s Morocco-based, Wu-affiliated producer Cilvaringz (that’s “Silver Rings” for the unaffiliated) that eventually spawned the concept.

In one 2004 rendezvous, RZA and Cilvaringz traveled together to Egypt, climbed one of the Great Pyramids, and looked out through history. “Eternity rushed in”:

As they sat, heads bowed to the dynasty that demanded such immortality and the forgotten craftsman who forged it, they marveled at the precision, the detail, the skill, the art, and above all the permanence. . . . Here on the pillars of time, the third eye opened. ‘Someday, we need to do something together that lasts through the ages,’ whispered Cilvaringz.

The book is full of passages like this. Bozorgmehr doesn’t seem interested—or capable—of telling the story without getting sidetracked.

In 2013, Bozorgmehr enters the picture by way of a 3 a.m. phone call from one “Mr. S,” who hires him as an advisor to the project (who “Mr. S” is or works for is never revealed). Although he accepts the assignment, Bozorgmehr is an unlikely choice—the author turns out to be a hip-hop neophyte. At one point, he recalls getting hammered with Cilvaringz during a late-night party in a Manhattan Shaolin temple where RZA plays chess. He didn't recognize the music playing over the sound system: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan’s definitive album.

Once the single-copy album is complete and the strategy is settled, how to actually publicize and auction the album must be squared by Bozorgmehr, Cilvaringz, and RZA. These procedural sections plod along as calls are made, meetings are taken, and various dead-end ideas are proposed. Shaolin’s brighter moments emerge when the genuine novelty of the single-copy experiment spins other unique ideas into its orbit.

One of the first proposals to purchase the album comes, via email, from a “Mr. Scaramanga Silk,” with a maximum offer of one million dollars. He envisions a Shaolin Kung Fu master shattering the physical album into one million pieces as an event, followed by a world tour of said fragments, which would be available for purchase for £1 each. “The real debate,” Mr. Silk concludes, “will then ensue as to whether or not the owner (myself) made a duplicate of the album before the event. Only I will know.”

When MoMA PS1 arranges for a private listening session of the album, we are invited to wonder: How would you listen to a piece of music if you assumed you could only hear it one time? “People were hearing a piece of music that they might never hear again, and in some ways, it was a trip back to a time before recording technology even existed,” Bozorgmehr remembers. “Everyone in that room knew it was now or never.”

While the novelty of the album strategy is intriguing, the stakes of the book, and of the album itself, keep shifting. What is it that Bozorgmehr, RZA, and Cilvaringz really hope to achieve by selling this single-copy album for millions? What are the costs of failure? Bozorgmehr offers a rotating list of their hopes and inspirations, but they land as interchangeable, fungible.

By the time Shkreli purchases the album, Wu-Tang Clan has two million dollars in their pockets, but their artistic statement, meant to uphold the value of music in the twenty-first century, has been engulfed by clickbait sensationalism. Shkreli adds insult to injury by publicly attacking members of Wu-Tang Clan when they criticize his unapologetic drug-hiking. “I fucking make money,” Shkreli says in an interview. “That’s what I do. That’s why I can fucking afford a fucking $2 million album. What do you think I do, make cookies?” In a Bloomberg profile revealing his identity as the buyer of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, Shkreli joked that he wasn’t even planning to listen to the album. In a livestream from his apartment, he used the innermost CD case, removed from its immaculately carved silver container, as a drink coaster.

Processing this turn of events for the high-minded experiment, RZA and Bozorgmehr argue that the buyers of art need not be “good” people. But the flip side to a single-copy album is that it is also a single-owner album; the owner can tarnish the work itself.

As Bozorgmehr reflects on the outcome, he seems to plead with his advisees, RZA and Cilvaringz, from the future:

“You didn’t make that kind of money adopting orphans, and people might argue that you didn’t buy rap albums at that price unless you were an egomaniac. . . . I desperately wanted our side to come out and say, THIS WAS THE ARTISTIC STATEMENT. It’s a clear symbol of what will happen unless we support our artists as a society by paying them a fair price and respecting the music we love.”

Implicit is the fact that they did not come out with such a strong statement when outside attention on the project was at its most focused, rather allowing the media narrative to cast its own verdict.

The earnest ideals and artful impulses that birthed Once Upon a Time in Shaolin have been obfuscated many times over by now, reducing the album to pop-culture trivia or a case study in novel marketing. Meanwhile, trial reports of the “pharma bro” in mainstream media repeatedly thrust his name back into the spotlight. Shkreli's purchase of the single-copy album is consistently cited in reports on his latest exploits, the experiment living on as a footnote to the crimes and stunts of one very freaky white-collar criminal.

Chris Ruen is a writer based in Brooklyn and the author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity (OR Books, 2012).