By now, you know the story. Only three people in the world have heard Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin in its entirety—maybe four, if you count VICE writer Allie Conti. Two of those people are RZA and producer Cilvaringz. The third is Martin Shkreli, infamous, deeply hated pharmabro. The point Wu-Tang were trying to make, auctioning off a single silver-encased copy of the record, was that music had become devalued because it was so freely available. If they could make something more exclusive, could they say it had more intrinsic value? If music can be elevated to the level of art, then perhaps sometimes it should be treated as such.
So the group then it sold to Martin Shkreli for $2 million, after previewing snippets of the album at MOMA PS1, just before Shkreli became world famous for jacking up by 5000 percent the price of a drug that can help people living with AIDS and other autoimmune diseases. Since that point, the album's become part of musical folklore. British writer Cyrus Bozorgmehr was as close to the making of this album as possible. His book, also called Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, recounts the entire story behind the album, from conception to major PR disaster, and reads like a crime caper that can captivate Wu-Tang and non-Wu fans alike. The book has a lot to say about how society currently values music and as an insider-outsider, Bozorgmehr manages to straddle all worlds in a very funny tale. We sat down with Cyrus, a man who gesticulates with enough energy to power a small village, at a London bookshop cafe to find out more.
Noisey: This is quite a far out story, unbelievable at times. Like you getting drunk in a Shaolin temple with RZA, or the album's concept coming about on top of the Pyramid of Khufu. Is it all true?
Cyrus Bozorgmehr: Absolutely. There are pictures. Here you go. [shows me pictures on phone]. I wouldn't have been so naff as to make this sort of thing up. This is not a work of fiction—this is our story.
Do you think the project succeeded in its aims, to start a debate about the devaluation of music and where it's positioned in the art spectrum?
Yes and no. I think its afterlife, post-Shkreli, has colored that intention. I was at a Q&A recently and someone said, "why don't you try and get the Guggenheim to buy it off Shkreli?" But at this stage, no one is going to touch it. Before Martin bought it, the jury was still out—we hadn't succeeded and we hadn't failed. I'm not sure it's failed, still. But it's become too pulp fiction now. With the more it gets identified with him, the further we get away from our initial point we were making.
Most big money is dirty. If you are going to put something out there at a high price, for auction, there must have been a sense that the buyer, may have obscured the point you were trying to make.
I had leveled with that soon after I came on board with the project—some rich bloke was always going to buy this album. But at the same time, it wasn't about the buyer. Particularly at the beginning stages, it was about creating that debate about the value of music. The sale was the end point. People like Elon Musk or Ben Horowitz were the guys that fit our imagined profile, not the aristocratic elites. We thought someone who might be a bit of a maverick would buy it. But we weren't prepared for Shkreli.
How did the listening session work at PS1? Who did you invite to hear those extracts?
It was weird. You had the most random collection of people in there. Arab Sheiks, billionaires, the press and of course, we were very conscious of bringing along some normal hip hop heads, some regular fans. So we ran this competition on a New York radio show and we got a bunch of regular people who had never been to the MOMA to come along. It was amazing when the music started. In the age of everything, everywhere, all the time, an ephemeral moment occurred. This was how music used to be before recording was invented, where you are taken on a trip there and now, never to be experienced again. What do you do? Do you close your eyes and try to use your brain as a recording device? Do you think, 'fuck it, I'm gonna own this and get up and dance'? Watching different people react differently was fascinating.
What does it mean to you, personally, to know that diehard fans might never hear the album?
The whole thing was a nightmare for me. I'm from the illegal rave scene, where we just did shit for free. Initially when I heard about the project, I thought it was a horror show, a bling cash grab. But after meeting RZA and Cilvaringz, hearing where they were coming from, I changed my mind. There is a symbiotic relationship between fan and artist. But there's also a flip side—at what point can an artist not do what they want? Are you really completely obligated, bound to your fans?
The whole thing feels like a reverse KLF move…
It's funny, neither Cilvaringz nor RZA really knew about KLF. KLF was quite a UK phenomenon I think. I told them the KLF story, but no matter how big an artist you are in rap, you don't burn a million dollars. That's the difference between a middle class art school approach to money and one that's grafted up from the streets. You have to make your statement some other, but equally controversial, way.
In the book you write about the idea of a "sense of entitlement" in music listeners. Where do you think that comes from? How do you verbalize the way we're willing to pay a load of money for some things, but not others?
The idea that you are happy to pay $3 for a coffee but not for a tune is bonkers. It's insane. The internet was this mad, anarchic, democratizing force—from the very start, so much was freely shared. Things have changed a little bit very recently, but back when we started the Once Upon A Time process it wasn't like that at all. Spotify, for all its infinitesimal royalties, at least means artists are getting some money.
It all comes down to the letter "s": the difference between art and arts. Arts is inclusive of all forms of creativity. Art retreats into this elitist space. If you bang a couple of bin lids together, cover yourself in paint and video it, you could put that in the Tate. But if you've made a blinding tune, that's not welcome. I don't think music necessarily needs to be perceived as art, in that way. It doesn't need to be sold at Christie's Auction House. But I think we do need a little bit of a kick up the arse.
I interviewed Chuck D once, years ago, and I asked him, "you guys are pretty extreme, did you start extreme so you would end up at a compromise? Was it a social negotiating tactic?"—in the sense that you when you barter your position, you don't start at a middle ground. But he said, no, "we were born extreme". This is the only way. No one got anywhere, to start with, by having a measured discussion about something. Ultimately, we didn't want no one to hear the album. We put an exhibition clause in the contract that would mean it would encourage the buyer to hold listening sessions. And Shkreli did say, initially, that's what he was going to do. He was genuinely star struck by RZA. He came across as an enthusiastic rap fan.
How do you feel about him putting the album (since taken down) up on eBay for resale?
As ever, he did it with dramatic timing and went to prison the next day. There were bids. I was contacted by this 18-year-old kid who had the top bid on eBay. I contacted Shkreli's lawyer, and he confirmed that he'd seen proof of funds. I was shocked. But it soon became very clear that, rather than being a Wu-Tang fan, he was a Martin Shkreli fan. And I didn't see that coming! He was even mispronouncing stuff about the Wu, he clearly didn't know that much about them. He was a Shkreli fan.
What do you think is going to happen to the album?
No idea. For all I know, it's sold. Shkreli's lawyer is being cagey with us. God knows what is going to happen there. We've also had people contact us who are Wu-Tang fans saying they will buy it. The whole contradiction is that we kind of trusted Shkreli—we still do, on a business level. He stuck to the contract. Whoever buys it now is going to want to break that contract. They want to be the hero. Now, everyone sees it as liberating it from Shkreli. People have forgotten what the plan for it was in the first place. They are contacting us because they think RZA is going to be thrilled that they are buying the album to release it. Like they are rescuing the album from the devil. That wasn't the idea. But we've lost control of it completely. Which is great in a way because that is the essence of art.
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 is out now via Jacaranda Books in the UK and Macmillan in the US.
You can find Kit on Twitter.