Last night the Wu-Tang Clan played 13 minutes of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the group’s new album, for a select group at MoMA PS1.
The event was even more significant because of the marketing surrounding the album, which, its producer Cilvaringz and longtime Wu cornerstone RZA said on-stage last night, exists in only one edition, calling the evening its “first, last, and only” semi-public listening session of an album partially conceived as an art object.
As such, disciples (even the actor Ethan Suplee) braved a line that wound around the block in freezing temperatures before being admitted in groups of five, surrendering their cell phones at the front desk, and then being waved with a metal detector.
Inside the museum’s courtyard dome, two guards flanked the album’s case, a hand-carved box made of nickel and silver with the Wu-Tang logo, slightly reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only smaller. Behind them, images flashed of the album’s all-black jewel case, and a gold-on-black, medieval “collector’s agreement,” complete with a Wu logo wax seal.
After the introduction, Cilvaringz said the album’s inspiration came partially from such ancient sources, described riding on horseback with RZA around the pyramids of Giza at night, and wanting to make “the greatest work of art ever devised by man,” which he said took the group some six years. (Though the group did have an album just last year, which received middling reviews.)
RZA, for his part, described what he saw as a modern “entitlement” to music, and said he hoped to combat it. “Things have value when they’re rare,” he said.
Then the lights went down and the audience was treated to its sample, which began low. “Sit back, relax, light ya blunts,” Ghostface Killah intoned as he began the Shaolin fairy tale, “and listen.” Then things got loud and messy. The people sitting next to RZA and Cilvaringz tried to talk to them about it, but they didn’t acknowledge them and bobbed their heads. There were plenty of unexpected samples, melodramatic horns, cheesy bits of kung-fu dialogue.
Or, as former New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones put it in a discussion afterward: it “sounds like a Wu record.”
This might have been because Cilvaringz himself started out as a fan, pulled onstage at a 1997 concert in the Netherlands, where he was born, by Ol’ Dirty Bastard for some free-styling. (Though he failed to connect with the group just then because ODB also pulled a woman onstage and removed her bra, all the while smiling at her boyfriend. A fight broke out.) Cilvaringz said he strove to recreate the sound of the group’s first record, and acknowledged that “as a fan I wouldn’t be happy with what we’ve done,” in only making one copy.
It should be noted here that it seems highly unlikely the album won’t leak after it’s sold at online auction. The “collector’s agreement” states the owner may release it commercially 88 years after purchase, though, after some prodding by Frere-Jones, RZA and Cilvaringz said the album could, theoretically, be released for free after purchase.
“Let’s hope it’s a philanthropist,” RZA said, of the album’s future purchaser. A few minutes later he interrupted a question by Frere-Jones. “Wait, you just gave me the greatest vision. What if someone like Richard Branson bought it and put it on one of his flying space airplanes? ‘This shit is off the planet!’ That’d be crazy!”
Frere-Jones asked about a sample of a voice he heard at the end of the last track.
“That’s actually,” Cilvaringz said, rubbing his jaw. “Cher? That’s Cher.”
Frere-Jones followed-up about Cher, who apparently acts in a skit on the record and sings, and why she appears on the record.
“I wanna ask you a question,” RZA said. “Did you ever have a crush on Cher?”
“Yeah, of course,” Frere-Jones said.
“Well, okay then,” RZA said.
“Not to get on Cher too much,” he said a few moments later, but she truly was “the kind of woman where they only made one of her. Like who made that?” he asked, waving his hand vertically. Sade, he said, is another woman like that.
Though he didn’t draw the comparison himself, RZA said he wanted the album to be something like that and made reference to another one-of-a-kind woman, this one more related to Staten Island.
“It’s like the Statue of Liberty,” he said. It exists in only one place but belongs to everyone who experiences it.