Once Upon A Time In Shaolin

Sixteen years ago, just after he’d shepherded an unruly collective of Staten Island-based outsider artists to the summit of global fame, the RZA made one of the countless unpredictable moves that define the Wu-Tang Clan legacy: He went sightseeing. “It was an historic, artistic mission,” he says of a trip he made alone in 1998—starting with the Louvre’s oils and watercolors, and moving to Florentine statues, Roman frescoes, Athenic acropoli, and Istanbul mosques, as he made his way down the Continent to a destination in Northern Africa. He did not travel in high, Jay Z/Beyoncé tourist style. “I was reading, studying and fasting,” he says. “I wanted my mind clear to take everything in.” By Cairo, he was ready to be among the first visitors allowed into a newly unsealed pharaonic tomb on the Giza Necropolis.

There in its stone chambers, the sights and sounds of his travels coalesced within. He looked at works of ancient artisans, felt a palpable connection to human history, and had a profound new sense of his role. “That’s when I realized I was an artist,” he says. “Up until then, I considered myself a rapper, a producer, a hip-hop artist. That’s when I thought, ‘Yo. I’m an artist. This is what I do.’”

This is not the same statement as similar-sounding ones from today’s Renaissance rappers like, say, Kanye West or Pharrell Williams. While both work skillfully in fashion and other non-musical creative fields, they tend to pour their outsize personas into these forms without altering the vessel itself. The Wu-Tang Clan never worked this way; they had to smash it from the start.

By anyone’s estimation, the Wu-Tang Clan were an uncategorizable phenomenon when they emerged. In a New York hip-hop scene obsessed with form and provenance, they came from a borough that was functionally nonexistent, had at least six too many members, and specialized in a vocal style whose choppy rhythms, breakneck speed, and wildly allusive, dense texts suited mainstream rap tastes as well as bebop swing. All-or-nothing from the start, the Wu-Tang Clan had to remake hip-hop in its own image, which they did in under five years.

It took most of the world a bit longer to absorb the panorama visualized on their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Now ranked among the finest in albums in both rock and hip-hop history, 36 Chambers was a somehow gritty yet mystic dreamscape comprised of true crime, martial-arts lore, arcane science, chess strategy, and scripture from the street-Islamic school called the Nation of Gods and Earths, from which all nine members held advanced degrees. It took five or six solo albums, each by one the best rappers of his era, for their deceptively sparse, slum-Modernist bricolage to establish the RZA as one of the late-20th century’s two or three true sonic auteurs.

But it’s not until now, 20 years after their debut, that the Wu’s most striking quality is visible: how confident a valuation the artists gave their own work from the start. In October of 1992, while all nine members were penniless and some newly out of jail, the group scrambled together $5,000 to record two songs and have them pressed onto a thousand 12-inch vinyl discs. This was the analog era and they pressed the flesh: they put the discs into boxes and loaded them into a muffler-dragging, four-door Merkur Scorpio hatchback. They drove through New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia bearing copies of the ferocious tag-team single Protect Ya Neck, giving it to radio DJs and selling it on consignment to record stores.

On the radio, the single won the group fans; in the stores it won them capital, the consignment shops selling out of the discs received, paying the group cash, and requesting 300 more at a time, which the group provided using money from the sales—leveraging themselves up quickly, tier by tier. By February of 1993, Protect Ya Neck was a hit on DJ Kid Capri’s taste-making WBLS show. Nine months later, Loud Records released Enter the Wu-Tang, which sold 20,000 copies in one week. All the while the group’s members were in the process of restructuring the entire record business. Under RZA’s direction, each individual member signed a solo album deal with a different label, deriving multiple revenue streams for the group and spreading its influence throughout the industry.

In 1997, it took the group a mere six months to make their follow-up album, Wu-Tang Forever, which sold over two million copies worldwide and earned over $30 million in the first week of its release. It continues to be heard on playlists around the world.

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, on the other hand, took them six years to make. It will be owned and ultimately controlled solely by one person. Clearly, no other rap act has the distinct kind of credibility and resonance to merit this kind of breathtakingly bold presentation. If hip-hop music corresponds to art history, the Wu-Tang Clan are at once too vast and singular to fall into any school or movement, and too superlative to represent a single era. The sound is Modernist, their sonic architecture Baroque, and their representational technique High Renaissance. RZA’s brand of genius has always been a particularly broad and penetrating vision.

If hip-hop music corresponds to art history, the Wu-Tang Clan are at once too vast and singular to fall into any school or movement.

“I didn’t create something,” he says of his vision for the Wu-Tang Clan “It was already floating over the island, ready to take form. Kung-Fu flicks, hip-hop battles, the rap styles, the sound—all I had to do was connect them all.” Like Duchamp seeing deadly horizontal jaws in the hooks of a wall-mounted coat rack, RZA looked at what was in front of him and saw what no one else could see: “the illest MC team in history,” he says.

History is indeed the word. Even today, early works like Wu-Tang: Enter the 36 Chambers feel worm-holed from another civilization. Rigorously schooled by their elders in the historical, biological, and theological lessons from the Nation’s catechism-like Divine Lessons, as well as the Far Eastern myths and history driving the hundred-odd Kung-Fu films each member traded like samizdat, Wu-Tang clan vocalists were communing with ancient history as much as with their own era.

They minted their own slang idiom and threw the names of ‘90s brands alongside geological terminology, creating a body of work that resonates with the otherworldly, deathlessness of recorded sound that has captivated scientists and scholarly listeners since the dawn of audio technology at the start of the 20th century. Guglielmo Marconi designed and used the device that transmitted the first radio message in 1903, and came to believe that mere technological improvements would allow him to hear the voice of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount. Two decades later, a writer for The Washington Post speculated that a radio might broadcast the voices of the dead, which simply vibrate at a lower frequency than those of the living. A person inhales, their breath fills their diaphragm, diaphragm resonates vocal chords, vocal chords stir a stylus, stylus traces a pattern analogous to the sound: an analog recording.

This new Wu-Tang Clan album offers the most fully-realized sonic mosaic not just of the group’s core members, but the constellation of singers, rappers, and other disciples delineating the Wu-Tang universe, including Sunz Of Man, Killarmy, and Gravediggaz. Punctuated by immersive audio microdramas, the album renders a palpable sense of time and space. It’s hard to imagine any single group whose music could fill two discs. Few artists, working in the sonic medium or otherwise, would attempt to commit to that next logical step, and do so in a method that is representative of the medium, the message, and the millennial backdrop.

These seeds were sown ten years ago in London, during RZA’s downtime from shooting a 2005 thriller with Clive Owen. While he worked on music at his flat, RZA took visits from his good friend, a leading international Killa Bee named Cilvaringz. At the time, the Moroccan producer and rapper was three years into a unique, apprentice-like relationship with the RZA. “I’d work with him whenever I could,” says the 35-year-old né Tarik Azzougarh. “Make beats, see how he produced. Pick up everything I could.”

Cilvaringz had won this privileged vantage through sheer passion and commitment: first by joining the Wu-Tang Clan on stage as a teenager at a 1997 concert in Amsterdam. There Cilvaringz first met RZA, instantly impressing with his freestyle verses. The two met again later in New York. “Something about the kid’s energy struck me,” RZA recalls. “So I decided to take him on as a student.”

When they reconvened in London during RZA’s filming, Cilvaringz found himself increasingly drawn to the sound that first called to him years ago, the one its creator had left behind. He tried to assay the transfigured night street sound on classic mid-‘90s Wu-Tang albums. “When he’d be off shooting, I’d just be going through his classic beats. It took me a long time to realize that most of his beats back then were spontaneous, and that he’d recognized it. He would leave mistakes in on purpose. A beat wouldn’t loop properly, the engineer’d say—‘Hey, this loop on Criminology isn’t working’—and he’d say, ‘Nah, just boost the bass, leave it in.’ That was his genius. That’s why no one else could make tracks like that. Everyone thought those beats were just an old soul sample with hard-hitting drums underneath, but that isn’t even close to what’s going on.”

By 2007, having traveled extensively together (including a Cilvaringz-RZA world tour to promote Cilvaringz’s solo work), the duo had developed a creative dialogue that went beyond mentor-protégé classification. Recognizing the rare relationship and opportunity, they decided to partner on creating an entire Wu-Tang album in the lineage of the group’s signature methodology. The two began a frequently-interrupted production that enlisted each Wu-Tang member when and where available. “I would send stuff back and forth to RZA and he would give his directions—‘Watch for this, change that, that arrangement isn’t good, that rapper don’t sound right on this song.’”

The result is more than a conventional album-length recording. “It was this document of a moment in life,” says Cilvaringz. “It was an attempt to recreate the Wu-Tang saga through the sound of each of those chambers, have the listener go through them one at a time. We had to get the guys to sound like they did in ’93 and ’97, hear them roar with that sound of Wu-Tang Forever and 36 Chambers, and yet make the sound of this album cohesive.”

“We had to get the guys to sound like they did in ’93 and ’97, hear them roar with that sound ofWu-Tang Forever and 36 Chambers.”

Even crafting instrumentals, the thinking was in narrative terms. “We knew what the ninth song was going to be before we recorded it. We knew how the painting would look. Obviously it changes, it adapts but that’s the core you start off with: to make a record that encapsulates the Wu-Tang Clan itself.” They began with a song title that would dictate a certain dynamic and ambiance, each song a chapter folding into a larger album-length storyline—a move straight from the Wu-Tang playbook. “For us, albums weren’t just an array of songs, but [read] like a film,” says the RZA. “Thirty-six Chambers to me was a movie. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Iron Man, Liquid Swords—to me, these are all audio movies.” Today, a RZA production like Raekwon’s album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is justly considered both hip-hop benchmark and freestanding urban crime novel.

Perhaps the life experience that yielded such tales prepared this group for tectonic shifts in their own art form. As the new Wu-Tang album began forming, the industry around it dissolved. Within five years, the digitization of recorded music altered its monetary value to an extent that few could have imagined, bringing an assumption common to young listeners that music should simply be free. At the same time, Cilvaringz was exposed to a near opposite phenomenon in the confounding contemporary art world.

After meeting the London-based collector Vanessa Branson at a party in Morocco, Cilvaringz agreed to sign on as vice president of an upcoming Marrakech arts festival, since his status as citizen would smooth things with the government. He became the festival’s signatory, took on administrative duties, and got a bracing look at the difference between how the fine art and music businesses valued their stocks in trade. Aghast in 2007 at signing a €13,000 check for an installation comprising three flagpoles, by 2009 Cilvaringz was ensconced at the Marrakech Biennale with figures like artist Julian Schnabel, director John Boorman, sculptor Jimmy Boyle, and art-collecting movie-maker Danny Moynihan, who wrote the art world satire Boogie Woogie and candidly discussed the scene’s hypocrisies with Cilvaringz.

As a result of the conversations, Cilvaringz began intensively researching the career of Andy Warhol, and found an image online of his iconographic black Coca Cola bottle on white canvas—and its 60 million dollar price tag. Using the art world lens instantly magnified the questions that the music industry was wrestling with on its own. “That [was] the first time I asked myself: ‘Why and how are these artists valued at such a price?’ People like Dre or Kanye or RZA are geniuses in what they do, and their music is valued at 99 cents. No disrespect to Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Damien Hirst, or any other artists, but if you walk down the streets and ask people randomly, ‘Do you know Damien Hirst? Do you know Basquiat?’ they’ll say ‘Who?’ If you say, ‘Do you know Dr. Dre? Do you know Kanye?,’ they’ll say ‘Yeah.’”

“It’s not about impact, it’s about exclusivity,” Cilvaringz quickly realized. “It’s about singularity versus mass reproduction. Fine art can’t be uploaded and downloaded to get the exact same thing every time. When you stand in front of the Mona Lisa, it’s not the same as seeing a picture of it online. But music can be pressed off 10 million times and supposedly provide the real thing over and over and over.”

But just how real is this thing then? “You just can’t digitize the whole experience,” says Cilvaringz, whose profound study of ‘90s hip-hop prompted insights similar to those Walter Benjamin had in ‘30s Germany—on the effects of time, history, and medium on human sense perception. “Back in the day, when a record came out you lived with it for the whole summer, for the whole year. You lived with an album.” The shelf life of new music is fast approaching zero. “You look at album releases now and the promo leading up to the release is more interesting and intense than the music itself, because once the records are out, no one speaks about them again.”

This decade’s highest-caliber music artists have been drawn to the materiality of the medium, arguably the site of its greatest flux and meaning. Radiohead engaged with it as social activists, releasing the 2007 album In Rainbows online for a pay-what-you-like fee to download, akin to how city art museums charge for admission. Beck, grandson of the Fluxus artist Al Hansen, explored a more radical regression: he released the twenty songs of his twelfth album, 2012’s Song Reader, solely in sheet music form: rock’s premiere sampler-mad Postmodernist engaging the pop form before recorded sound.

“You look at those moments and realize nobody was talking about the music. Does it sound good? Is it good? People only talked about the approach it took as a release.” Hip-hop’s headline-grabbing releases—like Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape or Jay Z’s free-to-Samsung-owners Magna Carta Holy Grail—were merely commercial strategies with deft choreography of media platforms.

By 2013, the Wu-Tang Clan were “sitting on an album,” says Cilvaringz, “that sounds dope, that a lot of time and effort went into and that needed a different trajectory.” This album would perform on all the levels that distinguished recent innovative releases, but add a profound, more daring twist: “While everyone’s trying to sell the most records to the most people, we’ll try to sell the least.”

When in 1998, Ol’ Dirty Bastard commandeered the Grammy Awards show’s podium to declare “Wu-Tang is for the children,” he was actually sharing the group’s core philosophy. The sense of mission that drove Once Upon A Time In Shaolin to its final, surprising chapter came from just this sense of time. “[In the music scene today], people give six years of their life to creating a moment and now it gets sold online for parts,” says Cilvaringz. “For once, we want the artist and not the market to decide what music is worth.”

Commending one of their best and most comprehensive albums in history, the Wu-Tang Clan made a very real sacrifice to the larger cause. “People don’t have the bond they once did with music,” says Cilvaringz. “With the physicality of it, with the experience, musicians no longer see any reason to make the effort. They no longer see themselves as artists. It’s that experiential value, the spiritual value of music—that’s what we want to preserve.”