Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin'

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Cyrus Bozorgmehr's book 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.'
Cyrus Bozorgmehr's book 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In 2010, it would have been hard to predict that one of the decade's most talked-about albums would be an LP by the Wu-Tang Clan. It would have been even harder to predict that the album would achieve that feat while being heard by almost no one.

Cyrus Bozorgmehr's book Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which came out last year and landed on some prestigious best-of lists, is an insider's account of how the Wu-Tang Clan came to create an album they released in an edition of one. The album, which shares the book's title (but not its long subtitle), was famously sold for $2 million to Martin Shkreli, the disgraced pharmaceutical czar Bozorgmehr identifies as "America's new public enemy no. 1."

Bozorgmehr was credited as "senior advisor" on the Wu-Tang project, brought on board by an anonymous investor who put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the album's recording: not a bad investment, as it turned out.

As the author tells it, the project traces its genesis all the way back to the '90s, when the phenomenally successful Wu-Tang Clan were looking to expand their orbit by adopting associated artists to produce and collaborate with. One of those artists was a rapper-turned-producer named Cilvaringz.

Around 2007, Cilvaringz started work on a project that brought darker shades to the Wu-Tang Clan's classic beats. "Just make music," advised RZA. "Bring in all the Clan, all the most talented Wu affiliates, and let's see where it goes." Where it went, over the course of years, was what became a full-fledged Wu-Tang Clan album. Cher even made a cameo — yes, Cher.

As the album neared completion in 2013, though, Cilvaringz and RZA looked around at the music landscape and decided it was time to try something different. Vast changes were brewing as the music world moved towards streaming, and artists started to wonder what their work was worth. As the Once Upon a Time project moved forward, there were developments like the launch of artist-owned Tidal, and U2's controversial free album Songs of Innocence. Big artists were ready to try big gambles.

The idea the Wu-Tang collaborators hit on was strongly influenced by the work of fine-art practitioners like Matthew Barney, who sold prints and films as limited or unique editions. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, Cilvaringz and RZA decided with the more-or-less willing cooperation of the rest of the Clan, would be the ultimate limited edition: only one copy would exist.

Much of Bozorgmehr's book chronicles the steps the artists took to ensure that this release really would be different. They kept vacuum-tight control over the production process: not even every member of the Wu-Tang Clan has heard the album in full. They broke the news of the release not through Rolling Stone or the Source, but through Forbes. Once Upon a Time was meant to be as much an economic statement as an artistic statement. The artists — especially Cilvaringz, who would be personally liable for any loss if the sale didn't recoup the investor's thousands — took a gamble that the unconventional release would pay off.

Did it ever. Other than a private listening party at MoMA PS1, to ensure the music community understood this was a real album and not just a shallow stunt, the music was kept tightly under wraps. They turned down deals to release single tracks, or to license the music in a movie. To hear Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, you'd have to outbid the competition.

Ultimately, a man came forward with a serious offer to pay $2 million for the album, encased in an elaborate package that a customs agent said looked "like something out of Harry Potter." He was good for it, the money appeared as promised, and in 2015 the album was duly delivered to his New York office. "Martin listened to about thirty seconds of one track," remembers Bozorgmehr, "rocked back and forth in his chair, smiled, and said, 'Great.'" That was all he needed to hear.

At that point, the public didn't know who the buyer was. They didn't even know it had been sold, and the Wu-Tang Clan weren't necessarily eager for that news to break — especially if it contained word of the buyer's identity. Papers for the sale had already been signed, all parties agree, before Shkreli became "public enemy no. 1" by dramatically jacking the price of a crucial AIDS treatment drug.

Eventually, of course, word got out — and the artists tried to figure out how they could get their music back in good conscience. Even Shkreli was open to ideas. When a fan jokingly suggested that they should get Bill Murray to stage a heist, the artists actually tried to make that happen. Shkreli would cooperate with the "heist" (which would, of course, be caught on video), and the album would be released to the public, with Shkreli presumably sharing in the proceeds.

It never happened, and not just because they couldn't get hold of Bill Murray (there was that, too). While planning was proceeding, Shkreli gave an interview flagrantly insulting RZA, and making sexually charged comments about Taylor Swift to boot. That was the end of the "heist" plan.

When Bozorgmehr's book went to press last summer, neither he nor anyone else could tell what would become of the album. That's still the case. In August, Shkreli was convicted of securities fraud. He put the album up for sale on eBay, but he seemed to still be in possession of the music late last fall, when the government listed Once Upon a Time as an asset to potentially be seized as part of a financial judgment against the so-called "Pharma Bro."

Bozorgmehr's style will be a little gonzo for some. The book is written like an extended story told during happy hour, while the bartender keeps 'em coming. It's obscene, idiomatic, and sometimes confusing. Once you get used to the style, though, there's no doubt that it makes a good story.

At the bottom of it all, Bozorgmehr argues, there are crucial questions about the fate of music in the 21st century. This book may not be the most enlightening consideration of those questions, but it's a first-hand account of one of the most infamous album releases ever. In the end, the hip-hop collective's gamble paid off. They reaped massive attention, huge profit (much of it donated to charity, including AIDS relief), and a chapter in the history books. In fact, more than a chapter: a whole book.

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