There’s been confusion, clamoring, in-fighting and gossip swirling around the Wu-Tang Clan’s next album, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. It all started with the announcement that the album would be released as a “single-sale collector’s item,” intricately packaged and auctioned off to the highest bidder as a piece of art. RZA thickened the plot by attaching a clause stipulating that no buyer could commercially release, replicate or profit from sales of the album for 88 years… that is, long after all of the Clan’s original members (and fans) have passed away.
Due in part to the album’s exclusivity, details of Shaolin’s actual content have been kept under literal lock and key—journalists and fans have only been treated to a 13-minute preview at MoMA’s PS1, and the lone physical copy of the album is kept in Marrakech’s Royal Mansour luxury hotel.
But a Reddit user posting under the name OnceUponACashGrab is hell-bent on exposing the album’s origins and motivations, one tl;dr post at a time.
Shaolin’s roots lay thousands of miles away from Staten Island in the riads of Morocco. According to OnceUponACashGrab’s posts, the story goes something like this: a rapper/producer and Wu superfan by the name of Tarik ‘Cilvaringz’ Azzougarh met the RZA onstage at a Wu show in Amsterdam in 1997. The Abbot was so impressed with Cilvaringz that they kept in touch. RZA eventually made the self-professed ‘Wu nerd’ and Wu-Tang Corps fan forum admin an official member of the extended ‘Wu-family’ and eventually a musical protégé of sorts.
Cilvaringz went on to work on two albums in parallel: a 2007 solo album, titled I (lauded for capturing the ‘classic’ Wu sound), and a Wu-Tang Clan album. Cilvaringz executive produced the entirety of this Wu album, somehow paying for verses from all of the Clan’s heavyweights (including ODB) along the way.
Azzougarh posted several threads with snippets and updates on the Wu-Tang Corps forum, asking for feedback from fellow forum members. Yung Cashgrab (who posted on Wu-Tang Corps under the screenname Madchild) maintains that most of the forum dwellers responded positively, and Ringz was excited for fellow Wu-Tang fans to hear his magnum opus.
Faced with the flop of A Better Tomorrow and declining record sales across the board, RZA turned to Ringz, who was sitting on a decade’s worth of unreleased Wu songs. Azzougarh’s idea was simple: the album would be a one-of-a-kind art exhibit. It would only be “shown” in public as part of an international museum tour. The album would then be auctioned off to the highest bidder (initial quotes ranged between $2M and $5M), who could then do as they saw fit. That is, as long as the buyer didn’t sell, replicate, or distribute any of the album’s content.
This means that diehard Wu-Tang fans (like Cilvaringz himself) would only hear the album at museums or exclusive private listening parties organized by the album’s owner. If any of this sounds both familiar and far away, don’t worry: the logistics have changed a ton since the album was announced. Even members of the Clan can’t keep the story straight.
This is where things get interesting, if a little conspiracy-laden: it appears that RZA and Cilvaringz went back and started retroactively deleting information that didn’t fit with the narrative devised for Shaolin. Ringz’ feedback threads have been deleted, as have the song snippets posted on Facebook in the past (some forum-heads now refer to Azzougarh and RZA collectively the “Wuminati”).
If the album’s backstory is to be believed, it has been re-contextualized as a parallel and secret project, instead of a super-fan’s Frankenstein of a classic Wu Tang album. Meth has come out discrediting Ringz’ role in the creation of the album as a “B-Level Wu member” making moves underneath the flag, calling the whole auction a “gimmick.”
As for the music, Shaolin reportedly has it all: verses from all nine original members of the Clan, inspired production, even a Cher feature… but who would pay millions of dollars for a Cilvaringz album at auction? RZA has resumed the role of hip-hop auteur/mogul, driving the album’s price points through the roof. The media circus surrounding the album’s auction and copyright clause are only further proof that cash rules everything around us.
Ultimately, signs point toward this being a Wu-Tang Clan album orchestrated, produced and paid for by Cilvaringz, designed and manufactured by Yahya, marketed and branded by RZA, and auctioned off by Paddle8. A collaborative artistic effort to be sure, but is it a Wu-Tang album in the traditional sense? We’ll never know for sure unless the Abbot and/or Azzougarh choose to address these claims. As for the album’s content, listeners will have to trust critical opinion—unless the album leaks or its eventual buyer is generous and rebellious enough to violate the 88-year copyright and share Once Upon A Time In Shaolin with the masses.