“Shaolin shadow boxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous”. No one had ever heard anything quite like it before on any Hip Hop album but it is one of the most easily recognisable samples in music history. Ever since then the Wu Tang Clan have been breaking new ground in one way or another and that time has come again. The Wu: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is a polarising concept that breaks down its essential components into three parts.
First, the music: The Clan have bypassed all major and independent labels to print a single copy of this body of work. Five years in the making, the double album was recorded in secret and produced by longtime Wu affiliate Tarik Azzougarh, aka Cilvaringz (his ‘I’ album is still one of my favourite Wu Tang branded releases) and according to him the ‘sacred’ Wu Tang sound is intact.
Second, the case: Made from silver and nickel, the albums hand crafted, engraved casing took three months to complete. It is the only one of it’s kind, is housed in a vault on the edges of Marrakech and was created by Yahya, an artist courted by Royalty (the law of averages say that some member of royalty somewhere is a Wu fan), CEO’s and other very wealthy patriarchs.
Third, the concept: To change the perception of music as an art form. To place it alongside the visual arts as something to be feted across generations rather than be destined to be nothing more than a mass consumable in an ever more all consuming society. To have the names of modern music’s greatest artists and producers spoken of in the same breath as Riusuke Fukahori, Yulia Brodskaya, Urs Fischer or even Banksy.
The alternate concept: To make money. Or more to the point, to do it without having to pay any middlemen. Using an ingenious method to create an almighty buzz around an overblown vanity project. A cynical attempt to circumvent tried and tested industry methods in order to put the Clan’s name back to where they believe it should be, but not to where it necessarily deserves to be.
But which is it? Only a fool would embark on such a project without wanting a return on their labours but surely such a visionary as Prince Rakeem has earned the right to be held in a higher creative regard than most. The reaction to such a project was always going to be split between progressives and traditionalists but I shudder to think of the vitriolic reaction that would have occurred if say, Kanye West had made such an announcement.
Yet this is not a project without precedent. Nipsey Hussle’s recent $100 Mixtape project and on a far larger scale Jay-Z’s Magna Carter Holy Grail partnership with Samsung did not carry such lofty ideals but the artistic vision and willingness to find new ways to market their music, albeit with varying results, is much the same. Indeed, even certain aspects of Beyonce’s triumphant return to the top can be extrapolated and compared to where the Rza is trying to take this venture.
Which brings me to what could be the defining factor between the project’s success and failure…. Leakage. If there was ever one long player that is odds on to take the moniker for the most sought after Hip Hop album in history, it is this one. If this album was ever to find its way online before such a time when that final seven, maybe eight figure purchase is made, the grand plan is dead in the water. Said final purchaser may choose to release the album for free to the masses but the Clan will have been paid by then and would hardly be in a position to object. The more likely scenario though, is that a record label will make the purchase and set about recouping their investment with their marketing needs already half fulfilled. This is after all a music mogul’s dream.
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin will have to be a masterpiece to equal or surpass Enter The Wu Tang and I personally don’t think that will happen. However, that is not to say that this won’t be a great album and I do hope for the betterment of Hip Hop that I am proved wrong. With the plethora of crap that is at times given a larger spotlight than the great music being released amongst it, I honestly thought that the critical commentary split would be a little more in favour than the 50/50 I am currently seeing. The problem I have is that some of that commentary is passing judgement on music that hasn’t yet been heard when, as far as I’m concerned, the fact that such a project exists should be commended.
Gauging the severely opposed reactions however, what isn’t in doubt is that this endeavour will either be lauded as global marketing wizardry, or laughed out of town as a cultural (and by that I mean the Hip hop culture) abomination. Whether or not you agree with the ideology The Wu Tang Clan have been blazing their own trail since their first release and will undoubtedly be doing the same on their last. They have set trends and standards that very few have been able to reach before or since and more than one of their collective and solo releases will be forever enshrined in Hip Hop folklore. Surely that is enough to countenance a more universally level headed reaction to what potentially, could be a historic musical event?….Who am I kidding. After all this is Hip Hop we’re talking about.