For hip-hop aficionados, the Wu-Tang Clan are a big deal. From the moment they first stepped up to the stage in Staten Island, New York in the early ’90s, it was clear that something was up. Since then, the Clan have attracted a ravenously devoted fanbase, and have managed to pull the rare trick of being cult heroes, critical darlings, and mainstream superstars, all at the same time.
This combination of shrewd business acumen and musical prowess propelled the group skywards. A slew of critically acclaimed, commercially successful albums followed, securing the group’s position up there in the pantheon of hip-hop royalty.
Not all survived the ride. In 2004, Russel Tyrone Jones — better known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB — died of a suspected drug overdose. His death followed an extended period of legal troubles and increasing mental instability for Jones, and plunged the already fractious hip-hop collective into its darkest period to date.
Under the stewardship of unofficial leader RZA, the surviving motley crew of Raekwon, GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killer, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Master Killa needed to head somewhere new. They needed to refresh the project and move into new territory, which had yet to be charted. They’d sold gold and platinum albums in the past, so what about just selling one album? A single copy of an album, for millions of dollars? An extreme idea — so extreme that it might just work.
This is the story of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a one-off musical project, which would go on to be the most exclusive, and expensive, record ever produced, as told by senior advisor and collaborator, Cyrus Bozorgmehr. Hold on tight, because it’s a rollercoaster.
Bozorgmehr is our narrator, our authority, our window into this world of privilege and improbability; a world in which basically anything can happen and in which Cher drops in for a guest spot. But primarily, he is our confidante in the ‘ripping yarn’ and all round tall-tale that is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. As readers, we wade into the narrative at the same time Cyrus does, meeting an enigmatic “Moroccan chap” named Tarik, who turns out to be Dutch rapper and producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh.
The meeting takes place at a launch party thrown by the Scottish artist and former gangster Jimmy Boyle in Marrakech. The tone is set from the start: money, art, danger, intrigue, glamor. It’s all here, and with Bozorgmehr by our side, we know we are going to experience it all.
Bozorgmehr’s narrative style is less ‘balanced historical account’ and more ‘excitable (and very articulate) stranger in a bar’ who grabs our attention and keeps it. Don’t expect thoroughly-sourced, meticulously-interrogated testimony from Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. This is an eyewitness account, although much of what our new friend recounts he could not possibly have borne witness to. This is a ride; we either get on board with our narrator from the start, or we wave him off at the platform. There are no raised hands, no questions. Just a breakneck dive into a world we never thought we’d be privy to.
For eaders, this sense of ‘getting on board’ is vital. The clichés come thick and fast in the early stages of the book — the winds “howl” and rains “slam down” in the “cruel” Dutch summer, Cilvaringz’s quest to find RZA is “like climbing the highest mountain imaginable” — and several times Cyrus’ account veers dangerously close to being grating. We have a choice to make; we either accept Bozorgmehr’s singular voice, or we don’t bother with the book at all. Quite simply, it’s Cyrus’ way, or the highway.
Those that persevere may find themselves rewarded, however. What our companion lacks in terms of narrative skill and originality, he makes up for in enthusiasm, passion and the richness of the subject matter. On that fateful Moroccan day back in 2007, Bozorgmehr stumbled across an untapped seam of pure pop culture gold, and the opening of a fascinating chapter in the history of music as we know it.
The story goes like this: One of the world’s most respected hip-hop outfits have a vision. Working closely with their Dutch protege-turned-associate, they set about changing the way music is consumed, even the way it is perceived by the general public. They want to re-elevate hip-hop, and music in general, to the status of bona fide art form, stepping away from the ‘throwaway’, ‘instant download’ culture of modern music towards something more tangibly profound.
How will they do this? By recording and releasing a single-copy album; an album which will be promoted via sneak previews and closely-guarded installations in art galleries and academic institutions. After this, it will be auctioned to the highest bidder, and immortality will be achieved.
The idea of immortality creeps up several times in the book. When Bozorgmehr shows us the genesis of this record, it occurs at Egypt’s great pyramids of Giza. Cilvaringz and RZA have visited the ancient site on a journey which is part jet-setting holiday and part soul-searching vision quest. The pair and their guide manage to charm themselves into the pyramid complex after closing time… Bozorgmehr takes up the story from here:
“As they sat, heads bowed to the dynasty that demanded such immortality and the forgotten craftsmen who forged it, they marvelled at the precision, the detail, the art, the permanence… up here on the pillars of time, the third eye opened.”
“Someday we need to do something together that lasts through the ages,” whispered Cilvaringz.
RZA nodded, lost in thought. Shapeshifting in the lone and level sands… “Word.”
It’s the fabulous clunkiness of this sort of prose, the kitsch improbability of the events described, that make the book so charming. Whether Bozorgmehr is taking us on a nervous, sweaty-palmed trip through Homeland Security with a priceless cargo in tow, or whether he’s leading us on a philosophical exploration of the nature of art and of cultural consumption, he retains the reader’s attention. The quality of his writing may be up for debate, but he’s quite the storyteller, and that’s certainly worth something.
You could make the argument that the cultural points raised — the concept of artistic hierarchies with fine art at the top and video games at the bottom, the increasing commoditization of music and the musicians who make it by major corporations — deserve more sober and extended analysis. This is certainly true, but to do so would have made this a different book entirely.
This is no critical theory treatise. This is no historical document. This is the story of chance encounters, gathering momentum, and a whole lot of drive. This is the story of a man who was involved in a project he truly believed i, and wound up with some incredible anecdotes along the way. By time real life pantomime villain Martin Shkreli shows up with $2million in his mitts, it would take a hard heart not to be just a little intrigued.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is flawed, yes. Dubious; perhaps, in places. Disposable; certainly not.