We Went There: The First and Last Chance to Hear Wu-Tang’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’ for 88 Years

Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin — the instantly infamous one-copy-only Wu-Tang Clan album — was unveiled last night, at an actual museum, MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. Amos Barshad and Rembert Browne were in attendance. Here is their story. 

Amos Barshad: On Monday night, in a dramatically domed structure in Long Island City, we saw the box … that will one day hold … the CDs … that contain … the only copy … of the (most likely) last ever! … Wu-Tang album: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. The actual music was back in Marrakesh, we learned, along with the key to the box, which led to an amusing anecdote from the night’s panel: RZA, his coproducer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, and the writer Sasha Frere-Jones. It turns out that bringing mysterious, un-openable, ornate silver constructions through Customs sets off some alarms! Explained RZA, with his usual aplomb: “Tarik is of the Moroccan descent, of the Ay-rab descent … you know the energy that’s coming from the Ay-rab world right now.” Long story short, Tarik sat in the bowels of some Homeland Security offices for three hours before he was able to move on and bring us this particular sight.


Eventually, the album (and, yes, the box) will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Its eventual owner will be able to do whatever he wants to with it, up to not ever letting anyone hear it. Ever. The idea, as its progenitors are eager to remind us, is to create a piece of music that stands alongside a piece of visual art, in singular glory. RZA says the best-case scenario is Richard Branson buying the thing and shooting it into outer space. And even if it stays earthbound, all digital copies have supposedly been destroyed and, technically, the commercial rights stay with Wu for [clears throat] 88 years. So these dudes are looking us in the face and telling us we may not hear it until President Chelsea Clinton’s daughter is running what is left of postapocalyptic America. But we did get to hear 13 minutes of the thing — to date, the only 13 minutes that will ever be played publicly. And it sounded like — THE GREATEST BIT OF MUSIC MINE EARS HAVE YET TO HEAR. LIKE TWO UNICORNS HIGH-FIVING WHILE ALSO DOING YOUR TAXES. ALSO AT ONE POINT GHOSTFACE SHOUTS OUT TOMMY HILFIGER.

I mean, yeah: It sounded like a Wu album. Possibly a good one? But I have to say: After all that goofy rigmarole, by the end of the night, I was kind of sold. I am a man who stands with gimmickry. And this is some top-notch gimmickry. Rem?

Rembert Browne: When I found out this event wasn’t 10 blocks from our office, at the primary MoMA site, I almost went home. But then I didn’t, because I figured they’d have free drinks. And then they only had water. But at least I could send some emails on my phone while I listened to new Wu. But then, before entering the dome, all electronics were confiscated (including phones, laptops, and anything that could be used to record). Outside of throwing up the ROC in a body scanner, the scene was very airport TSA. So to say that I was in a bitter place upon finally reaching my seat is a gross understatement.

But like you said, Amos, over the course of the spectacle — the late-to-start spectacle — I was also sold. When the music began, I looked around and appreciated that we were in a dome, in darkness, with the exception of dimly lit spots surrounding the dome, two bright-red Exit signs, and the spotlight, which was shining directly on the BOX. It was eerie — cultish even — one of those moments when it seemed like, in order to leave, someone would have to be sacrificed. And then there was the actual sound of the music. It was loud. Louder than most things I’ve ever heard. About 10 feet from my aisle seat (picked for an easy exit should the phantom phone vibrations from my pocket prove overwhelming) was a speaker four security guards high (there were security guards everywhere). My left ear, the one closest to the speaker, rang for a good 20 minutes into the Q&A that followed the 13-minute segment of the album.

I appreciated what I was hearing, because it’s rare to know so little about music you’re hearing from an artist you know. All we knew was Wu and 13 minutes. During those 13 minutes, I didn’t know if I was hearing one minute of 13 different songs, or perhaps it was one 13-minute song, or something in the middle. As it goes with Wu, it’s always fun to play the name-to-voice game, especially when you don’t know who is coming next. Every now and then, you’d hear something that surprised you. Like Redman. Or, as we learned in the Q&A: Cher.

Yes. Cher is on the album. Cher is on the album that no one will ever hear. I loved it. It felt like a stunt, but the more RZA talked, it’s clear he doesn’t see it as a stunt. He sees it as a way to try to make a tidal shift in the music industry. He sees the music that he and his brothers make as art. He brought up the Mona Lisa. Yes, the part of the story that gets the attention is about no one potentially ever hearing it, but the real takeaway is that there’s only one. The main point isn’t to keep the music away from Wu fans. RZA just wants his music — his art — to feel rare, one-of-a-kind, like a sculpture, a painting. The more he talked this way, the quicker the cynicism (and the giggles) left my body. Sure, it’s an aggressive way to tackle the troubles of commercialism, but perhaps dire times do genuinely call for drastic measures.

Barshad: One thing that originally weirded me about the whole thing was this fellow Cilvaringz. I’d never heard of him before, and I was concerned: Was he some kind of charming charlatan, worming his way into Wu high command and wielding power toward odd, nefarious ends? It turns out, though, that he’s just a huge Wu nerd (“Probably the biggest fan in the world,” he said last night, “’cause I actually got in there’”), and all he wants is what all Wu nerds want: new Wu music that sounds like old Wu music. “So, the first album?” Frere-Jones pressed him. “Like, the whole era,” he demurred, goofily trying to maintain respect toward the latter-day catalogue.

His story was nuts: As he explained last night, he managed to work his way onstage during a Wu show in Amsterdam in 1997; ODB spotted him rapping along to every word, yanked him up, and pushed him toward RZA. Immediately, RZA started gabbing his ear off: about how they should work together, how he was feeling his energy, blah blah blah. And then, at the same time, a fight instigated by Dirty getting a little too up close and personal with some guy’s girlfriend broke out. “He was playing with her breasts, and all of a sudden it was ‘Bring Da Ruckus,’” Cilvaringz chortled. Which is nuts, because then it took the young producer two years to get back with RZA.

He made five pilgrimages to RZA’s then-office in New York, until finally he got in touch with RZA’s mother, who told her son he had to hear this kid out. Years later, once they bonded, they would travel together to Giza and climb the pyramids and plot insane gimmick albums as the sun set among the world wonders. “RZA and I would ride horses in the desert, completely alone,” Cilvaringz said at one point, with wonderful deadpan. Basically, he’s just another kid who wants more shit that sounds like “Protect Ya Neck.” Not exactly a novel or interesting idea. But let’s at least give him the nod of appreciation for how hard he worked to get it.

Browne: I rarely have leak guilt, but I really don’t want this to leak. I really hope no one in that room sneaked in a phone and recorded it (even though, with the sound as loud and booming as it was, it’d be damn near impossible for anything resembling worthwhile quality to be recorded on a phone). The future of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin appears malleable (RZA and Cilvaringz seemed to be working out some of the logistics, even while they spoke onstage), but however it goes, I want it to go on the creators’ terms. If a museum becomes the highest bidder, and you have to travel to that museum to hear the music, I want the RZA to be OK with that. The idea of a pilgrimage to go hear the last Wu record, the same way final shows or retirement concerts go, is a beautiful one. On the surface, this project seems to be anti-fan. But having it be something that only the truest fans will jump through hoops to touch, to hear, to see, to experience, ultimately makes Once Upon a Time … one of the greatest fan pieces imaginable.

Filed Under: Music, Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, once upon a time in shaolin..., PS1, Cilvaringz, Sasha Frere-Jones