September 12, 2017

Max's Book Club #1: Once Upon a Time In Shaolin

Although I apparently can't be bothered to find time to write about hip hop albums (will another review of mine ever grace this site? Who knows? But yeah, probably, and sooner than you or I would think *wink*), I have found myself reading more, which is nice. And with the response in the comments of my last post, in which I celebrated the late Prodigy by inviting readers to give their thoughts about his first book, My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy, I figured that (a) there is still an audience for this blog, thank you very much for sticking around after over a year of no updates,and (b) some of you may also be interested in a hip hop book club of sorts. Hence today's post, which focuses on Cyrus Bozorgmehr's firsthand account of the recording, marketing, and sale of the failed Cilvaringz solo Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time In Shaolin.

As the asshole that ultimately purchased the only copy of the album, pharma-bro Martin Shkreli, is again a part of news cycles today, thanks to his recent fraud conviction and his current attempt to sell Once Upon a Time in Shaolin on eBay, I thought this would be a good time to pick the ear of your two and find out what everyone thinks of Cilvaringz, the RZA, Shkreli, and the entire project itself, which attempted to create an art-world analogue for music, and may or may not have succeeded, depending on how angry you are about the existence of a Wu-Tang Clan project that you may never get to hear. Although if this post convinces some humanitarian to purchase and/or steal the album from that dick Shkreli and unleash it onto the general public, thereby negating Cilvaringz' pretentious-as-fuck goal of assigning artificial significance to an album of his that would have never seen itself on any label's release schedule otherwise, well, I wouldn't be upset, is what I'm saying. And yes, I realize that you may have inferred how I feel about this entire endeavor with my last sentence, but the hell with it, you know I'm right.

I found some aspects of the book fascinating, especially Bozorgmehr's attempts to justify Cilvaringz's actions and the underlying subtext of The RZA, the de facto head of the Wu, in case you forgot, kind of entertaining Cilva's whims (as though there were no other members of the Clan that wanted to run ideas by him, which was fucking weird) by the mere fact that he was too fucking busy to take charge, allowing Once Upon a Time In Shaolin to happen almost through inaction on his own part at first. And then he segues into stories about hanging out with the RZA in a Buddhist temple while listening to Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) for the first time, because despite actually appearing on the fabled album (in a skit, but still), he never bothered to listen to it, and never actually wanted to, because he isn't a fan of hip hop. There's also some stuff about Cher and her guest appearance, which never personally interested me but I guess is a big deal, and there's an awful lot of ink wasted on trying to make Shkreli come across as a decent human being who was merely playing the "role" of "a complete fucking dick". But whatever.

I'd love to know what the rest of you two think of the book (so you may want to read it first), or even the album itself, since, as far as I can remember, I've never opened up any sort of forum for Wu stans to talk about how upset this move made them. Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and we'll chat. And if this works out, maybe we can keep the book club running...

EDIT: ADDED 9.15.17
I wrote my above comment about this being a failed Cilvaringz solo as a passive-aggressive dig, but as it turns out there's a chance that, as with everything else, I'm right. And so the saga continues. 

EDIT #2: ADDED 9.21.17
This story will never end, apparently, as Wu-Tang "affiliate" (I use that term loosely, as most of you two will have never heard of him even though he's actually been featured on this very site) M-Eighty throws a monkeywrench into the machinery, adding a layer of doubt on Shkreli's "sale" of the album. But at least M-Eighty wants to release the album to the masses, so maybe we'll be able to finally listen to it and then dismiss it entirely, as it will be just a Cilvaringz album with maybe a handful of good performances (mark my words).


(Purchasing the book on Amazon helps support the blog, thereby providing me with more money to try to keep the site running.)


  1. I'm reading a lot recently too, though I confess mostly Space/NASA related biographies currently (Mike Mullane's is very good).

    Will check this one out and report back...

  2. If the Wu-Tang Clan is going to make another group album, it has to be a double album produced entirely produced by Pete Rock and DJ Muggs. And it absolutely MUST be subtitled Soul Brother [meets/vs] Soul Assassin.

    (I will also accept a supplemental double album produced entirely by Easy Mo Bee and DJ Premier)/

    1. Isn't a lot of the appeal of a proper Wu-Tang album keeping the production within the family, though? I mean, yeah, RZA has gone off the deep end, but the other Wu Elements must need some work.

  3. "Isn't a lot of the appeal of a proper Wu-Tang album keeping the production within the family, though?"

    As is sampling Lyn Collins' "Ain't No Sunshine" and the Vargas/Carlos Bess drum breaks.

    In all seriousness, Muggerud and Pete Rock ARE the outside producers who the Wu has worked with the most, so a double album strikes me as pretty reasonable (not to mention all sorts of kickass). And 4th Disciple produced a track on Sean Price's Imperius Rex, so.

    Also worth noting how Muggs has gradually morphed into an inverted RZA – i.e., a highly skilled & innovative, still-improving hip-hop producer, albeit with mostly variable (re: embarrassing) ventures outside the genre.

    1. That DJ Muggs dubstep album should disqualify him from any full Wu-Tang Clan production. He can do another Grandmasters, though, and if his full-length with Deck ever sees the light of day, I'd check that out.

      Pete Rock... okay, sure, he can at least contribute.

      DJ Premier, I'd say no, just because his output these days (aside from PRhyme) is lacking. And I don't know what Easy Mo Bee has been up to in the past fifty years.

      Give a Wu project to Adrian Younge, and I'm all in. (Where's my Twelve Reasons To Die 3 announcement, Younge?)

    2. ...OK, the dubstep album is pretty much indefensible. But the DJ Muggs-produced half of my proposed album can just be a Grandmasters album. (And in my defense, 1) Muggs' production on Mount Ninji and da Nice Time Kid was much better than his dubstep venture, and 2) Muggs' rap albums don't have his cross-genre experiments dominating the project anywhere near the extent that RZA did on A Better Tomorrow).

      I can see why, but I'd attribute that as much to Premier's punching below his weight w/r/t guests. Speaking of: When the hell is his Nas collabo ever coming out?

      Easy Mo Bee released an instrumental album and collabo with Emskee in 2015. I chose him largely because RZA & True Master both credited him as essential to developing their sounds.

    3. I had to look up Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid, as I have a particular aversion to Die Antwoord and had no idea that Muggs ever did anything with them. Maybe his work does sound good there: I'm not ready to find out yet. But you're right: when he produces an album with rappers (aside from that dubstep abomination), he stays in that lane, so maybe I'm being arbitrarily dismissive.

      Any thoughts on the book and/or the still-ongoing controversy?

    4. I'm not going to lie, Mount Ninji was probably the hardest album I've ever had to sit through. The production is generally pretty good, and Die Antwoord has skills...but DAMN if their actual performances aren't one of the most infuriating things I've ever heard; I literally wanted to murder Ninja and Yo-landi multiple times during the album. (For what it's worth, their work in the Constructus Corporation wasn't nearly as obnoxious and actually a reasonably good listening experience).

      As for the controversy: I pretty much agree with the OP that it's a terrible idea that almost certainly couldn't live up to the height, especially one produced by a fairly low-ranking weed carrier. There is (was?) a wealth magazine called Nomenus Quarterly that artificially hiked up its price to $6500 by restricting circulation to 10 issues per run (as opposed to $2500 for a 50-issue run); this move by the Wu-Tang reeks of tryhard art-school asshattery. While I also don't think much of RZA's involvement in A Better Tomorrow, I think it would've been genuinely interesting if he & the Wu had done experimentation in the vein of, say, Luciano Berio's Sequenza series).

    5. I could get behind that. A ten-part sequence, one for each Wu member, with entirely different (or slightly tweaked) musical backing, released individually that could stand on their own, but when combined, forms a masterful composition that alters your interpretation? THAT sounds far more appealing than "let's release a double-disc album that only one person will ever be able to listen to, unless that person is feeling charitable, but oh, the guy who's interested is a known asshole, sure, let's sell it to him". You could even still do the art-museum tour for the ten-piece composition if you wanted.

      It would definitely be one of the only ways you would pay money to listen to a Cappadonna verse at the MoMA, anyway.

    6. That's actually a better idea than what I had originally – a group album, but the instrumentals being performed/mixed in such a way that no two replaying of the songs sound exactly alike.

      You could go even further with the concept, with the musical backing for each member corresponding with one of Berio's installments – so: Track 1 uses flutes, Track 2 harps, Track 3 female vocals, etc. And there were 14 total installments in Sequenza, so you could fill out the remaining spots with Killa Beez (e.g., Killah Priest, Holocaust, Prodigal Sunn) or previously affiliated artists (e.g. Redman, MF Doom, Nas).

    7. I'd remove the affiliates, but otherwise I could see this experiment working far more successfully than whatever Cilvaringz was pretending to do.

    8. You mean the Killa Beez, other artists, or both.

    9. Both, really. You don't really need Redman or Nas on a Wu album, and DOOM wouldn't really gel anyway.

  4. what a complete coincidence
    i just finished reading that article when i decided to visit the blog to re-read your wu reviews

    anyway this whole project was a mess from the get-go and rza shouldn't have let himself be talked into it by some unknown peripheral affiliate but money talks i guess

    1. I'm happy to hear that there are readers that will go back to the old reviews. Thanks for that.

  5. What changes the context of this post in my head at least is the announcement of a 'new Wu' album, which isn't really a new Wu album as its entirely produced by Mathematics (and to join in on the Cilvaringz digs, Math was always a way better producer when he wanted to be than Cilv anyway). Have you heard the single track 'People Say' with Red, Max? That track got me pretty hype... they sounded hungry for the first time in what feels like years. Yet to be seen how the disc will turn out if it's ever released however. Somewhere in there I intended to have a point about 'fuck OUATIS' when there's elements like Mathematics (and obviously spitters from the Wu, although not necessarily RZA) who are still actually giving music to the fans, no bullshit attached. A breath of fresh air from all this horseshit about an album I truly don't believe the likes of Meth, Rae or GZA even give a fuck about as their performances are probably phoned in anyway. Why should they have felt the need to get out of bed for a c-teamer like Cilvaringz?

    Oh, and fuck Shkreli.

    Great to see you're alive Max. Keep doing your thing bro

    1. I haven't listened to "People Say" (nor, as I have alluded to in the past, any Wu projects on purpose over the past couple of years), but when I read the press release (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was still on the label's mailing list even after years of inactivity), I got not an Allah Math 'The Problem' vibe, but a 'Wu-Tang Chamber Music' or a 'Legendary Weapons'-feel, mostly because of the inclusion of the late Sean Price, so while I'm not excited in the least, I'm hoping that it's at least listenable. But I'm sure it will see a release: I just don't think the RZA will be as involved as the PR indicates, and for some reason I highly doubt every Wu member will be included, but that's just me being pessimistic as usual.

      Thanks for (still) reading!

    2. According to the tracklisting released recently, neither GZA nor U-God appear on however The Saga Continues is being classified as, which might be why the PR is cleverly and carefully not referring to it as a "Wu-Tang Clan" album. Hmmm...

  6. The funny thing is, for me, I actually don't mind the 'music is art' idea. Although pretentious, it's a novel and innovative concept in my head in a genre where there doesn't seem to be enough of either. Trouble is, a) I'm sad it happened to be from the Wu, as despite mediocre recent output I never DON'T want to hear their stuff from curiousity alone, and b) I don't truly believe the motivation for this was music as art. Seems more like a grab for relevancy (as well as a tasty check) from Cilv and to a lesser extent RZA than an artistic statement. However, I've not read the book. Is this a fair assumption Max, given you've read the book? Great work btw

    1. The book tries to set up Cilvaringz as an innovator who came up with the idea as a way to counteract the availability and accessibility, and thereby "devaluing" (quotes mine, as I don't agree) of music as an art form. The RZA doesn't really factor into much until the album is complete and ready to be marketed, which only adds to the (soon to be proven, mark my words) theory that this was a failed Cilvaringz project with Wu members (and folks like Killa Sin and maybe even Shyheim, according to that article: they aren't mentioned in the book) that Cilva wouldn't have been able to generate interest for otherwise, had it not been for this art-world conceit.

      I walked away from this thinking that (a) music IS art, obviously, and while you may create art for only your own consumption, most artists WANT to be seen/heard/read/whatever; (b) the Wu-Tang Clan were not the best choice for this kind of experimentation, but at the same time, given their cache in popular culture (who hates the Wu? Honestly?) they were really the only choice if you were to stick with our chosen genre (a single-copy Jay-Z album wouldn't work well at ALL). I will concede that Kanye West would probably be the only other rap act that "could" attempt this, since Yeezus was basically an art installation burned to disc, but still; (c) Cilvaringz was absolutely trying to make a name for himself through unconventional channels, but he still had to pay the Clan for their verses out of pocket, so I don't know how much money this actually made for hime; and (d) Cilva does come across as a weed carrier who lucked into a conversation with RZA where the man agreed to sell out his fellow group members in the name of "art" (let's be real, RZA was most likely high as shit at the time).

      What say you?

    2. Ultimately I would say that there's only so much I may comment validly without having read the book. But it seems like the book is biased towards painting Cilv in a more positive light than most Wu fans would, and that's an interesting perspective as like you said, the author isn't a Wu fan. I would be as interested in reading another account from a perspective of greater scrutiny for the core concept of the album to see the how greatly the stories differ.

      Also, I agree entirely with your second point. Seems almost false advertising to say it's a Wu album. Funny how Cilv did most of the work, its essentially his album, but no one would give a fuck if he released it under his own name.

      Also, most importantly Max, for a million dollars do you think the liner notes would be as good as they are for Sunz Of Man's the last shall be first? Bought that album on your recommendation; that's some professional shit right there!

    3. I would certainly hope so, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the liner notes are riddled with misspellings and writing credits are fucked up. (From an image I've seen online, I don't think individual Wu members are credited with any writing credits (just grouped in as 'Wu-Tang Clan'), but Cilvaringz sure as hell is.

    4. "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" is like Watergate; you find out about this interesting thing only to it to progress to a point where you want a conclusion.

      Martin Shkreli emerged as the lucky buyer mainly due to his skills in negotiation and with that came a lot of revelations that he increased the price of an AIDS drug by 5,000% so naturally he'd be in the news somehow. (he could of passed this off by saying one of his companies did it)

      Of course... Martin Shkreli knows how to gain attention and everything he did was to live those 15 seconds of fame, perhaps even extend it from the Ghostface Killah beef to him getting a copy of Tha Carter to his personality. (read the answers to the eBay questions, you'll know what I'm talking about)

      It was as if he knew he wouldn't be able to sustain that fame for long.

      I don't know how "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" will turn out. I've read that the verses were recorded specifically for another album and that the entire thing is a pet project by some producer who wanted to make his dream Wu-Tang project so I'm kind of interested to see how it'll turn out.

      Of course, it may never be released due to Martin's ability to stall things forever but I still have hope.

      This may not be as big as they make it out to be but I relish in the fact that this saga will finally end and I'll be able to listen to an album that once sold for 2 million.

  7. Really couldn’t care less about Shkreli at this point. The Cilvaringz album though? A misunderstanding that grew into a hot mess that SURELY alienated the rest of the Wu from him by now, all because of his boneheaded stannery and the RZA being plain boneheaded.

  8. Hey Max, one time I wrote a terrible guest review for you that you never published (good, reading it back I cringed so much my face inverted):

    Anyway, this Wu business has possibly been the biggest dark mark on Wu's name and legacy. I haven't read the book, but I've been following its story since it began. At this point all that's left is either for the album to die in a vault somewhere, or for it to be judged by the masses. And the thing is, if its bad, then this whole thing was a waste of time. If it's great, then its just sad that it took so long to get out.

    The ideas behind it are nuts though. I do get how the devaluation of art is an issue, but the artificial scarcity of a single copy is pretty much the opposite of the entire nature of their discography, one where the production is based off of sampling and remixing old tracks. Hip hop takes music as a communal pool to draw from, it's dumb to then turn around and do something so obviously against the spirit of its own music. Like I understand the nature of applying more value to art, but the amount of arrogance in creating one copy, as opposed to say doing a limited run of 20. All it does is just feed an ego trip for the one buyer, at the expense of almost every single fan the wu-tang clan has ever made.

    The thing that bothers me though is just the lack of care that seems to exist now. I know I'm going on a bit, but I think the difference with the wu-tang is they had a run where they did it right, I think you can make a case for most of their albums up to The W, solo and otherwise (most, I say most) being strong, hard-hitting and focused hip hop albums. Obviously its impossible to keep up the run from 1993 to now without faltering, and so much has happened in between, but quite simply they're not even a clan anymore. They're 9 different solo artists of varying quality who don't function as a unit anymore. I won't ask your opinion on The Saga Continues because I know you haven't listened to it, but if I could say much about it, it just sounds like the word "fatigued". There's spots of greatness (Inspectah Deck still on his Czarface run) but mostly its just the same sound only flatter and less forceful.

    I've gone on for too long, and its just a kid who only fell into the Wu like 4-5 years ago so sue me if you think I'm full of shit, but they have spent so long mining this one gritty sound when other, more grittier sounds have come along since then, and the only time they're pushed out of their comfort zone is by nutty RZA who's just caught between trying to be a showy composer (which doesn't work) and not wanting to stick to his old sound (which he can't do anymore).

    This OUATIS album is a sad thing, regardless of its quality. It shows a group which aren't really a group anymore, who would rather infight, sue each other, and just not even know what the others are doing (in the case of the release of Saga Continues, it seems half the group didn't even know it was coming out).I can't remember the last time Wu sounded like a clan, either in their music or in their shit surrounding their music. It's a shame their first album cast such a long shadow for them to live in, but there's plenty of sounds and opportunities for them to reinvent themselves (Twelve Reasons to Die series) without crashing and burning. But if they can't work together, I honestly don't see how they're ever gonna put out anything which could even potentially surpass their five year plan streak. And its weird that in a discussion about valuing art, the one that's gonna be remembered is the dusty, battered, dark intro to the group, the one that was made on shoestrings and was rough and gritty and had a history in soul music and a future in influencing so much of hip hop to come. But I don't see anyone who's gonna remember OUATIS as anything other than an ego-trip/pseudo-art nonsense/not even that good of an album to be worth $2million.