Being tricked isn't the worst feeling. Being tricked when you should have known better is the worst feeling.
When I confronted my parents about the supposed existence of Santa Claus I wasn't mad to learn they had tricked me all those years. I was actually proud that I had figured it out. There was no shame in being a second-grader fooled by a massive adult conspiracy, and what had they tricked me into believing? That some pretend bearded guy had given me a brand new Huffy? Whatever, I still had a brand new Huffy.
But Wu-Tang's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album? Once I stumbled across this Reddit post alleging that the entire album was essentially a complex plot to rake in profits off a falsely inflated album, it felt something like the worst feeling. I'm a hip-hop journalist who's supposed to ask questions and I had just accepted this historic, elaborate album without hesitation. And worse yet, if the album was a lie, it was a lie I was complicit in as someone who had written glowing reviews of the album's concept before. But the only thing worse than being fooled is actively choosing to remain fooled, and so I once I started questioning, the questions came fast.
RZA, hip-hop's most notorious control freak, a man who had produced the vast majority of all the songs on the Wu's other six albums, had just completely handed over all the production on a Wu album to someone who'd never before produced a single song for the group? RZA, the man who group members had compared to a dictator because he literally wouldn't let them hear their own verses after they had recorded them, had let Cilvaringz, a guy with frankly zero major-level music experience, helm an album he intended to place in museums and sell for millions of dollars?
Something wasn't adding up, and the space between what I knew and what seemed like common sense opened the door for a good conspiracy theory to walk into my life. That conspiracy theory as I've come to understand it goes a little something like this.
* A Wu-Tang superfan named Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh hangs around the Clan so much - showing up at shows, running a Wu-Tang fan site - that he starts being considered extended family.
* Cilvaringz is also an aspiring musician who parlays his fandom into a Wu-Tang Records signing and appears on a handful of Wu-related tracks (like RZA's "You'll Never Know"). His '07 solo album, I, also features several verses from Wu-Tang members.
* About six years ago, Cilvaringz starts to put together his dream album, doing his best to recreate the vibe of early RZA beats and paying individual members for verses, which they give him because they think it's for his album, not for an official Wu-Tang album.
* Two years ago Cilvaringz plays an earlier version of the album for Andrew Kelley. At this point there's absolutely no mention of RZA being involved in any way, or of the "1 copy" concept. At the time Kelly wrote:
Ringz’ new Wu-Tang album, it took me right back...Song after song he played gave that old feeling we have missed from the Clan in the last 10 years or so. The beats, the rhymes, the skits, the interludes… The posse cut single… He did it. He got that time machine working and really captured the spirit & essence of those days we lived so many years ago. Every Clan member is present spitting some of the best verses you have ever heard from them....The next time I sit down with RZA I will definitely be speaking with him about this album. Finish it up Ringz, all Wu-Tang fans deserve that “time machine” moment."
* It becomes clear to Cilvaringz that he won't be able to put out the album with a stamp of approval from RZA, who directly controls all things Wu-Tang, and that even if he got RZA's stamp of approval, there's just not much of a market for a Wu-Tang album produced entirely by someone the wider public doesn't know. Cilvaringz doesn't want to see his passion project be casually dismissed as one of the nearly countles numbers of Wu-Tang affiliate albums.
“It took a long time,” says Cilvaringz. “After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?’” - Forbes
* Similiarly, RZA doesn't want the best "Wu-Tang" album in years to be produced by someone else, especially since it would mean that album would end up competing with the Wu-Tang album he's currently working on, A Better Tomorrow.
* So the two come up with the idea of touring the album as an exhibit in art museums, and after that museum tour ends they'll open up the album for purchase by a single buyer. Under this plan they'd make far more money than if they simply sold the album outright, can avoid having the album directly compete with other Wu-Tang releases, can cloak just how little involvement RZA actually had in its creation, and can make a grand statement about the worth of music and art. Frankly, it's a genius move.
According to RZA...the plan is to first take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on a “tour” through museums, galleries, festivals and the like. Just like a high-profile exhibit at a major institution, there will be a cost to attend, likely in the $30-$50 range...Once the album completes its excursion, Wu-Tang will make it available for purchase for a price “in the millions.” Suitors could include brands willing to shell out for cool points and free publicity...or major record labels hoping to launch the album through the usual channels." - Forbes
* Of course, elevating the album's cultural and financial status will require downplaying Cilvaringz's role, playing up RZA's involvement, and insisting that this single-copy, album-as-rare-art idea was always the plan. (Cilvaringz appears to have systematically deleted many of his older fan forum threads and social media posts about the album's earlier days.) This leads to some frankly confusing explainations about who in Wu-Tang knew what, and when they knew it, but there's no one better at being confusing and enigmatic than RZA.
* Without explaination RZA and Cilvaringz drop the museum tour idea (which the media is also apparently happy to pretend was never a thing) because it turns out that museums, "brands and major record labels" aren't particularly interested in what in truth amounts to an insanely expensive Cilvaringz album. Change of plans. Now the pair say they'll skip right to selling the album via a private auction house, and that the buyer of that album will be unable to release it commercially for 88 years. That means that, for all intents and purposes, no one will ever hear the album.
* November 24, 2015: Forbes reports that the album has sold "for a price 'in the millions' to 'a private American collector." Mission accomplished.
[Oh, and in a March interview with the Huffington Post, Method Man, who god bless him has always just said exactly what's on his mind, says: "I can't stand Cilvaringz by the way. When he did it, he paid us, to do the songs on that record, as individuals which is what he was supposed to do...It wasn't no "Once upon a time in Shaolin" it was records, here, get on this record." That's not part of the conspiracy theory, that's a real thing that Meth said that really adds credence to the conspiracy theory.]
The more I read over the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin conspiracy theory, the more it seems like less of a conspiracy theory and more like the truth. I've seen the album referred to as a "Cilvaringz Frankenstein Project" that Azzougarh and RZA figured out how to both keep hidden from the public and sell for millions, using the largely unquestioning media like a kung-fu movie sample while they were at it, and that feels like more of an accurate description than "Wu-Tang Clan Album."
There can be a difference though between what makes sense, what feels right, and the truth though. People are unpredictable, life is complicated, often what seems like an intricate, mysterious plot from the outside is simply the people actually involved honestly making their best decisions about what's directly in front of them. A mouse doesn't even have to know he's in a maze to find his way out of a maze. So yes, of course I don't actually know the truth of this album's history and the intentions of RZA and Cilvaringz. Maybe the duo really did always plan on selling the album as an exclusive single-copy album and have been working together on it for the last six years. Maybe.
Regardless, as much as I supported Once Upon a Time in Shaolin at first I now actively oppose it. When I originally thought the album was about putting hip-hop into museums alongside priceless art, when it was about making the public question how much music was worth, I loved it. It felt like RZA was striking a blow at the establishment on behalf of the people, bumrushing the Louvre and putting the Wu flag next to the Mona Lisa. But along the way Once Upon a Time in Shaolin mutated into something else, something that cut out the people, the fans who had lived and died alongside the Wu, and replaced them with auction houses and private bidders. This doesn't feel like an elevation of hip-hop into the upper echelons of art, this feels like a rich guy selling something the average person will never see to another rich guy. And that feels something like the worst feeling.
"I love the RZA and the whole Wu Academy / For givin' me a chance to be what I wanna be" - Cilvaringz
* One last question I can't let go of; who bought this album? Certainly someone spending millions would have done their homework and realized that, no matter how you cut it, this isn't exactly a full-on, RZA-produced Wu-Tang album. Is there really some hip-hop fan out there so rich they're willing to pay millions for a quasi-Wu Tang album they'll have to keep locked up for another 88 years because RZA placed that quasi-Wu-Tang album in a fancy box? Apparently that person does exist, although it's hard to imagine who it could be. Oh shit, what if RZA himself is the un-named buyer!??!?!?!?!