Walking west from the center of the centuries-old Jemaa El Fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco, the crowds start to thin as the snake charmers and spice merchants give way to modern boulevards clogged with old Mercedes taxis, fume-spewing mopeds and the occasional donkey. The Royal Mansour hotel rises in the distance—a destination packed with wares rarer than any in the old market—in particular, the hand-carved, silver-and-nickel box that will soon contain the only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
You’ll find a cobblestone street across Avenue Mohammed V, protected by red-and-white sawhorses and a security hut manned around the clock. A few hundred feet beyond, past a clutch of idling Range Rovers and a stand of palm trees helicoptered in from as far away as the ancient city of Fes, a cedar-and-metal gate large enough to fit the fuselage of a jumbo jet guards the Mansour’s front entrance.
Built by the King of Morocco at a cost insiders place north of $1 billion, the hotel is actually a collection of 53 smaller riads—mini-mansions that contain their own open-air courtyards, patios, bedrooms, dining rooms and roof decks. Nightly rates at the Mansour range from $2,250 to $50,000, depending on the size of the riad; as such, the guest list routinely contains a mix of billionaires and heads of state. It’s hard to imagine a more regal place for the vessel set to contain Wu-Tang’s album as it awaits its next move.
“We’ve very lucky to be able to hide it here, away from prying eyes,” says the creator of the box, a British-Moroccan artist known by the mononym Yahya, who has been exhibiting some of his other works at the Mansour. “Now we’ve opened it up … we have to find someone else to hide it.”
“Despite everybody thinking that this is some great publicity stunt or marketing ploy, this has been a genuine concept from the get-go,” adds Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, the album’s producer. “It happened to get a lot of publicity—great—but it is a genuine concept with a genuine core and a genuine goal.”
FORBES first broke the news of the secret album in late March, and since then, Wu-Tang’s search for a buyer has begun in earnest. The aforementioned box has been moved from a vault in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains to the Mansour for extra security. In the latest step toward unveiling Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, Cilvaringz invited us to Morocco to be the first civilians to hear part of the album—and to debut an exclusive snippet on Forbes.com.
Here’s a 51-second clip of the album.
Flying more than 3,500 miles from New York to Casablanca for less than a minute of music may seem a bit extravagant. Renting a car and braving Moroccan traffic for 150 additional miles (with a malfunctioning GPS unit, no less) may have been unwise. But there’s more to it than just the audio: the Wu-Tang story has become one of the biggest of the year in the entertainment business.
The group’s decision to release just one copy of the record sparked debates in the music industry that spilled from that first FORBESarticle into Billboard and Rolling Stone, then to mainstream outlets like Time and Fox News, and all around the globe via publications from Der Spiegel to the New Zealand Herald. Even billionaire Richard Branson weighed in (“I take my hat off to them for a really fun idea,” the Virgin Records founder explained in an interview at Kasbah Tamadot, his own Moroccan hideaway).
“People are responding to it in a very interesting way,” says Cilvaringz. “And it’s starting one of the things that we wanted it to start: debates. [It’s about] intensifying debate and really starting to look at music and the value of music in your life.”
So, when given a chance to report the next chapter of the story, we decided to dive in–and the journey began. Two days after our arrival in Morocco, Cilvaringz met me and a video producer Dikenta Dike at a studio in a tree-lined residential section of Marrakech, armed with the aforementioned clip.
He ushered us into a medium-sized room filled with soundboards and speakers, and as we settled in, Jay Z’s track “Crown” blasted through the studio, perhaps not coincidentally for its line, “Meanwhile this heretic / I be out in Marrakech, Morocco / Smoking hashish with my fellowship.”
Nothing of the sort was consumed during the session, but Cilvaringz seemed to identify with the heretic label. Since the news of the album broke, scores of Wu-Tang fans have complained that the one-copy model leaves them out in the cold. They’ve stood by the group for over two decades, they argue, and they should be able to hear Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
Cilvaringz and his Wu-Tang brethren, however, see the move as a way to bring music back to the status it enjoyed centuries ago as a fine art, on par with painting or sculpture. Just as the great masters were often commissioned by monarchs, they argue, why shouldn’t today’s top musicians enjoy the ability to do the same with their work?
“Go back to the Renaissance age,” says Cilvaringz. “Look at Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. You hold them in the same high esteem as a Rembrandt and van Gogh. These people, you don’t really differentiate between them, you just say they’re great masters of the arts of that time. But today [musicians] don’t value their own work, they don’t value themselves first, and of course the market doesn’t value their work.”
As RZA himself explained: “The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years. And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”
Wu-Tang’s artistic credentials resound beyond the rap world. According to a recent study by data scientist Matt Daniels, the group used 5,895 original words in its first 35,000 lyrics–more than Shakespeare (5,170) had by the same point in his career. Individual members of the Wu dominated the small pool of rappers ranked above the Bard, including Ghostface Killa (5,774), RZA (5,905) and GZA (6,426). Only Aesop Rock (7,392) topped the latter.
There’s plenty of incentive for Wu-Tang to use the one copy model aside from the notion of advancing art. Nobody from the group would confirm how the album’s eventual sale price will be divided among the Wu’s members, but the offers appear to be rolling in, and RZA has stated that there’s one on the table for $5 million.
The album seems to have taken on extra significance as the group’s members continue to squabble over the release of A Better Tomorrow, Wu-Tang’s long-awaited 20th anniversary record, with RZA and Raekwon publicly airing their grievances with one another. The internal strife could threaten its release, leaving Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as the last album to feature every member of the group.
And, as Cilvaringz fired up the prized snippet, it immediately became clear that the record’s eventual buyer will receive something that most closely resembles the work of Wu-Tang in its 1990s heyday. The selection features blaring firetruck horns, thunking helicopter rotors and a crowd chanting the group’s name with religious fervor.
The beats are bellicose and battering, while the vocals exude an urgency that’s missing not only from Wu-Tang’s recent work, but from the popular hip-hop that has allowed mainstream glory to so often lure it away from its gritty roots in recent years. That type of sound, says Cilvaringz, was the goal.
“It’s a conceptual record where you’re trying to go back to ‘93-‘97, that glorious time,” he explains. “To get brothers into that mode again, as if they just came off the street, as if they were still out there trying to make a living and surviving, it’s difficult. … You’re trying to get them into an aggressive mode and the beats are aggressive, and funny enough, it drew it out of them, the beats actually commanded the way they performed.”
Still, capturing the vintage Wu-Tang sound took some time. Cilvaringz estimates that 80% of the vocals had to be redone—not because they were incorrect, but because they didn’t have the right energy or enough anger, or because they otherwise lacked a sufficiently rough approach.
That said, the small sample of the album that FORBES got hold of does reveal something of a departure from Wu-Tang’s most rugged roots–in the form of an appearance by what appears to be Cher (a representative for the singer would neither confirm nor deny that she is indeed featured on Once Upon A Time In Shaolin).
There are plenty of questions that remain to be sorted out before the album’s success as a business story can be accurately evaluated—most importantly, there’s the issue of finding a buyer. But even before that, Wu-Tang must decide on a means by which to sell its unusual album. Cilvaringz confirms that the group has been in discussions with multiple auction houses who’d be willing to sell Once Upon A Time In Shaolin just as they might sell a multi-million-dollar painting or a rare set of dinosaur bones.
“Anyone can send an email saying, ‘I got $55 million,’” says Cilvaringz. “I got one like that before. But it’s like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Somebody sent from a Mark Zuckerberg email [account] yesterday, at Gmail, ‘I got $10 million, please don’t tell the press that I’ve contacted you.’ You get emails like that. That’s why you need a broker in between, someone that people who are interested in buying this thing will feel comfortable dealing with.”
And then there’s the issue of the group’s planned “tour,” wherein the album would be carted around to galleries and other exhibition spaces where fans could pay $30-$50 to listen to the two-hour recording on headphones. According to Cilvaringz, interested parties range from world-renowned museums to major universities, though nothing has been finalized.
So, as the final gears slide into place, the box awaits its fate from the comfort of its riad in the middle of the most expensive hotel in North Africa. Should the effort fail, it may make Ozymandias look modest. But its purveyors are well aware of the risks.
“It’s either genius or madness,” says Yayha of the whole endeavor. “And I suppose we’ll [find] out which if it works.”
Video production, editing and shooting by Dikenta Dike. Additional shooting by Rashad Patterson.