The concept of the one-off, unique recording is as old as the phonograph record itself -- before mass-production, every record was by necessity a unique performance. But there's no question that Wu-Tang Clan have turned the whole idea -- as well as the entire model of creators' compensation -- on its ear with the forthcoming release of "The Wu -- Once Upon a Time in Shaolin," the group's 31-song album, recorded in secret over the past few years. One copy of the album, housed in an engraved silver-and-nickel box, will be created. It will then be put on a gallery tour like a work of art, where it will be played for paying attendees who will be screened heavily by security at the entrance in order to avoid leaks. It will then be sold to the highest bidder for as many millions as the group can get.
Billboard caught up with Wu-Tang's Robert Fitzgerald "RZA" Diggs, the group's longtime producer and the main driver of the project, via phone on Tuesday from Los Angeles, during a break from his promotion work on "Brick Mansions," his forthcoming action film with the late Paul Walker. He readily admitted that he doesn't completely understand the ramifications of what the group is doing, but also said that the statement is every bit as important as the business model.
Billboard: How many offers for "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" have you gotten so far?
RZA: To be honest with you, I've been getting a lot of emails: Some from people I know, some from people I don't know. Offers came in at $2 million, somebody offered $5 million yesterday, and they're also emailing other members of my organization. So far, $5 million is the biggest number. I don't know how to measure it, but it gives us an idea that what we're doing is being understood by some. And there are some good peers of mine also, who are very high-ranking in the film business and the music business, sending me a lot of good will. It's been real positive.
What exactly will the person who buys the album get? A record and a beautiful box, or do they get the rights to the recordings and the songs as well?
We're trying to put it under the same definition as a work of art, and when you buy art from a gallery it becomes your property, right? I'm not 100 percent educated on the deeper ramifications of art, but in theory, I would think that it's like when you bought a picture, it's your picture. I know there's other stipulations that's gonna pop up, but we understand this is a piece of art, so we should accept the terms of that.
So as far as you're concerned, whoever buys this would have the right to release it?
Well, that right there is delicate. But [when] people are emailing me, "I'll give you $5 million," I'm not personally gonna make that sale -- I'm not an art gallery. So I think the best thing is to go into that world and let it take its proper course. And then if somebody was to buy it and say "I'm gonna resell it," I don't see where there's a problem with that, in all reality. But we're still doing research on it.
The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such. And I don't wanna lose that, because it ain't really about the money at this level of my life, you know what I mean? I collect guitars and chessboards and certain things like that, and I'll pay a hefty price for a chessboard that I thought was a great piece of art. And I've been given gifts of pictures [worth] a million dollars as a wedding gift. If something is rare, it's rare. You cannot get another.
Also, it's a mark of a great period in history. Music chronicles time, and this is a chronicle of our time. At the Museum of Modern Art, when we honored Quentin Tarantino [at MoMA's fifth annual Film Benefit in December 2012], I played the piano. And after I played, I stood up and busted into a Wu-Tang Clan song -- Quentin loves Wu-Tang so it was a tribute to him. At the end, Harvey Weinstein was like, "Thanks RZA, that was kind of unexpected." You know, we are at MoMA, I'm cursing like a sailor, "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with," so he was like, "Wow." But then Chelsea Clinton walked over to me and said, "Thank you for finally bringing some style of art to MoMA." [Laughs] I laughed at it, but I see what she meant: Art is art, but at the same time generations' tastes are changing.
Were you aware of any of the other famous one-off releases in music history? Jean Michel Jarre's "Music for Supermarkets," Radiohead's "Videotape" James Rutledge-remix VHS?
No, but let me ask you: Who has it? Who has the physical copy? Let me explain something to you. When I first came with my company, Wu-Tang Records, I pressed up only 2,000 cassettes and about 10,000 pieces of vinyl of "Protect Ya Neck." It was on my own label, a red and orange label; it was my own money. So there's only 10,000 people in the world that have this, and there's only 2,000 who have this cassette. And a kid came up to me within the last eight months, with that cassette tape of this shit, yo, and I was like "Wow." And he wouldn't sell it for $2,000 -- and it doesn't even have the same use anymore. So it's like my 1961 Gretsch guitar -- I've got 50 guitars now, but that 1961 Gretsch that has more meaning to it than just a guitar.
So is this project a business model, or is it a statement?
Both! It's definitely a business model. This can change the idea and the venue of music. This is still a flower that's unfolding -- there's still more layers that have to blossom -- and this is only part one. It's a three-tiered idea, and I think you'll appreciate each one, especially since you calculate what's going on in this business. [The music industry has considered] changing how you measure gold and platinum -- [the definition could be based on] what it generates. So I think this is gonna be a whole different model.
I understand that people need to get the music, but the unfortunate thing for me as a producer and an artist is that to make a Wu-Tang record costs a lot of money! It's nine guys, musicians, and studios still cost a thousand dollars or more a day. So here we've got something we spent years developing and we're saying, it ain't just music, it's a piece of art, it's a capture of time… my phone's about to cut off.
How did the idea first come up? Was it you and Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh, the album's main producer?
It was something we devised together. He was thinking of something and I was thinking of something, and it's like a drummer and a bass player, it was like, "Wait, hold on, what we can do together to make a song?" So I made this idea with him. The only difference between me and him is I have a few other layers -- he's a student of mine, I'm a few years older. But he was very instrumental to this idea.
Real quick: What are the other two layers of the flower?
I wanna expose them as they come. Maybe you'll be the one to break it!