Once Upon a Time in Australia, and Wu-Tang Clan’s Bid for World Domination

On the thrill of the unknown, Tasmania’s unlikely bid for coolness, and loving what you know but can't have.
By    June 25, 2024

Image via Wu-Tang Clan/Discogs

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Once Upon a Time in Shaolin came equipped with its own pre-fabricated mythology. Recorded between 2007 and 2013 by Cilvaringz and the still-living members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the highly publicized, “one-of-one” album was famously pressed into a one-copy double disc and stored in an ornate metal box. From there, it was transferred to a vault at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Morocco to be later sold at auction in 2015 to pharma scam lord Martin Shkreli. The price tag was a reported $2 million.

Of course, the U.S. government soon seized it as part of a raid on Shkreli’s assets for his criminal fraud activities, only to be finally re-purchased for $4 million by NFT collectors, PleasrDAO. It is now the most singularly expensive work of music in all of human existence — more of an elaborately skewed heist scheme in a Guy Ritchie film than a rap album.

Once again, Staten Island’s brightest luminaries have weaved themselves into America’s cultural firmament. By delivering the promise of an industry-subverting holy grail of anti-streamable music, they have arguably achieved the unthinkable. They’ve gotten people to care about music that they will likely never hear. Or maybe they will.

The album was initially spurred by a 2004 trip to Egypt that Wu-Tang affiliate and Dutch rapper/producer Cilvaringz took with RZA. His idea was to restore the sanctity of music as an art form and object of value, and on behalf of the rap group that he idolized. Vociferous objections and disapproval followed from Method Man, who said that group members were left in the dark by Cilvaringz. And still, more than ten years after the album was finished, OUATIS is beginning to reveal itself slowly and strangely to the world.

If you want to hear the album, you’ll likely have to go to extreme lengths. Like, say, traveling to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania — which, for the past two weeks, hundreds of fans have actually descended upon in order to get a glimpse (what’s the sonic equivalent of a glimpse?) of the Wu’s sorcery.

By contractual fine print, no profits can be made from OUATIS until 2103, and it is banned from any commercial distribution or public sharing (Shkreli violated this rule by streaming it live after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. In June of 2024, he was sued by PleasrDAO for allegedly copying and selling the album.) The loophole: it can be played at private listening parties. Even if those exclusive happenings are held inside a large venue — such as an Australian art museum that is swinging for the fences. (PleasrDAO has since digitized and encrypted the album and is selling partial ownership of the work as an NFT).

I admit, I was tempted to go. I reached out to the museum and they were interested in having me attend as a culture reporter. Their rep assured me there was a good chance I could get a listen as a journalist if I happened to make the journey from the San Francisco Bay Area to the small island off the coast of Australia’s mainland (Hobart is one the world’s southernmost capital cities on the island-state of Tasmania, of obvious Tasmanian devil fame and where the architecturally wondrous MONA exists, all of which geographically sits so far down the map that it’s underneath the Down Under itself). The catch? I’d have to get down there within a week.

For about 48 hours, I scrambled to find flight options and hotel accommodations for the quickest (and most affordable) way [see: around $2,000 round-trip] of getting down there for a weekend. The majority of it would’ve been an out of pocket expense. And the time difference is a whole ass day. Fuck it.

I don’t have to tell you that it didn’t work out. How could it as a full-time worker and father of a toddler? The average rational American — or global citizen for that matter — wouldn’t have even wasted 24 seconds thinking about it. But for the chance to hear one of the world’s rarest and, technically, most valuable albums ever? It sat on my mind for some days, even when I knew deep down that it would require Ocean’s Eleven-levels of smoothness to execute. And maybe that’s part of the thrill behind the genius of Wu-Tang.

For two weeks, the MONA turned into the center of the high-arts universe — if that universe were ruled by one, Bobby Digital — with their latest exhibition, Namedropping. As the concept of the exhibit brilliantly suggests, and even pokes fun at, dropping big names can make fans do crazy shit. From Wu-Tang to Hello Kitty, a 1977 Torana A9X to Ringo Starr, Madonna to Porsche, Marilyn Monroe to McDonald’s, Namedropping examines the varying magnitudes of human status and branding — how it’s achieved, cherished, consumed.

“Why are we drawn to certain objects and people?” the museum’s website asks interested museumgoers. “Just try feeling the same way towards a mass-produced paperback copy of the Origin of Species as you do a hand-annotated manuscript. Might we somehow touch the genius of Picasso by holding a ceramic plate created by his studio but not potted and painted by the master himself?”

The exhibit’s description is lengthy, but boils down to this existential dilemma: “This is where status and our ferocious human pursuit of looking good in the eyes of others come into play. A fundamental component of creativity appears to be its use as a status enhancer, for attracting appropriate mates and allies—which is biologically useful and, in the grand scheme of evolutionary history, has helped you survive and to cycle your genes into future generations.

This is why we believe namedropping, signalling for status by association—be it for getting sex, power, enhanced reputation or in-group identity—is probably a universal human instinct. Social position is a life and death matter for human beings. Put simply, we are not evolved to survive and thrive alone. We’re born with brains primed to think about what other people think about, to pick out carers and kin and then, as the years go by, who’s socially helpful and what’s ‘special’. Namedropping can help you influence other people’s thoughts and narrow down who takes notice. And of course, what evolved for status-seeking and happy social interaction in our ancestral environment (come back to my cave and see my etchings) can have all sorts of different outcomes in modern life (eating too much foie gras is bad for you, while shark fin soup is very bad for sharks).”

What lengths are we willing to go to touch — or directly experience — something that has been deemed of cultural value? And how is that value assessed, ranked, and pedastalized? For me, Australia is one of the few continents I haven’t yet reached. If I could do that and get to listen to a rarified Wu-Tang album in the process, I figured it was worth the cross-planetary hike. But is it really? And how good can the album actually be — or does that part even matter? If I could simply stream the noise from my iPhone, how many deep listens would I truly give it? In some ways, Wu-Tang has, perhaps inadvertently, enacted a kind of social experiment on us all.

Abe Beame, a New York City writer I enjoy reading, had the chance to hear it, but on much cleaner terms. He biked over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan’s Lower East Side for a 17-minute audio session. By his own account, the snippet was dope and worthwhile for him. Which gives me hope. But even he admits that the album’s strength predominantly hinges on it being undersupplied and highly-curated.

“The value of this album is in its scarcity, it exploits our curiosity. At a time when everything is immediately accessible to us via the nearest screen, here is one thing we can’t have. It’s a Schrödinger’s box and you want to open the box, and a decade later it continues to captivate its audience because it provokes many of the questions that haunt the music industry, and our lives and at least suggests an answer that provokes many more questions and problems: Ethical questions of access to and ownership of art—that rap has always been a populist medium and it all should remain cheap and accessible for everyone—as well as functional questions of how to continue operating an industry dissolving before our eyes,” he wrote in his review for Complex.

He points to the seminal works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who had a painting that sold for $110.5 million in 2017 “thanks to a market set by the ancestors of the PleasrDAO guys and collectors like Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz.” Art’s price tags, he reminds us, are often dictated by the capricious whims of the ultra-wealthy. Does that make the art itself somehow better?

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Basquiat’s work at multiple venues throughout my life. His finished paintings; his sketches inside notebooks. I admit it didn’t move me much. But perhaps I had to be in the right context to appreciate it. Based on the art itself and my personal vantage point — devoid of any market value — I don’t think I’d pay more than $75 for one of his larger pieces. But I didn’t grow up studying and appreciating Basquiat’s work while he was alive in the way I grew up listening to the lyrical wizardry of Inspectah Deck and GZA, along with the rest of the Wu and Killa Beez on my older brother’s boombox inside the first apartment our dad moved into after his divorce. I didn’t attend any Basquiat galleries with a group of inner-circle homies I spent years in school cafeterias with, either; but I did see an ODB’less Wu-Tang performance with my guys at our hometown venue in the Bay Area, circa 2019. So yeah, that’s some sort of immeasurable value.

Image via Alan Chazaro

One of the first designs I ever learned how to tag as a boy with a black felt-tip marker was the indelible Wu-Tang logo — those thick, angular wings sweeping down on either side of a stoic, bird-like silhouette with curved, katana edges to form the “W.” Thinking back on it, it was one of my earliest indoctrinations as an unsupervised 90s kid, a kind of pledging of my allegiance to the mythical, weird territories of hip-hop that Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) introduced me to. Certainly underground at one point, playing at college radio stations and Audi tape decks throughout New York’s boroughs, the Wu’s reputation quickly blitzed the rest of the population in 1993-94. It reached me on the West Coast at a formative moment in my own upbringing, cutting through the noise of monotony and repetition with the visionary, unmatched sharpness of RZA’s gameplan. Wu-Tang members signed solo contracts with different labels, shattering precedent and allowing for independent and group output. They started a clothing line, got into the video game industry, and RZA published multiple best-sellers.

Hearing OUATIS — in Oceania or otherwise — would be less about how Wu-Tang exists in the present, as much as it would be about summoning my own ancestral connection to the group as I, and the group’s musical production, lurch into a different state of being. I missed the window to do that in Tasmania. But as a friend reminded me, it’ll probably be playing somewhere else soon, and I can just try to go there. More likely than not, I’d pay more than I should to do it.

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