Creating music fit for museums

The veteran hip-hop crew Wu-Tang Clan hope to take music back to its rightful place at the top table of high art. We hear how from Clan member and album producer Tarik 'Cilvaringz' Azzougarh and the Dubai-based executive producer Wissam Khodur.

Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan performs at the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival last June in Manchester, Tennessee. Jason Merritt / Getty Images / AFP
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The internet has been on fire over the last few days since the announcement of the hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan's ambitious plan for their next album. The veteran rappers hope to take music back to the status of high art by releasing Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as one single copy of the master CD, housed in a silver-and-nickel box created by the Moroccan-British artist Yahya.

Initially, the unique artefact will tour museums and galleries, where fans will be able to listen to the album in situ alongside visuals and possible appearances from Clan members. Following its world tour, the single copy will be sold to the highest bidder for what the band expects to be a multimillion dollar sum. Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, the Morocco-based Wu-Tang member who has produced the latest opus, explains: “When I started making this album, I just wanted to make an album that paid no attention to the rules. I knew from the outset that what I was going to do with this album was bigger than me and bigger than Wu-Tang.

“Nobody else has a copy of this record, even the rest of the Clan. That secrecy is vital or the whole project is ruined.”

He adds: “I wanted to take music back to the days when a record was a moment in life to remember. The longevity of a record just doesn’t exist anymore in the era of downloading, and, in many cases, music has been devalued to the point of it being free. Artists such as Beethoven and Mozart are held in the same high esteem as Picasso and Michelangelo, so why can’t Dr Dre or RZA have a similar value to a US$50 million [Dh184m] painting by Andy Warhol? That pushed me to come up with this idea, and figure the only difference is exclusivity. There’s only one painting, and you can’t duplicate it, so I decided to take a music album and limit it to one copy in the same way.”

One part of this story that hasn’t been widely reported is that one of the album’s executive producers is the Dubai-based Wissam Khodur, by day a managing partner at Ohm Events, by night the successful rapper Eslam Jawaad.

“I was signed to the Ringz label as an artist back in 2004, and we both had a strong interest in the business side of music, so we became business partners,” Khodur recalls. “When this project came along, I took on the financial management and co-executive produced it while he produced it musically.”

It’s a fascinating concept, but the cynic in me can’t help noticing that the Wu-Tang Clan have another new album due to drop with a full commercial release in the very near future, too. Could there be an element of marketing involved here?

“When we started on this project five years ago, we just wanted to make a fantastic album,” Khodur insists. “The reception has been amazing, so it’s already achieved a lot in terms of promotion value. There were something like 60,000 tweets per minute when the news came out, but this was all about trying to bring music back to the status of high art. Of course it’ll help the follow-up album, too. No one is upset about that, but ultimately we’re trying to revolutionise how music is sold and hopefully pave the way for other artists to do similar things.”