Thursday, January 28, 2016

CULTURAL MASH-UP: The Wu-Tang Clan & 19th-Century Prairie Writers [UPDATED]

Last week, a Ghostface Killah called out a Vole-Faced Dwarf. That is, the popular Wu-Tang rapper and Couples Therapy alumni expressed his displeasure at universally loathed Big Pharma CEO Martin Shkreli plopping down a cool $2 mil for Once Upon A Time in Shaolin, the Clan's hella rare new double album.

Flashback to 2014: The nine-man Staten Island rap collective used footage of protests from the open (and still festering) racial wound of Ferguson, Missouri in its video for "A Better Tomorrow," the title track from its first album since 2007's 8 Diagram. They also revealed that, in celebration of their 20th anniversary, that co-producers The RZA and Morocco-based Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh had spent the intervening six years secretly compiling the 128-minute, 31-track Shaolin. There were just two catches. First, there would be only one copy of the double album in existence—all physical and digital backups would be destroyed. Second, the album came with an 88 YEAR "non-commercialization clause."

As Cilvaringz ("Silver Rings" -- get it?) explained to Forbes: “After 88 years the copyright, which includes public and commercial rights, automatically transfers to the owner of the work. However, it will still be his or her choice at that [point] to release it or not release it.” RZA elaborated in a tweet that the bizarre time frame "means corporations can't buy it & mass produce it"—unless the richest Wu-Tang fan on Earth appeared out of the clouds to pay for it.

Before Shaolin made its first "physical" appearance at Paddle8, an online auction house that also represented famous NY artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel, it sat locked like the Pink Panther diamond inside a vault in the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakesh. It was impermeable and unreachable from file-sharers, music-biz hacktivists and blogosphere reviewers inside a silver-and-nickel-plated box designed to by British-Moroccan artist Yahya Rouach, whose works have been commissioned by Saudi princes.

Predictably, the 'net went nanners. Faithful fans of the Wu felt left out of what appeared to be a cynical (if not fiendishly brilliant and game-changing) cash grab from a group whose current collective relevance hovered somewhere between Jah Rule and Zima. Many voices in the hip-hop press decried the Wu as "elitist sell-outs" and declared Shaolin as light years away from the gritty Queensbridge projects that birthed the Wu's singular spaghetti-Western-mystical-kung-fu aesthetic. (Never mind that Jay-Z was making whole short films about debuting raps in über-cool New York art galleries.) The RZA defended the project as a "radical statement" on the de-evaluation of art in the technological age that was inspired by a 2004 trip with Cilvaringz to the Pyramids of Giza, which got him thinking on the singularity of such ancient creations: "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.”

Shaolin drew barbs from members of the Wu itself. In an interview with XXL, Method Man groused: "When music can’t be music and y’all turning it into something else, fuck that. Give it to the people, if they want to hear the shit, let them have it...that ain’t making nobody rich or poor." Mr. Man seemed to place the blame on the muddled PR rollout of the project on RZA and Cilvaringz, whom he dubbed a "B-level Wu guy." (One can feel his pain: The story of how the producer became entangled with the group brings up hashtags like #stalker #wannabe, #interloper). "Eighty-eight years is a long fuckin' time," agreed Meth's obviously confused bandmate Raekwon, before appearing to be confronted by some sense of mortality: "That means we won't be around...shit, what the fuck you want me to say?"

Of course, no one dreamed that it would be snapped up last November by the "Pharma Bro" who bumped up the price of the popular AIDS drug Daraprim 5000 PERCENT, a man-child who enjoys comparing himself to the "robber barons" of the Gilded Age like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, a slavish worshiper of swag whose other rich-guy trophies include $1,000 bottles of Lafite-Rothschild as well as a vintage Nazi Enigma machine. ("It's like owning a gas chamber," Shkreli remarked to Vanity Fair. He's famous for saying things like that.)

Short story long: All this got the Beast to thinking about the arts, specifically the ever-evolving fortunes of music and literature in the eAge colliding with the very concept of time. (For a less pretentious version of this gist, see Belloq's speech about the silver pocketwatch from Raiders of the Lost Ark.) For the Beast, this was enough of a six-degree relationship between the influential spooky-rappers and two long-dead but recently relevant Anglo-Saxon writers -- both of whom, in their own times, were living in an uneasy renaissance of 1% robber barons -- from the racially confused State of Missouri.

So, if you will, flashback another 80 years to Fall 1937: Laura Ingalls Wilder travels to Detroit from her Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri (about 200 miles SW from Ferguson) to speak at a book fair sponsored by J.L. Hudson department stores. The 70-year-old author is nervous, confessing to a friend that she "had never lost her timidity with strangers," but her daughter Rose emphasizes the value of branding ("Everyone who meets or sees you will buy your books"). Accompanied by her husband Almanzo, whose childhood she had detailed four years earlier in her book Farmer Boy, Wilder rallies and takes the lectern in Michigan with a serious of remarks detailed in pencil on the same lined paper she uses for her classic Little House on the Prairie series of children's books. The story she chooses to tell to the assembled crowd won't be published for 41 years:

The Benders lived halfway between [our farm] and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern. 

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing. He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer. In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents.

"You will agree," she added, "that it is not a fit story for a children's book. But it shows that there were other dangers on the frontier besides wild Indians."

Arguably, such dark revelations are part of the reason The South Dakota Historical Press could barely keep up with the demand for copies of the wildly (and unexpectedly) popular publication in December 2014 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which Wilder wrote in 1930 before any of the Little House novels. Wilder, born two years after the end of the Civil War, grew up poor and although she included several cleaned-up scenes of tragedy and violence in her Little House books -- her sister's Mary's blindness and a nasty scene with a knife-wielding wife among them -- she never wrote about the death of the little brother Charles Frederick. She does in Pioneer Girl -- along with noirish encounters with child molesters, rapists, alcoholism, divorce, philandering, financial ruin, mental illness, domestic abuse, out-of-wedlock births and familial disintegration and yes, an encounter with a family of serial killers who ran their own grisly version of the Bates Motel. Not surprisingly, Pioneer Girl has made Wilder the most unexpected bestselling writer of the last year. (So far, it's sold around 150,000 copies and counting and made several New York Times bestseller lists.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Bestselling rapper--uh, author of 2015

It's been a quite remarkable feat of reanimation; the intervening years had not been necessarily kind to Wilder. Critics took her (posthumously) to task for the casual racism (mostly towards Native Americans) of her published work. ("I would not want my child to read Little House on the Prairie," wrote the Osage writer Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. "I would shield him from the slights [it] slings upon his ancestors.") Oddly, Wilder is more reserved about racial issues in her autobiography, possibly because it was all there in the Little House books. In one scene, Pa Ingalls -- elevated into sainthood by his portrayal by the Farrah Fawcett-haired Michael Landon on the '70s Little House TV series -- sings a song, accompanying himself on the fiddle:

There was an old darkey
And his name was Uncle Ned,
And he died long ago, long ago
There was no wool on the top of his head.

Unlike Wilder, Mark Twain didn't shy away from commenting in print and public -- usually working a cheroot and sounding drunk -- about America's self-delusions, particularly having to do with race. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is STILL is controversial 131 years after it was published; the novel's unabashed use of the N-word still offends partially because Twain himself wrote about it as he experienced it -- a boy of the South who enjoyed the "Uncle Remus" stories and saw nothing wrong with it because he knew nothing else. As he writes in his autobiography: “In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware there was anything wrong about it."

Twain's politics and writings, however, attempted to come to terms with the wrongness into which he had been indoctrinated. Aside from Twain's published work, the first volume in his massive three-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain published in 2010 (the third was released last October) elaborates Twain's private anger over the racist and imperialist agendas of his home country. He deplores military intervention in Cuba and The Philippines -- even calling American soldiers "uniformed assassins." He trash talks John D. Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt. He sees scoundrels in Washington who wrap themselves in the flag and greedy skinflints oozing into Wall Street. He criticizes sending Christian missionaries to Africa in favor of dealing with the growing problem of lynching in the South. (He also uses "heathens" and "savages," unlike Wilder, as terms of, for lack of a better term, patronizing affection.)

Twain dictated his subversive rants to his personal stenographer nearly every day from January 1906 to December 1909. There was 250 sessions that produced more than half a million words. Yet Twain, right before his death in April 1910, issued a handwritten letter with a unique stipulation: He didn't want it published until 100 YEARS after his death. “A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way," he explained to an interviewer in 1899. "In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons."

Waiting for the first volume would be the tantalizing torment of nearly seven generations of Twain fans and scholars. But even Twain couldn't resist a little leakage, publishing 25 excerpts in the North American before his death, each of which was preceded by a note: “No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author." But after his death, his 100-year gag order began to be taken a little more loosely when none other than the man Twain entrusted with keeping his secrets, his official biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. His successors Bernard DeVoto and Charles Neider were of no stronger mien, leaking further excerpts in 1940 and 1959 respectively. (Ingalls' memoir, in possession of Rose Wilder after her mother's death in 1957, endured no such picklocks, as few knew it existed.) Yet when Volume 1 of Twain's book was released, its publisher had to print six runs to keep up with the demand.

The leakage over time, arguably, did not matter in terms of either projects' market value. Which brings us back to present day, and a statement made by Cilvaringz on the bankability of Once Upon A Time in Shaolin: “One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.” Yet the leaks sprung up anyway
(an art gallery listening party in Queens garnered some reviews) before robber baron Shkreli snatched up the single copy. This would be the equivalent of J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford or Cornelius Vanderbilt snapping up the rights to Twain or Ingalls' work.

The terminally mercenary Shkreli just couldn't help himself, allegedly musing out loud: “I don’t know. I’ll probably never even hear it. I just thought it would be funny to keep it from people," Then he was arrested for securities fraud, and the wild speculation over whether the record would be confiscated and held in some sort of legal limbo led even the Feds to send perhaps the greatest tweet of 2015: No seizure warrant at the arrest of Martin Shkreli today, which means we didn't seize the Wu-Tang Clan album.

Nevertheless, what Bloomberg News once called "one of the greatest sales pitches the music industry has ever heard" was now being called by Forbes "a horrible mistake." Yet, Shkreli did exactly what Raekwon seemed to endorse ("You gotta remember the concept of it is whoever buys it -- it's yours. You hang it in your house and you do what you do.") and simply put in on his coffee table.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin might very well become what Ingalls and Twain's books already have, reinvigorators of dying forms, powerful reminders of vanished worlds, as well the vanished value of art, music and literature. (All three are lavishly and beautifully designed to sit on one's shelf with conspicuous permanence, and the first edition printing of Ingalls' book now goes for around $600.) Nowadays, with terrestrial books and music being marketed as objets d'art for wealthy collectors, it is the artifact and not necessarily just the content that piques and intrigues. The necromancers of the frozen post-apocalyptic wasteland will come across it, and worship it like the Catholic monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz worshiped a shopping list, like the subterranean monks in Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshiped the atom bomb, or, truer to the Wu, like the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple worshiped martial arts.

UPDATE (8:07am, 1/28/16): This just keeps getting better. In a just-posted VICE profile "Why Is Martin Shkreli Still Talking?", the evil squirrel himself is on house-arrest, zipping around his penthouse on a hoverboard and taking sips of a $15,000 bottle of wine. "With the Wu-Tang album playing in the background," reports Allie Conti," Shkreli says he vacillates between wanting to destroy the record and dreaming of installing it in some remote place so that people have to make a spiritual quest to listen. 'I'm not just the heel of the music world,' he says. 'I want to be the world's heel.'"

UPDATE (11:01am, 1/28/16): Shaolin Wars IV: The Revenge of Kylo Shkreli

UPDATE (10:48am, 2/9/16): Shaolin Wars V: The Killah Strikes Back (and what took him so long?)

UPDATE (7:48am, 5/7/16): Humpf. Now it looks like John Malcovich is getting in on the "Creative Project in a Vault" act.

UPDATE (6:18am, 6/9/15): Now it's officially gotten REAL WEIRD.

UPDATE (6:47am, 10/9/16): Martin Shkreli Premieres Unreleased Wu-Tang Clan Music After Trump Win

UPDATE (7:11am, 7/11/17): There is now a book about this whole sorry affair.

UPDATE (6:36AM, 8/18/19): Read the transcript of jury selection for Shkreli's fraud trial. Pay close attention to Juror No. 59.

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