Meet the Man Who Holds the Secrets of Wu-Tang’s Million-Dollar LP
An inside look at the madness of ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’
By now, you’re aware of the single copy Wu-Tang Clan project Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, an album that was ultimately auctioned off to a man named Martin Shkreli—the pharmaceutical industry’s version of Donald Trump. The ne’er-do-well took a huge L messing with the W, but through it all there was one man who witnessed the madness firsthand. His name is Cyrus Bozorgmehr.
Cyrus was the senior advisor to the Once Upon A Time In Shaolin album, representing the financier behind it all: the elusive Mr. S. We learn about Mr. S and the whole come-up tale of the big-budget album in Cyrus’s recent book Once Upon A Time In Shaolin: The Untold Story Of Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, The Devaluation of Music, And America’s New Public Enemy No. 1. While the book gives all of the juicy details behind the scenes of this now infamous album and business deal, it’s also a lesson in the changing climate of the music industry and how guys like RZA and his right hand man Cilvaringz had to quickly adapt to the ongoing shifts in the paradigm while seemingly creating their own.
The story itself provides enough fodder to fill an entire weird livestream session of Shkreli psycho-babbling over the leaked album, yet it’s Cyrus’s humor and strong storytelling voice that make the book a total hit. MASS APPEAL chopped it up with the Wu consigliere about having this unique honor and what he plans to do next.
Did you ever in your life think you would one day be the consigliere to the now most notorious Wu-Tang Clan album in the history of hip-hop?
If I could ever safely answer “no” to a question—this is the one! It’s been off-the-scale random.
How much of a Wu-Tang fan were you before Once Upon A Time In Shaolin and how much of a fan were you after?
Funnily enough, despite being surrounded by Wu fans throughout the ’90s, I never really discovered them properly, not least because I was pretty militantly into illegal rave culture at the time. But I think it gave me a really helpful degree of objectivity, which I’d have struggled with if I’d had a personal fan history.
The first time I heard 36 Chambers properly was in a Shaolin temple at 2 a.m. in the middle of New York with RZA playing chess next to me as someone poured a savagely strong Chinese spirit down my throat. It was like being introduced to Wu music in the eye of a Wu archetype—temples, chess, Kung Fu—you name it, and I began listening deeper from that moment on.
At what point did you decide to make this entire moment of your life into a book?
About ten Vicodins into a serious leg injury. I’d been dead-set against writing the book and wanted an independent journalist to come in and chronicle it. Then, that same night at the Shaolin temple, I got carried away with the whole Kung Fu vibe and while jumping a traffic cone to show these Shaolin dudes how we chubby Brits do things, I broke my leg and shredded my ligaments. Carted home in a wheelchair and realizing I was immobile for several weeks, I piled into the prologue to see if it flowed—and I guess it did!
Did you have any reservations in telling this story publicly, especially knowing how Martin Shkreli tends to pop off whenever he wants?
Honestly? Not at all. So much of this project had played out behind the veil and there was so much speculation as to motives—cash grab, cultural vandalism, cynical bling, etc.—that I genuinely felt the version from inside the bunker needed telling. Silence was essential to keep the process stable while the project was still in flux, but once the album sold, the veil needed snapping back. I wrote it while all the emotions were still fresh, and I like to think that gives it honesty. In terms of Martin though, the only real consideration was where to end the book; do you wait for the next installment of crazy or just draw the line?
You go into detail about the crazy disappointment you all felt upon learning that the man who bought the project then spiked AIDS medication to $700 a pill. Can you describe your personal feelings that moment when you learned that information after literally just selling him the album?
It was like being smacked with a baseball bat. We’d been in legal negotiations for three months, so we’d foolishly started to develop a sense of security about the deal. He seemed like such a low-profile guy—far more so than some of the other potential buyers—and despite a patchy history of lawsuits and investigations, nothing seemed that out of the ordinary for a young, self-made millionaire.
I hate to say it, but my first thought was the crisis we’d been plunged into with the album. Within a couple of hours, it turned personal as I realized three of my friends with a different auto-immune syndrome, Lyme’s Disease, would be directly affected by the hike. Their families were starting petitions and here I was, silently aware that I was doing business with the guy and caught between panic and shame. I needed several showers after that, but in terms of symbolism, I eventually embraced the idea of him being the buyer—though it took me awhile to get there, and I’m still not sure if I’m kidding myself!
You also mention in the book how there was a potential threat of violence to Shkreli’s life via “bullets from a Staten Island crew” until he was taken into custody. Were you at any point like, “Oh shit, I’m going from senior advisor to witness to a murder”?
There was this sense of losing control and dealing with someone who didn’t understand that actions have consequences. You have to remember that this is before he became a caricature figure with the Ghost beef, etc. It wasn’t so much that we thought it would definitely happen, but in the heat of that moment, with him saying crazier and crazier things—the replica AK-47s, the ODB diss he was planning—if the FBI hadn’t arrested him that night, we were really worried that he’d gone so far, so quickly, that someone might take it upon themselves to shut him up.
It takes balls to write this story. How much fair warning did you give to everyone involved and how did they take it? If anyone was going to write this story, it should be you.
Thanks so much! I was really nervous. I knew I could seem like an outsider cashing in on the Wu legacy, and there were strong enough feelings about this in the hip-hop world without some dude no one’s ever heard of telling the story. RZA and Cilvaringz knew, but left me to it—which felt like serious trust—and I contacted a couple of people who might be adversely affected by being in it to see if they were OK with the passages that concerned them, but for the most part I kept it pretty undercover. Ultimately, I felt that if I stayed myself and wrote it as honestly as I could—like telling a group of friends rather than “the world”—then I could hold my head up whatever the fallout.
What was the wildest thing you witnessed throughout this whole process?
There were all kinds of crazy chapters; it honestly felt like a caper at times, but the thing that really left a mark was watching people react to the 13 minutes of music played at MoMA PS1. It was a glorious melting pot of people—from the press, to billionaires, to hip-hop fans who’d won a radio competition—but every one of them knew this would be the only chance to hear a piece of music. How do you react to that? Do you close your eyes and try and memorize every beat, do you lose yourself in the moment, do you dance or is that weird in an art gallery? How do we behave in the age of permanent access when we have to maximize a single, ephemeral moment in time?
In retrospect, would you relive this all over again?
In the end, life’s about ideas, emotions, connections and adventures…. and this was a full house. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
What is the greatest lesson you learned about the music industry and about yourself from all of this?
Having started this project with the firm belief that the music industry was in crisis, I now feel we’re living through incredibly exciting times. With the old way of doing things in ashes, everyone’s trying to figure out what the new architecture will look like. Even as the majors continue to pump out sanitized, risk-free nonsense, the quest for a sustainable business model for genuine creativity keeps throwing up interesting twists.
Most people over the age of 16 are pretty well-tuned to corporate marketing and authenticity is the new currency. That comes with its own irony, as so much authenticity is manufactured, but the idea that you have to build a bigger story than just your music has opened new creative avenues—mediums, installations, guerrilla marketing, harnessing the other senses and making the act of acquiring music part of the music’s story, not just a functional prelude.
I think the biggest personal lesson I learned is that I’m way more cautious than I thought. I mean, I was always pretty reckless, but the level of crazy I was exposed to here definitely made me feel borderline priggish as I kept finding myself advising against the latest slice of lunacy on the table. I guess it’s all relative!
What is your next move? Is it writing more books or taking on more potentially dangerous projects?
Well I’ve got a novel out called The Syndicate, which I wrote during the post-Shaolin blues, but the project closest to my heart is working with UK events organization, Arcadia. We’ve got a 50 ton robotic Spider, built from repurposed military hardware, lights, lasers, 50-foot fireballs, a huge 360-degree sound field, people firing lightning bolts from their bodies, creatures the size of cars crawling above the crowd, and performers in G Force spins dangling from the creature’s claws. It’s pretty damn cool and a vivid expression of underground culture and conscious ideas.
But if anyone’s got any insane projects that involve philosophical whirlwinds, adventures into the unknown, a pinch of subversion, a sprinkle of lunacy, intoxicating international missions and a healthy handle on the surreal—then please give me a call!
You can purchase both of Cyrus Bozorgmehr’s books here.