How the Wu-Tang Clan abandoned the struggle

The shifting modes of digital music distribution have put strain on record labels and musicians in ways never imagined before the dawn of the Internet. Artists and the people who manage them constantly try to invent new ways to outwit the ever-looming threat of an album’s leak.

With this in mind, it might actually seem reasonable that the Wu-Tang Clan have decided to suddenly release a new album recorded in secret that will only exist as one copy encased in an engraved silver-and-nickel box. This one sacred LP, entitled “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin,” will tour around the country in museums, galleries and festivals where patrons will be charged a fee to listen to the 128-minute, 31 song secret opus.

It’s perfectly respectable for an artist to want to maintain complete control over their music, but the legendary New York rappers have chosen a form of distribution that commodifies music in one of the most desperate acts of capitalism ever undertaken by an artist.

Hip-hop comes from a place of struggle. Its original incarnation was decidedly anti-capitalist, emanating from the collective minds of DJs spinning records at block parties and house parties. Open mic nights and cyphers allowed anyone with a functioning set of vocal chords to participate in hip-hop and use the genre as a mouthpiece with no price tag attached.

But in a desperate attempt to maintain control, Wu-Tang have grabbed the music from the people and handed it over to institutions who embody high-class prestige.

The community of hip-hop has been so contagious because of its ability to be rapidly shared among friends. Certainly Wu-Tang frontmen the RZA or GZA never connected to hip-hop because they payed to see it in a museum.

“We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king,” said the RZA in an interview with Forbes Magazine.

But this is the core of the issue: hip-hop never cared about the trappings of royalty and extravagance. The point wasn’t for MCs to use the mic to turn their music into an arbitrary symbol of wealth and replace the sources of power they contested.

Hip-hop was meant to be a communal source of power and social uplift that required no entry fee, no socioeconomic prerequisites, and no trip to museums – only a fierce loyalty and uncompromising love of the music.

So yes, the Wu-Tang Clan will most likely succeed in maintaining control over the distribution and monetization of their art. Yes, every artist deserves to make as much money as possible for the effort they put in.

But sadly, the one-time heroes of struggle have traded financial security for the sacrifice of the down-to-earth ideology that gave them status similar to a deity among the same fans that will be alienated by their new album.