Weeks ago, I got a call from a guy named Andrew Kelley who’s been working with Wu-Tang for years. As an A&R/creative director, Kelley began working with the Wu on the 2009 Chamber Music compilation. That led to a relationship with Ghostface Killah, and Kelley ended up being one of the main creative forces behind 12 Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons, as his team would come up with the fully-fleshed out plot lines and Ghostface would fill in as the main character.
Kelley and I met over beers, and while there were plenty of topics he couldn’t discuss, one thing he constantly brought up was the Wu-Tang album Moroccan producer Cilvaringz was working on, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Cilvaringz might not be an instantly recognizable name to Wu heads, but in the early 2000s RZA met Cilvaringz, who was running a Wu-Tang forum back then, and became impressed by the producer. Ringz was eventually inducted into the extended Wu family and in 2007 he released a solo album, I. More importantly, however, he was gathering forces and funds to put together a complete Wu-Tang album with every member – the type of LP hardcore Wu fans were hoping for.
That is the album we’ve now been hearing about in the press, of which only one copy exists. RZA has announced a plan for the album to be kept from being sold commercially for 88 years, while other Wu members like Method Man have expressed direct disappointment over the publicity.
There’s a very detailed breakdown of the mysterious breadcrumbs that Cilvaringz has left on the internet about the album throughout the years, and it includes a brief blog post from Kelley himself that’s two years old. But to get a better understanding of the project, I spoke with Kelley about what the album sounds like. Kelley is gearing up for his producer Rodney Hazard to drop his debut album on March 31st featuring AZ, Rome Fortune, and others, but here he opens up about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, what it’s like working with the Wu, and why problems amongst members might never be solved.
WL: You started out working at Rawkus, correct?
Andrew Kelley: Yeah, that was my first job out of college. I went to Rhode Island School of Design and Rawkus put an ad out saying they were looking for a junior designer, so a friend of mine saw it and said I should do it, because I was DJing and had a radio show at the time but I was into design. So I reached out to them, they hit me back, said they liked my portfolio, and gave me an assignment. They were like, “We want you to design the back of a 12-inch single, and we want you to incorporate one of our artists.”
So for whatever reason in my head, because there were all these rumors that Jay Z was gonna sign Big L, and at the time they were working on Big L’s stuff at Rawkus. This was after he died, of course. So I decided to make a back cover that was Big L and Jay Z doing an album together and it was coming out on Roc-A-Fella. I put a Roc-A-Fella logo on it, I made the songs be like “Hell Up In Harlem,” the artwork was these dudes waiting to get into the Apollo, and I sent it in.
I get a phone call a week later from Black Shawn, the head A&R there, and he’s like,
“Hello? This Andrew Kelley? Yo what the fuck is this? They trying to steal our artists? Tell me what the fuck is going on right now!” I’m like, “Yo yo wait, they told me to make some shit up, I made the whole thing up!” They’re like, “What? We’ll call you right back.” Then they called me back and told me they wanted me to come in for a meeting, and that’s how I got the job. Apparently I mailed it in, and someone opened it and they saw it on someone’s desk and snatched it up like, “What the fuck?” They thought Roc-A-Fella had taken the deal.
How did you begin working with the Wu-Tang?
I was a designer for what was at the time Koch Records – they had put out Jim Jones and Unk. Now it’s E1, I’m still there. AZ had just come out with that album [The Format] and there’s a song on there featuring M.O.P. where Lil Fame has this line, “I’ll leave you burnin’ like hot grits on Al Green’s back.” I thought it’d be really dope if we remixed it with an Al Green sample, so I went to Bob [Perry] and Dan Green, the A&Rs, and said, “Give me the acapellas and lemme show you what I can do.” I’d always been DJing, so they gave me two albums worth of AZ acapellas, and I took those and remixed all of them with Al Green samples. I went out and bought like 30 Al Green records and sat there and chopped it all together, presented it to them, and they were like, “Yo, this shit is dope.” A lot of those records were records RZA had sampled for various Wu-Tang songs, so it had a very Wu sound.
I played it for AZ and he loved it, he hosted it. We put it out as The AZ Memphis Sessions. And Bob, seeing that, was like, “Yo, I’m gonna start working on this Wu-Tang Chamber Music album. You should come to the studio and provide some ideas and see what happens.” So that’s how it started, being in the studio with those guys, and then being like, “Hey, you know…we should add drums to this” and slowly working my way into it, to the point where it was just me and the engineer working on stuff. Then Lil Fame would come in and tell us to tighten the drums up and stuff. Chamber Music led to Legendary Weapons and it was one thing after the other.
How was working on Chamber Music?
My job was to bring in records that the band could replay and then we could sample and turn into beats, and at the end of the day RZA would come in and executive produce it. So we had made all these songs, he came in at the last minute, said “Do this to this one, do that to that one,” and then we’re working on one record and I’m like, “We should add this sample here,” and RZA’s like…”Yeah, let’s try his idea.” And it just started from that. I was in my mid-20s. It was crazy.
It got even crazier when I got flown out to California to work on [RZA’s] soundtrack [The Man With The Iron Fists]. I’m sitting there telling RZA we should do this and that. As RZA has gone through his career and become more popular and more successful, more doors open for him. So he’s not the type of guy to ignore that shit, he’s gonna explore all these different opportunities, and those opportunities have led him away from making the music and he hasn’t really had the time to put together these albums, but he still loves the music and still has a love for hip-hop in general, so he still wants to be involved with these things. So it’s like alright, you guys make the actual stuff, he’ll come in and orchestrate it and put it together, and that’ll be it.
RZA is an idol of mine and I think it’s admirable that while he’s the most successful member of the group, he continues to put the burden on himself to bring the Wu back.
Because I feel like he’s the only one who wants to.
Right, and it starts to feel like he’s just doing it for himself. Was there ever a time when you were working with the camp that the Wu was all together?
Yeah when we were working on the soundtrack, there’s a song called “Six Degrees of Boxing.” I had always done individual sessions with the guys, but that session was 9th Prince, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, GZA, Deck, and I think U-God, so it was a bunch of them together. And there was just an energy in the air. Just to see them all come in, everyone’s hugging each other up and excited to work. To get that energy, you gotta have ‘em all together, and if you’re not doing it that way, I just don’t think the music’s there. It’s not as strong. You can say that about 8 Diagrams and A Better Tomorrow. There’s definitely something that comes out that’s great when they’re together, instead of just emailing verses or coming in after everyone’s done their parts. It’s less of a connection.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Wu-Tang fan that liked A Better Tomorrow.
Yeah…I’d heard about half the beats a year ago when RZA was going around to all these studios, and I was just like man…that’s not what the fans want. And then at the same time, I’m talking to Cilvaringz and he’s playing me what he’s building out in Morocco, and that is exactly what the fans want. When Ringz made that album [Once Upon A Time In Shaolin] he went into it like, “I’m gonna make the best Wu album for the fans.” He really went above and beyond to do that, and it’s incredible.
Is it a Cilvaringz album or a Wu-Tang album?
Originally he was building a Killah Priest album, and that’s when – I don’t know if it was an inspiration or an investor or whatever you wanna call it – someone came in and said, “Let’s do a Wu-Tang album.” So he spent six years getting verses from all the guys and putting together this huge record. Really, RZA didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just [Cilvaringz] spending all this time, and I would be in the studio with the guys like, “Have you guys heard what Ringz is working on?” And they’d be like, “Yeah, that’s never coming out,” because he’d been working on it for years and years. Changing the beats up, constructing all these crazy interludes…it shows. The music is fucking incredible. It takes you back to Wu-Tang Forever. It sounds like a lost album. It’s really fucking good.