Wu-Tang Clan’s long-awaited comeback album, “A Better Tomorrow,” isn’t due until December, but a few thousand fans already have most of the record.
Fans didn’t get the album, the Staten Island collective’s first effort since 2007's “8 Diagrams,” from an unauthorized leak or a preview stream meant to drum up pre-release hype. Their first listen came from a speaker.
Wu-Tang’s de facto leader RZA teamed with speaker maker Boombotix to created a limited-edition device. Dubbed the Boombot Rex 20th Anniversary Wu-Tang Edition (the album's release marks the milestone), it contains eight tracks — the bulk of which will be included on the album.
“We wanted to find a way to get the music out to fans in a new way and to bring back tangibility to buying music,” said RZA in a recent phone conversation. “I’ve seen it go from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to downloads. Being a music lover, I'm excited to get music any way I can get it, but what’s missing to me is something I can hold in my hand.”
“Hip-hop has already been involved with headphones; speakers are a great device,” he continued. “I didn’t only want to just put my logo on it, I wanted a kid to feel like he’s bought a new album. His phone doesn’t have the source of new music.”
Aside from bringing a physical sense to the music-buying experience, there’s a great deal of exclusivity with the release.
The tiny device — roughly the size and shape of a tape measure — is only being sold through online retailer Zumiez (the speaker costs $79.99). Aside from having one retailer, Boombotix limited the production run to just 3,000 devices.
To further entice fans to buy, RZA purposely chose to release the speaker two weeks before the album's Dec. 2 release. Also, one of the tracks, “Big Horn B,” will only be available on the device.
“Being first is always a cool thing to be. A fan of anything wants to have something first or exclusive,” RZA said. “Also, the format of what you’re buying, to get it in the form of a Bluetooth speaker ... there’s a cool factor.”
The album’s lead single, “Keep Watch,” is included along with four other songs — two unavailable-on-album instrumentals and the exclusive track.
Adorned with Wu-Tang’s logo, the speaker boasts full-range stereo and a built-in speakerphone, and the Bluetooth capacity allows any file to be beamed through the device. The album can’t be exported digitally, though.
The device is the first installment in a new line for Boombotix called “The Chambers Collection” that features embedded music within the portable speakers.
Boombotix and RZA plan to add to the collection next year. The company has also been in early talks with other artists for more branded releases.
Wu-Tang’s release has already proven successful for the company.
When Boombotix made the first 1,000 units available for presale, they sold out in a matter of days. Zumiez's pre-sale quickly sold out, although units are still currently available.
A second run, featuring a different design, is planned for next year (Boombotix says it will go to other retailers).
“Releasing new Wu-Tang music before it’s on Spotify and Pandora is a great story,” said Mustafa Shaikh, VP of marketing for Boombotix. “It goes to show how RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan always try to push the boundaries of music distribution. A lot of the traditional music outlets have closed, but even if you go to Best Buy, it’s surprising to see how small the music selection is.”
The delivery of “A Better Tomorrow” via speakers is just part of RZA’s plan to alter the way music is consumed.
Deep inside a vault in Morocco lies the group’s other project, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” The vision for the double album, recorded in secret over the past six years, is to create a true, one-of-a-kind music experience.
The sole copy of the 31-track album — housed in an engraved silver-and-nickel box — is up for sale, with RZA hoping the work is displayed at museums and galleries. The public has only heard 51 seconds of the album, but RZA claimed the group had received a $5-million offer for the LP.
While RZA's thoughts on music delivery and consumer consumption are far outside of the box, fans shouldn’t expect Wu-Tang to ever pull a stunt like U2 and put the music right in your iTunes library for free.
"My phone should have more privacy than that,” he said. “You have stores who depend on sales of music. To give away curses the entire industry, it's not a model I can see continuing."
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