It was the most highly publicized Wu-Tang Clan album of the past decade, and we never got to hear it.
While whispers of its creation spread through hip-hop circles for years prior, the legendary rap crew confirmed in 2014 that they had recorded a double-album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. However, there was a major caveat: the group created only one physical copy of the album that would be auctioned off. Five years ago today, on Aug. 26, 2015, the transaction was completed, with the $2 million winning bid coming from notorious “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin had become the most expensive individual album ever sold.
“I think the whole idea of what it was it meant to be, of what it was meant to do, it did it,” Wu-Tang cofounder and de facto leader RZA told Yahoo Entertainment during a recent interview promoting his new film Cut Throat City (watch above).
RZA has long maintained that the goal of Shaolin, which was packaged in a silver jewel-encrusted box, was to prove that, like a work of fine art by Monet or Michelangelo, music could be held by a single collector. The group also saw the decision as a reaction to digital streaming and piracy devaluing an artist’s worth.
“It started a conversation for us to look at what we value or don’t value,” RZA says. “We were talking about everybody downloading music for free. [People] don’t want to pay 99 cents for a song but pay $500 for the headphones. Headphones is useless without music, bro! So I was confused by the choice of the consumer at that time, so we put it in an art world that celebrates it as art.”
Fans did not react kindly when Shaolin — which Wu-Tang had stipulated could not be reproduced commercially for 88 years, though it could be released for free by its buyer — went to Shkreli, the controversial former hedge-fund manager-turned-biotechnology and pharmaceutical CEO. Within a month of buying the album, Shkreli became the public face for the perceived greed of the pharma industry when he hiked the prices of drugs used for life-threatening parasitic infections as much by 5,000 percent.
“It ended up in the hands of the evil villain,” says RZA with maniacal emphasis. “You can’t write this. Life is unique, and that was definitely a unique moment for me in life.”
Shkreli promised to release the album, which features Cilvaringz on production and a collaboration with Cher (!), if Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, but he eventually only streamed excerpts online.
In 2017, Shkreli was convicted of multiple counts related to securities fraud, sentenced to seven years in federal prison and ordered to pay $7.4 million in fines. In 2018, a federal court seized his assets, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which is now stored away like the titular relic in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“That album has [taken] on a life of its own now,” says RZA, who is producing a Netflix documentary on the whole Shaolin saga. “The last I heard it’s somewhere in the Department of Justice in a temperature-controlled room.”
Cut Throat City is now playing.
Watch our full interview with RZA:
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