Cash Ruins Everything Around Me: Something Is Off About the Sale of Wu-Tang’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’

The sad story of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin has come to a fitting end. Yesterday we learned that the only existing copy of the album — comprising a CD housed in two hand-carved nickel-silver boxes — now belongs to Martin Shkreli, the ethically dubious 32-year-old made famous in September by his decision to gouge the price of Daraprim, a drug used to treat individuals with immune systems compromised by AIDS and cancer, by 5,000 percent. A one-time wunderkind turned “pharma bro,” Shkreli has already made a mockery of the Shaolin project on Twitter.

Given that Shkreli is sometimes called “the most hated man on the Internet” — even Donald Trump called him a “spoiled brat” — it behooved RZA, erstwhile Wu-Tang abbot and co-mastermind behind the album’s scheme, to immediately clear the air. After learning that Bloomberg Businessweek had uncovered Shkreli’s identity, RZA reportedly emailed a statement that read:

The sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was agreed upon in May, well before Martin Skhreli’s [sic] business practices came to light. We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity.

Now, there is no reason to doubt that RZA gave much of the proceeds of the sale to charity. But what is not so clear is his claim that negotiations over the album had been locked since May, even considering that art auctions — especially for objects as restricted as Once Upon a Time in Shaolin — often take months to resolve. There are two reasons to be skeptical of RZA’s claim. To begin with, Paddle8, the online auction house that sold the album, told Flavorwire in August, “Paddle8 continues to work with the seller to vet a number of offers from serious potential collectors.” If RZA and Co. were still vetting offers in August, it would seem that they weren’t locked in with a buyer — whether it was Shkreli or anyone else — as early as May.

The second reason is that RZA’s grandiose claims about the interest garnered by the album seem to jar with reality. If it’s true, as RZA told Bloomberg Businessweek, that among the interested buyers there were “[p]rivate collectors, trophy hunters, millionaires, billionaires, unknown folks, publicly known folks, businesses, [and] companies with commercial intent,” then why did the album sell for only $2 million — $3 million less than RZA’s $5 million starting bid? And why would they settle for so little money in May, just two months after the auction began?

We’re left to speculate on much of this because of Paddle8’s strict client confidentiality policy, but it strikes me as entirely possible that RZA stayed with Shkreli simply as a last resort — it’s entirely possible, in other words, given the price for which the album sold, and the events surrounding its unveiling, that the interest for Shaolin simply wasn’t there. But to understand why such a widely discussed, one-of-a-kind album might not interest buyers, you have to go back to the album’s unveiling in March.

The heavily secured, fairly exclusive MoMA PS1 event on March 2nd of this year was, in retrospect, a glorified listening party meant to build press for a one-off album with an overblown concept. And it felt that way — it seemed somehow big-ticketed and downmarket at the same time: men in tailored suits rubbed elbows with ungroomed journalists, art world fellow travelers mixed uneasily with Hot 97 radio contest winners, many of whom, it was clear from talking to them outside, were unfamiliar with most of the Wu-Tang catalogue. Instead of a night for fans, the event was transparently a bid for bidders and an attempt to trump up the album’s reputation so that Paddle8 would have an easier go of selling it. In the end, we found out yesterday, all parties got more and less than they bargained for.

No matter what you read in Bloomberg Businessweek, the audience at PS1 did not cheer after hearing the 13-minute sample of Shaolin. It was more like a whimper of polite clapping with a few clicks and whistles thrown in. The reason was simple: an album is not a cake; you can’t eat a bite of it and know how it tastes. Besides, Shaolin is two hours long and features 31 tracks. And much of what we heard was the overloud production — by Wu-Tang affiliate Cilvaringz and the previously unknown Wissam Khodur — which sounded at the time like a cartoon version of 36 Chambers. Add to all of this the possibility that we would never again hear the album in our lifetimes, given that RZA had placed it under copyright for 88 years. It was like trying to watch a rare astronomical event on a cloudy night.

That the whole thing sounded like a high-minded art-scam meant to avoid the consumerist judgment of Wu-Tang fans seemed obvious enough, especially after hearing Cilvaringz talk for just a few minutes. (“The irony of it is that we did it for the fans.”) Still, it was probably confirming for many when Method Man came out and said as much a couple of days after the MoMA event. (“That shit is fuckin’ stupid,” he told XXL.) And even when he retracted his statement a week later, he had harsh words for Cilvaringz. “Yes, I’m discrediting Cilvaringz,” Method Man said, “but I’m not discrediting the product.” But given that Cilvaringz helped produced, conceive, and hock Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, was it really so easy to separate him from the product?

Over the next few months, it became reasonable to wonder whether the poor reception for the album’s concept and backstory — its scheme — would affect Paddle8’s ability to find buyers. On top of what later proved to be an exorbitant starting bid of $5 million dollars, the news wasn’t getting any better. When Ghostface Killah was asked to give his opinion on the album, he was, at most, ambivalent. “I couldn’t understand it at first, neither, and sometimes I still don’t understand, and sometimes I do.” he told CBC Music in April. “I’m stuck in the middle.”

It was around this time — in April, one month before the deal with Shkreli was supposedly locked — that Flavorwire reached out to Paddle8 via email to ask how the auction process was progressing. The response: “We are currently working with RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan to vet a few competing offers.” Two months later, in June, we were told the same: “No update.” None of this, again, corroborates RZA’s claim that a deal had been reached in May. It suggests, in fact, the opposite: that they were still vetting offers from March until at least August.

The likelier story here is that the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’s ill-conceived art world rollout, its quasi-legitimate status as an entry in the Wu-Tang canon, and its lofty “concept” all conspired against would-be buyers — except for the hapless Martin Shkreli. What self-respecting capitalist would be willing to pay $2 million for an album that can’t be exploited for commercial purposes until 2103?