As much as we'd all like to believe that disgraced pharma bro Martin Shkreli has been duped, he hasn't.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may only agree on one thing: that Martin Shkreli is despicable. Two years ago, after the former pharma executive raised the price of a drug used to treat infections in AIDS patients by 5,000%, Clinton fumed about his "price-gouging," while Trump dubbed his actions "disgusting." Shkreli's stench crossed oceans: the BBC called him "the most hated man in America."
People love to hate on Shkreli--currently in jail after violating his bail on a fraud conviction for publicly offering $5,000 for a strand of Clinton's hair--and rightly so. That's probably why a Bloomberg story suggesting that the erstwhile executive was duped into spending $2 million for the Wu-Tang Clan's secret album, The Wu ... Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, has been getting so much traction this week. The piece, while deeply reported and elegantly written, revolves around a three-year-old argument that the record is not actually a Wu-Tang record. It is, by any reasonable definition. But first, let's back up a bit.
In 2014, Forbes first broke the news of the Wu-Tang Clan's secret album. Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, produced by Wu affiliate Tarik "Cilvaringz" Azzougarh and championed by group ringleader Robert "RZA" Diggs, had been produced in Morocco with new verses from the group's original members and was sitting in a safe, awaiting purchase. There was a catch: the album would only be sold to a single buyer who would be contractually unable to release it to the public.
“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before,” said RZA, the first Wu-Tang member to speak on record about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king."
In the two years that followed, RZA spoke frequently of his plan to use the album as a way to reestablish the value of recorded music, placing it on the same level as the fine arts. He wanted to bring back the model of wealthy patrons hiring musicians to create one-of-a-kind works--and move toward a world where the priciest albums could rival the most expensive paintings. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, and in 2016 the album was sold to a wealthy pharmaceutical executive for $2 million. The problem: it was Shrkeli. RZA and Cilvaringz either realized too late, or simply didn't care, about his odious track record. And when faced with a backlash over the news, they announced they'd donate a portion of the proceeds to charity.
From the beginning of the process, though, many Wu-Tang fans were understandably incensed about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. They hated the idea that their favorite group would create an album that wasn't for them, and many of them began trashing Cilvaringz on the web soon after the news broke in 2014. Some suggested that, because he wasn't a charter member of the Wu-Tang Clan, the record was a fraud. His diplomatic response: "People are responding to it in a very interesting way ... and it's starting the things we wanted to start: debates."
Cilvaringz's involvement in the album, and his status with the group, wasn't some big secret. A simple web search reveals the nine members of Wu-Tang, and he clearly isn't one of them. So to say that Shkreli was "misled" is, well, misleading. The debates were out there in the open, and Shkreli, with even a few minutes of due diligence, should have been able to catch himself up on the debate.
That aside, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin bears all the markings of a Wu-Tang album. As one of the few people who's heard several minutes of it, I can say with certainty that it sounds like a Wu-Tang album, bringing all the vivid urgency of 1990s New York into your eardrums. It looks like a Wu-Tang album, with the group's cherished--and undoubtedly legally protected--logo on its handcrafted silver-and-nickel cover. And, most importantly of all, it features the group's original members, championed most prominently by RZA, the man who molded Wu-Tang from a loose confederation of (mostly) Staten Island rappers into an official group.
The Saga Continues: 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' has spurred fiery debate.
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was produced by someone who wasn't there at the beginning, that's true. But does that really revoke the album's status as a Wu-Tang record? If so, doesn't that mean that any Snoop Dogg album that's not produced by Dr. Dre--the mastermind behind his Doggystyle debut--isn't a Snoop Dogg album? What about N.W.A after the departure of Ice Cube, who wrote the bulk of Straight Outta Compton--does Efil4zaggin not count?
As for the other arguments--that some of the artists on Once Upon A Time In Shaolin allegedly didn't get paid and/or didn't know they were going to be on the album--they are unfortunate if true; kudos to Bloomberg for unearthing them. But artists record songs not knowing what album they'll be on all the time. And if an album doesn't count if its featured musicians don't get paid, what does that mean for Cash Money's disputed discography, among many others?
Some may point to the managers of Wu-Tang members U-God and Method Man, who respectively told Bloomberg that Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is "not an authorized Wu-Tang Clan album" and asked "How it became a Wu-Tang album from there? We have no knowledge of that." Interestingly, neither statement actually denies that the album is a Wu-Tang album. So is this a case of sour grapes from group members who feel tricked and underpaid? The product of shady practices by Cilvaringz? Or some combination of both? The answers may be up for debate, but--for better or worse--the Wu-Tang-ness of the album shouldn't be.
Americans can't even seem to agree that Nazis are bad, but the hate towards Shkreli seems to be
unanimous--and what better end to the bizarre story of his Once Upon A Time In Shaolin purchase than to discover that he'd been hoodwinked into spending $2 million on a fake Wu-Tang album. Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking. But the public can take solace in the fact that it appears Shkreli will be losing a substantial sum of money either way: he recently posted Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on eBay, and the bidding sits just north of $1 million.
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