It all started in 2015, when former hedge fund manager—and now convicted felon—Martin Shkreli paid $2 million for the uber-rare Wu-Tang album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
At the time, the Abbot of Wu-Tang, RZA, thought it wise to follow in the footsteps of peers like Jay-Z, who sold his Magna Cart Holy Grail in a deal with Samsung, in an attempt to make music valuable in an era of streaming. Of course, RZA could’ve never predicted that the Hip-Hop supergroup’s new project could fall in the hands of a character like Martin Shkreli. So, when the project eventually hit eBay, RZA tried to buy it back.
In a new Rolling Stone interview, RZA explains what went down. “The first thing I did was call my lawyer, and I was like, ‘Yo, let’s go,’” he said. “And they said, ‘All right, check with your contract.’ And it’s no, you can’t do it.” The album was almost sold for $1,025,100 to a buyer before the deal fell through.
If you’ve been following this strange and tumultuous saga, you’ll remember just how bizarre this crazy ride has been. From Shkreli and Ghostface getting into a public online beef, U-God claiming RZA turned the group into a dictatorship, a judge ordering Shkreli to forfeit his stake in the album, to the album bizarrely landing (sort of) in U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s hands. Shkreli has reportedly been ordered to forfeit $7.4 million of his assets to the U.S. government due to his securities fraud charge with the judge considering the rare album part of those assets. As it stands, the fate of Wu-Tang’s infamous album is in a kind of limbo, since Shkreli is in prison, and the conditions of his ownership over the album includes a clause not to sell it for 88 years. But RZA hasn’t lost hope.
“I definitely read every article about it," said RZA. “It’s kind of crazy. The record has become an entity, very different from a lot of albums. It’s like the Mona Lisa. It’s got its own folklore, and that’s what me and (co-producer) Cilvaringz wanted.” Regarding the actual fact that Jeff Sessions is virtually in possession of his work, RZA said, “The last album I was talking about, Jeff Sessions had it. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.’” As for Shkreli’s situation—which is serving 7 years for securities fraud—RZA is less interested.
“I didn’t follow his case,” said RZA. “Look, nobody likes jail. I’ve been locked up a couple of times myself. Don’t like it, don’t advise it or prescribe it to any man, and I do my best to stay out of crime, right? But if he did the crime, and it appears he had agreed that he did the crime, then he has to serve the time for it. That’s part of our system. I would hope that everything was done right, done legally, done proper, and everybody came to a pure decision not motivated by anything but truth and justice. But if it’s falsehood that motivated the people, then sometimes you get the back end.”
As for the agreements laid out during the purchase of the album, RZA is adamant about the importance of sticking to one's words. “The rules are important to me in life,” said RZA. “I would hope that the clauses that was given to Mr. Shkreli is upheld, because it was a legal, binding thing and I would just hope that whatever happens, that legally, all the things that we thought to protect what it was and what it is remains intact.”
In any case, RZA tried to get that album back into the right hands. “It was hard for me to sell that album, because I wanted it to be on my living room table,” he said. “I’ve actually tried to get it back,” he added, but unfortunately, the agreed-upon contract prevents him from doing so legally. “I’ve lost fans, because they think I’ve done something that was out of the nature of what Wu-Tang is,” he said. “I think they're wrong, but they will have their opinion, right? They felt that we tried to make music become something that only the elite can have, and that's far from the reality.”
Though RZA’s intentions seem true—getting people to reassess how much time, effort, and energy goes into a project, only for it to be consumed rapidly without full appreciation—it’s been a big loss to a lot of Wu-Tang fans.