No-Sign: Martin Shkreli, Wu-Tang Clan and the $2 Million Album

No-Sign is a regular feature that gives an in depth opinion on whatever deserves a proper verbal thrashing.  Basically, instead of earning a highly esteemed Co-Sign, it’s about to catch fade on a No-Sign.  In this edition, Wu-Tang Clan’s self-perceived masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” is purchased by none other than a corporate bro it was supposed to avoid. 

A few months back, I wrote a post covering the news on Wu-Tang Clan’s coveted “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” album. I use the word ‘coveted’ because I suppose that’s the proper adjective to describe a single copy album housed in a silver-and-nickel box carved by a British-Moroccan artist. I even went as far as throw in the words ‘holy grail’ into the title. The tag words alone place the record up on a pedestal without fans even hearing a single full song from the 31-cut tracklist; what we did know was that Cher was featured.

RZA wanted to present the record as a piece of art, to be treated along the same lines as a Picasso painting or Michelangelo sculpture. Given the Wu’s catalog and role as rap icons — and even RZA by himself — I’d say that’s a fair expectation from artists of similar statures. He had a point: music is not nearly as revered as an art form like visual art is and RZA wanted to change that by not just making one copy, but also with the intention that the album would do museum tours and visitors could listen to the record. I can dig that. I like music and I like museums; again, no outright reason to not be on board. It’s not like I’m trying to own the thing.

Though I don’t think RZA — or anyone for that matter — thought Martin Shkreli would be the one to own it either. Shkreli, more familiarly known as “Pharma-Bro,” the douchebag CEO who raised the price of an AIDS drug by 5000 percent, won the record’s private auction and bought it for $2 million. According to reports, the guy hasn’t even listened to it yet and it doesn’t sound like he has intentions to: “Album is in a vault,” he replied to a Tweet. “I probably won’t listen to it for years.” On Twitter, he also wrote, “If there is a curious gap in your favorite artist’s discography, well, now you know why.”


As if this guy needed any more reason to be despised. Shkreli was probably the kid with the ant farm and magnifying glass, a guy who’s made being a douchebag and a troll into ludicrous bankroll. And that’s not even to say that the record is any good (I’d place all my bets on unlikely) but the bitter aftertaste left after swallowing this Pharma Bro pill is why RZA felt the need to make this album so exclusive in the first place.

Music is art, yes, despite the multi-comma price tag it lacks. By any means necessary do artists deserve compensation from fans, labels, etc. for creating impactful work on both personal and cultural levels. But to place an air of exclusivity on any piece of music defeats the purpose. You get fools like Pharma Bro (I refuse to use his name at this point) laying claim to pieces of work without real knowledge or appreciation for the process and meaning — it becomes a status symbol, like owning a Porsche just to have it sit in the driveway; its owning a trophy for participation but without being an actual champion.

I’d be hard pressed to say if this “coveted record” wasn’t a hip-hop album the backfire would be less potent. Rap was made for the voiceless and overlooked, the oppressed and forgotten. To put a multi-million dollar price-point on music that’s supposed to reflect that borderlines hypocrisy and the fact that RZA felt the need to align excellence with a high price tag and exclusivity makes me think he’s lost hindsight of that origin. To perceive “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” as a masterpiece is a far cry from being such when it’s out of reach from those able to rightfully dub it so. Its creator’s scheme wanted to protect it from corporate hands and mass production and he got his wish, along with a $2 million price tag for it to remain unheard — and in all likely in Pharma Bro’s hands — forgotten.

Nina Tabios

Nina Smoove aka Champagne Ninang. Certified hooligan. $F Bay Area born and bred.

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