The saga of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album, which unfolded in 2015, seemed both too good to be true and too good to ignore. There was the outlandish conceit: The iconic rap group had recorded an entire new album, of which it was producing only a single copy. There was the over-the-top villain: pharma-industry gremlin Martin Shkreli, who, in what appeared to be a trolling act of conspicuous consumption, bought the copy of the album for a reported $2 million (the exact number has never been officially confirmed) in order to hoard it for himself. And there was the whiff of illicit high jinks: A rumored clause in the sale contract suggested that the Clan (or, weirdly, Bill Murray) could legitimately retrieve the album from Shkreli if they managed to nab it from him in a heist. (Because of course there has to be a Bill Murray angle.) As with all too-good-to-be-true stories, this one turned out to be part truth, part rumor, part hoax, and all ridiculous.
A year and a half later, a new book, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1, purports to tell, well, the untold story of the whole strange episode. The book’s author, the Wu-Tang’s self-described “adviser” Cyrus Bozorgmehr, claims that the meticulously planned, cleverly orchestrated Shaolin experience was conceived as a publicity stunt — though his book, he says, is not. “I can’t force anyone to believe what’s in the book,” Bozorgmehr says, recounting how he gained firsthand access to the project after meeting the rap producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, who co-produced Shaolin. “From our perspective, we thought the book needed to exist because there was a lot going on behind the scenes that we could only share after the project was over.”
As recounted in the book, the genesis of the Shaolin project came, as tales of international intrigue so often do, from a meeting in Marrakech. It was there that the author ran into Cilvaringz at an art-world event. Eventually, the producer described how, during a mystical evening atop the Great Pyramid of Khufu with Wu-Tang mastermind RZA, the plan was hatched to create a work of art with lasting impact — more lasting than music tends to be in the current streaming era. Thus: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a double album of all-new, all-original Wu-Tang Clan material, which would exist as one lone copy, in a direct rebuke to the disposability and accessibility of contemporary music. Furthermore, the buyer would be contractually prohibited from sharing the music commercially in any public forum for 88 years. “The idea,” explains Bozorgmehr, “was to imbue the album with the importance of a painting by a Renaissance master.”
Once the album was completed, and after the Clan realized that many of the group’s fans weren’t exactly pleased with the notion of new music being made available only to the buyer with the deepest pockets, the project began to butt up against the real world. “We had a sense that some fans might be confused,” says Bozorgmehr. “And no one on the Wu-Tang side had processed that there was a whole legal framework to selling something that a buyer might pay millions for. We didn’t consider that buyers would want to protect their investment by making sure we didn’t leak the album after the sale. There was no clear resolution to some of those problems, so we realized that we were going to have to trust that the buyer would act in good faith.”
That is, if a millionaire buyer even materialized. One did — but he turned out to be someone to whom the notion of “good faith” is alien. Martin Shkreli, who would soon become the face of corporate greed after his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, jacked up the price of an AIDS-related drug, is said to have paid $2 million for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. “We did do some Googling about Martin,” Bozorgmehr admits, “but had no idea he was about to become the most evil man in America. He just seemed like a wealthy young guy who sincerely loved rap.”
It was Shkreli’s purchase, first reported in December 2015, that moved the Shaolin story from amusing music-world stunt to a global news event. Shkreli used the fact of his ownership to embellish his public role as a bad boy. He taunted RZA online after the latter expressed dismay at his business practices and promised he’d release the album for free if Donald Trump was elected president. (He never did, though he posted snippets on YouTube.) Most crudely, he claimed in an interview that he’d be willing to play the album for Taylor Swift in return for sexual favors.
The Wu was not happy. “Martin went nuts with his idea of public theater,” says Bozorgmehr. “He would get in touch with us privately and say, ‘I’ve just been abusive to RZA in an interview. Isn’t that great?’ And we’re going, ‘No!’ ”
The issue was further confused when, in a wishful-thinking response to Shkreli’s antics, an interested observer online tweeted a (false) quote from a (falsified) contract that claimed to show the (entirely bogus) clause that allowed Wu-Tang Clan and/or Bill Murray — a real-life acquaintance of RZA’s — to steal the album back. As sometimes happens with false tweets about bogus clauses in falsified contracts, the media picked up the story and reported it as if it were real. “I don’t think Bill was ever even aware of the album,” says Bozorgmehr.
Eventually, the internet moved on. It helped a little that Shkreli got a comeuppance of sorts: He was booted off Twitter over a harassment incident, and his trial on charges of securities fraud began on June 26.
(Shkreli could not be reached for comment for this article.) As for the record — it’s real, and it’s still in Shkreli’s hands. “We don’t even know if he’s ever listened to the album,” says Bozorgmehr. Sadly, not even Bill Murray can remedy this.
Book Excerpt: When Shaolin Met Shkreli
Wu-Tang Clan found an anonymous buyer for their album in pharmaceuticals mogul Martin Shkreli. In an excerpt from his book, Cyrus Bozorgmehr explains what happened next.
We genuinely couldn’t see how breaking anonymity might be desirable for Martin [Shkreli], as it would just be used as a stick to beat him and raise all kinds of questions about where the money he was making from sick children was actually going. The glaring hole in our logic was that we were using our own empathy to guess his motives, and he didn’t think like most people … He didn’t care about bad press. Quite the contrary — he was thirsting after it like a crack-head frantically trying to score his next rock.
There were a couple of other worrying signs in that first week of December, most notably when Martin called Cilvaringz and said that he’d gotten drunk and told a few girls that he owned the album. His conclusion was that the news would leak very soon, but that was quite a stretch. Telling a couple of girls doesn’t mean headline news by a long shot … Martin had assured us that he wanted to remain anonymous at least for the time being, there was a decidedly strange wind blowing.
And then it happened. An email from Devin Leonard [a Bloomberg Businessweek writer] giving us an hour to comment on three main elements: The identity of the buyer. The price. And something Alexander Gilkes [head of Paddle8, which handled the album’s sale] had apparently said to Martin about how if he bought the album, ‘celebrities and rappers’ would want to hang out with him. Fuck — OK — well … If Martin wanted to go public with his name — then that was his right. The price thing was very odd, but Bloomberg had attributed it to ‘someone familiar with the deal,’ which basically meant Martin himself as it certainly hadn’t come from any of us, and to this day we still haven’t confirmed if it’s the real price or not. RZA fired over a quote that sought simply to make clear that the deal was agreed on well before we knew anything about Martin’s business practices and that we’d given money to charity …
The news broke to a predictable avalanche of outrage. This was a real story. Fuck that mealy-mouthed shit from a few weeks ago where the album sold for an undisclosed amount to an undisclosed buyer. That was yawn central. But THIS — now THIS — was a story.”
Adapted from Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, by Cyrus Bozorgmehr. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.
*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.