Cash rules everything around us all.
The title of the most expensive record ever sold doesn’t belong to a Beatles album, Elvis Presley, or even Michael Jackson.
At least, it didn’t until one infamous group came along and decided to make an artistic statement about the value of music.
Wu-Tang Clan, the notorious nine-piece rap group from Staten Island, New York, are known for their deft lyrics, heavy beats, and the incredibly violent imagery inspired by Japanese martial art films that they employ on their tracks.
Formed in 1992 in one of the cities poorest neighbourhoods, you wouldn’t expect that, 23 years later, they would smash the record for most expensive work of music ever sold.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is Wu-Tang Clan’s seventh album. Not a whole lot is known about it except that it was recorded in New York, produced in Morocco, and features collaborations with football players from FC Barcelona, Game of Thrones actress Carice Van Houten, and Cher.
The record was pressed to a double CD, encased in a hand-carved silver nickel box with leather-bound album notes, and sold at auction to an anonymous buyer in 2015 for the record-smashing price of $2.7 million (US$2 million).
There are thought to be 31 tracks on the album. In 2015, the group played 13 minutes from the record during a listening party at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and that was intended to be the last that anyone would ever hear of it.
In a statement on their website, Wu-Tang Clan explained their reasoning for the concept album as follows:
“By adopting an approach to music that traces its lineage back through The Enlightenment, the Baroque and the Renaissance, we hope to reawaken age-old perceptions of music as truly monumental art.
“In doing so, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music, both economically and in how our generation experiences it. We hope to steer those debates toward more radical solutions and provoke questions about the value and perception of music as a work of art in today’s world”.
For the auction, Wu-Tang put together a comprehensive contract that forbids the new owner from ever releasing the record commercially—although they can release it for free if they choose to do so—for 88 years.
It also contains a clause that allows for the sellers to “legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller”.
The contract further clarifies that the heist can only be undertaken by “currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions.”
Why Bill Murray? We have no idea, but it does speak to the bizarre hilarity of the whole ordeal.
The 36 Chambers of Martin Shkreli
The album was sold in March 2015 but in December of that year, the identity of the buyer was revealed.
For a brief period of time, ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli was the most hated man in America and quite possibly the world. A cross between Donald Trump and The Joker (in all the worst possible ways), Shkreli made headlines for his childish, attention-seeking approach to business, the media, and humanity in general.
Gifted with one of the most punchable faces on the planet, Shkreli decided to capitalise on his natural talents for shit-f*ckery by purchasing the rights to a life-saving AIDS medication known as Daraprim and raise the price by five thousand percent.
A single pill (in the non-socialised healthcare world of America) went from US$13.50 to US$750.
Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, Shkreli pulled back his ghoulish mask and revealed himself as the buyer of the Wu-Tang album.
Shkreli proceeded to double down on his reprehensible behaviour by engaging in a back-and-forth taunting of members of the Clan and the public, gloating that he had never even listened to the album after purchasing and threatening to destroy it so that no one could ever hear it.
Clan member Ghostface Killah publicly branded Shkreli a “shithead” to which he responded by threatening to erase Ghostface’s parts on the album while surrounded by masked “goons”.
Here’s an expert of the clown prince of banality streaming a section of the album and reacting to it like he’s auditioning for Beauty and the Geek.
Shkreli even publically offered a listen to the album to Taylor Swift if he slept with her. The man’s capacity for dickery truly knows no bounds.
Thankfully for us, the US government finally caught up with Shkreli, charging him with two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiring to commit securities fraud. He was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and copped a $10 million (US$7.4 million) fine for his troubles.
Many of his assets were seized by the feds, including the hallowed record, and for years the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin gathered dust in the vaults of the US government.
The US Gov Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’Wit
Taking us to the present day, an announcement made yesterday by the US Department of Justice revealed that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin has once again changed hands.
According to a press release issued by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the album has been sold to an undisclosed buyer for an undisclosed price. The sale’s contract reportedly “contains a confidentiality provision that protects information relating to the buyer and price.”
The sale was part of an auction of the former possessions of Shkreli that are being used to settle his $10 million debt with the US government. According to the document, the sale of the album fulfils the money owed.
“Through the diligent and persistent efforts of this Office and its law enforcement partners, Shkreli has been held accountable and paid the price for lying and stealing from investors to enrich himself,” Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement.
“With today’s sale of this one-of-a-kind album, his payment of the forfeiture is now complete.”
We don’t know who bought the album nor how much was paid for it but it does provide a glimmer of hope for fans who are hoping to hear it. The new buyer, as stipulated in the contract, could choose to release the album for free.
On the other hand, it could be some other capitalist tyrant who decides to keep the album for himself.
Either way, we may never hear the album and it seems as though the group regret the stunt and the hassle it has caused them.
Wu-Tang member Method Man, who was not made aware of the group’s release plans in advance, said that he was simply “tired of this shit” and hopes the album can make its way to the public.
“Give it to the people. If they want to hear the shit, let them have it. Give it away free. I don’t give a fuck; that ain’t making nobody rich or poor. Give the fucking music out. Stop playing with the public, man,” Method Man told XXL in 2015.
Fellow member RZA has previously attempted to reclaim the CD copy, telling Rolling Stone in 2018 that he has “actually tried to get it back, but the paperwork and the contract stops me.”
It’s an inauspicious end to the saga of the most expensive record of all time. One thing’s for certain though, that story and the intrigue around the album will continue.