Wu-Tang Clan cofounder RZA has a certain obsession with his group’s one-of-a-kind Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album. In 2015, he sold it to “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli for $2 million. But now the fate of the double-LP, housed in a filigreed silver box, is up in the air, since Shkreli has been incarcerated for securities fraud and a judge has decided he must forfeit $7.4 million of his assets – including Shaolin – to the U.S. government.
“I definitely read every article about it,” RZA, who will be live-scoring the movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin on tour this spring, tells Rolling Stone. “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.”
But while the producers’ intention was to create a fabled work of art, they didn’t expect its legacy to take quite its current path. “It has this little tabloid thing going on, too,” RZA says with a laugh. “Almost like it has a naked woman on a cover, right? But I think it’s super interesting. The last album I was talking about, Jeff Sessions had it. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.'”
Earlier this month, Forbes reported that the attorney general may control the future of the LP, though it later updated its story to reflect that its future would be decided by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York (with an addendum pointing out that Sessions is still in charge indirectly by leading the Justice Department). The album also became tabloid fodder when Shkreli – who tried to project a bad-boy image online that dovetailed with his real-life social pariah status – live-streamed snippets of the rare album to mark the election of Donald Trump. He also tried to sell the album on eBay, which fetched $1 million in bids and ultimately went unsold. (In purchasing Shaolin, Shkreli agreed to several terms of ownership, including not selling it for 88 years and only playing it for personal use.)
“It’s like the Mona Lisa,” RZA says of ‘Shaolin.’ “It’s got its own folklore.”
Now Shkreli, who rose to infamy for raising the price of a drug that could help people with HIV and AIDS by a factor of 56 times, is serving seven years in jail for securities fraud. “I didn’t follow his whole case,” RZA says. “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.”
Regardless of Shkreli’s destiny, RZA is hoping the unique record falls into the right hands. While he’s happy that the record has stayed relevant as a piece of art, he wants it to maintain its integrity. “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,” he says. “The rules are important to me in life. I’m in the Writer’s Guild of America, right? And I try to follow the rule that they set down; the code of ethics, I’m meant to be proper. So when people break the rules that we all agreed to, I think that’s important to uphold.”
RZA is so hardline about the rules, in part, because he wished he owned the album himself. When asked whether he’d want to buy the album back from the government, he waffles. “It was hard for me to sell that album,” he says, “because I wanted it to be on my living room table.” He laughs. “When it was finally completed and everything was sent out, I was like, ‘This would be great in the Wu mansion.’ Whoever comes by here can see this piece of art sitting in my living room. I argued with the people that invested money to get the project on its way, but they wanted [their investment] back. So it would’ve cost me more than the selling price in reality, because of the deficit that was already incurred. Also, everybody is like, ‘This ain’t for you. That’s even more selfish than selling it.’ They were talking to me to let that thing go.
“I’ve actually tried to get it back,” he continues, “but the paperwork and the contract stops me from getting it back. When [Shkreli] put it on eBay, the first thing I did was call my lawyer, and I was like, ‘Yo, let’s go.’ And they said, ‘All right, check with your contract.’ And it’s no, you can’t do it. Ain’t that a bitch?”
“When [Shkreli] put it on eBay, the first thing I did was call my lawyer, and I was like, ‘Yo, let’s go.'”
Even if he can’t own it, he hopes that its existence – and the fact that people are still talking about it – changes the conversation about the value of music. “I got a lot of flak from fans for that album,” he says. “I’ve lost fans, because they think I’ve done something that was out of the nature of what Wu-Tang is. 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. No, we just wanted to point out that when you devalue something, you got a big conflict over it.
“I felt like we misplaced the value of music,” he continues. “We put everything in front of its value. We put our cell phone and headphones in front of the value. Kids are paying $600 for headphones, but they won’t pay a dollar for the music. Headphones are useless without the music. The iPod was useless without the music. The cell phone was probably 50 percent used for music. It crippled an industry. It’s making a comeback now, because they found a way to monetize streaming, but it took them years for that. But you’ve gotta think about how many artists have lost their way of living, have been forced to come out the studio and just go on tour, because the studio wasn’t the place where they earned a living to create music. So that’s what this album is about. OK, nobody don’t see the value on it, and we gonna put a value on it. We wanna say, ‘This is what we think it’s worth.'”