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‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin:’ How The Wu-Tang Clan’s Secret Album Stormed The Art World And Left A Mess In Its Wake

Infamous "Pharma bro" Martin Shkreli bought "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" for $2 million back in 2015 — and that's not the only unlikely part of the album's story.

By Ethan Harfenist
Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, music producer Cilvaringz and Martin Shkreli

“This is not for the fans. I hope it maintains its course as an art piece and literally disappears into darkness.”

This is how producer Cilvaringz described the Wu-Tang Clan's one-of-a-kind “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” to a reporter. It’s hardly the sort of language one would expect to hear about an album — if it could even be called that — created by members of a rap group that have collectively sold tens of millions of records around the world.

But Cilvaringz, real name Tarik Azzougarh, had to know there was a fat chance this project would just quietly fade from the public’s collective memory considering how much attention — and controversy — it generated since it was announced in 2014.

in a segment featured in the final episode of Showtime’s latest docu-series, “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.”

Rather, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” spawned a unique saga featuring the fine art world, a business mogul well-versed in internet trolling and all the surviving members of the Wu-Tang Clan — a yarn featured in the final episode of Showtime’s latest docu-series, “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.”

A True Pyramid Scheme

In the docu-series, Cilvaringz claims that the idea for “Once Upon a Time” was born out of a 2004 trip to Egypt with Wu-Tang mastermind RZA, real name Robert F. Diggs, during which the two toured the pyramids. Basically, the duo yearned to create a musical artifact able to withstand the sands of time in the same ways the pyramids have.

“Halfway climbing the pyramid of Keops we sat down to overlook the desert, and I said to RZA that one day we should do something special together that would last through the ages,” he says in the episode.

The recording process for the album unfolded organically, a la 1993’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” with Cilvaringz phoning individual Clan members to hop on tracks. He noted that he borrowed RZA’s approach of helming a project from start to finish as if it were a film, and then unveiling the completed product once he was satisfied with it.

“[The album], sonically, is kind of like a nostalgic journey through 1993 [to]1998, the golden era of the Clan,” Cilvaringz says in the docu-series. “It wasn’t until I kind of put it all together that we were like, ‘Yo! This sounds like a Clan album.’”

‘An Egyptian King’s Scepter’

In March 2014, RZA spoke publicly for the first time about “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

In an exclusive interview with Forbes, RZA discussed the singular nature of the album and likened it to a piece of capital-A art by the likes of masters such as Degas or Monet.

“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before. We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music,” he told the magazine. “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

RZA further explained that Cilvaringz was the main producer on the project, and that there were plans to take the music on tour through art galleries around the world (so, like a regular concert tour, only minus the thrill of hearing live music and seeing your favorite artists perform in front of you). He also hinted at the possibility of a private buyer being able to snag the one-of-a-kind record for a price “in the millions” following its world tour.

“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” RZA told Forbes. “And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”

In the docu-series, RZA put it much more concisely: “Things have value when they are rare.”

Shkreli In Da Front

On Nov. 25, 2015, Paddle8, the online auction startup that Wu-Tang hired to sell the album, announced that “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” had been sold for a “figure in the millions.”

The buyer? Notorious pharma-bro Martin Shkreli.

Shkreli’s combination of obnoxious public trolling combined with his seemingly heartless business practices — he came to notoriety after jacking up the price of a lifesaving drug called Daraprim by 5,000 percent — at the time made him one of the most hated figures in America. That fact only became more true once he got his hands on “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” for a reported $2 million.

As one of the conditions of the sale, the album wasn't to be made publicly available for 88 years, or until the year 2103.

He publicly toyed with the idea of destroying the record outright, or installing it in some remote location so dedicated listeners would have to go on some sort of quest in order to hear the music.

RZA felt the need to explain that the record was sold to Shkreli before he or anybody else involved in the record’s creation knew who they were dealing with.

“The sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was agreed upon in May, well before Martin Skhreli’s [sic] business practices came to light. We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity,” RZA wrote in a statement to Bloomberg in December 2015.

Wu-Tang Dissension

In the docu-series, Clan members voice their dissatisfaction for Shkreli’s purchase: Ghostface Killah said Shkreli had “no respect for life.”

But even before, the group members weren’t thrilled with the way the process was handled from the get-go.

“I don’t give a f--k about that album,” Method Man says in the docu-series. “That was never supposed to be a Wu-Tang album”

The grievances appear to lay in the notion that “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’s” creation wasn't undertaken in the most open way. It seems the members weren’t fully aware that the recording sessions they were doing with Cilvaringz were part of some larger Clan project, and that they only learned after the fact that he had been piecing together the work from those sessions into a coherent whole.

Cilvaringz, for his part, doesn’t see it that way.

“To think that I tricked everyone into recording a Wu-Tang Clan album — that’s just simply not true,” he says in the docu-series.

What Happened To The Album?

In March 2018, federal authorities seized “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” following Shkreli’s conviction for fraud, according to the Guardian newspaper. Prior to that, Shkreli attempted to sell it on eBay, with RZA himself even trying to buy it back from the “pharma bro,” but being unable to do so.

As for the album’s present fate, RZA jokes in the docu-series about Shkreli possibly running into one of Ghostface Killah’s cousins in jail.

“One of those motherf---ers would want to make a sandwich out of him!”