Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

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Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin cover.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedOctober 8, 2015
GenreHip hop
Wu-Tang Clan chronology
A Better Tomorrow
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
The Saga Continues

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is the seventh studio album by the American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. It was limited to a single copy sold in 2015, and is the most expensive work of music ever sold.

The album was recorded in secret over six years. A single two-CD copy was pressed in 2014 and stored in a secured vault at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, then auctioned through auction house Paddle8 in 2015. A legal agreement with the purchaser stipulated that the album cannot be commercially exploited until 2103, although it can be played at listening parties.

The winning bidder was Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who paid an unspecified amount. In March 2018, following Shkreli's conviction for securities fraud, a federal court seized assets belonging to him, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. In July 2021, the US Department of Justice sold it to non-fungible token collectors PleasrDAO for $4 million to cover Shkreli's debts; PleasrDAO said they hoped to make it more widely accessible.


Wu-Tang Clan began working on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in the late 2000s with producer Cilvaringz. It took about six years to complete, and was recorded mostly in Staten Island, New York, and produced in Marrakech, Morocco.[1] It features the entire Wu-Tang Clan, plus rapper Redman, the Wu-Tang Killa Beez, FC Barcelona soccer players, Game of Thrones actress Carice Van Houten,[2] and two appearances from Cher.[3][4]

Single-album concept[edit]

The ornate casing for the album

Inspired by musical patronage in the Renaissance,[5] Wu-Tang producer Cilvaringz decided to create Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as an art object.[3] Feeling the value of music had been cheapened by streaming and online piracy, he and co-producer RZA hoped to return music to the value of fine art.[1] They wrote on their website:[3]

The music industry is in crisis. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity ... By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale ... we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music.

The album was held in a silver jewel-encrusted box with a wax Wu-Tang Clan seal and leather-bound liner notes.[4] On March 3, 2015, it was detained at JFK Airport for three hours while border control determined the contents of its box.[6] In March 2015, Wu-Tang Clan exhibited the album for the only time, to a crowd of about 150 art collectors, dealers, and critics in Queens, New York.[4] Attendees were searched for recording devices.[4] About 13 minutes of the album were played to the audience.[4]

Auction (2015)[edit]

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was auctioned through Paddle8 in 2015,[7] which had previously sold works by artists including Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Damien Hirst.[1] Legal agreements stipulated that the album could not be commercially exploited for 88 years, although it could be released free or played at listening parties.[8] According to RZA, the number eight was symbolic as there were eight original members of the Wu-Tang Clan, the numbers of the year 2015 add up to eight, Paddle8 has eight in its name, and a rotated eight is the symbol for infinity, used on their second album, Wu-Tang Forever.[9] The auction gained significant public attention, and an unfounded rumor spread virally online that the purchase agreement stipulated that members of the Wu-Tang Clan, or actor Bill Murray, would be allowed one attempt at stealing the record back in a heist.[10]

Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who won the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin at auction

The winning bid was accepted on May 3, 2015, followed by months of legal diligence.[11] The sale was completed on August 26, 2015, to a private individual for an unspecified amount.[12] On December 9, Bloomberg Businessweek identified the buyer as Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who had paid $2 million.[13][14] RZA said that the sale was agreed before Shkreli's controversial price hike of the anti-infective agent Daraprim. According to RZA, after learning the buyer's identity, Cilvaringz and the Wu-Tang Clan donated a "significant portion" of the proceeds to charity,[15] including the Children's Literacy Society, the Hip Hop Chess Federation, and TTAC, an institution focused on showcasing alternative cures for cancer.[16]

In January 2016, Shkreli told Vice that he had considered destroying the record or "installing it in some remote place so that people have to make a spiritual quest to listen".[17] He promised to release the album free if Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. In November, after Trump was elected, Shkreli streamed excerpts of the album online.[18]

In September 2017,[19] Shkreli attempted to sell Once Upon a Time in Shaolin on the online auction site eBay, with the winning bid passing $1m. He was incarcerated on unrelated fraud counts before the sale could be completed.[20] RZA disapproved of the sale, and said: "I think he could have got more than what he paid. I was actually impressed that within eight days he got up to $1m in bidding ... If it had been left a bit longer, no telling how far it would have gone."[21] RZA hoped to buy it himself, but was contractually unable to.[22]

Sale by US Department of Justice (2021)[edit]

In March 2018, following Shkreli's conviction for securities fraud, a federal court seized assets belonging to him worth $7.36m, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.[23] On July 27, 2021, Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, announced that the US Department of Justice had sold the album in connection with the approximately $7.4 million forfeiture judgment entered against Shkreli at his March 2018 sentencing.[24]

In October 2021, the buyer was revealed as PleasrDAO, a group that purchases non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that honor "anti-establishment rebels". PleasrDAO had previously purchased NFTs related to the American whistleblower Edward Snowden and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. As part of a deal involving multiple parties, including one unidentified party, PleasrDAO purchased the album for $4 million USD.[25] PleasrDAO spokesperson Jamis Johnson described it as the "ultimate protest against middlemen and rent seekers of musicians and artists", which had been rescued from the hands of Shkreli, "the ultimate internet villain".[26] The group hope to make the album more widely available, but are bound by the restrictions forbidding its release to the general public. Johnson suggested it could be played at listening parties or exhibitions.[25]


Complex, reporting from the exhibition in Queens, described Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as "rich, layered, and sonically bombastic", with a "rugged, hard-hitting sound" reminiscent of early Wu-Tang Clan albums. It begins with "ominous, foreboding" sounds of rain and thunder, before rapper Raekwon begins the first verse. Other sounds include fire sirens, crowd applause, and a marching drum beat. Cher appears twice, as singer and actress, and closes the record with the "belted" words: "Wu-Tang baby, they rock the world".[17] Rolling Stone critic Christopher Weingarten wrote that, based on the 13 minutes played in Queens, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin had the potential to become the Wu-Tang Clan's most popular album since 1997. He likened it to the U2 album All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and the Metallica album Death Magnetic (2008), and said it "hearkened back to the RZA's glory days" between 1993 and 1997.[27] Shkreli played the record during his interview with Vice writer Allie Conti, who said: "From what I heard, it was definitely better than their last album, although I wouldn't say it's worth $2 million necessarily."[17]


Many fans reacted negatively to the news of the single-copy album. Wu-Tang member Method Man spoke out against the 88-year commercial ban, blaming RZA and producer Cilvaringz. RZA replied that the ban was necessary to maintain the integrity of the album as a work of art and to deflect notions of a publicity stunt.[9] The Guinness Book of Records certified Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as the most valuable album in the world, surpassing records by Elvis Presley and the Beatles.[28] In February 2016, artist Jason Koza sued RZA, Cilvaringz, Paddle8 and Shkreli in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for the alleged unauthorized use of his artwork on the album.[29][30] The case was dismissed after Koza was found to have sold prints using the Wu-Tang logo without consent.[citation needed]


In July 2017, publishing house Macmillan released Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a memoir of the story behind the album written by Cyrus Bozorgmehr, a senior advisor to Cilvaringz and RZA on the album.[31]


In May 2016, Netflix and Brad Pitt's film company Plan B Entertainment purchased Cilvaringz's life story rights and the book rights to Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan's Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America's New Public Enemy No. 1 for a film.[32] The production of the film was accidentally leaked by the film's first screenwriter, How to Make It in America's Ian Edelman.[citation needed]

Track listing[edit]

An official track listing of the album was never revealed, but auction house Paddle8 was given an incomplete list of the working titles of the songs.[33]

"Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" is also the title of one of the tracks on the Allah School disc, though it is unknown as of yet which one.

The following track listing was compiled by Complex.[34]


Wu-Tang Clan

Additional personnel

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sold By Paddle8, But To Whom?". Forbes. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  2. ^ "THE WORK". Scluzay. Retrieved December 21, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Michaels, Sean (March 27, 2014). "Wu-Tang Clan producing one copy of new album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e "You'll Never Hear the New Wu-Tang Clan Album, But This Is What It Sounds Like". Complex. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  5. ^ "88 —".
  6. ^ Baker, Soren (March 6, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan's 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' Album Seized At Airport". HipHopDX. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  7. ^ Tshepo Mokoena (January 8, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan: unique copy of album will be sold by online auction". The Guardian. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  8. ^ Shawn Christ (March 6, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan Issue Statement to Clarify 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin' Release". Music Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  9. ^ a b George Palathingal (February 20, 2014). "Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man slams 'stupid' release plan for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin". Smh.com.au. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  10. ^ Marchese, David (July 11, 2017). "The Story Behind Martin Shkreli and That Wu-Tang Album". vulture.com. New York Magazine. Retrieved October 19, 2022.
  11. ^ Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "New Details Emerge On Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sale". Forbes. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  12. ^ Zack O'Malley Greenburg (November 24, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sold By Paddle8, But To Whom?". Forbes. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  13. ^ Justin Hunte (December 16, 2015). "Martin Shkreli Plans To Bail-Out Bobby Shmurda". HipHopDX. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  14. ^ Leonard, David; Hordern, Annmarie (December 9, 2015). "Who Bought The Most Expensive Album Ever Made?". Bloomberg Businessweek.
  15. ^ Devin Leonard; Annmarie Hordern (December 9, 2015). "Pharma's Bad Boy Exec Paid $2 Million for Wu-Tang Clan's New Record". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  16. ^ "TTAC Confirms Donation Wu-Tang Clan".
  17. ^ a b c Staff, Noisey (January 27, 2016). "Martin Skhreli Either Wants to Destroy the $2 Million Wu-Tang Record or Make It a Spiritual Quest". Noisey. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  18. ^ Guardian Staff (November 9, 2016). "Martin Shkreli leaks Wu-Tang Clan album in celebration of Trump victory". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  19. ^ "A Timeline of Events Since Martin Shkreli Purchased Wu Tang Clan's 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin'". Billboard. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  20. ^ Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "Why Jeff Sessions May Control The Fate Of Wu-Tang's Secret Album". Forbes. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  21. ^ Hann, Michael (October 26, 2017). "RZA: 'Martin Shkreli sold our album on eBay for $1.2m – he could have got more'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  22. ^ Grow, Kory (March 30, 2018). "RZA Wanted to Buy Martin Shkreli's Wu-Tang Album Back for Himself". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  23. ^ Beaumont-Thomas, Ben (March 6, 2018). "Martin Shkreli's $2m Wu-Tang Clan album seized by federal court". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  24. ^ "United States Sells Unique Wu-Tang Clan Album Forfeited by Convicted Hedge Fund Manager Martin Shkreli". www.justice.gov. July 27, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  25. ^ a b Sisario, Ben (October 20, 2021). "Meet the new owners of the Wu-Tang Clan's one-of-a-kind album". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
  26. ^ Leight, Elias (October 20, 2021). "Revealed: The crypto fans who secretly paid $4 million for pharma bro's Wu-Tang album". Rolling Stone. Retrieved October 24, 2021.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  27. ^ Weingarten, Christopher R. (March 3, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan LP Gets 'First, Last, Only' Listening Session". Rolling Stone.
  28. ^ Guinness World Records (September 1, 2015). Guinness World Records 2016. Macmillan. p. 187. ISBN 978-1910561027. Retrieved November 29, 2015.
  29. ^ Gardner, Eriq (February 9, 2016). "Wu-Tang Clan's $2 Million Album a Target in Copyright Lawsuit". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 10, 2016.
  30. ^ "Koza v. Diggs et al, Docket No. 1:16-cv-00956 (S.D.N.Y. Feb 09, 2016), Court Docket". Bloomberg Law. February 9, 2016. Retrieved December 5, 2017.
  31. ^ "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin | Cyrus Bozorgmehr | Macmillan". US Macmillan.
  32. ^ Sneider, Jeff (August 24, 2020). "Exclusive: Wu-Tang Clan's 'Shaolin' Album Netflix Movie Lands 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Director". Collider.
  33. ^ "Wu Tang: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin". bychrisnorris.com.
  34. ^ "You'll Never Hear the New Wu-Tang Clan Album, But This Is What It Sounds Like". Complex. March 3, 2015. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  35. ^ "Wu-Tang Clan's U-God Says Cher Is On Unreleased 'Shaolin' Album". Retrieved November 30, 2018.

External links[edit]