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Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

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Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
A blurred photo of men in hoods with full facial masks
Studio album by
ReleasedOctober 8, 2015
Recorded2007–2013
GenreHip hop
Length110:12
Producer
Wu-Tang Clan chronology
A Better Tomorrow
(2014)
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
(2015)
The Saga Continues
(2017)

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is the seventh studio album by the American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Only one copy was created, with no ability to download or stream it. Purchased directly from the Wu-Tang Clan in 2015, it became 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 a reported $2 million. 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 U.S. Department of Justice sold it to the non-fungible token collectors PleasrDAO for $4 million to cover Shkreli's debts; PleasrDAO said they hoped to make it more widely accessible.

The first public exhibition of the album began in June 2024 at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. That month, Shkreli livestreamed the album on X, triggering a lawsuit from PleasrDAO. PleasrDAO also began selling partial ownership of the album as an NFT, with each purchase accelerating the release by 88 seconds.

Recording[edit]

Wu-Tang Clan began working on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in the late 2000s with producer Cilvaringz.[1] It took about six years to complete, and was recorded in secret, mostly in Staten Island, New York, and produced in Marrakech, Morocco.[2][3] It features the entire Wu-Tang Clan, plus the rapper Redman, the Wu-Tang Killa Beez, FC Barcelona soccer players, the actress Carice van Houten[4] and two appearances from Cher.[5][6]

Release[edit]

The ornate casing for the album

Inspired by musical patronage during the Renaissance,[7] the Wu-Tang co-producer Cilvaringz decided to create Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as an art object.[5] Feeling the value of music had been cheapened by streaming and online piracy, he and the co-producer RZA hoped to return music to the value of fine art.[2] They wrote on their website:[5]

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.

Wu-Tang deleted the master files of the album.[3] A single copy, on two CDs, is held in a silver jewel-encrusted box with a wax Wu-Tang Clan seal and leather-bound liner notes.[6][3] On March 3, 2015, the box was detained at JFK Airport for three hours while border control determined its contents.[8] In March 2015, Wu-Tang Clan exhibited the album to a crowd of about 150 art collectors, dealers and critics in Queens, New York.[6] Attendees were searched for recording devices.[6] About 13 minutes of the album were played to the audience.[6]

Purchase by Martin Shkreli (2015)[edit]

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was auctioned through Paddle8 in 2015,[9] which had previously sold works by artists including Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Damien Hirst.[2] Legal agreements stipulated that it could not be commercially exploited for 88 years, although it could be released free or played at listening parties.[10] 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.[11] The auction gained significant attention, and an unfounded rumor spread online that the purchase agreement stipulated that members of the Wu-Tang Clan, or the actor Bill Murray, would be allowed one attempt at stealing the record back in a heist.[12]

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.[13] The sale was completed on August 26, 2015, to a private individual for an unspecified amount.[14] On December 9, Bloomberg Businessweek identified the buyer as Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who had paid $2 million.[15][16] It became the most expensive work of music ever sold.[17] 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,[18] including the Children's Literacy Society, the Hip Hop Chess Federation, and TTAC, an institution focused on showcasing alternative cures for cancer.[19]

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".[20] 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 online.[21]

In September 2017,[22] 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.[23] 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."[24] RZA hoped to buy it himself, but was contractually unable to.[25]

Purchase by PleasrDAO (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.[26] In August 2020, it was announced that Paul Downs Colaizzo was set to direct a film for Netflix based on the story of the album, produced by Plan B Entertainment.[27]

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.[28] In October, 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.[29]

A PleasrDAO spokesperson, Jamis Johnson, described the purchase 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".[30] PleasrDAO hopes to make the album more widely available, but is bound by the restrictions forbidding its release to the general public. Johnson suggested it could be played at listening parties or exhibitions.[29]

Public exhibition and NFTs (2024)[edit]

On June 9, 2024, Shkreli livestreamed Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to an audience of approximately five thousand via the social network X. It was the first time it was made available for public listening. PleasrDAO sued Shkreli for playing it without permission, arguing that he had diminished its value.[31] The district judge Pamela Chen issued a temporary restraining order blocking Shkreli from disseminating the album.[32]

The first official exhibition of the album began on June 15, 2024 at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania.[3][33] Attendees must sign a waiver promising not to record the album, binding until 2103, and are played a 30-minute mix created by Cilvaringz for the exhibition.[34] That month, PleasrDAO began selling partial ownership of the album as an NFT for one US dollar. Each purchase accelerates the release date by 88 seconds and gives the purchaser a five-minute sampler.[34][35]

Music[edit]

Reporting from the exhibition in Queens, Complex 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".[20]

The 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" of the mid-1990s.[36] 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."[20]

The Guardian writer Sian Cain heard the album when it was exhibited in Tasmania in 2024. She wrote that it was "not as thrillingly in your face" as the 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang, but was "easily as good" as Wu-Tang Forever (1997), with a more polished sound than both. She concluded: "So as Wu-Tang Clan music goes, it's good. But as a work of art, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is truly great."[34]

Response[edit]

Many fans reacted negatively to the news of the single-copy album. The Wu-Tang member Method Man was supportive of the single-copy concept, but spoke out against the 88-year commercial ban, blaming RZA and Cilvaringz. He said: "Fuck that album ... When music can't be music and y'all turning it into something else, fuck that. Give it to the people, if they want to hear the shit, let them have it. Give it away free." 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.[37][11]

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.[38] In February 2016, the 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.[39][40] The case was dismissed after Koza was found to have sold prints using the Wu-Tang logo without consent.[citation needed]

Track listings[edit]

PleasrDAO track listing[edit]

In April 2024, PleasrDAO published a track listing and partial credits (for the first three tracks of disc one) as part of a promotional video for social media.[41]

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin – Shaolin School (disc one)
No.TitleWriter(s)Producer(s)Length
1."Enter" 
2."The Magnificent Butchers" (featuring Killah Priest, Killa Sin, and Street Life)
  • Cilvaringz
 
3."Staple Town – Part I (Interlude)" (performed by Cilvaringz and RZA)
 
4."Stone Him!"   
5."Kareem"   
6."Staple Town – Part II (Interlude)"   
7."99 Cycling Swords (99 Supreme)"   
8."Stone Finger"   
9."The Weeping Tiger"   
10."Brother Jozef"   
11."The Ninja"   
12."Swine (Interlude)"   
13."Dirt Bomb Niggaz Know My Uzi Weigh a Ton"   
14."Staple Town – Part III (Interlude)"   
15."Hail, Snow & Earthquakes (Rainy Dayz II)"   


Once Upon a Time in Shaolin – Allah School (disc 2)
No.TitleLength
1."Nourishment (Intro)" 
2."
  • Winter Windz (Lions)"

  • "The Manual (Interlude)
"
 
3."The Eighty Eight Soul Babies" 
4."March of the Wooden Soldiers (Guards) – The 19th Chamber" 
5."Park Hillians" 
6."Bamboo" 
7."Flowers Blossoming" 
8."The Iron Butterfly (Revenge of the Ferocious Camay)" 
9."Once Upon a Time in Shaolin…" 
10."God Degree (Interlude)" 
11."Swords Stained With Royal Blood (The Fatal Flying Guillotines)" 
12."Piranha" 
13."Diary of a Mad Woman" 
14."Slain by Swords…" 
15."Godspeed (Exit)" 
16."Shaolin Soul…" 

Speculative track listings[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.[42] In 2015, Complex compiled the following track listing, including track durations.[43]

Personnel[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ 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 April 21, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sold By Paddle8, But To Whom?". Forbes. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d Cain, Sian (May 17, 2024). "Sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan album to be played to the public for first time at Mona". Music. The Guardian. ISSN 1756-3224. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved May 27, 2024.
  4. ^ "THE WORK". Scluzay. Retrieved December 21, 2020.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "88 —".
  8. ^ Baker, Soren (March 6, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan's 'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' Album Seized At Airport". HipHopDX. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  9. ^ Tshepo Mokoena (January 8, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan: unique copy of album will be sold by online auction". The Guardian. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Marchese, David (July 11, 2017). "The Story Behind Martin Shkreli and That Wu-Tang Album". vulture.com. New York Magazine. Retrieved October 19, 2022.
  13. ^ Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "New Details Emerge On Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sale". Forbes. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  14. ^ Zack O'Malley Greenburg (November 24, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan Secret Album Sold By Paddle8, But To Whom?". Forbes. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  15. ^ Justin Hunte (December 16, 2015). "Martin Shkreli Plans To Bail-Out Bobby Shmurda". HipHopDX. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  16. ^ Leonard, David; Hordern, Annmarie (December 9, 2015). "Who Bought The Most Expensive Album Ever Made?". Bloomberg Businessweek.
  17. ^ music, Guardian (November 25, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan sell copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for 'millions'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved April 21, 2023.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "TTAC Confirms Donation Wu-Tang Clan". Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved December 9, 2016.
  20. ^ a b c Noisey Staff (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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "A Timeline of Events Since Martin Shkreli Purchased Wu Tang Clan's 'Once Upon a Time in Shaolin'". Billboard. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  23. ^ Greenburg, Zack O'Malley. "Why Jeff Sessions May Control The Fate Of Wu-Tang's Secret Album". Forbes. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Grow, Kory (March 30, 2018). "RZA Wanted to Buy Martin Shkreli's Wu-Tang Album Back for Himself". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Sneider, Jeff (August 24, 2020). "Exclusive: Wu-Tang Clan's 'Shaolin' Album Netflix Movie Lands 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Director". Collider.
  28. ^ "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.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Strauss, Matthew (June 11, 2024). "Martin Shkreli Sued for Copying and Playing Wu-Tang Clan Album Without Permission". News. Pitchfork Media. Retrieved June 12, 2024.
  32. ^ "Martin Shkreli accused of copying one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album". The Guardian. June 12, 2024. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved June 17, 2024.
  33. ^ Turnbull, Tiffanie (May 27, 2024). "World's rarest album to go on display in Australia". BBC News. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  34. ^ a b c Cain, Sian (June 16, 2024). "I just listened to Wu-Tang Clan's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. As music, it's good. As art, it's truly great". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved June 17, 2024.
  35. ^ Strauss, Matthew (June 13, 2024). "Wu-Tang Clan's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin Turned Into NFT". Pitchfork. Retrieved June 17, 2024.
  36. ^ Weingarten, Christopher R. (March 3, 2015). "Wu-Tang Clan LP Gets 'First, Last, Only' Listening Session". Rolling Stone.
  37. ^ Minsker, Evan (March 4, 2015). "Method Man calls Wu-Tang Clan's 88-year Once Upon a Time in Shaolin release hiatus 'stupid'". Pitchfork. Retrieved June 17, 2024.
  38. ^ Guinness World Records (September 1, 2015). Guinness World Records 2016. Macmillan. p. 187. ISBN 978-1910561027. Retrieved November 29, 2015.
  39. ^ Gardner, Eriq (February 9, 2016). "Wu-Tang Clan's $2 Million Album a Target in Copyright Lawsuit". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 10, 2016.
  40. ^ "Koza v. Diggs et al, Docket No. 1:16-cv-00956 (S.D.N.Y. Feb 9, 2016), Court Docket". Bloomberg Law. February 9, 2016. Retrieved December 5, 2017.
  41. ^ "fuck this album". X. Archived from the original on June 15, 2024. Retrieved June 15, 2024.
  42. ^ "Wu Tang: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin". bychrisnorris.com.
  43. ^ "You'll Never Hear the New Wu-Tang Clan Album, But This Is What It Sounds Like". Complex. March 3, 2015. Archived from the original on September 15, 2023. Retrieved June 15, 2024.
  44. ^ "Wu-Tang Clan's U-God Says Cher Is On Unreleased 'Shaolin' Album". March 6, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.

External links[edit]