Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
|Once Upon a Time in Shaolin|
|Studio album by|
|Released||October 8, 2015|
|Wu-Tang Clan chronology|
The album was recorded in secret over a six-year period. 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 during listening parties.
The winning bidder was American CEO Martin Shkreli. 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 government sold the album to an undisclosed buyer for an undisclosed amount to cover Shkreli's remaining debts.
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. 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, and two appearances from Cher.
Inspired by musical patronage in the Renaissance, Cilvaringz decided to create Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as an art object. 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. They wrote on their website:
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. On March 3, 2015, it was detained at JFK Airport for three hours while border control determined the contents of its box. 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. Attendees were searched for recording devices. About 13 minutes of the album were played to the audience.
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was auctioned through Paddle8 in 2015, which had previously sold works by artists including Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Damien Hirst. 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. 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.
The winning bid was accepted on May 3, 2015, followed by months of legal diligence. The sale was completed on August 26, 2015, to a private individual for an unspecified amount. On December 9, Bloomberg Businessweek identified the buyer as Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who had paid $2 million. 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, including the Children's Literacy Society, the Hip Hop Chess Federation, and TTAC, an institution focused on showcasing alternative cures for cancer.
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". 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.
In September 2017, 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. 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." RZA hoped to buy it himself, but was contractually unable to.
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. Shkreli's lawyer Benjamin Brafman said the album was now "probably worthless".
On July 27, 2021 it was announced by Jacquelyn M. Kasulis, acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, that the 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. The anonymous buyer entered into a confidentiality agreement in regard to the album's sale price.
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". Rolling Stone wrote "simply put, if the full, 128-minute Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is as solid as the 13 minutes heard Monday night, it could be the group's most popular album since 1997. Playing like Wu-Tang's version of U2’s All That You Can't Leave Behind or Metallica's Death Magnetic, the music hearkened back to the RZA's glory days between the 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and 1997’s double-disc follow-up Wu-Tang Forever". 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."
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. 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, then known as the Quarrymen. 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. The case was later dismissed after Jason Koza was found to have sold prints using the Wu-Tang logo without consent.
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.
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 motion picture. The production of the film was accidentally leaked by the film's first screenwriter, How To Make It In America's Ian Edelman.
- Ghostface Killah
- Inspectah Deck
- Masta Killa
- Method Man
- RZA, also co-production
- Cilvaringz – production
- Carice van Houten
- Cher – vocals
- Killah Priest
- Killa Sin
- LA The Darkman
- Brooklyn Zu
- Shabazz The Disciple
- Sunz Of Man
- Blue Raspberry
- Popa Wu
- Vanessa Liftig
- Ken Lewis – mixing engineer
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