Martin Shkreli’s $2 Million Wu-Tang Album Might Not Be a Wu-Tang Album
The rapper Killa Sin didn’t think he was contributing verses to a Wu-Tang Clan record a few years ago when he stood before a microphone in a hotel room in Staten Island, N.Y. A Moroccan producer known as Cilvaringz had flown in for the sessions because Killa Sin, whose real name is Jeryl Grant, was barred from travel by the terms of his parole.
Like any good clan, Wu-Tang is a network that extends from core members to bit players; it can be hard for outsiders to say with complete confidence who’s in or out at any time. Killa Sin is a gifted lyricist with a different crew, Killarmy, which is part of the Wu-Tang’s extended “family,” but as he understood it, the work he was doing with Cilvaringz wasn’t an official Wu-Tang project.
“The way he presented it,” Killa Sin says of his recording with Cilvaringz, “was it was going to be basically his album, and he wanted me to do some work for him.” He later learned his verses ended up on the Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the most expensive record ever sold. Virtually nobody has heard the entire recording, perhaps not even the jailed executive who owns the only copy in existence.
Martin Shkreli, who became notorious as the boyish Pharma Bro after he raised the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent, paid $2 million in a 2015 auction for the album. He owns the rights to do anything he pleases with it, except sell copies. But interviews with rappers and managers involved in the recording raise questions about its provenance and value: Is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin a true Wu-Tang Clan album? Or did Shkreli pay lavishly for the work of a little-known producer with a peripheral link to the storied rap group?
Shkreli, who currently faces a prison sentence for fraud, may himself have been played.
The 34-year-old founder of the pharmaceutical company Turing Pharmaceuticals, Shkreli took possession of the 31-track double CD and its ornate, hand-carved box around the time he became a public pariah for raising the price on an antiparasitic pill called Daraprim from $13.50 to $750. He would later be convicted in August of defrauding investors, a consequence of his previous incarnation as a hedge fund manager. While awaiting sentencing in that case, he managed to get into more trouble: A federal judge on Wednesday revoked Shkreli’s bail after he offered his Facebook followers $5,000 for a lock of Hillary Clinton’s hair.
Now, as Shkreli sits in a federal jail in Brooklyn, the fate of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin appears to be up in the air again. Shkreli posted the one-and-only copy to EBay last week, and the online auction for the record is scheduled to end Friday night. “I have not carefully listened to the album,” Shkreli wrote in his description of the auction.
Killa Sin isn’t the only person involved in the mysterious, years-long production of the record who doesn’t see it as a Wu-Tang project. Two charter members of the rap group, through their managers, also described it as an undertaking of Tarik Azzougarh, the real name of Cilvaringz.
“It’s not an authorized Wu-Tang Clan album,” says Domingo Neris, the manager of the rapper U-God, a charter member of the Clan. “It never was.”
“When we did the verses, it was for a Cilvaringz album,” says James Ellis, manager of Method Man, another core member of the group. “How it became a Wu-Tang album from there? We have no knowledge of that.”
Cilvaringz chose not to respond in detail to questions about the record’s genesis. “The album and its concept were an evolutionary process that spanned six years, too complex to explain in a soundbite,” he said in a statement. “All participating Wu-Tang artists were paid in advance while RZA and I bore the financial risk of the project.”
Shkreli also declined to discuss Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. He responded to an email earlier this week with “hahahahahahahahahahahaha” before castigating Bloomberg LP, which publishes financial data and news. “Bloomberg is an overpriced, legacy software system that subsidizes a money-losing media company,” Shkreli wrote. “This state of affairs will soon change.”
The accounts of Killa Sin and the representatives of U-God and Method Man echo a tale circulating on hip-hop websites: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin began as an undertaking by Cilvaringz, who later persuaded RZA, the de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, to endorse the project and make the record more valuable. (RZA and his representatives did not respond to interview requests.)
This differs from the story given by RZA and Cilvaringz when they were auctioning the album through Paddle8, an online auction startup. The two men, who were identified during the auction as co-producers, described the album as an effort by the entire Clan to restore the value of music at a time when listeners can download almost any release without paying. They said members recorded their parts separately and that only the two producers had heard the entire finished product.
“The album was recorded in secret with the members not knowing the exact outcome,” RZA said in March 2015. “But when we announced it to them that this was the plan, everybody agreed that this was a very unique idea.”
Neris, who manages U-God, says the real story is that Cilvaringz gathered verses over the years from Clan members for his own projects and later stitched them together to make Once Upon a Time in Shaolin without the full group’s permission. “We’re very detailed about the quality and how we put our best foot forward,” Neris says. “We would never have authorized anyone to put together a project and call it a Wu-Tang Clan record without us ever looking at it, hearing it, or being in the same room together. That’s just the way these guys work.”
U-God sued Wu-Tang Productions Inc. and RZA in New York State Supreme Court last year, saying he hadn’t been paid for his work on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, among other things. His manager says that case is pending.
The rapper Shyheim Franklin, another member of the extended Wu-Tang network whose work has been praised by Jay-Z, tells a similar story. He says he went into a studio on Staten Island with Cilvaringz about five years ago to add verses to one of the producer’s records. “He did mention it being a project he was trying to produce with everyone on it,” Franklin says. “There wasn’t the assumption that it would be a Wu-Tang album.”
Franklin, whose name is on a track list for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that has circulated online, says he can’t be sure he’s on the record but he’d like to find out. “I’d like my cut of that $2 million,” Franklin says by telephone from Washington Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where he’s serving a maximum sentence of 14 years for second-degree manslaughter.
He also wouldn’t mind having a conversation with Shkreli: “Tell him there is an unreleased Shyheim album he can buy if he wants,” Franklin says, laughing.
For Killa Sin, the experience has been particularly disheartening. He says he had been off the scene for a while and was looking for a way to get back in front of the public. He had previously worked with Cilvaringz, a RZA protégé, and liked his style. When he complained about the low fee Cilvaringz offered, the response underscored that this wasn’t a project affiliated with one of the most beloved rap groups. “He said, ‘I’m doing this all out of my pocket, and I don’t have a big budget,’” Killa Sin recalls.
Killa Sin says he pressed Cilvaringz to let him hear some of the record so he could write better verses and immediately recognized old friends from the Wu-Tang Clan such as Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. “Of course,” he says, “I’ve been associated with those guys for the better part of 20 years.” He figured the Cilvaringz album would be a good one and he’d have more chances to record.
But in 2015, Killa Sin was convicted of criminal weapons possession and received a 16-years-to-life sentence. He’s currently at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Later that same year, RZA and Cilvaringz sold Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to Shkreli, who has kept the album under wraps for the most part, although he did play some of it online after the election of Donald Trump.
In a telephone call from prison, Killa Sin laments that he wasted his verses on an album that may never be heard by Wu-Tang Clan fans. He also resents the way Cilvaringz treated him and the rest of the Clan members and their affiliates.
“It’s an insult,” Killa Sin says. “It’s like f--- everybody else. I’m going to get mine. He probably thought, ‘We’re onto something. We can really get some money for this.’ But you got to stop and say, ‘How would my brothers feel?’”
Among Wu-Tang fans, there’s also been the perception of insult around the album—only it’s Shkreli who supposedly denigrated the rap group by withholding the music from the public and using his control over the album to draw attention to himself. A potential juror dismissed from Shkreli’s fraud trial articulated this view. “Your Honor, totally he is guilty and in no way can I let him slide out of anything,” explained Juror No. 59, according to a court transcript. After the judge dismissed the candidate, Juror No. 59 added: “And he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.”
Shkreli used the EBay auction for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to express his own hurt feelings at being misunderstood. His purchase was intended to be “a gift to the Wu-Tang Clan,” he wrote. “[T]he world at large failed to see my purpose of putting a serious value behind music. I will be curious to see if the world values music nearly as much as I have.”
The highest bid so far: $1,006,400.