The first thing you notice—really the only thing you notice—when you walk into Martin Shkreli's Midtown Manhattan office is the elaborate gold box that served as the packaging for one of the most legendary albums of all time and is now just resting on the ground like a piece of garbage.
The album, of course, is The Wu: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which the Wu-Tang Clan notoriously made only one copy of and sold for $2 million last year. The fact that the buyer turned out to be one of the most reviled men in the world (thanks to his jacking up the price of a life-saving drug and allegations of fraud, among other things) made people very upset. How could a unique musical artifact like this end up in such undeserving hands? Would the 31 tracks ever find their way to the public?
When the news broke, RZA told Bloomberg, "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." Since then, the Wu leader has implored Shkreli to release the album or at least send it around on a museum tour, while Ghostface Killah straight-up called him a "shithead," which led to Shkreli making a bizarre video where he rants about Ghostface.
The way Shkreli sees it, people pay millions for Warhol paintings, so why not pay a similar amount for a one-of-a-kind rap album? "[Music] actually used to be for the privileged elite," he told me. "When Mozart and stuff wrote, music was for the very few."
According to Shkreli, who grew up the son of immigrants in Sheepshead Bay, he pitched himself to RZA as being an authentic New Yorker when they were discussing the sale. "I said, look man, I'm from Brooklyn," he recalled. "That's 80 percent of what you need to know about me. He was like, 'That's a very good start.'
"I said, 'I'm from New York City, I'm a poor kid, I did my best to grow up in New York and do well,'" he continued. "And I told him, 'I'm not your biggest fan. I'm not even close. There are people who are much bigger Wu-Tang fans than me. But I still wanna buy this album.'"
And when RZA asked him to name what Wu-Tang songs he liked? "I said I liked the songs that reminded me of punk rock."
Forbes got access to 51 seconds of the album, and about 150 people heard 13 minutes of it at a listening party last year. Other than that, no one but Shkreli and the Wu know exactly what's on Once Upon a Time, which spans two discs titled the "Shaolin School" and the "Allah School." During the course of one of the many interviews I did with Shkreli for my article on him, he played some of the latter as background music. What can I tell the world about it? Not much, I'm afraid: It was definitely a Wu-Tang Clan album complete with kung-fu sounds, movie samples, and, yes, a guest appearance by Cher.
"The track and the track numbers and all the track titles are not known to the public," Shkreli told me. "I have the manuscripts that reveal them." I was able to jot down a couple of the track names, which were "Dirty Bomb" and "Stone Him! Swine [Interlude.]" (The track list previously compiled by Complex is incorrect, for what it's worth, but I don't have the full correct version.)
Shkreli told me he was thinking of destroying it—I wish I knew if he was kidding—so for the sake of historical record, I took a few photos of the album art and those aforementioned "manuscripts" with my cell phone. You can find them below, but one last thing:
Shkreli's phone number is, unbelievably, publicly listed, and he gets a ton of phone calls every day from strangers. At one point he played me some at random, from both fans and trolls. There was a guy who called himself Monkey Boy and babbled gibberish, and an earnest-sounding man who wanted to say, "You've taught me a great deal about life, and I'm proud of you."
Then suddenly we got to a voicemail that just said: "Hey Martin, it's RZA. Call me back."
I wonder what he wanted to talk about?
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