The first question posed to RZA at a San Francisco Q&A session last week wasn't about the forthcoming Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues album that he was there to promote. Nor was it about the 36 Chambers capsule collection he was unveiling. Instead, the audience wanted the legendary rapper's take on the latest shenanigans of Martin Shkreli, the pharma fraudster who paid $2 million for the single-edition Wu-Tang double album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in 2015 and recently tried to hawk it on eBay.
"He went to jail, right?" RZA says to scattered chuckling. "It's so crazy… Choices yo. All I gotta say is choices… I think he made a few bad choices."
A less diplomatic response was folded into a track from the new album (dropping October 13) released online. In "Lesson Learn'd," Inspectah Deck is unequivocal.
"Hater / Wouldn't last a day in my shoes / You know very well / Bet he swell / You can tell he jeal' / My price hikin' like the pills Martin Shkreli sell."
Now that Shkreli is back in jail because of his cyber threats to Hillary Clinton, the album's uncertain future has been fertile ground for speculation: Who is the album's new owner if the eBay deal falls through? Does new ownership mean fans may soon have access to leaked material? Was the album listed on eBay even real? RZA thinks so.
"I went to eBay myself," RZA explains. "I had somebody make a bid for me. But then I talked to the lawyers… They said 'We advise you not to.' I said ok I'll take that advice."
The handoff of the single most expensive album in existence is also complicated by a built-in 88-year non-commercialization clause that prevents any commercial sale and distribution until the year 2103, at the 200-year mark since the group's genesis.
"I'm very confused by it right now because there's certain clauses and certain things that have legal binding on it and I just hope that [Shkreli] didn't violate that," RZA says. "There were some agreements in the sale of the album. Whoever does buy it, I hope they adhere to all the legal parameters."
Overall, RZA says he's pleased with how the auction played out, noting that Shaolin was probably among the top 10 most expensive items sold on eBay. (It looks like it might be, according to a 2015 list of the site's record sales.)
"What I do like about the idea of it is… that means that I'm not the only one who feels the value of the music," RZA says. "There were multiple bidders at $1 million so that means that you got people that are starting to say, you know what, we understand. And that's what it was all about more than anything."
Ambivalent about a potential leak, he adds, "If somebody chose the philanthropy route, no one could stop it."