In 2015, Martin Shkreli shot to fame after his corporation, Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of the Aids drug Daraprim by 5,556 per cent from $13.50 to $750. Vilified by left, right and centre, Shkreli, who quickly became known as “Pharma Bro”, played to the gallery. He was unrepentant in interviews and defended his actions as necessary to educate the public on how drug economics works. Within days, the media had dubbed him “the most hated man in America”.
A few months earlier, the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan announced that they had spent five years recording a new album. The Wu emerged from New York’s Staten Island in 1993 – their second album, Wu-Tang Forever (1997), entered the US album charts at number one. Some of the crew have found individual success: RZA, GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah. The 2015 album, however, was not simply another record release. RZA declared that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin would be released as a single copy, encased in a high-security silver box, available to one person only via an auction.
The idea was to challenge the Spotify culture that has devalued music to the point where only a handful of artists are making significant amounts of money. There were many caveats included with the purchase of the album, such as not being allowed to leak the record, which can’t be made available to the public for 88 years – and an alleged special clause stating that the Wu-Tang or Bill Murray could make an attempt break into the purchaser’s home and steal it back at any point in the future. No one could tell if this was an elaborate prank or if Once Upon a Time really had been created to elevate music to art. Someone bought the album for $2m. That person was Martin Shkreli.
Cyrus Bozorgmehr’s book is a highly entertaining account of these events. Bozorgmehr was a special adviser on the project and writes from a half-insider, half-outsider perspective. His book begins in 2007 after a chance meeting with the Wu-Tang member Cilvaringz in Morocco, and it attests that the concept behind the album was formulated during a “mystical evening atop the Great Pyramid of Khufu” after a well-connected Egyptologist named Hossam took RZA on a tour of the Giza plateau.
Bozorgmehr is present for the whole misadventure and he writes with romantic fervour, allowing serendipity and fortune to rule the narrative much of the time. He inherits the Wu-Tang’s obsession with the number eight (a lucky number in Chinese culture) and points out when it pops up to guide their decisions: the auction company they chose to host the deal was called Paddle8, they let Forbes publish the press release about the project on 26 March 2014 because two plus six equals eight, and so on. For a story about the hyper-capitalist music industry, the whole thing is enjoyably esoteric.
Bozorgmehr writes convincingly about the art and music worlds. His analysis of how streaming has affected the way in which music is consumed is spot on. Discussing U2’s Songs of Innocence album (which Apple forced on all iTunes users for free without their permission), he writes, “It felt deeply irresponsible for a role model like Bono to tell people that it was OK for music to be free – both from a struggling artist’s perspective and because of the kind of blessing it gave to entitlement culture.” But going to the opposite extreme, as with Once Upon a Time, isn’t a solution: selling your work to a millionaire is arguably more irresponsible.
Writing of “entitlement culture”, Bozorgmehr sounds a bit like an old man raging at a younger generation. But it is not necessarily the consumer’s fault. At what point are we supposed to pay for art? Is it down to the artists to decide? Without a fan base paying for work, either directly or through advertising, how does an artist get paid and survive? As a statement, the Wu-Tang album is bathed in muddy water, reflecting capitalism’s ambiguous relationship with art.
The book excels at the point that Martin Shkreli is unmasked. Initially RZA and Bozorgmehr thought that he was just a rap-loving rich boy. The “auction” was a cover for the Wu-Tang Clan to decide who would treat the album with appropriate respect, before selling it to them for a very high price. Shkreli offered the requisite enthusiasm and money – and then came the Aids drug debacle. The moment Shkreli hit the news (and the Wu-Tang found out what kind of character they were dealing with) is described as “not just calamitous – this was Calamity walking into a bar, sweet-talking Catastrophe, getting really drunk together, smoking some crack and punching Fiasco in the face”.
A series of very funny slapstick high jinks and PR disasters follow, matched by colourful writing. Shkreli seems to treat the whole episode as a piece of manic and occasionally misogynistic theatre: he releases videos on YouTube threatening members of the Wu-Tang, telling them he hadn’t even bothered to listen to the album, and he says in an interview that Taylor Swift could hear the tracks if she came over to his house and slept with him. America’s most hated man becomes the Wu-Tang’s most hated enemy. Yet still, near the end of the book, Bozorgmehr insists: “THIS WAS THE ARTISTIC STATEMENT – a clear symbol of what will happen unless we support our artists as a society by paying them a fair price and respecting the music we love.”
The book asks many questions – on the marriage of capitalism and art, the psychology of access, the value of creativity, the necessity of public relations – that make it more than just the story of an album. This book is not just for Wu-Tang fans, or followers of the music industry, as ultimately, what makes the narrative so thrilling is the looming presence of Shkreli marauding through its pages.
In August 2017, Shkreli was convicted of fraud (and subsequently jailed for offering a bounty on Hillary Clinton’s hair). Prosecutors argue that he should give up assets including $5m in a brokerage account, his interest in Turing Pharmaceuticals and a Picasso painting – to RZA’s displeasure, Shkreli sold Once Upon a Time in Shaolin on eBay in September, for just over $1 million. He is due to be sentenced this month. Court transcripts revealed that as many as 120 chosen jurors gave reasons for why they couldn’t give him a fair trial. One reason given was: “He disrespected the Wu-Tang.”
Kit Caless is co-director of Influx Press and the author of “Spoon’s Carpets: An Appreciation” (Square Peg)
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
Jacaranda, 223pp, £12.99
Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in The Back Half culture podcast. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:
This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old