One-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album set to be played in public for first time

Only a single copy of the album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which the band intended as an artwork, exists

Shahana Yasmin
Tuesday 28 May 2024 12:38 BST
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A Wu-Tang Clan album that exists in one single physical copy and has only ever been played in private will finally go on display for the public at an Australian museum.

The album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was once owned by disgraced pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, and was last bought at auction for $4m in 2021.

The Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, Tasmania has been able to acquire the album on loan from digital art collective Pleasr for its upcoming exhibition Namedropping, which aims to explore status and how people enhance their own, including using certain desirable objects.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is sometimes referred to as the most valuable album ever made, and was recorded in secret between 2006 and 2013. It sits in an ornate silver box and consists of two CDs with a leather-bound manuscript containing lyrics and a legal agreement stating that the owner cannot release the tracks for 88 years, or until 2103.

A single two-CD copy of the 31-track album was pressed in 2015 and all digital master files were deleted.

The album was designed as a statement on the way music streaming and piracy had cheapened the value of music, and the band said they wanted to have a “400-year-old Renaissance-style approach to music”.

Wu-Tang producers Cilvaringz and RZA said that they hoped “offering it as a commissioned commodity” would “inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music”. It reportedly features contributions from all surviving members of Wu-Tang Clan, Cher, and Game of Thrones actress Carice Van Houten.

It is not known exactly how people have heard the album as the agreement for purchasers states they may play it at listening parties. The only confirmed playing of the album was at an event for 150 art experts, rap fans, and prospective buyers at New York’s MoMa in 2015

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was bought for $2m at auction by Shkreli, the pharma executive who gained notoriety for hiking up the price of a drug used by cancer, malaria, and Aids patients from $13.50 to $750 per pill.

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Shkreli had said he would release the album if Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, and then streamed portions of the album online when Trump won.

Martin Shrkreli appears to be selling the Wu-Tang Clan album on eBay
Martin Shrkreli appears to be selling the Wu-Tang Clan album on eBay (eBay/screengrab)

In 2018, Shkreli had to give up the album as part of $7.4m in assets seized by a federal court after he was convicted for securities fraud. The album then made its way to current owners Pleasr, who bought it for $4m from the US Department of Justice in 2021.

This is the first time Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is being loaned to a museum since its first sale to Shkreli.

As part of Namedropping, Mona will hold free, ticketed listening sessions from 15 to 24 June so members of the public can listen to a “curated” 30-minute mix of the album, played from a personalised Wu-Tang Clan PlayStation 1 in Mona’s Frying Pan Studios.

“Every once in a while, an object on this planet possesses mystical properties that transcend its material circumstances,” said Jarrod Rawlins, Mona’s director of curatorial affairs.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is more than just an album, so when I was thinking about status, and what a transcendent namedrop could be, I knew I had to get it into this exhibition.”

“Ten years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan had a bold vision to make a single copy album as a work of fine art. To ‘put it in an art gallery … make music become a living piece like a Mona Lisa or a sceptre from Egypt’,” Pleasr said in a statement.

“With this single work of art, Wu-Tang Clan’s intention was to redefine the meaning of music ownership and value in a world of digital streaming and commodification of music. Pleasr is honoured to partner with Mona to support RZA’s vision for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

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