Hip-hop icon RZA shepherded members of the Wu-Tang Clan together for this month’s new album, Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues, and took the executive producer’s seat while allowing beat-making associate Mathematics to do the craftwork. While fans are all abuzz over the new release (which RZA calls a “masterpiece”), there’s still one subject that won’t leave the group’s legacy anytime soon — a subject RZA gamely tackled during a visit to Build Series in New York City.
In 2015, the group put a single copy of their double album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin up for auction as a statement regarding musical and artistic exploitation. Notoriously, the set was purchased for $2 million by Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli (who earned the scathing nickname “Pharma Bro” for his controversial price hike of the drug Daraprim).
Shkreli used the album repeatedly in connection with controversial statements, with the most high-profile being his sharing the intro and part of two tracks to commemorate Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016. Last month, Shkreli sold off the record on eBay, for a winning bid of just over a million dollars.
Unsurprisingly, Wu-Tang fans weren’t pleased with this entire circus. “I took the blame for the situation,” RZA says. “A lot of fans were really upset with me for making a transaction like that. But that was a calculated decision.
“I felt that music was being devalued — that art itself was being devalued — and I felt that what we do and the time we put into it has to have some kind of tangible value to it. I couldn’t understand how someone would pay $600 for their headphones, and won’t pay the 99 cents for a song that makes the headphones useful.”
RZA went on to explain how the album got into Shkreli’s hands. “There were four guys who got their bids in,” he recalls, noting that he was drawn to Shkreli due to his background. “I think, this is the guy. He’s young, he gets it, he’s a hip-hop fan. He had a great story from his life, his parents coming from Albania, immigrants, working as janitors, and working his way up to who he is. So I’m like, Wow, that sounds like a similar story as me, you know — Brownsville [Brooklyn], poor.
“We make the deal,” he continues. “About three months later, I’m at home with my wife, chillin’, and Bill Maher comes on [the TV], and he goes, ‘Hey, you guys hear about this scumbag?!’ And it’s Martin Shkreli, and he goes through the whole story, and I’m like, Wait a minute. That’s the guy who bought the album!”
“From that day forth it just got worser and worser,” he relates. “If I had known that, I may have had a very different approach to putting it in his hands — but it was afterwards, and it was a shock to me.”
However, RZA stands behind the original intention of auctioning off the single copy of the record. “This history that we made together for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, actually, I would consider it was a good thing — for music.”
Watch the full interview with RZA and Mathematics below: