Friday, December 11, 2015

special comment: the wu-tang clan vs. pharma-bro: once upon a time in shaolin

In March of 2014, the Wu-Tang Clan made an unexpected announcement: seven years after the release of their last album in 2007, they were putting together a new compilation record. Now it supposedly wasn't produced by the RZA, but it was still a double album of new Wu-Tang Clan, and what's more, the packaging was ornate: encased in a hand-crafted silver and nickel box that would tour the world through art galleries, museums, and music festivals before being sold to a single individual for an exorbitant price. Now sure, the rest of the world was still going to get a new Wu-Tang record titled A Better Tomorrow, that would be released around this time last year to mixed at best reviews, but for hardcore Wu-Tang fans, this was material that they desperately wanted to hear - and yet with the RZA's asking price in the millions, nowhere near enough money to hear it. Now there was originally going to be conditions built into a contract that the album could only be heard at listening parties and not shared or distributed, but eventually the group relaxed these terms so that the album couldn't be resold commercially, so there was a chance that one might be able to hear the album if it leaked.

And yet it doesn't seem like that is likely, because only a few days ago it was announced that The Wu - Once Upon A Time In Shaolin had been sold - to Martin Shkreli, a supposedly brilliant pharmaceutical executive who became infamous online for jacking up the price of an anti-parasitic drug named Daraphim from $13.50 to well over $750 - per pill. I should also add that this is a drug that's utilized for treating AIDS. Nicknamed 'Pharma-Bro' for his obnoxious attitude and confirming abhorrent stereotypes surrounding both pharmaceutical executives and hedge fund managers, Martin Shkreli participated in the online auction for the album and got it for two millions dollars - well under most of the RZA's reported asking prices. And as for the record, Shkreli has said he hasn't listened to the album yet and is 'saving it for a rainy day', or if 'Taylor Swift wanted to hear it or something like that'.

Now there's a lot to unpack about this story - why did the RZA sell the only copy of this record to a pharmaceutical executive known for abhorrent business practices and getting forced out of his own company for abusing his position and misusing assets? Why did he sell it to a guy who seems to be a perfunctory fan of hip-hop at best, who instead of verifying for himself the record was legitimate, delegated it to an employee? Why did Martin Shkreli buy it in the first place? And what does this mean for hardcore Wu-Tang fans who just watched what could be one of the last articles of music from their favourite group be given to one of the most hated men in the world? And furthermore, why in the Nine Hells do I care, as I've never been on record as being a huge fan of the Wu-Tang Clan?

So let's start with the last question - because for the most part, it's somewhat true, albeit qualified. Frankly, I think I would be a much bigger fan of the Wu-Tang Clan if I had the time to go through their massive discography in more detail than I have - I've picked up bits and pieces when I've covered Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck with Czarface, but outside of the classic albums, I haven't had as much of a chance to dig into their collected discography as I'd like. I also didn't review A Better Tomorrow - and I was probably better for it, because as I said, the critical consensus on that album was mixed at best. Here's the thing: for as much as The Wu-Tang Clan justifiably earned themselves mountains of critical acclaim, they weren't exactly a mainstream group with huge singles, and while their work is influential, it has never garnered the same chart success or popular attention as other, more commercial-leaning rappers. And it hasn't helped matters that their new material, even with verses the late Ole Dirty Bastard, has been haphazard - and also hasn't sold well. When you consider that A Better Tomorrow debuted at #29 on the Billboard 200 and commercially has not been all that successful, I can imagine the RZA being a little concerned about whether he even could get a few million for the album.

And make no mistake, for all intents and purposes this is about the RZA more than it is other members of Wu-Tang, as several of them are still quite active. Ghostface Killah dropped multiple records this year, Raekwon and Method Man dropped albums with mixed-to-positive results, Inspectah Deck teamed up with 7L and Esoteric for the critically acclaimed Czarface follow-up, and even GZA managed to maintain some hype by rumours about a follow up to Liquid Swords. Hell, Ghostface Killah probably had some of the most publicity he had in years, thanks to a well-publicized smackdown on Action Bronson - so the question comes why they would care for such a release stunt when they have their own revenue streams coming in. Now sure, there are Wu-Tang members that could definitely use the hype, but to me this has always seemed more like the RZA's affair, and a lot of it seemed more about the money than it was the spread of the art. So that raises the question why a successful businessman like RZA would need the money... until you realize that he has not produced a single instrumental to be released this year. Instead he's been working in acting and directing, his first feature film called The Man With The Iron Fists released in 2012 to middling reviews, with the sequel released this year directly to DVD with even worse reception. So to summarize, if the RZA needed capital in a hurry to finance his next creative film project - because it doesn't look like he's coming back to music any time soon - you can understand why he might take a lower price for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.

But why Shkreli? Why would the RZA sell it to him, and more importantly, why would he buy it? Well, to get that you need to have an understanding of Martin Shkreli's character. Keep in mind much of this is conjecture, but it's based upon knowing guys just like him - I live in downtown Toronto, I have friends who work in investment banking, and I also studied physics in university - I've encountered my fair share of real geniuses, presuming this guy fits into the category, which he very well might. This is a guy who skipped grades and vaulted to the top thanks to the ludicrously overpaid hedge fund industry, and his cash comes through betting on whether shares go up or down and profiting on the margins. In other words, he's come into a stupid amount of money very young, and from all accounts it has gone straight to his head. And yet if you remember The Wolf Of Wall Street and Matthew McConaughey's speech...

The scary thing is how many guys I know who are just like that. Now note the line, 'We don't create shit, we don't build anything'... so how do you value yourself? What's your legacy, what are you doing it all for? Now for some cocaine and hookers and decadence is enough - at least on the surface - and intelligence doesn't always come with self-awareness. And for Shkreli it's come easy - he's smart, he's leveraged his way to the top... but now what? He's got more than enough money to do whatever he wants for the rest of his life, but it's clear he wants more than just cash at this point - and he doesn't quite grasp how to get it. My hypothesis is that this guy may have started by cranking up the margin on Daraphim not out of malice but purely out of a profit opportunity without giving a thought to the people whose insurance won't cover it and will might have ended up dead if it wasn't for competition undercutting him in spectacular fashion. But note that outside of token gestures towards hospital supply, he didn't lower that price - in fact, he almost seems to revel in the notoriety, the attention he gets. It feeds into his ego - which is why he didn't seem to take things well when he tried to buy an audience with Bernie Sanders and the Senator justly didn't give him the time of day. In other words, he tried for 'real power' that might seem relevant to the politics of my generation and it didn't take.

Now the next thing you need to note is that Shkreli does have some celebrity memorabilia already. He owns Kurt Cobain's VISA card and apparently likes to flash it when he picks up a cheque. He jokes on Twitter about wanting to buy Katy Perry's guitar in order to meet her in person. He was convinced to even go to a listening party not so he could hear the album, but to 'rub shoulders with celebrities', and from his comments after getting the album, it's not about the music itself. Frankly, outside of the scarcity of the album, I get the impression it's not about the songs or the performances or any sort of artistic evaluation, but owning the art, and being notorious for owning said art. And make no mistake, in today's day and age notoriety is its own currency and it buys a surprising amount of people - ask the Kardashians, or Donald Trump. Now this is the dictionary definition of pretentious, but in a certain way it's even worse than that: Shkreli didn't buy the album to appear cultured or to have any interest in hip-hop or the Wu-Tang Clan beyond perfunctory references. Nope, he got the album because he thinks he can leverage it to draw more attention to himself. And the sad fact is that this'll probably work - forget the fact that I'm doing a special comment on this guy, he's inevitably going to encounter high-end art enthusiasts or other billionaire collectors, and the one-of-a-kind album operates as a powerful lure.

Now frankly, I'm stunned that another hip-hop artist didn't step in to claim it for himself. You'd think that rappers like Drake - who worships Wu-Tang and wishes he could rap a tenth as well - or Jay-Z, who would have a vested interest in keeping the album safely ensconced in New York as a part of enriching his legacy, especially given his own art pretensions - might have done something. Hell, there's a part of me that's surprised that the RZA sold him the record at all, given the controversy, but if it was clear at all this was about the money more than anything, it was how cursory any statements from him were surrounding the sale, along with a pledge to give some money to charity. And either way, none of this solves the larger issue that no Wu-Tang fans get to hear this record, and you'd think that a group of legendary rappers who struggled to get to where they were would have some respect for populism. And here's the fascinating thing: apparently there's still hope for this, because a screenshot leaked on Twitter surrounding the contract and it contained the following lines:

"The buying party also agrees that, at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions."

Now apparently this clause is apparently false - it was posted from a joke twitter account - but it hasn't stopped Shkreli from responding to it, stating that there was other crazy elements in that contract - because it's a Wu-Tang contract and of course that's possible - and that he's not afraid of the Wu-Tang Clan, even quoting their own lyrics saying that they should watch their necks. Forget the feud between Ghostface and Action Bronson - after B.Dolan's scathing 'Who Killed Russell Jones' to which I'm astounded nobody's responded to yet, this might be the biggest shot at Wu-Tang to date, and not even from a rapper. Now if I was a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, I'd be pretty damn insulted that 'Pharma-Bro' pulled this nonsense, even if the RZA okayed it, and if you wanted an easy way to re-affirm your dominance in New York, this would be it. And here's the thing: Shkreli's looking for celebrity attention, he's inviting rappers to perform at his events because, to quote him, 'you know, at the right price these guys will basically do anything'. If he needed to be seen by someone, it could easily be done. And hell, if Bill Murray wants to show up and provide running commentary or a handy distraction, it'd probably work.

So the die has been cast - and while in reality I have no idea if Wu-Tang would ever take action here, I get the feeling we haven't seen the last of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, if only because Martin Shkreli's too much of an attention whore to keep quiet about it. He doesn't understand the men he's fucking with. As such... Wu-Tang, it's your move.

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