When Martin Shkreli was convicted of fraud in 2017, the authorities ordered him to give up his assets, which included a Picasso, a share-trading account and the only existing copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a double album by the American hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. This week an anonymous buyer purchased the record to clear the disgraced pharmaceutical executive’s remaining $2.2m debt to the US government and committed to Wu-Tang Clan’s stipulation that it not be released commercially until 2103.
The sale is a testament to both the artists and their art. The rap group – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Masta Killa and sometimes Cappadonna – emerged in the 1990s and challenged hip-hop’s aesthetic principles and its business model. With interests in martial arts, philosophy and mystical Islam, their wordplay set them apart. On their 1997 track Triumph, Inspectah Deck raps “I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses / Can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries”.
Some recoiled from Wu-Tang Clan’s depictions of thuggery and sexually explicit language. For the rappers it was a soundtrack to their tough lives. In a 2019 documentary, group members revealed in disturbingly frank interviews how racism, poverty and violence blighted their youth. Art became a form of salvation. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was born of a realisation that music faced an existential threat. The band wrote in 2014 that their “industry is in crisis. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity … By offering [the album] as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale … we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music.”
Wu-Tang Clan had arrived at the same conclusion as the philosopher Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. He questioned whether the spread of photographs of fine art was valuable. In his landmark essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin zeroed in on the importance of the original, authentic work as being central to art’s aesthetic and financial value. Wu-Tang Clan, 80 years later, agreed.
Their stance for years looked brave, if not foolhardy, as streaming became the norm. Two things have made the rappers look prescient. The first is a growing backlash against streaming giants from musicians unhappy with tiny payouts. The second is that non-fungible tokens (though currently very environmentally unfriendly) are able to assign the monetary value of “unique” assets to digital entities such as music files. Wu-Tang Clan convenes more these days for business than music. That is a pity as their art, and appreciation of its worth, represented a witty, insightful path for hip-hop that feels largely forgotten.