Op-Ed: How the Audio Grinch Whacked Wu-Tang Clan

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Wu-Tang Clan, no strangers to turning a phrase or two in their long career, have managed to flip another old saying on its head: let the seller beware.

The wizened hip-hop group from Staten Island are learning this the hard way, after a clever plan they launched went horribly wrong. The good idea they had was to produce an album as a one-off work of art and auction it off to the highest bidder.

The bad half was who they sold it to: The infamous pharmaceutical price-gouger Martin Shkreli, who somehow had time to anonymously submit the winning $2 million bid in May while he was allegedly running a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Shkreli had not actually bothered to listen to the record yet by the time he had been arrested this past Thursday. As a result, the 31 songs, skits, and stories that make up the 128-minute-long aural screenplay, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, has not yet been heard by anyone other than the Clan’s producers, Robert “The RZA” Diggs and Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh.

Silent Night

RZA and Cilvaringz created Shaolin at their Staten Island studio. As an added bonus for their buyer – whose status as one of the biggest jerks on the planet was apparently unknown to the group when they made the sale – a pair of PMC MB2-XBD monitors identical to the ones they recorded and mixed with were thrown in. As a result Shkreli could listen – or not listen – to Shaolin in exactly the way it was intended to sound.

Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA alongside the PMC MB2-XBD speakers used to record and mix "Once Upon a Time in Shaolin."

Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA alongside the PMC MB2-XBD speakers used to record and mix “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

So with Shkreli out on bail, and all his possessions in danger of being seized, is there a chance that Shaolin could see the light of day?

The Wu-Tang guys might like that, especially after feeling compelled to donate “a significant portion” of the sale’s proceeds to charity when Skhreli’s personal/business flaws first came to light (referring here to his decision to increase the price of the vital antimalarial drug Daraprim overnight from $13.50 to $750 a pill).

Who’s Listening to You?

So given the chance, you have to wonder if Wu-Tang will have another auction to the highest bidder for Shaolin, or might they simply ship it off to iTunes and Walmart this time around? And whatever they do, what’s their guarantee that unsavory people will be kept away from it?

It raises an interesting question: Can you vouch for the character of everyone who’s bought your music?

When you produce, engineer, mix or master for your client, who will hear the sounds after that? Would it bother you to know that satanical price-gougers and alleged Ponzi masterminds are among your paying customers? Taking it a step further, what responsibility do plugin developers and mic-pre-manufacturers have for enabling the musical enjoyment of those who are less deserving?

Much as we’d like to, we can’t only direct our art to the shiny happy people of the planet. Bad apples are always going to be mixed in with a cheering audience.

But then again, maybe the right kind of art can rehabilitate them. Martin Shkreli is facing up to 20 years in the Big House – if he can get access to a Discman and a pair of earbuds in his cell, perhaps Once Upon a Time in Shaolin will be his salvation.

—David Weiss

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