NEW YORK • Rapper Killa Sin did not think he was contributing verses to a Wu-Tang Clan record a few years ago when he stood before a microphone in a hotel room in Staten Island, New York. A Moroccan producer known as Cilvaringz had flown in for the sessions because Killa Sin, whose real name is Jeryl Grant, was barred from travel by the terms of his parole.
Like any good clan, Wu-Tang is a network that extends from core members to bit players. Killa Sin is a gifted lyricist with a different crew, Killarmy, which is part of Wu-Tang's extended "family", but as he understood it, the work he was doing with Cilvaringz was not an official Wu-Tang project.
"The way he presented it," Killa Sin said of his recording with Cilvaringz, "was it was going to be basically his album, and he wanted me to do some work for him."
He later learnt his verses ended up on Wu-Tang Clan's Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, the most expensive record ever sold. Virtually nobody has heard the entire recording.
Martin Shkreli, who became notorious as the boyish Pharma Bro after he raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 per cent, paid US$2 million (S$2.6 million) in a 2015 auction for the album. He owns the rights to do anything he pleases with it, except sell copies.
But interviews with rappers and managers involved in the recording raise questions about its provenance and value: Is Once Upon A Time In Shaolin a true Wu-Tang Clan album? Or did Shkreli pay lavishly for the work of a little-known producer with a peripheral link to the storied rap group?
Shkreli, who currently faces a prison sentence for fraud, may himself have been played. The 34-year-old founder of the pharmaceutical company Turing Pharmaceuticals took possession of the 31-track double CD and its ornate, hand-carved box around the time he became a public pariah for raising the price on an anti-parasitic pill called Daraprim from US$13.50 to US$750. He was convicted last month of defrauding investors, a consequence of his previous incarnation as a hedge fund manager.
While awaiting sentencing, he managed to get into more trouble: A federal judge on Wednesday revoked his bail after he offered his Facebook followers US$5,000 for a lock of Mrs Hillary Clinton's hair.
Now, as he sits in a federal jail in Brooklyn, the fate of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin appears to be up in the air again. He posted the one and only copy to eBay last week, and the online auction for the record is scheduled to end yesterday night local time (today Singapore time).
Two charter members of Wu-Tang, through their managers, also described the record as an undertaking of Tarik Azzougarh, the real name of Cilvaringz.
"It's not an authorised Wu-Tang Clan album," said Domingo Neris, the manager of rapper U-God. "It never was. When we did the verses, it was for a Cilvaringz album," said James Ellis, manager of Method Man, another core member of the group.
Cilvaringz chose not to respond in detail to questions about the record's genesis. "The album and its concept were an evolutionary process that spanned six years, too complex to explain in a soundbite," he said in a statement. "All participating Wu-Tang artists were paid in advance while RZA and I bore the financial risk of the project."
Shkreli also declined to discuss Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
These accounts echo a tale circulating on hip-hop websites: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin began as an undertaking by Cilvaringz, who later persuaded RZA, the de facto leader of Wu-Tang Clan, to endorse the project and make the record more valuable.
Neris, who manages U-God, said the real story is that Cilvaringz gathered verses over the years from Clan members for his own projects and later stitched them together to make Once Upon A Time In Shaolin without the full group's permission.
U-God sued Wu-Tang Productions Inc and RZA in New York State Supreme Court last year, saying he had not been paid for his work on Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, among other things. His manager said the case is pending.
Among Wu-Tang fans, there has also been the perception that Shkreli denigrated the group by withholding the music from the public.
Shkreli used the eBay auction for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin to express his own hurt feelings at being misunderstood. His purchase was intended to be "a gift to the Wu-Tang Clan", he wrote. "(T)he world at large failed to see my purpose of putting a serious value behind music."