The Secret Wu-Tang Album's New Role

'Once Upon A Time In Shaolin' served as a key plot point in Season 5 of 'Billions'—further evidence the multimillion-dollar metal box remains full of surprises.

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Television junkies have been buzzing for weeks about what happens at the conclusion of pandemic-interrupted Billions Season 5. But to me, the star of the show isn’t Damian Lewis’s hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod or Janeane Garofalo’s marijuana magnate Dawn Winslow—it’s the Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album.

Toward the beginning of the episode, Axelrod offers Winslow Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as a token of goodwill. He’s hoping to seal the purchase of her company, Fine Young Cannabis, aiming to snatch the deal away from his biggest rival. Winslow is appropriately impressed by the ornate metal box.

“A single copy pressed,” she marvels. “Heard of this, but never heard it. Martin Shkreli paid $2 million for this a few years back. How the hell did you get it?”

Neither Axelrod nor his top lieutenant would say in the episode. And, for that matter, neither would the real-life Showtime reps to whom I reached out multiple times for comment.

Similarly mum were the sources I contacted at the Department of Justice, which sold the album to an unknown buyer over the summer to settle pharma villain Shkreli’s debts.

“I have no comment as to the identity of the buyer,” a DOJ spokesperson told me via email. “We are bound by a confidentiality agreement.”

Maybe that’s because the album never actually appeared in Billions after all. I’ll explain in a bit. But first, a refresher on Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.

Recorded in secret over a period of six years, the album emerged from the shadows when I broke the news of its existence for Forbes back in 2014. Eventually, I traveled to Morocco to film the mini-documentary Once Upon A Time In Marrakech and to interview Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, who produced the album alongside Wu-Tang ringleader Robert “RZA” Diggs.

Since then, it seems there’s been a new twist every few months. This past July, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York announced it had sold the album to pay off the remainder of Shkreli’s forfeiture money judgment. A “group of people or a company” reportedly paid enough to erase Shkreli’s outstanding debts of roughly $2.2 million.

So when the album returned to the public eye thanks to Billions, it raised a couple of questions. First: could Showtime itself have purchased Shaolin? The network certainly qualifies as a group or company, and blue-chip shows often run per-episode budgets well into the millions. Second: might someone have purchased the album with the idea of licensing it to such programs? After all, vintage cars and swanky penthouses get rented out—why not famous albums?

Showtime certainly could have bought the Shaolin, though it would have been quite an expensive prop. And licensing it would be a clever way for whoever bought the album to make money off it, while still abiding by the byzantine contract that governs its use (or lack thereof).

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But I don’t think either of those things happened, and here’s why: the box in Billions was not the actual Wu-Tang album. I know because I saw the real thing myself in Morocco.

The genuine article was crafted by an artisan named Yahya and features the Wu-Tang logo carved in silver and nickel, whereas the one on the show has no logo at all. If anything, the lack of logo signals there likely wasn’t any sort of licensing agreement with Billions.

What happened on Billions means something perhaps even more meaningful: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is now so valuable that Showtime had to basically find it a stunt double. And the album continues to be a part of the cultural conversation to this day, just as Cilvaringz and RZA wanted it to be.

All of which lines up with a favorite theory of mine: the one-of-one record turned out to be, in essence, the first-ever NFT. It’s a piece of infinitely replicable media released in a provably (very) limited quantity. And if it were every released as such, Shaolin could fetch an order of magnitude more than it did in its initial sale to Shkreli.

So where exactly is the album these days? I texted Cilvaringz to see if I could pry out an answer. His response? “😗.”

As a wise man once said, the saga continues.

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