Martin Shkreli: Hip Hop’s Donald Trump
This past November, Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli paid $2 million for sole ownership of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, and said he did it primarily because, “it would be funny to keep it from people.” Perhaps that’s the same mindset behind his decision in September to raise the prices of daraprim, a drug used to treat infections in malaria and HIV patients, from $13.50 per tablet to $750.00 per tablet. The Independent reported that Shkreli was set to hike up yet another drug price, this time for benznidazole—a medication used to treat parasitic infections related to Chagas disease—but that was before he was arrested on security fraud charges on December 17th.
Could Shkreli have gained the hip hop status he was seeking with the same exploits? In a recent HipHopDX interview, Shkreli compared his drug profiteering to “art” that “[gets] people talking.” In the same interview, he noted plans to eventually release his own hip hop album, though he doesn’t appear to have much respect for the genre or its progenitors. As of his arrest, Shkreli hadn’t listened to Once Upon A Time In Shaolin and he used the album’s case as a beer coaster during a livestream session. Shkreli also threatened to break the CD on live television because of the RZA’s expressed disapproval of Shkreli’s business practices, and even went so far as to infer that with the help of a “kill for each other, die for each other” Albanian community, he might even put a hit on the Wu-Tang founder.
In December, Shkreli invited Fetty Wap to perform at Turing’s holiday party, and after taking pictures with Wap, Shkreli said, “at the right price these guys basically will do anything.” With that mindset, Shkreli desired to infiltrate hip hop–starting with bailing Bobby Shmurda out of jail. After we finish our Twitter-coined #Shkreli-freude, we should probably ask ourselves how badly he could have trolled hip hop had he not been arrested.
Shkreli’s iniquity has gained him the title of “most-hated man in America.” In most years that would undoubtedly be the case, but Donald Trump’s ongoing shitshow of a presidential campaign is giving Shkreli a strong run for his money. Trump has called Shkreli “disgusting,” but Trump’s crusade to “Make America Great Again” has shown that they are kindred spirits as two degenerates seeking acceptance from unfamiliar social spheres. Though Trump hasn’t denied anyone life-saving medication, his declaration of Mexicans as “rapists” and proposal to deny domestic entry to all Muslims is pretty vexatious in itself.
Both Trump and Shkreli have achieved traction by pandering to the populist sensibilities of their respective fields, even if their ultimate agendas are entirely self-serving. Shkreli acknowledged being an opportunist, but also boasted of being “the plug” to appeal to the “money over everything” mindset that pervades hip hop.
Trump has fielded a surprisingly successful presidential campaign by playing to societal fears and spewing rhetoric that was previously only implied through the campaign promises and actions of conservative predecessors. George W. Bush’s Patriot Act–which helps NSA invasively tap phones with impunity–came on the heels of 9/11, at the perfect time to quell America’s fear of domestic terrorism. Trump’s “ban muslims” initiative is an example of him attempting to take advantage of America’s consternation in a similar matter.
Richard Nixon once ran a law and order campaign in the 60’s, which he privately noted was “about those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” In 2015, would anyone be shocked if Trump actually co-opted that quote to stoke the flames of conservative white America’s bigotry?
A campaign that began as a farcical novelty has become a source of nail-biting for all, including the GOP, who are panicking over Trump’s “dominance and durability.” Trump might not win the Republican nomination, but his campaign has placed a permanent stain on the American political process. Can anyone really laugh at Kanye 2020 if Trump trolled his way into actual debates?
Hip hop is a far less regulated industry than politics. The White House suggested disqualifying Trump from the Republican party, but there’s no comparable entity to excommunicate Shkreli from hip hop. If Shkreli had actually bailed Shmurda out of jail like he wanted to, that might have been just the “in” he desired. It would have been easy to dismiss Shkreli as a “culture vulture,” but consider the cruel perils many within hip hop culture have put on their own.
In 2007, Harlem cult hero Max B had to sell his publishing and sign a six-album deal with Jim Jones just to make bail on armed robbery-murder charges. Tupac famously got out on bail only after signing a crummy deal with Suge Knight and Death Row records. Is Shkreli any more opportunistic than Jones or Knight? In the HipHopDX interview, Shkreli also threatened to buy Cash Money records. If he was Cash Money CEO could he treat Lil Wayne any worse than Birdman has?
Shkreli’s price gouging, unabashed narcissism and natural troll smile may have made him an insufferable presence, but theoretically he’s not that much different from supposed “real” hip hop heads when it comes to preying upon the naivete and financial desperation of artists.
Trump’s presidential campaign and Shkreli’s brief foray into hip hop are mirror moments that reflect how bad we’ve collectively let things get in both arenas. Many of us have long accepted ridiculous conservatives and out-of-touch, unethical record label execs as par for the course as long as their rhetoric was relatively discrete. It took Trump and Shkreli’s brazen extremism for us to take a second look at the happenings.
It would be easy to burn either at the stake, but in reality, Shkreli using his illicit fortune to buy into hip hop and exploit artists for personal gain would’ve been a mere continuation of a cycle that’s occurred since the inception of the music business. In the same manner, Trump has shown himself to be a consummate scumbag, but he’s just the culmination of all the more sagacious bigots who sought office before him.
Trump may not get elected, and Shkreli may be ruined–and have to give the Wu Album back–but that doesn’t preclude any wealthy scumbags from following their lead. It’s fun to revel in poetic justice for a time, but individual misfortune doesn’t cover the breaches Trump or Shkreli stepped through to reach infamy.
Trump is obviously operating on a more important playing field, but the same question must be asked in regards to both: what systemic changes can we make to ensure there are no more Shkrelis or Trumps?