At the end of July, attorney Peter Scoolidge made his way to the Eastern District Courthouse at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. The courthouse was hardly an unusual destination for the lawyer, but that day, he had a bizarre assignment: Listen to the lone existing copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album to determine if the material was still intact.
Scoolidge had bought a Discman for the occasion, and he popped in the album under the watchful eyes of around 10 members of law enforcement, representatives from the U.S. Marshals service, the U.S. attorney’s office, and the Department of Justice. “As you can imagine, the tracks have a lot of colorful language on them, [so] there’s a lot of giggling [as] people who are not hip-hop people [are] listening to this stuff,” Scoolidge says. “It was pretty funny.”
Giggling U.S. Marshals is just the latest odd episode in the life of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which was bought by an anonymous entity in July. On Wednesday, a group called PleasrDAO revealed that it was ultimately behind the purchase, which cost the collective $4 million.
Wu-Tang auctioned off the album, which was both lambasted as an elitist stunt-art hoax and embraced as a shrewd protest against digitization’s erosion of music’s value, for $2 million in 2015. The buyer back then was Martin Shkreli, a hedge-fund and pharmaceutical executive who was quickly becoming one of the most reviled men in America. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was subsequently seized by the U.S. government before making its way to PleasrDAO, a group with a passion for buying digital collectibles honoring “anti-establishment rebels” — their previous purchases include NFTs connected to Edward Snowden and the Russian band Pussy Riot. (Nadya from Pussy Riot is now a PleasrDAO member.)
As Once Upon a Time in Shaolin got a new owner, it also gained a new layer of complexity. What was a resolutely physical product — the album comes in an ornate silver box accompanied by a leather-bound booklet — has sprouted a digital component: an NFT deed of ownership. This means the buyer of the album will be memorialized in the blockchain-verse.
“This beautiful piece of art, this ultimate protest against middlemen and rent seekers of musicians and artists, went south by going into the hands of Martin Shkreli, the ultimate internet villain,” says Jamis Johnson, PleasrDAO’s 34-year-old Chief Pleasing Officer. (That’s a real title.) By purchasing the album, Johnson tells Rolling Stone, “We want this to be us bringing this back to the people. We want fans to participate in this album at some level.”
The twists and turns of this release have been obsessively chronicled in the media over the past few years; younger listeners may only know the Wu-Tang Clan as that group who sold a one-copy album to the guy who jacked up prices on an AIDS drug. Spilling so much ink on an album no one has heard, owned exclusively by people you’ll never meet, seems perverse.
But the saga continues. A quick history: A Wu-Tang obsessive named Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh gradually works his way into the periphery of the famous Nineties hip-hop group and hits on the idea of recording a single copy of an album and limiting its uses. At a time when almost all music was instantly available for free, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was going to be nearly impossible to hear. No commercial release was allowed for 88 years, you couldn’t record or remix the original, play it at a large party, pop it on a streaming service or livestream it; the only way to listen would be to know the owner and get invited to a small, tightly controlled event.
“This was a protest against value being stripped out of music in the digital landscape,” says Cyrus Bozorgmehr, who worked closely with Cilvaringz on the album’s initial rollout.
Cilvaringz records Once Upon a Time in Shaolin over a period of years with assorted members of the Wu-Tang Clan, especially RZA, announces that the album exists through the press, and gets several interested buyers; the winner ends up being Shkreli. (For more backstory, consult Bozorgmehr’s The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1, which captures behind-the-scenes minutiae in purple prose: “Mystique is a profoundly powerful veil — a psychic aphrodisiac whispering a siren call.”)
Shkreli has a brief period in the spotlight, seemingly courting controversy at every opportunity, before he is arrested on charges of widespread securities fraud. The government subsequently takes control of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, leaving the fate of the album uncertain: If a CD no one has heard disappears in a seizure by the feds, does it make a sound? “In many ways I was happy for it to sit in a government vault forever,” Bozorgmehr says. “It was quite a good story; all anyone knew was that this mysterious album was being held by the U.S. government. That’s some sexy shit.”
It all could have ended there, with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin languishing for decades until some Indiana Jones-like musicologist sprang it free. But Shkreli needed to sell assets to make up for millions in debt, and Cilvaringz enlisted Scoolidge to reach out to the government to ensure that the album’s original contractual requirements would be honored in any potential sale. “It was meant to be a one-off work of contemporary art,” the lawyer says. “He and RZA didn’t want the government to auction it off recklessly.”
While Once Upon a Time in Shaolin moldered behind bars, the tech world was becoming increasingly enamored with a concept known as a non-fungible token, or NFT — a unique code often attached to a digital image, song, or video. The code is stored on blockchain, ensuring that it’s one of a kind, un-copyable, and un-deletable, and NFTs can be bought and sold like any other collectible item.
Even though Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a physical piece, NFT enthusiasts saw Wu-Tang’s one-off as an effort that dovetailed with — and anticipated — their own interest in enshrining value. Georgio Constantinou and Jesse Grushack, who helped broker the sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin through their company 6 Agency, “have been talking about this album for years as the original model of scarcity in digital goods,” according to Constantinou. Grushack once sent copies of Bozorgmehr’s book to his management clients to show them that “scarcity should be able to exist in music in the same way it does in other forms of creativity.”
6 Agency has been working with Cilvaringz since March, helping to brainstorm the album’s NFT addition and oversee the sale within the crypto community. Despite the fame of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, finding buyers was no easy feat. “That was a concern; is anyone going to buy it now that Shkreli’s got it?” Bozorgmehr acknowledges. “If you were being asked to part with millions of dollars and the previous owner was Shkreli, apart from not wanting to be associated with his profile, what if this guy’s got copies? He could just put it out there.”
On top of that, the involvement of the feds made some crypto-heads nervous. When Grushack started soft reach-outs to gauge interest in the community, he was met with responses like: “DOJ?! I don’t want to have my name anywhere near that!”
Grushack and Constantinou embarked on a monthslong “crawl through the whales of crypto.” Their pitch? “Hey, we have this thing. But we can’t tell you what it’s about unless you’re interested in spending $3 to $7 million.” Less than a dozen people were willing to learn more.
One of those people was Johnson, representing PleasrDAO, a group now more than 70 members strong. (PleasrDAO is a portmanteau of NFT artist Pplpleasr and DAO, which is short for “decentralized autonomous organization.”) A lifelong hip-hop fan who remembers the thrill of sneaking into his friend’s brother’s room in Utah to hear Enter the Wu-Tang, Johnson can still quote colorful insults from Method Man at a moment’s notice while wearing a Wu-Tang T-shirt during an interview.
He sees the Staten Island ensemble as the platonic ideal of “a group fighting against an unfair system.” “They’re kind of the OG DAO — they bonded together to form a collective more powerful than any individual had on their own,” he says. And Johnson also believes that Wu-Tang’s attempt to say “fuck these middlemen for taking all the money that should be going to the artists perfectly aligns with the ethos of crypto.”
OG is one of Johnson’s favorite compliments — “She’s the first OG crypto artist,” he says admiringly of PleasrDAO’s namesake. Although the term is firmly lodged in the public consciousness, much of Johnson’s crypto-speak is harder for outsiders to decipher. He waxes about the summer of 2020, known as “DeFi summer,” when “all these promises of magical financial protocols were starting to come to fruition.” “You would stay up to four or five [in the morning] on Discord servers being what we call degen,” he adds wistfully. “Degen” is short for degenerate, though it sounds like a more productive form of degeneracy than the one commonly employed outside of crypto circles.
Johnson was also kind enough to walk me through terms like “algostable winter,” “jpeg summer,” “fractionalization,” “TradArt,” and “multi-sig.” He’s apologetic — “I’m getting lost in the weeds,” he says, partially out of sympathy, as I look on, slack-jawed and clueless — and quick to note that even he doesn’t have “time to be that degen anymore,” which is probably a relief to his mother. But Johnson is undeniably a crypto apostle: “I love getting my normie friends to download Rainbow [a wallet for cryptocurrency] and start messing around,” he says, offering to send some Ethereum as an extra incentive. (I declined and remain a normie.)
This Chief Pleasing Officer says he aims to approach Once Upon a Time in Shaolin from the “polar opposite” direction of its previous owner, who once threatened to destroy the album and played some on a livestream against the Wu-Tang Clan’s wishes. And it’s not hard to see Johnson as the anti-Shkreli; wide-eyed and wiry, radiating “we can make the world better” enthusiasm while petting an adorable toy poodle named Cosmo.
Shkreli seemed to embody “greed is good” Wall Street, while Johnson draws from an arsenal of talking points about the importance of decentralization and returning “power to the people.” Shkreli appeared to revel in being the bad guy, but Johnson is not yet used to the limelight, noting that he was embarrassed by one of the scenes in an upcoming promotional video announcing that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin has changed hands yet again. And while Shkreli was aggressively egotistical, Johnson tends to be deferential, asking during an interview if the sunlight was overwhelming and apologizing for sucking softly on a Juul.
That said, he really wanted the Wu-Tang one-off. “The first call we had with Jamis; he just had this look in his eye,” Constantinou recalls. “The next thing he said was, ‘There’s not a world in which we don’t own this album.’ ”
The core of Johnson’s message is returning Once Upon a Time in Shaolin “to the people,” which sounds great but is also somewhat antithetical to the restrictions around the album’s use. For now, the details need to be worked out, but his promise appears to hinge at least partially on exhibition rights. “You couldn’t play [the album] onstage at Coachella, but you could take out six really cool spaces across the world and do exhibitions with it where 200 people come at a time,” Bozorgmehr explains. “And you would be able to sell tickets.” “We very much want to do that,” Johnson says when asked about ways PleasrDAO could help the album reach a wider audience.
In the past, PleasrDAO also purchased an NFT of a popular meme and made ownership shares available to the masses for an affordable price. “[I]t’s very much as if the Louvre decided to fractionalize the Mona Lisa and distribute a portion of it for the public to own,” Johnson wrote at the time. It’s not yet clear if something like that would be possible in the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin universe. “You can’t do much” with the album, Bozorgmehr notes. “But all of those restrictions, or at least some of them, if PleasrDAO had a good enough idea, would be open for discussion I think.”
Johnson is confident that his DAO can deliver on the idea front. “We see ourselves as the Willy Wonka factory of NFTs,” he says. “We want to do crazy shit, and we want to have a really strong charitable component.”
“But for people reading this,” he adds, “it’s gonna take a long time to be done right.”