Hip-Hop’s Most Revolutionary Business Deals (No. 5)
The Wu-Tang Clan has long been ahead of its time, both in terms of music and business. Most impactful of all: its one-of-one album, arguably the world’s first NFT.
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Welcome back to my collaboration with Trapital founder Dan Runcie, in which we’re spending a week counting down the ten most revolutionary business deals in hip-hop history (read his take on No. 8-10 here and mine on No. 6-7 here).
Our methodology: soliciting recommendations from our readers and ranking the top deals by three metrics (originality of idea, level of cultural impact, and size of payout—nothing under $1 million). Stay tuned to both our newsletters as we count down to No. 1 over the coming week. Today, we dig into the top five…
5. The DAO of Wu: A Proto-NFT In Shaolin
Eight years ago, I received a note from an alphabet soup of an email address, claiming to have inside info on a developing story so outrageous it couldn’t be fake: the Wu-Tang Clan had been recording an album in secret for six years, and would only sell one copy.
I replied to the sender, who turned out to be producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh—the mastermind of the concept along with Wu-Tang ringleader RZA—and soon found myself tumbling down the ever-deepening rabbit hole encompassing Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
My Forbes story breaking the news of the album’s existence clocked nearly 1 million views overnight and soon I was in Morocco, interviewing Cilvaringz about the concept and becoming likely the first civilian to hear part of the clandestine album. What I didn’t know then was precisely how groundbreaking the concept could be: it was, in essence, the first NFT.
“When I conceived the single copy concept and brought it to RZA, digitization was asset-stripping the creative industries and society was half asleep at the wheel,” Cilvaringz explained to me in a previous Zogblog installment. “By taking physicality, rarity, and price to such extremes, we were out to cause a ruckus intense enough to trigger a real, visceral debate.”
To be sure, there were other projects that might have also been labeled as proto-NFTs bubbling up around the same time. Nine Inch Nails dropped the ultra-limited-edition Ghosts, and Nipsey Hussle famously sold a finite run of 1,000 mixtapes for $100 apiece (and then did another: 100 for $1,000 apiece).
But the Wu-Tang album was the most ambitious and deeply thought-out, from its one-of-one release to its unmistakable silver-and-nickel box to its stated aim of returning music to the status of fine art. And the world took notice as the story continued to unfold.
In 2015, pharma villain Martin Shkreli bought the album for $2 million, only to have it seized by the U.S. government when he was tossed in jail over fraud charges. The record languished under DoJ control before yet another (underpriced) sale, even ending up as a key plot point in an episode of Billions along the way.
“That thing turned into a snowball,” RZA recently told me, shortly before releasing his latest new album.
Shaolin ultimately ended up in the collective hands of PleasrDAO, an organization built for acquiring NFTs. Not a bad fit: the Wu-Tang Clan—whose original deal with Loud Records allowed group members to sign elsewhere individually, another brilliant RZA move—is something of a decentralized autonomous organization itself.
“The Wu-Tang Clan is DAO version 0.1: A cohort of friends whose powers combined exceed those of the individual,” says PleasrDAO’s Jamis Johnson. “They were also fighting against the corrupt system since day one, and this album was yet another protest against the powers that be. This is the same ethos embodied in crypto.”
In many ways, Shaolin paved the way for modern-day NFTs. Over the past year or so in the music business, that has come to include everything from miniaturized incentives on Kickstarter campaigns for various acts to electronic star 3LAU selling 33 limited-edition digitized copies of his album Ultraviolet for $11.7 million.
There have been plenty of other applications recently featuring some of hip-hop’s biggest names. Among them: Nas invested in 3LAU’s Andreessen Horowitz-backed platform Royal, which lets users buy NFTs representing copyrights in their favorite artists’ works—and promptly placed a piece of songs “Rare” and “Ultra Black” up for grabs. And Snoop Dogg has pledged to make newly-acquired Death Row “an NFT label.”
Amid all the buzz, NFTs have been up and down, with much of the story yet to be written. But something tells me we’ve only hit the tip of the proverbial iceberg in regard to what Once Upon A Time In Shaolin has started. And there are plenty of others who share that view of the album.
“We see this as a visionary artistic endeavor ahead of its time,” says Johnson. “The album is simultaneously a mythical hip-hop artifact, tied to internet history legend, and a protest against middlemen siphoning off profits from the creators.”
The saga continues … both for Shaolin and for this list of hip-hop’s most revolutionary business deals. Be sure to subscribe to Dan’s Trapital newsletter—he’ll be back with No. 4 and 3 on Monday; I’ll wrap up the top two on Tuesday morning. And we’ll break down the final list together Tuesday at 2pm EDT on Twitter Spaces.
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WHAT I’M READING NOW: BEATS, RHYMES & LISTS
If this post has you yearning for some more hip-hop rankings, look no further than Beats, Rhymes & Lists. It's a vast repository that covers both the lyrical side (ticking down the top rappers alive in any particular year) and the business end (check out the Sales Section). I know you'll enjoy it as much as I do.
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