The Wu-Tang Clan’s Secret NFT

With its one-of-one album in 2014, the legendary hip-hop group created a non-fungible token years before anybody really knew what that was.

In early 2014, I received a cryptic email from an unpronounceable address that seemed scammy at best, but the body of the message was so bizarre I couldn’t help but respond. The sender claimed to be a Morocco-based producer who’d spent the past six years putting together a secret Wu-Tang Clan album called Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. The strangest part: the group was only going to release one copy of this record—and sell it for millions of dollars.

The producer turned out to be a real person named Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, who lived in Marrakech and wanted to give me (then a senior editor at Forbes) the scoop. He had caught on as a Wu-Tang affiliate many years earlier, eventually approaching the group’s frontman, Robert “RZA” Diggs, with the one-of-one idea. They were both intrigued by the notion of reversing the devaluation of music that began with the Napster era and continued with the rise of streaming.

“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 now tells me. “By taking physicality, rarity and price to such extremes, we were out to cause a ruckus intense enough to trigger a real, visceral debate.”

In other words, Cilvaringz and the Wu-Tang Clan had done something revolutionary: they created an NFT years before anybody really knew what that was. Only recently did non-fungible tokens shift from the fringe into the mainstream (with more downs than ups of late).

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin and modern day NFTs both revolve around the same core concept: taking something that’s theoretically infinitely reproducible and making it provably unique. Just as one could snap a screen shot of Beeple’s record-shattering $69 million non-fungible creation or rip a recording of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album, both found ways to create scarcity and value in a world where those concepts are disappearing.

“It’s been really cathartic seeing the statement Shaolin was making come full circle,” says Cilvaringz. “NFTs answer so many of the questions we were asking with the album—and they felt next to impossible at the time. But finding a way to embed value and provenance into digital art is a total game changer.”

Just as NFTs provide a digital ledger of everything that happens to them, Wu Tang’s album secured its own inalienable receipts. But with Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, that didn’t happen automatically.

One might say the first entry in that ledger was my Forbes piece breaking the news of the album’s existence. Hundreds of outlets around the world recorded subsequent developments, from pharma villain Martin Shkreli’s $2 million purchase of the record to its more recent seizure by the U.S. government.

“I feel like it’s grown a life of its own,” RZA told me in 2018. “Who knows where it’s gonna end up at, right? Because it’s moving on its own four legs now. That’s crazy.”

Following the story led me to Morocco, where I became—as far as I know—the first civilian to hear any part of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin (check out the mini-documentary above to relive my experience).

Along the way, I learned about all the effort that went into making the record truly one-of-one, from the album’s handcrafted silver-and-nickel case (created by an affable artisan named Yahya) to its cloak-and-dagger recording process (to maintain secrecy and eliminate the possibility of redistribution, group members recorded their verses over incomplete beats).

And I eventually witnessed the backlash from a contingent of fans who resented being denied a chance to hear their favorite group’s latest record. But the album’s creators went into the process with some idea of what they were up against, and emerged looking nearly clairvoyant.

“Beyond symbolism, single copy albums were never going to be the answer,” Cilvaringz adds. “But NFTs sure look like they are, and I’ve got nothing but respect for the ingenuity driving the concept.”

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