We heard the one-of-one Wu-Tang Clan album

Hip-hop heads and crypto bros attended a Manhattan listening party for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin hosted by PleasrDAO.

Tyler Farmer made it plz don’t screenshot and flame us.

Let there be light, God said on the first day, and there was light. Light your blunts, Raekwon says on the first track of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and no one does.

To be fair, The Angel Orensanz Center, a 175-year old temple on Norfolk Street, isn’t the most appropriate spot to spark up a Backwoods. Our makeshift congregation – of hip-hop heads and crypto bros, writers and randos – hasn’t been invited here for that kind of a session anyway. We’re gathered in this resplendent sanctuary to witness music history – and as we settle into plush sofas and Chiavari chairs, music history glints, jewel-encrusted, on the altar. Ecclesiastically, a man in a silk shirt lights incense. Surreptitiously, someone starts the fog machine. Blunt smoke would have only added to the primordial haze, the cabalistic fug from which Raekwon booms:

Once upon a time in Shaolin… The saga continues, motherfuckers. 

What a motherfucking saga it’s been.

Fans gather outside The Angel Orensanz Center to witness history.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I took the D train down to the Lower East Side to attend a listening session of excerpts from Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the Wu-Tang Clan’s seventh studio album. You might already know the lore: only one CD of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was ever created.  “By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity…” wrote producers RZA and CilvaRingz on the original website for Shaolin, “…we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music.” To protest the devaluation of music, Wu-Tang Clan created the most commercially valuable work of music ever sold – but stipulated that the 110-minute long album can’t be commercially exploited until 2103. For Wu-Tang fans who won’t live until 2103, seldom-held listening parties are a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

“I’m labeling this as one of the top 10 greatest things to ever happen to me, and I have 3 kids,” said Taryn, a 47-year old fan dressed in Wu-Tang merch who I met on the line to enter the venue.

Taryn posing with the album.

Taryn was more than willing to make the three hour drive from Albany to the Lower East Side – she’s been a major fan since 36 Chambers, and once even brought Method Man’s “sweaty towel” home from a show (“It’s still in my closet somewhere,” she says). It’s a beautiful afternoon, and for Taryn, an afternoon years in the making. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was recorded from 2007 to 2013; in 2014, the lone copy was stored in a vault in Morocco. 

“Why did they do this to us superfans?” Taryn says. “They take 6 years putting it together, then they sell it for 2 million to a crook.” 

She’s talking, of course, about Martin Shkreli. The rat faced sociopath who inflated the price of lifesaving pharmaceuticals was also the very first person to own Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. He paid $2 million for the album at auction – at my high school, it was rumored that he then played the album to this classmate of ours who had randomly Skyped into one of his daily YouTube livestreams.  “i truly do not remember it,” she recently chatted me on Facebook messenger when I set out to confirm this rumor, “but I surely listened to it lol.”

After Shkreli was convicted of fraud in 2018, the Department of Justice seized the album and sold it for $4 million to PleasrDAO, a blockchain based organization that describes themselves as a “collective of DeFi leaders, early NFT collectors and digital artists who have built a formidable yet benevolent reputation for acquiring culturally significant pieces with a charitable twist.” Pleasr was the host of the listening session, and “formidable yet benevolent” certainly captures the vibe that their representatives were giving off. Crypto had clearly made them gleefully rich and powerful, but since they’re into collectivism and decentralization, they’re also totally committed to community. “THIS IS FOR THE PEOPLE,” Pleasr tweeted before the event. “There will be no press and no influencers.”

Ngl sweet spot to listen to an ultra-rare Wu-Tang Clan album.

Despite the “no press” declaration, I discover upon entering the venue that several audience members are media people: superfan Taryn is the plus-one of a reporter from the Huffington Post, Sasha Frere-Jones is sitting to my right, and I end up near two producers from Hot 97. As for the rest, there’s a hipster toddler in giant noise-canceling headphones (maybe Wu-Tang isn’t for the children?), at least one guy who works in legal cannabis, several well-dressed Lower East Side creative director types, and a smattering of people who look like they may have owned a Bored Ape. Once all our phones are powered down and stowed in autolocking pouches, Spencer, a PleasrDAO representative, kicks off the formal presentation by explaining the significance behind The Angel Orensanz Center (the 36 Chambers press photographs were taken here) and claiming that RZA wanted Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to be “like the Mona Lisa.” Before we start, Spencer says the producers wanted him to relay one more thing:  “If you leak the record, you better Protect Ya Neck.” Everyone chuckles awkwardly, and the music begins to seep out from five foot high speakers amidst thunderclaps and the hissing of a fog machine.

The show lasts for 17 minutes. We bop our heads and vibe politely in our seats through carefully curated hooks and beats, bars and features, sirens and gunshots and martial arts movie samples and audio clips of Staten Island crime reports. It’s hard to tell when one song ends and another begins, or whether there’s any rhyme or reason to the edits – I try and take notes on my favorite bars, but all I end up jotting down is something about “Harry Potter” and “Viagra” and “Gatorade.” One of the last songs has a beat with funky horns that I adore – it’s the only track that makes me seriously regret that album is locked up until I turn 103. “Wrap your loving arms around me, ooh, give me a little of that Wu-Tang Clan,” purrs the singer on the hook. Cher sings on the outro. It’s epic, then it ends.

It’s time to unlock our phone pouches and get the fuck out. Matt – another Pleasr representative who I suspect may be tipsy on the specialty cocktails offered at the open bar – thanks us for coming. On my way out of the building, I hear a guy named Mike introduce himself to Matt as part of “the GameStop squad.” What could this mean?

Well, Mike tells me, a group of people associated with the whole r/WallStreetBets community figured out that the source code for the listening session ticket link contained the word “gamestop” – this, he explains, fueled speculation on Reddit that Pleasr was partnering with GameStop on distribution of the album. 

Rob, a crypto guy who attended the listening session twice, asked me to snap some photos of him with the album’s leather bound lyrics and liner notes book. Before Pleasr announced an NYC listening session for the album, Rob had priced out a flight to Tasmania to hear excerpts of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that are currently included in an exhibit at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art. (“The 60 hours of travel time took me out of the running,” he told me.)

None of this feels spiritually moving, exactly. To put it one way, there’s more Supreme T-shirts here than Supreme Mathematics. Sure, RZA wanted to adopt a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music; really, he just created an asset class for Ethereum enthusiasts. The same day Pleasr hosted their listening session, Martin Shkreli hosted his own with bootleg MP3s. Now, there’s a lawsuit. The saga continues, largely without the Wu-Tang Clan at all. 

I end up chatting with Darryl, the head of security, who asks me if I consider myself a fan of the Wu-Tang. I admit the truth: I really hadn’t listened to them much before this week, so I feel pretty unworthy of being here. I’m getting into it, though. I checked out the “Wu Tang Manual” from the public library and learned about the Five Percenters. I’m listening my way chronologically down the Wu-Tang Clan’s Spotify page.
Darryl shakes his head sadly. See, Wu-Tang Forever, he explains, isn’t the natural follow up to 36 Chambers. If you want to do it right, you have to listen to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Iron Man next. Got it, I say, and as I wander uptown past the legal weed stores and the TikTok creators and the $18 smoothie bowls with Raekwon blasting in my headphones, I wonder what these streets must have felt like on a hot summer Sunday thirty years ago when the saga was just beginning. Can it be that it was all so simple then?