Wu-Tang, Playboi Carti, and a weird week in rap’s crypto world

(L) Once Upon A Time in Shaolin cover art. (R) Playboi Carti. Photo by Rolling Loud / @Snap_LL


Nearly two years ago, Eminem and Snoop Dogg shared a music video for a new collaborative song called “From The D to tha LBC.” The visuals featured characters in the style of the Bored Ape Club, a Web3 collective that had become synonymous with the NFT craze that saturated popular culture. For some, the digital tokens and their cryptocurrency marketplaces were the next stage in the intersection of art and commerce. For others, they were ugly and exploitative harbingers of some hyper-transactional future; every cringeworthy celebrity plug and memed scam unlocked a new level of schadenfreude.

For many, NFTs might feel like a relic of the pandemic era, a confusing and upsetting trend from a confusing and upsetting time. Holly Herndon, a musician and programmer who had been experimenting with NFTs for years before they caught on, defended them when I spoke with her in 2021. The blowback, she said, resulted from pandemic-driven financial precarity and an inaccessibility of the technology. “All of a sudden you have this new wealth-driven system come on the scene and you see celebrities able to magic large sums of money out of nowhere,” she said. “And that’s super alienating.”

While the price of Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, remains elevated, the Web3 gold rush has long since ended. Many of the most expensive NFTs began plunging in value even before FTX, the billion-dollar cryptocurrency exchange and hedge fund managed by Sam Bankman-Fried, was exposed as a fraud. Just a few short years ago, everyone in the entertainment industry from influencers to A-list actors latched on NFTs and crypto; in 2024, it’s been relegated to the margins.

Last week, however, we saw two stories that offered an interesting anecdotal account of Web3’s position in the world of hip-hop. The first concerned Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon A Time in Shaolin. A one-of-one album consisting of two CDS housed in a bespoke, relic-like box, Shaolin was sold in 2013 to the pharmaceutical executive and gleeful villain Martin Shkreli for a reported $2 million. As part of the terms of the sale, Shkreli was forbidden from releasing it to streaming or download until the year 2130. When Shkreli was convicted of securities fraud in 2018, federal authorities seized ownership of the album, selling it to the NFT collective PleasrDAO in 2021. Last week, PleasrDAO announced that Shaolin was now an NFT, and fans could purchase it for just $1 through a new website.

This doesn’t mean that they could hear the entire project, though. For $1, users would receive access to an “album sampler” created by Shaolin’s co-producer Cilvaringz. In addition, every $1 purchase would reduce the near nine-decade wait for the album’s release by 88 seconds (as of now, about a decade has been shaved off of the release date). According to CryptoNews, PleasrDAO has been working in secret with the album’s producers for months to acquire the rights to the songs, and have obtained all the necessary permissions for 16 of the double LP’s 31 tracks. Those who have purchased the album, PleasrDAO say, will receive “progressively larger pieces of [the tracklist]” over time. Part of the proceeds from the NFTs will be given to the Wu-Tang Clan and the album’s producers, the press release claims.

The acronym “NFT” does not appear anywhere on the Shaolin website or in the press materials. This is likely a tell, indicating an awareness of how NFTs are broadly perceived: unfashionable at best, scams at worst. The preponderance of illicit stories surrounding cryptocurrency is likely why PleasrDAO is offering the option of purchasing Shaolin’s sampler with a credit card (though this information will be used to create a crypto wallet containing the purchased NFTs).

One doesn’t even have to look too far for the latest shady crypto story. Playboi Carti released his last album Whole Lotta Red in 2020; after an extended drought and a few broken promises of imminent drops, he’s shared several rapturously received singles over the last year that have helped cement his position as one of rap’s most closely watched and influential figures. The frenzied appetite for new music and the absence of firm release dates have allowed bad actors to step in and fill the void. Earlier this month, an account with the X handle @CartiOnSolana posted that Playboi Carti would launch his new album I Am Music on Solana, a blockchain platform, alongside his own crypto token called $Carti. These claims probably would have been ignored had the account not gone on to share three purportedly unreleased Playboi Carti tracks. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that the account was probably leaking stolen music — it was new music, and to the large swath of rap fans who eagerly collected the ill-gotten songs, that was all that mattered. All the better if, as the account hinted, they’d eventually release the whole album if the market value of the $Carti token hit a certain level.

What followed has all the qualities of a “rug pull” — where scammers raise money from investors for a token only to make a fast exit with the money. On June 15, @CartiOnSolana was able to capitalize on an ambiguous pos from Carti’s DJ Swamp Izzo (“Fuk It TONIGHT” written on Instagram in response to Akademiks wondering where new Carti music was). @CartiOnSol promised to release “All Red,” a song that’s become highly sought after for Carti fans, if the market value of $Carti hit 1 million. That evening, according to Dex Screener, the value of $Carti rose exponentially between 6 p.m and 6:40 p.m to nearly $900K. Over the next 20 minutes, the token’s value crashed to nothing. @CartiOnSol appeared to acknowledge their rug pull scheme in a tweet: “It was for Bob’s bail money. Sorry.” The account has been dormant since 11:41 p.m. on June 15, a few hours after Carti performed at Summer Smash, debuting new music including the first live performance of “All Red.”

A press release for the NFT release of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin contains some lofty goals. “This album sale is more than just about the music,” Matt Matkov, a PleasrDAO representative, writes, “it’s about redefining how we think about ownership of music and fan collaboration in the digital age.” But even if you take them at their word — that they’re working closely with the album’s original creators to forge a new and sustainable path for musicians — they’re still using tools that many people, for good reason, do not trust. Until that massive hurdle can be scaled, releases like Once Upon A Time In Shaolin will feel less like the unleashing of a priceless art piece and more like yet another veteran rap institution trying to make a buck from a bubble that’s already popped.