Sophia Chang — Woman Who Helped Guide the Career of the Wu-Tang Clan, Q-Tip & More — is Finally Telling Her Story [Interview]
We sat down with industry veteran Sophia Chang, who just released her memoir The Baddest Bitch in the Room. She talked about her career, public speaking, her relationship with Chris Lighty, and imagining Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” video with women at the table.
“My name is Sophia Chang, and I was raised by Wu-Tang.”
Usually, that would make for an amazing greeting. But it’s one of the last things Sophia Chang tells me during our 40-minute phone conversation we have just days after her memoir, the Audible Originals The Baddest Bitch in the Room, is published. It’s a hell of a line, one she’s probably said dozens of times during her 30-year career working in music.
It’s not hyperbole, either. In the early ’90s, Chang was a pivotal behind the scenes player in music, working in various departments from A&R to promotions to management. Over the years she collaborated and rubbed shoulders with a wide spectrum of artists: like Paul Simon, Q-Tip, Redman, and Chris Lighty. But it was the Wu-Tang Clan who she really bonded with and who, she says, “claimed” her. She met the Clan in 1993, right when they released their debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” and almost instantly sparked a friendship with the group. Often called “Wu-Tang’s muse,” she has, at various points in her career, managed RZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the GZA.
Despite her resume in rap music— she says she’s the “first Asian in hip-hop” — only a small portion of The Baddest Bitch, which was released on September 26th, is centered around hip-hop. There is a love component here. In the mid-’90s she started learning kung fu and fell in love with a Shallon Monk named Shi Yan Ming. She left the music industry behind and put a majority of her time and effort into building Yan Ming’s brand and maintaining his Manhattan-based temple. The two would eventually go on to have two kids together before going their separate ways. (During this time there were early plans on expanding Ming’s temple.)
After making her way back into the music industry — in various stints, including working in a senior position at Universal Music Group — Chang started to realize she spent her life helping craft the stories of men. It was time to tell her own story.
The Baddest Bitch in the Room is a compelling listen, mainly because Chang is an expert storyteller. She’s great with details and she isn’t scared to be vulnerable in public. (At various points in the book you hear her voice crack while telling an emotional story.) Lots of artists are mentioned in the book. But nothing ever feels gossipy. Sophia made a conscientious effort to keep the story centered around her and the many geniuses that orbited her. In this book, Chang is the Sun. The memoir is also super interactive; throughout you hear (sometimes grainy) audio clips from the likes of RZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raphael Saadiq, hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan and more.
I recently sat down with Sophia Chang to talk about the making of the book, her relationship with Chris Lighty, and imagining Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” video with women at the table.
Check out the interview below.
Could you have written this book 15 years ago?
No. I wasn’t ready to write it 15 years ago. I still wasn’t interested in telling my story. I didn’t yet think that it was worthy of telling. Also, 15 years ago, my children were two and four…and [at those ages] you’re in the thick of it. There’s no way I would’ve been ready. I was still with my ex. I was running this temple. [There] was way too much going on.
Did you have an epiphany moment?
There were two things that happened. I started working at Universal Music Group. And I took on a number of young women fresh out of college — many of them 22 at the time — as mentees. It occurred to me, given my vast experience, having worked so many different jobs in so many different sectors, I could use my experience to help teach people. That was number one. Number two: [Sheryl Sandberg’s book] Lean In came out. Lean In had some really great messages. But that is written from a very specific perspective, and I had originally conceived of this book as a Lean In for women of color.
It turned into a very traditional chronological memoir. But I do really hope that people, particularly women of color, glean messages from it.
You left a career in music essentially for love and family.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s not like I sat there and said, “OK Sophia, you’re leaving this world and now you’re going to into that world.” It was a pretty organic transition, and I didn’t really think that hard about it.
One of my editors asked me when I was writing, “Did you ever regret leaving any of those jobs?” And as a personal philosophical philosophy, I do not believe in regret. I don’t experience regret like that. So if I fuck up — and I fuck up plenty — I am regretful that I’ve hurt somebody’s feelings and then I address it and I apologize. As somebody who is self-analyzing ,self-interrogating, self-critical, and self-renewing, I am constantly taking stock of what it is that I do, how I behave, and how I could have modified my behavior for a better outcome.
That means that once I make that analysis that I am learning something — learning something means that I have gained a lesson. A lesson, to me, is a gift. So I don’t live with regret in general and I never looked back. It wasn’t until I was writing this memoir that I went, “Wow, you know what? I might be a record company president right now.” And there’s no part of me that says “Fuck! I made the wrong decision.” Because it wasn’t just for love that I left. It was also because I believed so deeply in Yan Ming and his vision for building the Shaolin Temple in upstate New York.
Why do you think Wu-Tang hovered towards you in the beginning?
When I met Wu-Tang it was before the album came out, but everybody knew they were going to be huge. We only had to hear “Protect ya Neck” once to know, Oh shit, these guys are going to blow the fuck up. So there were hundreds of people around them, all clamoring for access. And here comes this petite Asian, Canadian woman in the midst of them.
They just plucked me out of the crowd and they not only welcomed me, they claimed me. Now why do I think that was? I never had an agenda. I never had ulterior motives. I had [three] things: I was a devoted fan, but there were plenty of those. Number two: I love them deeply as people. And number three: I only ever wanted what was in their best interest. I say in my memoir being embraced by the Clan was amazing because I felt truly seen. And my friend said, “You know, don’t you think it’s possible that they would say the same thing? That when they met you, they felt seen because they were seen in one way. and then here comes Sophia Chang and you just cut through everything and you see them for their humanity?”
The bonus content [on the book] to me is some of the richest content. I specifically asked Ghostface Killa and Raekwon this question, “Why me, you guys, why did you choose me?” And they both put it up to the Most High. They both said “It’s God’s plan, Soph. You were supposed to be there with us.” Ghost was like “You’re like sunshine, Soph.” And Raekwon said “You were a gift to us. You were instrumental in the things that we did.” And I never knew they thought of me that way. I just thought that I was somebody that they loved dearly who was just kind of in the midst.
The other thing that Ghost said is “You never ever changed. Ever.” And Busta Rhymes said this to me last year, he said, “You’re the most consistent person I’ve ever met in hip-hop. We met you before Leaders of the New School was signed. When I had my solo career. When I was up, when I was down. You never changed.”
One of the things I found interesting is that you talk about how you learned about your Asian roots through hip-hop.
I am Asian, and I was born and raised in Vancouver. So I am a yellow girl in a white world. And what I wanted more than anything, when I was a kid, was to be white. And then in 12th grade, I hear “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and it’s an amazing song. And of course the lyrics are incredible and the beats are amazing.
I understand now, in retrospect, but I think that one of the things that really struck me was that I was hearing a song about a story about people of color by people of color as opposed to what I saw. Which, when I saw people of color, it was all through Hollywood’s lens, which is a white male lens. And so hip-hop to me was so much about agency in storytelling and defiance and pride. And I never ever seen that before. So that was really regulatory. And then I moved to New York, I get into hip-hop, and I’m very close friends with many of the artists in the Native Tongues movement: De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Latifa, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School. And, you know, they’re part of this Afro-centric movement, which focuses a lot on yearning for a deeper connection to Africa — their motherland.
And so that kind of sparked curiosity in me. And it makes me think about my own connection to my own continent, which is Asia. Korean was my first language. I lost it in my desire to assimilate. I wanted to be white. I didn’t think that Asian men were attractive. At one point. I didn’t like Korean food, like it was just this very broad, really wide rejection of my culture. And then I meet Wu-Tang clan. They were raised in Staten Island and they call their borough Shaolin and their whole ethos on [Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] was all about Kung-fu movies and John Woo movies.
So not only am I seeing this really incredible, robust culture of period martial arts movies, but now I’m getting a lens on modern age masculinity through John Woo’s eyes. And you know his muse is Chow Yun-fat and Chow Yun-fat, to me, is like the handsomest man that’s ever walked this planet. That was also regulatory for me. And so their respect for, and reverence and love of Asian culture helped open my eyes to it, but it wasn’t until I met them that I let all of the blocks fall away. It was kind of through the chambers of Wu-Tang that I ultimately came back to myself.
If it wasn’t for Wu-Tang, I wouldn’t have started training in Kung-Fu. I wouldn’t have met Yan Ming. If didn’t meet Yan Ming I wouldn’t have my children. I mean I owe a lot to the Wu-Tang clan.
In the book you talk about the last time you saw Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the fact that he just wasn’t present. Was there any part of you that wanted to sugarcoat that story?
One of the things that I think listeners will be struck by is how many times I say “God rest his soul” or “God rest her soul” in my memoir. I’m only 54 years old and other than my father — God rest his soul — who was 80 when he passed, everybody that I lose leaves in an untimely fashion. I think that, yes, naturally it was hard for me to write and it was hard for me to narrate. You know, that’s one of the things that I knew about my memoir, and that it was going to be an audiobook: I insisted that I had to read it I had to be the voice behind the story. Because another reader — let’s say we’d hired a professional actor — they would not have been able to emote the way that I did, especially when it came to loss.
And in terms of sugarcoating things or holding things back, there’s plenty more I could have put in this memoir. I’ve been around famous people for 32 years, but I never intended to write a tell-all. I’m not interested in that. If somebody came along to me today and said, “Sophia, I’ll give you $5 million if you’ll write the tell-all, and you’ll tell us all the dirt on all the famous people you know” I wouldn’t even hesitate, to say no. I have no interest in telling anybody else’s story unless it is part of my narrative.
So when I was shopping my book deal — and it was competitive — there were two things that I said, and I said the same thing when I was looking around for agents: number one is that it’s my voice. I write this shit. I am far from the best writer in the world, but I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to fucking let somebody else try to capture my voice. Number two: I refuse to write a book about being with greatness, meaning hanging out with celebrities because that is, to me, an exercise in narcissism.
I found Chris Lighty to be a very interesting and mysterious presence in the book. Did you, did you ever feel like you fully understood him?
Yeah. I think I fully understood him, but did I know everything that was going on in his life? No. And I think those are two different things.
I knew who Chris Lighty was, but I didn’t know the burden that he was bearing. I couldn’t say I understand everything that was going on in his life. But I understood Chris. Absolutely I did.
What do you tell people who have questions about the music industry in general? Like what are things you tell them that wish you knew as a 22-year-old?
Let’s reframe the question. I was in the music business, pre-digital, so it’s very, very different. I’m in an industry that is flushed with cash, so everything is different. So let’s reframe it this way. What would I tell a 22-year-old getting into the business now? If they want to manage artists, I say, “OK, go ahead and do it. But you better be OK with not making any money unless you’re somehow going to manage an artist who already has a robust touring merchandise and endorsement or sponsorship career because otherwise you’re not making money.” And that’s OK. I don’t care. You don’t have to make money. But you have to know that going in. And for that reason, be passionate about your artists because you will go in and you will be their proxy and you will need to sell the shit out of them.
They have to be on top of everything because hopefully when get as big and successful as you want, they’re going to be many, many, many balls in the air. Raphael Sadiq said about me, ” Soph, you never let a ball drop.” And RZA said “You’re the most organized person I ever met.” And those might sound like banal skills. What I realized now is [how imporant] those things are when you have so much stuff going on.
I love the part in the book when you talk about helping Rakeon with the “C.R.E.A.M” video, and you mentioned how there shouldn’t be women in the video. But, looking back, you now wish you had women in there around the table as CEOs.
My ideas about everything are still evolving. I’m sure there are things that I wrote and that I say today that in a few years I’m going to say, “well that was stupid” or “that was ignorant.” You know, I’m still learning. I’m just constantly evolving and pushing myself to be better. And I surround myself with people who are smarter than me, who can check me if necessary.
There’s a line in my memoir where I say, “Rae, you know what I love about Wu-Tang and about the [36 Chambers] album is that there are no women in it.” He’s like, “yeah, you get it Soph.” And then I said to him, “What I do… the 28-year-old me is happy because there are no women in it because they were so objectified at the time. But the 54-year-old me wishes that you’d put a woman in there at the table with you as your peer. “And he was like, of course Soph, but it’s a different time. He totally understood that.
So yeah, things change, you know, hopefully we continue to evolve and we continue to get smarter and better and we just keep growing.
Is there anything you want to add?
What’s next for me, is public speaking. It’s not even that it’s next. I started public speaking before I even wrote a book. I know that God put me on this planet to put a mic in my hand and have me on stage, you know, just like an MC, except I’m not a talented artist like that.
I honestly think I’m the greatest public speaker I’ve ever seen. I mean that from the bottom of my fucking heart. I don’t think there’s anybody better than me. And I don’t think there’s anybody that can deliver my message. Who could deliver my message? My name is Sophia Chang, and I was raised by Wu-Tang. I’m the Korean-Canadian immigrant who was a French literature major who was raised by Wu-Tang Clan and who was partnered with and had children and ran the business of a Shaolin monk. So all of that kind of crazy diverse experiences hone this voice and this voice is supposed to be shared with the world.
I mean, RZA knew it. He was like, “I can hear you. I can imagine that you are going to be in arenas talking to 25,000 people.”