Sophia Chang is a Korean-Canadian music business matriarchitect who was the first Asian woman in hip-hop. She has worked with Paul Simon and managed Wu-Tang Clan members ODB, RZA, GZA, as well as Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, Raphael Saadiq, and D’Angelo. In 1995, Chang left the music business to be trained in kung Fu and to manage the USA Shaolin Temple with her then partner with whom she has two children. YRB Magazine Executive Editor, Jonn Nubian recently sat down with the Mother, Lover, Hustler and Warrior to discuss her new memoir released on Audible and why she is The Baddest Bitch In The Room.
YRB: Let me start off by asking you about the famous 7 minute 10 seconds song that you talk about in the introduction of your book. You know, what song I’m talking about right?
Sophia Chang: Of course, it’s my prologue. The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
YRB: I don’t think I have ever heard anyone describe the song and its impact the way you did. Was that your FIRST introduction to hip-hop?
Sophia Chang: I grew up in Vancouver and there were no black folks there and there are no brown folks there other than South Indian or South Asian people so I didn’t grow up with black music. I wasn’t exposed to that rich tradition until I came to New York.
Listening to The Message was the first time that I heard hip-hop and it was, as the French would say le coup de foudre. It was a lightning bolt!
Looking back at it now and deconstructing why it was so stunning to me other than just the music and the creativity of it was realizing that for ME, it was pretty much the first time I had heard a person of color talk about their experience and not see themselves through Hollywood’s lens, which is a white male lens. I had only ever seen black folks and myself in media through the white male lens.
My only exposure living in Vancouver was through television and film.
Hearing how they seized the opportunity to express themselves fully, authentically, shamelessly and with pride was stunning and profoundly moving and inspiring for me.
YRB: Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five is a like framework for Wu-Tang Clan in a way. In 1982, The Message is the first prominent hip-hop song that had social commentary. 11 years later Wu-Tang Clan releases Enter The 36 Chambers.
In your book, you talk about meeting them as your first real introduction to the pro-black movement and Eastern Philosophy?
Sophia Chang: Yes.
YRB: That’s interesting. Do you think that was from growing up in Vancouver and then just being in New York?
Sophia Chang: Absolutely.
YRB: Do you think that’s where your attitude and reputation in the industry come from?
Sophia Chang: What I will say is that from childhood I was extremely confident.
I was extremely self-assured and very very aware that I was other.
I was very outspoken, but it wasn’t until I heard hip-hop and Wu-Tang in particular that I understood that my anger wasn’t some sort of deficiency or liability.
That it was something that I can embrace and that I could use as a tool.
The secondary gift that I got from Wu-Tang was an exposure through them to my own culture. In other words. I saw myself through their lens and when I saw myself through their lens as opposed to the white male lens…it was very different.
They were watching movies made by Asians about Asia. They’re watching Shaw Brothers movies. They’re watching all sorts of martial arts movies and John Woo movies so the representation question is very different when it’s your own people.
YRB: I want to skip ahead to your career in the music industry.
Do you think that forged attitude has hurt you or helped you more moving through the industry?
Sophia Chang: I think my attitude has helped me in general, but certainly it’s hurt me, too. I am a petite Asian woman who walks into every room like I’m six feet tall. I’m a petite Asian woman who says fuck on the regular. I’m a petite Asian woman who has no fear of upsetting the apple cart and pounding my fist on the table.
So anybody like me who’s going to be as subversive and who’s going to reverse stereotypes it’s going to have a dual effect. I am acutely aware of the impact I have. Everything is very calculated.
Look, I fuck up plenty and there are times where I fly off the handle. There are times where I think maybe that was an overstep that wasn’t right, but in general I am happy to smash expectations. I will accept the price that I might pay for because what I get in return is that I get to express myself fully.
YRB: Do think that your relationship with Raphael Saadiq and the album you worked on is part of that?
Sophia Chang: You mean when he fired me? (laughter)
Sophia Chang: He probably thought that I was too aggressive. I think that they were probably times that I was too aggressive but I do think had I been a man, he would not have judged my behavior that way. I don’t know what he would say, but I think that’s not just limited to Raphael, that’s kind of limited to everybody.
YRB: Do you think his and Method Man’s dating advice is kind of seeding in that?
Sophia Chang: I think that is more about my own inability to see myself really clearly. Me thinking that I have long since learned the lesson, you know, I reference a conversation with Benny Medina 20 years before when I realized, Oh my God. I know who I am and yet what I’m presenting is not the full spectrum of me, right?
So what people see is this little Asian woman and she’s really tough and she can be assertive and aggressive when she needs to and she takes care of business.
Well, where’s the soft side of Sophia Chang? Raphael knows this because we’re friends. Method Man knows this because we’re friends, but essentially what they are saying to me in that passage is: I know, but for anyone else other people might not see you that way. It wasn’t about how he saw me, it was about how he saw others see me and I think that they’re both right. In my memoir I talked about countless men say to me: You know I saw you but I was too scared or I was intimidated. I didn’t know how to approach you.
This is so funny, there was this one guy from the gym, I finally introduced myself to him because we saw each other every day and he said:
“You know, I remember seeing you on the first day and I thought wow, who is that?
Is she a cult figure? (laughter)”
YRB: Let’s go back. I was going to do that for later. But I want to go to chapter 8 which is about your relationship with Derek and the dick index.
Sophia Chang: Look, if all things are equal this wouldn’t be a consideration right? When people say, ALL LIVES MATTER. Of course all lives matter, but if all lives truly mattered in parity, we wouldn’t need a movement called BLACK LIVES MATTER.
So essentially what I’m saying is if patriarchy didn’t exist as it did but it does, then I don’t even think this would be a question and if it were a question, then it would exist bilaterally. I know no women that ask men, How many women they’ve been with. I don’t give a fuck!
That somehow this is a purity test for women. A gauge to men of how acceptable a woman is. That is deeply rooted in patriarchy.
If that’s how you feel you can suck a dick for real, like fuck you!
It’s not easy for me to come out and announce that number. I have a mother who is 87 years old. I’m not proud of this number, but I’m sure as fuck not ashamed of it either. I only came out with it to kick start the conversation so that people can say oh shit, Sophia Chang came out and said that she fucked 66 men.
I think the number is 67 or 68 by now. I don’t want people to focus on that.
YRB: What do you love about hip-hop?
Sophia Chang: I’ll talk about it from the musical level and then I’ll talk about from the spiritual level. I have loved dancing since I was three. Dancing and having fun, and being so into Disco and Punk. So hip-hop, the beat is incredible, right?
It hits you in the solar plexus! How the 808 fucking punches you in the stomach. I love that! I love feeling that!
Almost from a carnal and primal level, feeling the beat come up through my feet through the floor, into my body and how it moves me. I love!
Then there’s the lyricism. I’m a French literature major and I studied some great writers and poets. So the poetry of it, the word play. I love words.
I understood very very early on (for myself) you are not conventionally beautiful. You are Asian. You are a girl. Your power is not going to be the same as it is for white man. So I knew that I was going to have to be extraordinary in other ways and part of that, as the RZA would say: “My tongue is my sword!”
I started developing my vocabulary and I worked very very hard on how I speak. There is very little daylight between how I speak and how I write.
It’s not like I have this voice when I’m writing. No, that’s kind of how the fuck I talk! (laughter)
How the fuck I write is how the fuck I talk. How the fuck I talk is how the fuck I write.
Having a respect for and a reverence of wordplay and language, I just found MC’s to be exquisite artists. I do consider hip-hop to be poetry and I consider rap to be music.
YRB: Jay Electronica said something on the intro to his song Poetry about the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . The whole album is entirely drugs, chains, chicks, but there is also in social commentary in there too. and if you really listen to Raekwon and Ghostface, it’s like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The poetry of it.
Sophia Chang: That’s how I appreciate on the musical level. Just in terms of the crafting of songs and I think hip-hop has some of the greatest hooks of all time. I think Wu-Tang made some of the greatest hooks of all time.
I was fortunate to work with Paul Simon 1987. He’s one of the greatest songwriters all time to me and I put them up with him.
Then when it comes to how it spoke to my spirit and how it speaks to me philosophically. The notion of being proud of who you are. The notion of being fearless about it and not have been ashamed of it and being upfront and taking control of the narrative rather than letting the dominant culture define us.
This is what we’re going come out and say. Wasn’t it Chuck D that famously said “hip-hop is black America’s CNN.” ?
Sophia Chang: I wouldn’t adhere specifically wholly to the veracity of that, but we understand the sentiment, right? I love that there was this art form that was so self-possessed and self-contained. Of course we had to go to labels (that was different). But in terms of the music, who made the beats, who wrote the lyrics that was completely about the culture.
YRB: What do you hate about hip-hop?
Sophia Chang: I hate the misogyny. In current hip-hop, although I’m not an expert on it at all, I have to qualify that I hate the glorification of opioid use.
I hate the conspicuous consumerism. I hate the objectification of women.
The whole I’ll fuck your ho, I hate that. I wear this, I drive that.
I think that it does truly have an impact on its listeners.
YRB: I recently interviewed the Wu-Tang Clan for the Of Mics and Men documentary. I asked them about the respect for women in their music, and Inspectah Deck answered the following:
“We love our women more than that. Our generation came from the strong black women foundation. We didn’t have that energy. Black women in our society have it just as hard as Black men. There is no need for us to knock each other down. I don’t even say the word bitch in my songs. I think it was subconscious.”
GZA said it was a generational thing in New York and how they grew up. How do you think it got from that to where we are now?
Sophia Chang: I think that there are still Gatekeepers.
Public Enemy wouldn’t get signed today. I don’t think A Tribe Called Quest, Poor Righteous Teachers or Brand Nubian would get signed today.
It has nothing to do with how talented they are. You think X Clan would get a major label deal today? Fuck no. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch, but I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to say that when we continue to live in a white supremacist country, and do indubitably that the Gatekeepers aren’t necessarily going to embrace the messages like the artists that I just cited.
Remember when hip-hop first came out? There was no SoundScan, it was going to be a fad just like Disco. That wasn’t even in our minds. We knew it was going to stay because it was too powerful. It takes a nation of millions.
Listen to Public Enemy! It takes a nation of millions, fucking Fear of a Black Planet.
Chuck was so prophetic. He wasn’t the only one but I’m a huge PE fan.
I think that his vision for hip-hop and its legacy was nothing short of prophetic.
YRB: Why are you doing your memoir as audio book instead of a traditional printed book?
Sophia Chang: The second it was presented to me as a possibility I knew that I wanted it to come out in audio form first. I always knew when I conceived of a book that it would open up with the Method Man story. I also knew that I could get Meth to voice his dialogue in that. The only thing more compelling would be to show it on the screen, right? That’s not what happens with books. Right? That’s a film or that’s a documentary.
I have spent 32 years in the music business. I’ve managed artists. I have managed composers. I have worked in film. I know how people create soundscapes. I knew that I could create a 360-degree immersive experience such that no one has ever done before. No one has combined the author’s voice this way. I have sound design and an original score. I have music licenses and those that songs are scratched in by DJ Scratch.
First of all, I’m going to win a fucking Grammy and if I don’t I’m going to do an ODB and bum rush the stage and have an army of people come with me!
I call myself the CAO, the Chief Agitation Officer.
I knew that I could agitate the world not only with my story: Here’s this Korean-Canadian woman that became the first Asian woman in hip-hop, worked with Wu-Tang Clan, married a Shaolin monk, but the way in which I delivered the message is different.
I listened to plenty of audio books in preparation for this and they are all essentially the same thing. You have a print book that comes out first and then there’s the audio version and it is verbatim what you have read and there’s nothing wrong with that and some of them are incredible. Like my girl Tiffany Haddish, that’s amazing! Trevor Noah’s is incredible! Bad Blood is amazing, but they are not the 360-degree experience that I offer.
What I want is for people to go, I’m listening to a movie.
YRB: What was the process like? Did Audible approach you with the idea?
Sophia Chang: It was all me. I want to be very clear on that.
From the very first call that I did with my editor at Audible, Jessica Almon Galland whom I adore and is an excellent editor. I said I want Method Man to voice the dialogue. I got every single voice. I secured every single release. I got all of the beats. I hired my own person to secure the clearances.
All of this comes from my experience. I hired the sound designer. I went through every single cue. My vocals only took 20 hours, which is extraordinarily fast for a seven and a half hour audiobook. Getting the rest of the voices, to be fair, nobody else could do it. Method Man isn’t going to let somebody else into his hotel room in Norfolk, Virginia at one o’clock in the morning.. while Redman is there just to record his voice. It’s because we have that relationship. That’s not going to happen with anybody else and nobody else could get the releases. This was completely my vision, it was completely my execution and what’s going to happen on September 26th is that people are going to go-Oh fuck she didn’t just raise the bar. She blew that shit into the stratosphere!
I think that everybody that comes afterwards will want to do the same thing and I want them to hire Deborah Mannis Gardner to do their music clearances. I want them to hire Diana Cha to do the sound design.
But they’re not going to be able to get the voices I got. I have Jarobi, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on this book.
YRB: Wow! You got A Tribe Called Quest back together!
Sophia Chang: Shaheed said “ Wow Soph, you did what nobody else can do!”
Look, it was also really stressful. There were probably 9 days straight where I was crying at some point every day.
Pulling together all of the elements was a behemoth task and it was terrifically ambitious. I knew that from the outset but I will also say that I didn’t know it was going to be this hard. I flew to Norfolk, flew to Montreal. Took a train to Ottawa then flew to Vancouver. I was in Los Angeles twice!
Those are all things that take a long time, a lot of money, effort, resources and my bandwidth.
YRB: So you were a producer on this project, not just the author?
Sophia Chang: I’m an Executive Producer and a Project Manager because of everything that I did.
YRB: Wow. Congratulations!
Sophia Chang: Thank you! And if anybody wants to hire me to help them, my fee is $1,000 an hour (laughter).
YRB: Thank you so much. I’m so glad we did this.
Photos by: Scott Stanger