On Tuesday, the first official day of fall, Sophia Chang made her way through the crowd at The Top of the Standard towards the wooden grand piano. She sits on top of it and smiles, but not for long.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for the baddest bitch in the room, Sophia Chang!” says D-Nice, one of the DJs for Chang’s celebration of her Audible Original memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room.
As everyone shouts and applauds, Chang stands on the piano, flexes and poses. Cameras flash to get the shot of our host, who is wearing her signature Gucci leather fedora and a comfortable outfit to dance in. Tonight’s party in Manhattan brought together her friends and closest confidants, some of them appearing as guest speakers in her audiobook.
“Would you guys like to hear a little bit of my audiobook?” she asks while holding a few sheets of paper. The response is a resounding yes.
“So, get your phones out because I promise, you’re going to want to have this,” she teases.
Chang recites a live rendition of an excerpt in her epilogue (which you can hear in full below), describing her unpredictable path of chasing creative passions while establishing her sense of self. Along the way, she explains, she has countless people to thank, who have built her up and supported her through thick and thin. “They are my pillars, my shields, and my mirrors, who challenge me everyday to be a better person,” she says. “I couldn’t do what I do without them.”
“Then, there’s the Clan. Peace Rakeem.”
“Peace Soph!” says RZA, watching his friend from afar.
“Method Man was the first to call me family,” she continues. “ODB was the first to hire me as his manager. And the RZA was the first to empower me as a general manager of a label. They weren’t a constant physical presence over the last quarter century, but they didn’t need to be. They are with me everywhere I go.”
“Wu-Tang helped me find my voice, and led me to Yan Ming. Method Man gently tended to my confidence as a middle-aged woman. What am I categorically certain of, right now, is it is my turn.”
On Sept. 26, Chang — a music industry veteran, who once managed RZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and GZA, as well as other hip-hop/R&B icons like Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq, and D’Angelo, is entering a new chamber as a memoirist. Her Audible Original memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room, is out this week.
The story chronicles her life as a Korean Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver, who had to face unshakeable racism in her childhood. It follows her through her move to New York, where she lived through the golden era of ‘90s hip-hop, and her breaking into the music industry with stints at Jive and Atlantic, bonding with the Wu-Tang Clan, finding love with a Shaolin monk, dating with bravery as an older woman, and much more. It’s an untold perspective from one of the Wu’s closest associates, who famously bridged cultures by helping to orchestrate RZA’s first trip to the Shaolin Temple in China with Sifu Shi Yan Ming.
Just days before Chang’s audiobook release, Billboard spoke to her about writing The Baddest Bitch in the Room, her relationships with ODB and Chris Lighty, mental health, women in hip-hop, and Asian representation in the entertainment industry.
You’ve titled your audiobook The Baddest Bitch in the Room and you are narrating it yourself because you wanted listeners to be exposed to your voice—both figuratively and literally. From a creative standpoint, how much time did you spent writing your memoir and when did you start recording it?
So I started writing my memoir last April. I turned in my first draft in August. I turned in a close-to-final draft again in January. I guess it took me eight months to write, and the production behind it has been incredibly ambitious, as you hear. That took a long time. It’s a seven-and-a-half-hour-long audiobook. Recording myself took 20 hours, which is extraordinarily fast. But I have 24 guest voices. No one has ever done this before in an audiobook.
When you were sitting down and writing your memoir and putting your thoughts down, did you have any goals? What did you want to accomplish with your story?
I think what I wanted to accomplish was to inspire people. People have been telling me for years, "Oh, you know, Sophia you gotta write a book. You have such a crazy life. You have all these amazing stories." And I resisted it for a long time because, frankly, it felt like an exercise in narcissism, right? A banal tale of hanging out with famous people. I knew that I didn’t want to do that.
So when I discovered in telling my story I can actually be helpful and be of service of other people, then it gelled for me. But not before that, right? Because self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment and fame, I don’t care about any of that shit. I do not care. So when I finally decided that I was going to write my memoir, and put my story down for history, I did it because I knew that I would be able to inspire — and hopefully — empower people.
Before your audiobook’s release, you’ve been tweeting the guests in your memoir, sharing a bit about why they all mean something to you. With your experience in the music industry, can you share some advice on maintaining meaningful relationships in the music industry? Some of these people have stuck with you as you evolved in your career, and genuinely have become your friends.
I love that question. I talk about it in my memoir in talking about [Ol' Dirty Bastard], God rest his soul. ODB was my first management client. And what I understood immediately and profoundly was my artists had to trust me. I think they would all say this, that Sophia Chang did everything in the best interest of her client. Whereas I think there are plenty of people in entourages that do things that are self-servicing. However that plays out. I wasn’t that interested in getting things for myself, what was satisfying for me was helping artists realize their creative vision and getting their stories out there.
So number one, trust is key. And I think we can say that about any relationship, any given human interaction. And second, I say in my memoir that hip-hop taught me my greatest lesson about loyalty. All of those artists you have seen on my Twitter and you will continue to hear on my memoir have been incredibly loyal to me and me to them in return.
Raekwon was the first member of Wu-Tang that I got, and he was like, "Soph, I know you didn’t think I wasn’t going to come through for you." I was like, "No." And he said, "You know it was just a matter of time and that I am not never, never going to come through for you." I said, "Absolutely." And we had this incredible conversation, and he in turn — and I love Rae for this; you know, he and [Ghostface] are obviously close — he said to Ghost [to do the audiobook].
When I saw both of them later, I saw Ghost and he said, "So, we’re going to do the audiobook thing, right?" I said, "Yeah, we’re going to do it." And he said, "Yeah, Rae told me, Rae told me." When we saw Rae, he was like, "Yo, did you do it yet? Did you do it for Soph yet?" [Laughs.] And you know, Rae was the first Wu-Tang domino, and he’s the one that really kicked it off. He cajoled Ghost. I was going to get Ghost anyway, but not easily as I would have if Rae have not been my advocate. That’s a ride or die. That’s why I say, "My name is Sophia Chang and I was raised by Wu-Tang."
In your memoir, you say you became closest with Ol' Dirty Bastard. He was able to enter your chamber where he could be his “goofy, brilliant, sometimes vulnerable self,” as you described. Why did you and ODB click so well?
I think ODB, God rest his soul, and I clicked so well is the same reason why I clicked so well with all my artists. Dirty used to say to me, "Sophie, I love the shit out of you. And you know why? When I’m around you, I don’t have to be Ol' Dirty Bastard, I can be Ason Unique." Ason Unique is his righteous Five Percenter name. He also has an amazing sense of humor, I think we used to make each other laugh. I think what all of them would tell you is I treated them like people. I didn’t treat them like stars, nor did I treat them like the anomaly. I think one of the things that I hope comes through in my memoir is the profound humanity of the guys in the Clan.
Nobody has the perspective that I do on Wu-Tang, because nobody has the relationship that I do with Wu-Tang. RZA said, "Who is Sophia Chang? In the Wu-Tang Clan, she is the yin to our yang." At once, she’s kind of like our auntie, she’s kind of like our sister. And I don’t know, frankly, if anyone else occupied that space. And he knew that.
When you talk about getting into the music industry in 1991, it sounds like we come from two different worlds when I compare it to my experience. Do you think it was more open and collaborative back then? Were more people about experiencing the growth of hip-hop from a subculture to mainstream?
Yeah, I moved to New York in ’87. So my first job at Jive was in ’91. But I immersed myself in the scene in ’87. And at that time, hip-hop was still No. 1, very New York-centric. You certainly had artists in the West Coast and the South and stuff like that but not like the proliferation that you see now. New York was still very much the nexus of hip-hop. And it was also a small scene, like you said, it wasn’t mainstream yet. It was still an underground scene and it was still a subculture. And there’s no Internet, right? The dissemination of music only came through the gatekeepers, meaning record companies and radio. There was no listening to SoundCloud. There were no places that you could put up your mixtape. There were these very specific gatekeepers, and I’m grateful for the iterations of those.
But where we all gathered was in the clubs. So in a club you would have MCs, DJs, rap artists, B-Boys. They are the creatives, right? But you would also have managers, A&Rs, publicists, attorneys, touring agents. You had everybody in it. It was a very small, insular scene. And to that end, I would say it was collaborative — but it was also felt so distinctly like a community, because we were all so excited.
You know, for me, the green, Canadian French lit major, it was a deep privilege to be welcomed into this world that was not of my making. I’m welcomed into somebody else's world and somebody else’s culture. And we were all very, very close. We were also excited because we were making discoveries together, because another way we heard of the music was at the clubs.
So I’ll give you an example: DJ Clark Kent. One of the greatest DJs of all time. I was at the club when he broke a Color Me Badd song called “I Wanna Sex You Up.” And It was a huge fucking hit. The first time any of us heard it was that he had a white label, which is a 12” that didn’t have the art or anything yet. It was an advanced copy, and he played it at the club and none of us had heard it. He broke the record, single-handedly, at that club. It was incredible.
If you still keep an eye on the industry now, what do you think about it? There’s definitely an emphasis on things like influencers, brands, data, and streaming numbers.
I think the industry is exactly where it is supposed to be, with the advent of technology and social media. I am not really attached to it anymore. I don’t have my finger on the pulse anymore. I don’t know who the latest, greatest artists are. I don’t know who the biggest influencers are. It’s very foreign to me, because that’s not how I interacted in the industry. But I also think that’s just where the state of the business is now, because technology is a behemoth.
The music industry lost for years and years, because we were in denial of technology. We didn’t understand what Napster was, and what it could do for the business. I mean imagine being in the music business, here comes Napster, and all of a sudden the stuff that you produce and make and sell for $24.99 a CD is suddenly free? And the whole world believes they should get this thing that you made for free. Here comes the collapse, right? And the music business is, as the French would say, bouleversée — it’s turned upside down and it doesn’t know what to do. So I think it is exactly where it should be. But I think the evolution of it is really fascinating.
There’s a story where you’re at the New Music Seminar in 1991 as a speaker. You're side-by-side with Joan Morgan, who called herself a “hip-hop feminist,” and it took you decades of learning and living to claim that term. What’s your take on seeing the rise of Cardi B, the support of Rapsody, and just an overall change in how we embrace women in rap?
I think it is amazing and late. It’s really late. I mean, we live in a patriarchy, and I was part of that. Although I did sign a female rapper, a woman named Mz. Kilo from L.A. I think that it is so testosterone-driven that I am so delighted by these female artists that are coming out today. There’s actually a lot of female MCs: [Queen] Latifah, and [MC] Lyte, and Monie [Love], and Isis [now known as Lin Que]. There were lots of them. Yo-Yo and Da Brat and stuff. It didn’t seem surprising.
I think somewhere along the way, there weren’t as many. So this proliferation — and also seeing how powerful they are — is really exciting. Seeing Cardi come up, and really claim her shit and stake her claim and become this really outspoken woman — and doing it on her terms — is a phenomenal message.
You grew up shunning the model minority myth. There was a time when you felt like an outsider, rejecting your Korean heritage. For example, when you were younger, you felt ashamed that Korean food looked and smelled differently. But you later decided to embrace your heritage, your traditions, and your culture. Why was that so important for you to do?
I have to give context for that. I am a child of Korean immigrants who was born and raised in Vancouver. And though there was a lot of Asians there, we were still very much the minority. I was born in 1965 so I was in 5th grade in 1975. I grew up being called a ch–k, a J-p, and a g–k, and it was regular. I say this in my memoir, a big part of my rejection of my culture was watching my culture be rejected by my adopted country and being made to feel other. And other is lesser, isn’t it? Nobody is put on the margin so they can be elevated, they’re put on the margin so they can be diminished.
Korean was my first language. I lost it on my mission to assimilate. I was ashamed of my parents’ names being different. I was ashamed that my parents spoke with accents. I was ashamed and embarrassed about our food. Kids saying, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these" to my fucking face, because there was never a time that I wasn’t being reminded of it.
As a result of that, I wanted, as a child, to be white. Plain and fucking simple — I wanted to be white. From what I can gather from anecdotal evidence, that is a very common experience for first-gen immigrants. And then I hear “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in my senior year of high school. I move to New York. I hear A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders [of the New School], Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, and Latifah, and they’re all a part of the Native Tongues movement, which is steeped in Afrocentrism and this is about yearning for a connection to Africa, to their motherland. That made me go, "Oh, OK, that’s interesting." And it made me re-examine myself. And then I met Wu-Tang Clan. [Laughs.]
Everybody knows this, [but] Wu-Tang is named after Wudang, which is a mountain in the providence of Hebei, China. They called their home borough of Staten Island Shaolin, which is the mecca of martial arts. Not only did they introduce me to kung-fu movies, they also introduce me to John Woo, who is the greatest director of all-time, and his muse Chow Yun-Fat, the greatest actor of all time. It’s the first time I find Asian men attractive because again, I’ve internalized all the bullshit messages, the terrible racist messages, that Asian men aren’t attractive. And then I see The Killer and I’m like, "Oh my God, I wanna marry this man!" He’s married, but otherwise I would be married to that man. So it is this very interesting, circuitous route that I take back to myself.
Do you think we’re in a renaissance for Asians in American pop culture right now? With the success of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, as well as SNL casting its first Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, is there still room for improvement?
Not a renaissance, right? ‘Cause a renaissance implies a rebirth. It’s not like we come back around to something, we were never fucking here before. Do I think we are seeing an increase of representation? Of course. We have Crazy Rich Asians, we have The Farewell, we have my friend Justin Chon’s film Ms. Purple, which is excellent, that just came out. We have Fresh Off the Boat. Is there a rising tide? Yes.
Again, to the other point? It’s late. It’s never too late, but it’s late. Is there room for more representation? Yes. The bottom of this funnel is small. We are all kind of squeezed through the tiny end of the funnel. I don’t want it to be a funnel. I want it to be a big ass hole that we can just all jump through. It’s better and I’m delighted, but it is nowhere near where it should be.
My brother Heesok Chang, he’s a genius. He’s [one of the] ten smartest people I know. When I started writing, he said to me, "Sophia, what you’re doing with your memoir, is that you are simply asking the world to imagine that you exist." That was profound. And it remains profound and I write it at the end of my memoir. What he is saying is absolutely right. What I promise to the world is if you’ve never fucking seen anybody like Sophia Chang before and you never will again. And in that way, I am cracking open the imagination to world of: What can an Asian — in my case Canadian — Asian woman look like? Because for all the tropes, for all the "model minority" myth, for all the stereotypes, for all of the ways that we have been oppressed — I am none of that.
My daily life is an act of defiance. I am essentially a 54-year-old Canadian Korean woman, who has a crazy samurai hairdo, who is a single mother of two grown teenagers, who is out here announcing to the world in no uncertain terms and with no compunction whatsoever and with fire conviction, that I am the baddest bitch in the room. That’s fucking radical.
You also talk about Chris Lighty at various points in the memoir. He was someone that became one of your most valuable friends, giving you the gift of sanctuary during tough times. Can you speak on his contributions to hip-hop and what Lighty-isms you kept with you since his passing?
Chris Lighty, God rest his soul, yes, was one of my closest friends. Chris Lighty was my Rock of Gibraltar, he was my shelter to the storm. He was my Kevlar. Knowing that I walk with Chris Lighty figuratively, meant that I walked with this shield of imperviousness.
To his contributions to hip-hop, Chris came up carrying crates for the legendary DJ Red Alert. Way back in the day like the mid-’80s. And the thing about Chris is he was so smart, and he was so entrepreneurial. He was just a hustler to the core. And he grew up doing what he does with The Violators, grew up on the streets. He was no stranger to danger. He had really good instincts on people.
I remember I would go see Chris at his Violator office, and he’s a mogul, and he’s sitting at the top of the world and he’s managing the biggest talents in the world, and he would stop everything to listen to DJ Scratch — another dear friend of mine — to DJ Scratch’s radio show on WBLS because it was really important for him to listen to that show.
Chris was hip-hop in a way that I never will be. And I’m not diminishing myself, it was just him. He was from the South Bronx, he grew up there. I say in my memoir, the rise of Chris Lighty mirrors the rise of hip-hop. From the projects of the South Bronx and the turntables being plugged into a streetlamp to becoming this global cultural figure. And he was there. He was there for every one of those transitions.
After going through the deaths of ODB and Lighty, you talk about mental health, telling people if you see signs of your friend suffering, go ahead and speak up. A lot of people in the music industry have been open about their mental health issues as a way to destigmatize the shame from having depression or addiction. Personally, do you think this is a good direction we are heading towards?
My answer to that is yes — but we need much more conversation around it. I was supposed to do a panel back in March with my friend Danielle Belton, the editor-in-chief of The Root. And it was going to be me, her, a mental health professional, and it was going to be RZA and Joey Bada$$. And the topic was, Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Suicide in Hip-Hop. Because of my personal losses, I wanted to crack open this conversation because it’s just not discussed. For us, too. Asians, we don’t talk about mental health. It’s stigmatized. It’s seen as a weakness, as opposed to an illness, which it is. It’s an actual illness.
When I was coming up in hip-hop during what we call the golden era, people may of talked about smoking weed, but they didn’t talk about much else. I never saw anybody doing anything more than smoking weed. Maybe they were, but they sure as hell didn’t do it around me. But now, you have a bunch of really popular artists bragging about drinking lean, taking xans, percs, oxy. Those are prescription opioids. And you don’t have to be very educated to understand that prescription opioids is an issue. There’s an epidemic of overdoses all across the country. Every race. Every sector.
To me, hip-hop is the biggest genre in this country. For the biggest artists in the biggest genre to essentially brag about a lifestyle where they’re slowly killing themselves… Make no doubt about it. As far as I know, people don’t casually take prescription opioids. Oh, you know, every once in a while, I put the kids to bed and I have a glass of Rosé. You don’t casually take opioids. So it’s one of two things: Either they’re lying about it, which is terrible because it still means they’re setting an example. Or, they’re not lying about it, and those boys are addicted. And we will continue to lose talent if we don’t open up the conversation.
Lastly, what is the biggest challenge of being an artist manager?
I think the biggest challenge is that it is largely a thankless job. You have to have the constitution to just keep going at it, and you often don’t get the recognition you deserve because artists are — and this is partially them, but it is also part of the culture that we created — they are largely narcissists. And it’s a matter of saying, "I’m going to do this despite the fact I’m not really getting the recognition and the thanks that I wish." So I would say that’s the biggest emotional challenge. And maybe some people don’t care about that. I know that I care about it. The other thing is you’re constantly cajoling. Cajoling, cajoling, cajoling, all the time.
There’s a part in the memoir where you talk about GZA saying, “We did it,” giving you your props and validation for your work.
Holy shit! Yeah, but the GZA is one in a million, for real. I would also say I have to shout-out Joey Bada$$. He was recently on the radio with Angie Martinez and the RZA. And she asked, "How did you guys meet?" And he said, "Shout out to Sophia Chang, she introduced us. And she’s been instrumental in my career." That was stunning. Stunning.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.