Sophia Chang is one of the most influential managers and producers in hip-hop music, yet few would recognize her name. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Chang grew up in an academic family in Vancouver. How did someone with such a presumably pre-determined path end up in New York’s hip-hop scene (and why have many of us remained oblivious of her until now)? Chang hints at part of the answer in the title of her new memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room.
Chang, or at least her family, has a dramatic backstory. At the age of ten, Chang heard to her horror of her mother’s narrow escape from North Korea at the age of 14 to flee Soviet occupation just after the conclusion of WW2. Her mother left behind her parents and five of her eight siblings, never to see them again. Chang’s parents went through another turbulent time—the Korean War—and emigrated to Vancouver in the early 1960s. Sophia Chang is the only one in her nuclear family to be born outside Korea and to have an English name.
Feeling in the intellectual shadow of her mathematician father and brainy older brother, B-average Chang nevertheless majors in French Literature at the University of British Columbia. Music had been central to her teenage years, and during a winter break at university, she visits New York for the first time with some friends. It’s 1985 and she’s determined to see a concert in the city. She misses the show, but meets Joey Ramone of the Ramones outside the concert hall. Chang is not a groupie; she’s serious about learning more about the music business. The two hang out at a diner that evening, talking and listening to the jukebox. New York wins out over Paris after graduation, even though she doesn’t have a job.
Soon, however, through a connection from Joey Ramone, Chang lands a job as an assistant for Paul Simon. His personal assistant, Sonya Chang, will become Sophia Chang’s mentor. Also Korean American, Sonya lends invaluable advice.
Twelve years my senior, she had a huge, authoritarian personality such as I’d never seen in an Asian woman. She insisted that I, too, dominate space, rather than shrink in the corner, and move with unapologetic confidence and entitlement, like a white man.
Like many twenty-somethings in the late 1980s, Chang becomes a fan of hip-hop. She leaves Paul Simon’s production team and finds work at a major record label, but not in the hip-hop division. Soon she is offered a job in A&R (artists and repertoire), ie, a talent scout, for a hip-hop label. Although she’s a fan of the genre, she doubts her qualifications to do this job.
How could I, a Korean Canadian French lit major, possibly be the right person to determine what rap artists were worth signing, when my experience was so far removed from theirs? A&R to this day is an insular boys’ club. I’m not just saying that it’s male dominated, I’m talking a Little Rascals “no girls allowed” joint. This meant I was entering a male-monopolized occupation in a genre that was testosterone driven and reigned over largely by men.
Chang not only proves her worth, she excels. She receives a demo tape from a nine-member hip-group called the Wu-Tang Clan and goes on to manage and produce many solo careers amongst the Clan. The men in the group all protect Chang and become her family in New York. They also spark her interest in the martial arts, Hong Kong action films, and kung-fu movies. She decides to learn kung fu and finds a Shaolin monk teaching at a studio on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The monk, Shi Yan Ming, is around the same age as Chang and takes her in as a disciple. The two eventually enter a twelve year relationship and have two children together. Chang shaves her hair and adopts the minimalist style of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, the sect that runs the Shaolin monastery. She also views her shaved head as a political statement in the US.
With the training, I was ever clearer that I wasn’t a China doll but a Shaolin warrior. The act was at once spiritual and political, the first in a myriad of middle fingers I’d throw up to white patriarchy for decades to come. You could almost say it was a process of de-beautifying myself.
Her parents back in Vancouver are supportive despite being taken aback by her hair when they see her next, and being unsure what she actually does.
Chang introduces members of Wu-Tang Clan to Yan Ming, and ends up leaving the music business to promote Yan Ming’s career and studio and to concentrate on motherhood. She organizes a large group of disciples to visit China. The group, including RZA, a member of Wu-Tang Clan, visits the Shaolin Temple and the Wu Tang Mountains, the hip-hop group’s namesake.
High on the mountaintop, we could see mountains for miles in every direction. More spellbinding still was observing RZA. One of ten children raised by a single mother in the projects of Staten Island, he was the boy who had memorized the miraculous moves, archetypal characters, and poorly dubbed dialogue of the kung fu flicks that had provided him with an escape into another world.
In her fifties now, Chang speaks to women of color about empowerment. She had thought of writing a book for a long time, but finally decided to pen it after coming across listeners who wished they had heard of her when they were younger. For a young Asian woman to break into a male-dominated music genre and to stay invisible, Chang writes at the end of her book, is a disservice to other girls and young women. And she’s correct. Her book is a compelling and moving account of the (North) American dream.