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Sophia Chang: 'Don't Ever Be Afraid Of Your Passion'

Sophia Chang in Los Angeles in April.
GL Askew II for NPR
Sophia Chang in Los Angeles in April.

The music industry veteran, former manager of the RZA, the GZA and ODB, as well as D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and A Tribe Called Quest, met up with Microphone Check in LA, where she told us what Wu-Tang taught her and how she thinks of her role: "I'm a manager. I am in the service industry. The service industry. I'm Midas f****** Muffler."


SOPHIA CHANG: Shaheed! So happy.

MUHAMMAD: I'm happy to have you here.

CHANG: Yay. Thank you. It's an honor to be asked.

MUHAMMAD: Especially in L.A.


CHANG: Mm-hm. Sunny California.

KELLEY: One benefit to Coachella.

CHANG: Yes. Absolutely.

MUHAMMAD: Oh yeah, that's true, right?

KELLEY: Yeah. We got some people on our side.

CHANG: Yeah. Everybody came out. The great migration west.

MUHAMMAD: Have you ever lived here?

CHANG: No. A lot of people think I lived here. I never lived here. I don't think I'd want to live here for — I don't know. I'm such a New Yorker. I love New York so much it would have to be an extraordinary opportunity or circumstance that would bring me out here. One of the good things is that I'd be closer to my mother in Vancouver, and a lot of my closest friends moved out there. Charles Stone, all these people moved out here because they're in film. And if you want to be in the film industry, you really have to be here. So it would be a benefit. I've certainly considered it. But, god, I love New York.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I don't really see you as that L.A. person.

KELLEY: Driving around? No way.

CHANG: I have to say that — am I allowed to curse?


CHANG: I have to say that how much time I spend in a car here, it's such total f******. I cannot believe it. I — and I have to kind of go into this meditation zone when I'm in a car because I'm thinking, "OK. You know what, Sophia? This is getting you from A to B, and you can speak to people and — while you're doing it."

KELLEY: Yeah, you can check email and stuff.

CHANG: You can.

KELLEY: I mean, it's nice in New York on the train where you're like, "No, you can't get me." But there's a delay.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLEY: You know when you go over the bridge in New York and you just like answer all your emails real quick?

CHANG: Yeah. But I do realize that when I come to L.A., not living here, that I come here for business and it means that I'm going back-to-back-to-back meetings.


CHANG: Whereas if I lived here and I had a proper job here, I wouldn't be operating that way. It wouldn't be that crazy "How much time is it going to take?" You know, what I find astonishing about L.A. is how people will literally schedule meetings around traffic. "Oh no no no Soph, you don't want to be—"

KELLEY: Oh, absolutely.

CHANG: For instance I was in the Valley yesterday seeing one of my favorite people out here, Paul Broucek; he's the head of music at Warner Brothers.

I told him about you. And Adrian. And I told him about the score you guys were doing. And I said he should come.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

CHANG: So he — the meeting was at 4:30 and I was like, "Only for f****** Paul Broucek am I going to go to f****** Burbank at 4:30." And we were there for two hours. We were talking for two hours, and I left at 6:30 and I thought, "Really only for him." Anybody else I would've been like, "Ah, you know what? I'm sure it'd be really beneficial for me to meet with you then, but I'm not going to." But yeah, people do that.

MUHAMMAD: So I didn't make it to the Paul Brubeck level so I gotta —

CHANG: Broucek, yes.

MUHAMMAD: Excuse me. Sorry. Mr. Paul Broucek. I haven't made it to the Paul Broucek level so I gotta see you at 9:30 in the morning.

KELLEY: So mad.

CHANG: But this is how much I love Shaheed. I f****** forsook — forsake? — forsook my workout this morning. I didn't go the gym this morning.

KELLEY: Oh wow.

CHANG: That's a really big deal.

MUHAMMAD: That's a real — that's a big deal.

CHANG: That's a really big deal.

MUHAMMAD: I feel the love now.

CHANG: You should; you should.


CHANG: I should be doing kung fu at this moment, but I'm here because I'm so happy to be here.

KELLEY: Hell yeah.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, well, we're happy that you're here. You've been, like, seriously on workout hardcore for — I don't know — as far back as I can remember.

CHANG: Yeah, so I've always had this hummingbird metabolism, so I always gonna be skinny. I started working out at the gym probably when I worked at Jive, but it was so lackluster and I found it really uninspiring. And then I met my ex, who's a Shaolin monk. And then I left the music business, hard f****** right. "I'm out of here. I'm not doing this anymore."

And I was training — I was doing kung fu 15 hours a week, and I got really into it. I managed the temple. We went to China. Took RZA to China. Took RZA to Shaolin Temple. Took RZA to Wu-Tang Temple. RZA met the actual abbot of Wu-Tang Temple. It blew my — like, "What? My mind is blown right now!" And he gave him music, the abbot of Wu-Tang Temple gave RZA, the abbot of Wu-Tang Clan, a CD of music.


CHANG: Yeah. It was really, really, really beautiful.

So I started training really really hard, and then when my ex and I split up, I started going to a — I started going to the gym, but I still do kung fu everyday. So my cardio, I always warm up with half an hour of kung fu and then I do my weight routine. But I mean, your body's your temple.

MUHAMMAD: It is. And just knowing the vigorous — the schedules that people in the entertainment business keep, it's really vital and important. But it's just something that some people are on and some people aren't. Have any of the artists you've worked with — outside of RZA, cause I know RZA was —

CHANG: Yeah, he trained, yeah.

MUHAMMAD: He trained. Anyone else who you work with?

CHANG: No. But I also don't know many artists that have a really rigorous workout schedule. Although you know who's working out crazy right now? Meth and Reg.

MUHAMMAD: Oh really?


CHANG: Crazy. Crazy.

MUHAMMAD: That's great. Good to hear.

CHANG: Like, literally Meth showed me a video of Reggie and he — I think he can do — and the wide one, not the — like the wide pull-ups, he can do like 100.


CHANG: Yeah. Reggie is crazy, crazy fit, and so is Meth. They're really really fit.

But I don't — I don't really remember any other artists I've worked with being on a serious, serious regimen. But also that lifestyle is really hard to maintain a serious regimen. Especially — so either you're on the road or you're in the studio, right? And they're very — those are really unorthodox hours that you keep. So unless you're hyper disciplined like you and I are, and not smoking weed and not drinking all the time —

I don't know how the f*** people do that. I've never been drunk. I've never been high. If I go to sleep late and I wake up and I don't get seven hours, I'm — I feel really s*****. And I'm going, "What if I smoked weed or drank last night? What if I f****** did molly last night? How do people function like this?" And my friends are like, "They don't. They don't really operate."

Everybody — lots of people expressed an interest, certainly in my ex, in doing Shaolin kung fu, but it's a very, very hard workout. But I also think that what's really important for me, for my sense of well-being, especially being a single mother, is I have to have a routine. I do. I don't know how people live willy-nilly. That doesn't — and I know that it works for some people, but I just know that for me, constitutionally, it wouldn't really work.

Like, I'm up at 6:30. I get up; it's the time that I check my social media. Cause I'm not on social media for the rest of the day. I look at Facebook and I see what my smart friend said, "You gotta read this; you gotta read that." Get my son up at seven, make him breakfast, pack his lunch. Get my daughter up at 7:15, make her breakfast, pack her lunch. Get my son off to school. Walk my daughter to school at eight o'clock. Ride a bike to the gym. Work out for an hour and 15 minutes. I'm at work eight hours a day. I go home. I make my kids dinner. And I'm not kidding; by 8:30, if I lie on the couch, I'm asleep.

And I said to my doctor recently, I was like — I said — I walked through my whole day and I said, "I'm tired at like 8:30 or 9 o'clock. Does that sound OK?" And she was like, "Yes."

KELLEY: Yes, girl. You're fine.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I was a little — I was getting sleepy just hearing it. I was like, "Seriously?" I'm like messing up my life. I'm just sitting here in the studio all day.

CHANG: Oh yeah, because you don't do anything. But I'm not a creative.

KELLEY: I took care of one 4-year-old for one entire weekend like two weeks ago, and I fell asleep at eight o'clock — I fell asleep before he did most nights.

CHANG: Yeah. No. I fall asleep before my kids routinely now, because it's so exhausting. 4-year-olds are really, really tiring though because the nature of taking care of kids that little is that hyper physical too.

KELLEY: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

CHANG: You're picking them up, putting them in the car seat. You're doing up their seat belts. Once they get older, it's like, "Make me a cup of tea."

But it is. It's tiring. And I am so — now that I have — now that I'm a working stiff, I have so become Ms. Thank God It's Friday.

KELLEY: Oh, yeah.

CHANG: Like, Ali, I'll meet you at the Olive Garden for endless breadsticks. I'm so — I'm telling you. By Friday night, when people are like, "Come out Friday night." I'm like, "No. You don't understand. I can't even make it through Bill Maher's monologue at 10 p.m. without — inevitably I fall asleep." Totally tired.

KELLEY: Yeah, man. I haven't gone out on Friday in like years. That s*** starts early.

CHANG: I don't really go out anymore anyway. I'm a total homebody.

MUHAMMAD: That's shocking.

CHANG: I know. I mean, god, we used to — back in the days when I was in my 20s, we would be out easily four nights a week. "OK. I'll meet you at midnight." Meet you at midnight? By midnight now, my do-not-disturb has been on for two hours. Literally. Like, if you call me after 10 o'clock, unless you're my children or my ex or my boyfriend — or the RZA — you can't — it's a very short list — you're not gonna get through to me. But yeah, we used — but also the club scene, Ali, has changed so dramatically in New York.

KELLEY: Yeah, talk about that.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. I suppose you're right. I didn't really go out that much, and since I moved to L.A., I don't know anything that's happening there. But I know I used to run into you in the clubs.

CHANG: Yeah, Ali was — I mean, the club scene — I remember Alan Light said this on a panel; I think he was talking about the 20th anniversary of It Takes A Nation at NYU. And he said — and I'll never forget it – he said, "It was such a privilege to be in New York and part of the industry during the golden era of hip-hop."

And at that time, what I always tell people about the club scene then was it was populated by the people in the industry. So you had the rappers. You had the DJs. You had the producers. You had the attorneys. You had the label executives. You had the managers. You had the publicists. We were all congregated in the same place because it was a really small scene back then. And it was —

KELLEY: So you mean rather than the audience.

CHANG: Rather — well, with the — but we were the audience, and that was the beauty of it, right? So, it wasn't — it certainly wasn't the utterly vulgar scene that it is now, which is bottle service. It wasn't girls in f****** five-inch red bottoms. By the way, they're not red bottoms. Learn how to say the f****** name. It's Louboutin. And even if you don't speak French like I do, god, please learn how to say the name.

So it's not women in five-inch stilettos with heels that are too high, skirts that are too short, and nobody's dancing. And you've got bottle service, and everybody's just out there just trying to look like a baller, and nobody's really listening to music. And nobody's dancing.

When we went to clubs, everybody was dancing. When we went to clubs and Red Alert was spinning or Flex was spinning or Clark was spinning, they broke records. Like I'll never forget being at Daddy's House, and Clark played "Sex You Up," Color Me Badd? He broke the record that night. He literally broke the record that night, and I remember being there and none of us knew the record, but we were just — you know, when you don't know the record, it takes you a couple of seconds to figure out whether or not you like it. Done.

And what I found out later is that one of the members of the group who now does A&R at Island and his name is Sam, he was there that night too.

MUHAMMAD: Oh wow, that's incredible.

CHANG: He was there, and he said it blew their — the whole band was there, and it blew their minds when they were there.

CHANG: So yeah, the club scene was really different then. And I would say that the barrier to entry was really different, so that I'm a Korean-Canadian from Vancouver, and it was easier for me to get into the industry because I would go to club and there's the whole industry. Like Richard Grabel, this attorney whom I adore, Richard Grabel was out in the clubs. I cannot imagine seeing the attorneys now out in the clubs. And I don't think a lot of the industry people are out there like that.

But I think that we all knew that there was something really, really special happening, and it felt so communal. It was also before mass proliferation of cell phones.

KELLEY: Right.

CHANG: It was certainly before social media, so the way that we experienced it was together and in person, right? So I wouldn't go on and I wouldn't live stream what's going on at the club tonight. I actually have to be there. And you wanted to be there because you knew you were gonna see your friends, and you would talk about the music and you would experience it together. It was — it was truly remarkable. It was really a privilege. It was fantastic to be in there and be part of it.

MUHAMMAD: What about hip-hop brought you into — just how'd you —

CHANG: What resonated with me?

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, how'd you get the bug?

CHANG: So, born and raised in Vancouver, Korean immigrant parents, really traditional — not super traditional, but a pretty traditional Korean household — well, an immigrant household. Whole family — my mother worked at the library. My father, god rest his soul, was a genius mathematician. And it was clear that for both my [brother] and I, the trajectory would be that we would both end up in academia. I was going to be a professor.

And then I got the bug for music in general and I really loved music. And I was sneaking into clubs and I was young. Sorry, Mom. And going to clubs all the time — and then I heard "The Message." Some kid at my high school — now I grew up in Vancouver where the radio is whiter than white, so I grew up on Top 40, white Top 40, white rock-and-roll, and nothing else. And had very, very little to exposure to any black music. But a kid had "The Message," and I remember the first time I heard it, and it was — it really was a light bulb moment. It really was an epiphany for me, and I just went, "Oh my god." And I remember listening to it over and over again and writing down the lyrics.

And at the time my boyfriend was a guitar player, a rock guitar player, really amazing guitar player. And we were watching MTV and then a Run-D.M.C. video came on. So then I had a visual exposure to it, so then I had a different connection to it. And I thought — by that time I think I'd already decided I was going to move to New York, so I never — it's — it's kind of like taking the red pill in The Matrix. Once I took the red pill of hip-hop, I couldn't un-take it, and I wouldn't want to, right? So I just never turned back. I never went back.

And then once I got to New York and, like I said, there were all these clubs jumping and everything and it was so easy to be exposed to the music, then I just really got into it. And then I met The Captain, god rest his soul. And he recognized — and I'll always be grateful to him, because he recognized that I was a huge fan. And he said, "I'm moving to Cali. You should interview for my job." I was like, "Oh my god. I want to interview for your job."

So I went in and I interviewed with Barry, and I thought — I told Barry that I was working at the alternative department at Atlantic Records at the time. Barry knew more about my job than I did. I've never — it's kind of extraordinary. And he told me afterwards, he said, "The second you walked in the room I knew that I wasn't gonna give you the job."


CHANG: Yeah. But look at me. It was — I'm sure he was like, "Oh wait. Forget it. This is some Korean girl and she's — there's no way that you —" He did. He did of course give me the job, but upon first sight, he said, "No way was I going to give you the job." And I'm really grateful to Barry and I learned so much from him. And then we got to do all of our incredible work together.

KELLEY: So was there ever any — did you ever experience any blowback for your fandom? Were people like, "You shouldn't like that?" Were people like, "What are you trying to do?"

CHANG: You mean certain music that I like or the genre that I liked?

KELLEY: Either. But like, from eighth grade on, where people are like, "Oh, that's your thing" or whatever or where people are like, "You need to stop."

CHANG: That happened once I moved to New York. So when I worked at Atlantic, I'd been hired as an assistant in the alternative department. It was run by Peter Koepke. And right under him was Mark Fotiadis. Peter Koepke left to run London Records, and then Mark got promoted to be the head of the department. And Mark — god bless him — promoted me to take his job, so I was the head of marketing. He had just promoted me when this opportunity came up at Jive. And god bless Mark, I went to him and I said, "Mark, I don't know what to tell you but I got this opportunity." And he had just fought for my promotion and my raise.

KELLEY: Oh god.

CHANG: And he looked at me and said, "Sophia, the girl I know, you listen to hip-hop. You come in here and you play —" cause I remember we had a turntable there and I would bring in all the 12-inches. And when "Streets Of New York" came out, I just played it incessantly. He was like, "You play Kool G Rap in the office. You should go." And he had — he was — and I really learned a lesson from him. You gotta let people go when you know it's the best thing for them, even if it puts you in an awkward position or a compromised position at your company. And I'll always be grateful to him for that, and I took the job.

But I absolutely had people saying to me, "You know it's just a fad, right? You know that this is going away. It's gonna be like disco." And when people said that, and when they proffered that opinion, it simply never occurred to me, right? So I didn't — I never thought, "You know, Sophia, if you take a mercenary position on this, you might be going into a job that has an expiration date like yogurt." It literally never occurred to me. It didn't occur to me that hip-hop was gonna go away until people put it in front of me.

And certainly people saying that didn't sway me either way because if you felt it the way that we did, if you lived it the way that we did — I mean, we would get cassettes and we would f****** dub cassettes and pass them on to each other. "Oh my god, have you heard this?!" We were so excited about everything that it simply — we were constitutionally incapable of feeling or thinking that hip-hop was something that was going to go away.

And even if you showed me somehow — if you showed me data, if you could have quantified it and said, "Well, based on the data that we have from this genre and that genre and look at the graph, Sophia, and here it is and it's going this way and —" It's kind of like the rags-to-riches-to-rags story, right? "So here's the beginning of disco and here's this fantastic apex that it hits and then it hits its nadir and then it sinks all the way, and according to all of our data, hip-hop's going to do the same." I would've said, "OK. So maybe scientifically — you guys are at MIT and you're doing these media studies — that might be the case?" It wouldn't sway any of us. None of us would've been like, "OK."

Plus I was f****** in my mid-20s, you know; it was the time. I was single. I didn't have children. I didn't mind living in a 360-square foot studio apartment with two other women. You come to New York because you're going to grind. You don't come to New York to come here and f****** meet a guy and get married. I don't think. I don't know anybody like that. But you come to New York because you want to hustle. And my hustle was music, specifically hip-hop. So nobody could've dissuaded me with all the — with whatever evidence could've been presented to me, they wouldn't dissuaded me.

But absolutely that's an astute question, because people were absolutely saying, "Are you sure you want to do this? This sounds like it might be a little foolhardy, because it looks like it's just going to be a trend." "I don't know. I don't feel it that way. I don't hear it that way. I don't see it that way." Not that I'm some visionary. At all. Like, "Oh my god. That's amazing. How could you ever —" It's not that. We just felt it differently.

KELLEY: Mm-hm. But then — well, here's what I was thinking. Was that we could look at your LinkedIn and you could tell me what exactly you were doing at all of these jobs.


KELLEY: With —

CHANG: Looking at my LinkedIn, it's —

KELLEY: It is very detailed.

CHANG: And it doesn't really — it's a very spotty resumé, because I've never —


CHANGE: You know, if you looked at my LinkedIn profile you could say, "'She's not a lifer." I'm not a lifer, I realized. I'm not.

First job when I moved here, I worked at a recording studio, worked at Tapestry. I just did admin stuff. Second job was I worked at Paul Simon. He was just coming off the Graceland tour. So when I visited New York — I visited New York before I moved here. My brother was doing a semester at Columbia, and we went out to clubs. I think we went to see The Godfathers. And Johnny Ramone was there. My brother said, "Oh s***. Look it's Johnny Ramone." So I walked right up to him and I said, "You're Johnny Ramone, right? I'm Sophia Chang," and I shook his hand. And then he looked at me and said, "No, I'm Joey."

KELLEY: Awesome.

CHANG: Which is such an egregious error, cause they don't look anything alike. But we started talking and I made him laugh and we kept in touch. And when I moved back to New York, he had me stay with his friend Legs McNeil, this really amazing music journalist. And Legs's girlfriend, wife now, girlfriend at the time, was the accountant for Paul Simon's tour manager, and she got me a job as his assistant.

And working in the Paul Simon office was extraordinary because I suddenly got to see what the crème de la crème, the highest echelon of artist, what their life is like. So on the one hand, you go, "Oh my god. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was one of my favorite songs of all time, and here I am working next to the guy that wrote it." And it was a really Forrest Gump moment for me that went on for months. But it was also the first time I'd been around somebody who'd lived in New York who was not only famous but wealthy.

I'd never been exposed to money like that. I was like, "What's a personal assistant? What do you mean? He doesn't go to Duane Reade and buy his own toothpaste?" You know, I'd never seen that. "What do you mean? Are you kidding? Armani comes and brings him sweaters to look at?"

KELLEY: Who does?

CHANG: Armani.

KELLEY: Really?

CHANG: Not the — no. Not Armani personally himself.

KELLEY: Oh. Got it.

CHANG: But I think it was Hamilton South at the time was in the personal shopping department. I didn't know there were personal shoppers. Like literally they would come and they would bring Paul all these cashmere sweaters. I was like —

KELLEY: And he'd be like, "This one, that one, two of those."

CHANG: "Oh my god, this is incredible." And his personal assistant Sonya Chang — who to this day is a dear friend as a mentor — she would take me shopping and stuff like that. And so we would go to Pratesi and there would be these amazing sheets and we would go to Armani, and I was like, "Wow. This is a world that is so foreign to me." But I realized — when I kind of deconstructed it, I thought, "So in a perfect society, the poets and the musicians and the artists, all they would have to focus on is creating. And that's how his world is built."

KELLEY: Oh yeah.

CHANG: Right? So his life was constructed in such a way — I don't know about it now — but at the time, in such a way that the quotidian tasks that we all do were taken off his plate, and then he made incredible music.

And I was there — I got there at the tale end of a worldwide Graceland tour, and my boss — god rest his soul — gave me a lot of responsibility. And I've been very fortunate throughout my career that way, that I've had a lot of people that I worked for that said, "You can handle more. You can do a little bit more." And now that I have gotten older and have been in positions where I have people that report to me, I try to encourage them and push them in the way that I was.

And he gave me huge responsibilities. I started doing tour accounting at the time, not full on tour accounting, but for instance I reconciled all the petty cash. All of the petty cash. For this massive, massive tour. They did a concert; Paul Simon teamed up with Dr. Irwin Redlener, and they did a concert to benefit this New York — a mobile medical unit. And Steven Ross — god rest his soul — at the time the chairman of Warner Communications, he underwrote the concert. And it was big. It was at Madison Square Garden, and it was Bruce Springsteen and Nile Rodgers and Grandmaster Flash. It was a really, really big show. And Chaka Khan. And I put together the package with all the reconciliation, collected all of the invoices and everything to show him where the money had gone. And I was — so 1980 — I was like 24.

It was a massive responsibility, but again, I really respect people who say, "Even if you don't know that you can do it, Sophia, I do." And I think that we all need people like that in our lives because when people get older, part of what I think comes with being a great executive, manager, or leader is recognizing talent in other people, even if they don't recognize it themselves. Because they might not be secure enough.

KELLEY: No doubt.

CHANG: "Really? Do you think I can do that?" "Yes, I think you can do that." And one of the lessons that I learned going along the way was, if they think you can do it, Soph, you probably can. So shut up and stop saying, "I don't really know." Just do it. Just do it.

KELLEY: And a lot of what you're talking about, and what shows up in your detailed LinkedIn —

CHANG: I'm going to go back and edit it now. I'm going to go back.

KELLEY: — are sort of high level administrative stuff.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLEY: Thankless tasks. Like, grunt work in some ways. Detail stuff. So here's an example. "Instituted weekly department meeting." That s*** is really important. "Organized and managed agency-wide corporate retreat." And then there's other things like, "Developed film ideas. Managed the RZA's acting and composing career. Reviewed scripts, cultivated relationships with directors, producers and studio executives." But there's also handling all the press requests. So, I mean, this goes — to me, it speaks to the less glamorous side of the industry and to the kind of actual — the kind of labor that has to be done to make the art happen.

CHANG: Well, if you're — I mean, if you're in the industry and you're not the artist and you're in it for the glamour, then I think you're kind of an a******.

KELLEY: Yeah. Fair.

CHANG: Because you can't — to me, I'm highly suspicious of a manager that wants to be on the red carpet with their artist. I don't — that means — what that says to me is you're in this for you. This is what I say: I'm a manager. I am in the service industry. The service industry. I'm Midas f****** Muffler. You come to me. You pay me to fix your muffler. I'll do it, and you're gone. I'm not — I'm not the car. I'm not the star. That's not what it is.

So, especially with social media, especially with non-scripted and reality television and the 24-hour news cycle and the mass proliferation of images and, I mean, just the astonishing level of narcissism that there is today, right? So it's just gotten exacerbated. I think that if you are a manager and you don't understand that you service your client, then you cannot be doing a good job. You can't. You are not supposed to — you can't — you probably cannot find a picture of me with any of my clients at any public thing. Unless I took it. Unless I'm like, "Come here, come here. Let's take a picture." I'm not going to be like, "Oh, you know, whatever, f****** Getty's here. Make sure the —" I don't really care about that.

Because like I said, in most circumstances, people that do that — if I were an artist, I would be suspicious of that because it would mean that they are not necessarily — which is absolutely what you need to do as a manager — subjugating their own needs and wills and desires to those of mine. Because again you're serving the client, right?

KELLEY: Yeah. Do you think that there's any gender component to that?

CHANG: Well, there's a gender component and there's a racial component to virtually everything. I don't really know how to separate those things. I think that I made a hard — not a hard, but a serious, informed decision when I got into hip-hop that — and in the music business in general, but particularly hip-hop because it is so male-dominated — that I was going to walk a very straight and narrow, that what was far more important to me than men finding me attractive was that they found me smart. And because I only dealt with men. I dealt with virtually no women.

And it's a genre that is largely informed by machismo, so a lot of it is about braggadocio. A lot of it is about talking about your virility. So it's an industry — well, the music business in general — I remember my brother said this to me: "Rock-and-roll is based on male sexual fantasy." It's a very broad, broad, broad statement, but that was kind of the foundation of it. So that means that we're in an industry that has that as an aesthetic, and I think that in the music business in general there are behaviors that would absolutely not be permitted in other industries. People have said to me, "S***. If that happened in my industry, you'd have a lawsuit. People would be getting sued all over the place."

Because there's a certain permissive attitude that happens in the business, and for me personally, as a woman and particularly as an Asian woman, me and my sisters were eroticized; we are exoticized. We are fetishized. I remember for a while in hip-hop videos, it was all the rage. You had to have an Asian girl in your video. "Oh s***! That's so exotic." Like, nah, b, this is me. I'm not f****** exotic. I'm Sophia Chang, and I'm Korean, and this my phenotype. This is what I look like. This is what I look like. This is what I do, and this is how I move.

And part of what I've spent my life, since I was a child, getting called chink, getting called jap, getting called gook to my face, all the time from literally as long as I can remember, has been smashing the stereotype. You know, f*** a model minority. F*** your model minority, whatever you think I'm going to be, your f****** geisha-to-go. You think I'm just going to be your submissive little girl that goes and runs your errands for you and I keep my mouth shut when daddy is talking at the table or at a party. F*** you, man. I'm not the one for you. You go find somebody else then.

And that's the part of me that's raised by Wu-Tang, too. That's the part of me — they helped me — so Native Tongues, Tribe, part of the beauty of that movement to me was the Afrocentrism, but that didn't speak necessarily to me. But I recognized it for it's cultural import and what it meant to them spiritually, what that meant to their spirits to find this place where they could find pride.

And then when I met Wu-Tang, and they had this reverence and love for my culture, broadly speaking, Asian culture. It was incredibly empowering to me. I discovered John Woo through them. If you listen to Wu-Tang, there's this whole skit where Rae's like, "Yo, where's my Killer tape at?" And they introduced me to John Woo, and that introduced me to Chow Yun-Fat.

And that introduced me to a male — a vision of Asian masculinity that I don't see here, and to this f****** day I don't see it. The way that my brothers are emasculated. If you look at Asians and you look at the women, you look at my sisters and how we are absolutely fetishized, in terms of sexuality, OK? And then you look at my brothers, and how they're emasculated, and how Asian men aren't sexy, none of that stuff, it's infuriating. I don't want either of those s****. I don't want that. I don't want you to look at me and you kind of see me in whatever your stupid fantasy is like I've got a big dragon tattoo running down my back and I'm going to get you sake or whatever the f*** it is you think that these women do, and maybe there are some that do that but I don't.

It's — it was them that taught me that, and then the whole kung fu movie thing. So then I'm watching movies that are populated only by my people. They all look like me. It's not me watching a movie and going, "Oh s***! Here's the shoot-out in the mall and there's an Asian woman in the background with her child." No, this s*** is like the protagonist, the antagonist, the whole cast, every peripheral — they all look like me, which was incredibly empowering.

Because in Vancouver, when I was growing up, it was — there were a lot of Asians there, and there was a lot of hostility toward the Asians because there were — there were two different Chinese communities there. The first community was the community from mainland, and I think a lot of them came to Vancouver because they built the railroad. It was indentured servitude. A lot of them died with dynamite and all that kind of stuff.

And then the second wave that came in, the second big wave of immigrants that came in, were the Hong Kong Chinese, and they came in with a lot of money. So they came to Vancouver because they were anticipating the repatriation of Hong Kong back to China, and they saw the writing on the wall. So they came to Vancouver, and they had a lot of money. A lot of money. And a lot of them were ostentatious and drove f****** big Beamers, and they had the Vuitton; they had the Gucci and suddenly there were all these high-end luxury stores in Vancouver that never existed before.

So that kind of being able to see myself, not only myself as an Asian woman, but to see my brothers and see Bruce Lee, who to this day to me is the baddest m***********, the sexiest man that ever walked the planet — and you can ask woman of any age and any race, and they're like, "Yeah, Bruce Lee's —"

KELLEY: Could get it.

CHANG: Yeah. He could get it. They're like, "I could —" he's — that's — and the fact that he was a philosopher. That man was a f****** philosopher king, and he could punch you from one inch and blow you back 20 feet. That's one of the things that I really love about Asian action movies, not only martial arts movie but John Woo's movies, is that they have an uncanny ability to marry action with philosophy.

One of the most recent examples that I could think was The Grandmaster, which is Wong Kar-Wai. Is that Wong Kar-Wai? Major, major filmmaker. And the movie, the action is astonishing, and it's beautiful. And the choreography is fantastic, and the cinematography, but the message and the lessons that it teaches you are amazing. And it doesn't feel like you're getting hit over the head. It doesn't feel like there are subtitles that say, "Now, you should be seeing that the lesson here, the Confucian lesson or whatever it is, or the Buddhist or the Daoist lesson here, is this." They are remarkably adept at the craft of blending the two.

Like, RZA and my ex always said, "The greatest action movies could exist without action." And that is true. The Killer is one of my favorite movies of all time. It certainly wouldn't be as visually enticing, but you could remove the action and the narrative would hold up. The fact there is an assassin, and he has blinded a woman by accident. And everything that he has to go through to try to make that right, the guilt that he goes through and everything that he does to try to make sure that she's OK, you could watch that as a movie without the beautiful, balletic, choreographed gunplay that John does.

And that's one of the wonderful things about — that Wu-Tang brought to me. And they taught me to be proud of myself. My brother said, "Wow, Sophia, most of us go through our Asian renaissance at 15. You waited until you were 30." It took awhile. But yeah, gender and race definitely played a part.

KELLEY: Yeah. Oh wait, sorry. Back it up. So how did you convince Barry to hire you. What changed his mind?

CHANG: That's a really good question. Probably my passion.

KELLEY: Hm. Yeah.

CHANG: That's the advice that I would give to everybody. Don't ever be afraid of your passion. Don't be afraid to pursue it, and don't be afraid to express it. Because when — when it came time that I could hire people, it was about not just their aptitude, not just for how well I thought they could fill a job. Because we're in f****** New York, you got that s*** all day long. There're 1,000 people that could do your job. S***, there're 1,000 people that could do my job. I'm dispensable too. But if you could speak to me, and you had passion, then you're speaking on a different level.

It's what I always say to artists when they're gonna interview managers or when they're gonna interview labels. Go sit at the label. Go sit face to face, look at that A&R in the eye, and does he or she understand you and does he or she really feel passion for your music? Because that's what it takes. The passion informs the grit, and you need a hell of a lot of grit to work through this grind. Whether it's a job, whether it's managing, whether it's doing A&R or any of that.

So my guess is that Barry was probably impressed by my passion and by the fact that he could probably tell that I would work my ass off. And that's how I met Tribe.


CHANG: But I — no, I had met Tribe before I worked at Jive.

MUHAMMAD: Cause of Jungle.

CHANG: Yeah.


CHANG: I — actually Funk, god rest his soul.

MUHAMMAD: Oh wow. Was it Funk? OK.

CHANG: Yeah. That's how I met Tip. I remember the day I met Tip.

KELLEY: Tell me everything.

CHANG: So "Black Is Black" had just come out, and when we heard it, we were all like, "Oh my god. That f****** voice! Who is this guy? And his rhyme and everything!" And there was a club at the time called Hotel Amazon. It was in the Lower East Side, probably really close to where I live, somewhere around Rivington. And there was so many great, underground, f****** tucked-away spots at that time. And it was Hotel Amazon, and David Klein aka DJ Funken-Klein — who was so seminal, and I wish people would talk about him or do a documentary about him — we had become fast friends, and through him I had met Jungle.

And then "Black Is Black" came out, and he took me to Hotel Amazon. And I was walking down this hallway, and there was a guy sitting on a chair backwards facing us. He said, "I'm going to introduce you to Q-Tip, but don't look into his eyes because you'll fall in love with him." Of course, I looked into his eyes, but I decidedly did not fall in love with him.

KELLEY: Yes, girl. Yes.

CHANG: Love him. Did not fall in love with him. And that's how I first met Tip.

And then I met the other guys through Joan Morgan, who's a brilliant writer. I met them through Joan, and then I had the privilege of working with them when I was at Jive. But Sean continued to A&R them. He was their A&R person.

KELLEY: Do you remember meeting Sophia?

MUHAMMAD: I don't remember the exact place, but I just knew at some point I didn't know her. And then I knew her all the time.


CHANG: That's his way of saying, "She was really pesky."

MUHAMMAD: Nah. We just used to just talk all the time.

CHANG: All the time.

MUHAMMAD: All the time.

CHANG: We talked all the time. Ali and I had a different relationship than I did with anybody else.


CHANG: It was at once intellectual and spiritual. Like I said, I've never been high. I've never been drunk. I'm always sober, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. And that might not be the easiest way to walk through life, especially when everybody else is f****** self-medicating.


CHANG: Are there're times where I think, "Oh, so is this when you would drink? Oh, OK. I f****** get it. I'm stressed out. Let me smoke a blunt. Let me drink half a bottle of wine and take the edge off." Ali and I had to figure out how to do that internally.


CHANG: And we had to learn how to do that with our bodies, again, which is why I'm calling it my temple. It's our temple. I need to keep it clean and healthy, well, especially because I'm a mother now. But this is all I've got. My mother always said to me, "All you really have is your health, Sophia. The rest of it is gravy." She didn't say it that way, but that's what she meant.

And that's what I'm saying, is the foundation of well-being for any human being is water, food, and shelter. That means that your body is safe. And then there's emotional well-being, right? And then there's the rest of the stuff, which to me really is the gravy. It's not the meat. The meat is keeping ourselves healthy, keeping our minds healthy, keeping our bodies healthy. Because this is the machine that drives us and polluting it — for me, for my body — I don't think would work.

I don't have a judgment of it. I have friends who are heroin addicts. I have friends that have smoked crack. Whatever. I don't care what anybody does. I don't have a judgment of it. But I know that for me, personally, and I know that for Ali, personally —

MUHAMMAD: It's the same.

CHANG: — it's the same thing. That we have to — because I don't bifurcate. There is no separation of my physical well-being and my mental and my spiritual and my psychic well-being. I need those things to be in harmony.

Like at the Shaolin Temple, they say, "Kung fu is Buddhism and Buddhism is kung fu." So the Shaolin Temple is the founding place of Chan Buddhism, which then migrated to Japan and became what we now know as Zen Buddhism. Alright? The founder Bodhidharma was there, at this point, over 1500 years ago, and so in Chan Buddhism there are a lot of kind of dichotomies like that, which on the surface level seem nonsensical, but I totally get that. Kung fu is Buddhism and Buddhism is kung fu.

My body is my mind and my mind is my body. So could you physiologically, and open up Grey's Anatomy, could you show me how that's not actually the case? Of course you could. And I understand the empirical evidence that stands for that. But in terms of how I operate and how I move and the way that I survive, it has to be that. And it's just — I just try to maintain clarity all the time.

KELLEY: Yeah, a lot of people that we talk to — I think it's really important to say that stuff out loud, because a lot of people we talk to don't sort of realize that, especially as the industry — sorry — as the culture grows up and more and more people sort of take on that way of moving, like —

CHANG: You mean like the way of moving that he and I have maintained?


CHANG: Mm-hm.

KELLEY: Like the upper, upper echelon is not f****** around. They are mostly clean in every respect, and they take very good care of themselves. But the kids — that information has not been communicated effectively, that you can — I mean, I — who am I to use your past against you?

CHANG: Oh. Well —

KELLEY: But what I'm — all I'm trying to say is that people sometimes think that you can use any type of intoxicant to help your creativity or to help you deal with the rigors of the road or studio hours or something like that. And they think that everybody does it, and they think that cause everybody does it in the video, that that's real.

CHANG: Yeah, I'd love to see a rap video where we don't see a shot of — the slow-motion shot of the drag in and then the smoke coming out.

KELLEY: Or the styrofoam cup. Yeah.

CHANG: Yeah. So that was like MTV Cribs; I really wanted to see one episode where somebody didn't go, "Look! And here's my Scarface poster." I mean, I think that's — I think it speaks to a couple of things, right? Like, I remember when Tip stopped smoking weed. He did at one point, right?


CHANG: And I remember — I feel like he said something like, "You know, I used to say this was what I did for my creativity, but I feel just as creative without it."

And I think, again, with the proliferation of videos and with social media, I work with Joey Bada$$, and he delivered a lecture at NYU recently. And he said, "There are kids trying to see if they can piss lean."

KELLEY: Right.

CHANG: And that's way more dangerous than weed, obviously. But I think that the much bigger issue is depression.



CHANG: I — from my limited experience — and again I've kind of worked exclusively with rappers, men, so it means I've dealt almost exclusively with black men in my professional life — nobody talks about depression. We lost a really good friend to depression. I lost one of my best friends to depression. And it's this silent, deadly conspiracy. You know, Joan said it to me, years ago. She said, "Soph, you never thought about the fact that all of these guys talk about how much weed they smoke and how much they drink? They're self-medicating."

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. Completely. And everything about the lifestyle and the culture just is more supportive of being self-medicated in every aspect, and so the things that have lead to a multitude of people having an oppressed lifestyle, which ultimately becomes the – I'll say fruit, use that word — of poetry and inspiration, or the subject matter of what the art becomes, then also becomes a thing that entraps and keeps the perpetual lifestyle of oppression continuing. Because there isn't any conversation of addressing those issues.

Like, you're talking — there's been I think a light on shed on some of the political aspect of it, and so you begin to talk about certain things with regards to like police brutality and all these other things. But on a larger scale, there isn't anything to address that it all can change if we're not self-medicating. Just simply just that. Not saying that overnight you'll find economic opportunity. I mean, it's something that evolves over time, but there has to be an origin, a beginning of it.

CHANG: Exactly.

MUHAMMAD: And so —

KELLEY: It affects your kids.


CHANG: Yeah, you know, the sad part about it for me is that nobody's open to the conversation. When our friend died, nobody wanted to believe that it was suicide. Everybody wanted to invest in a conspiracy theory that he had been killed. But as I thought about it and as I talked to more people about it — because when somebody dies like that you have to choose how to grieve. If you choose to grieve it as a homicide, then you're angry. Of course. Because he was the victim. If you choose to grieve it as a suicide, it's a much heavier weight on the person that's grieving, because then you're riddled with guilt.

And I chose to grieve it as a suicide, and I do believe that he killed himself. So then there are the conversations that you have with yourself, right? Why wasn't I there? Why didn't I listen more carefully? How did you not hear it, Sophia? How could you not have seen the warning signs? And I lived with that for a long time. And I live with it to this day.

You know, I play that day over in my head over and over and over again. Sophia, if you had just been there, and you had seen what unravelled and what was starting to unfold, you could've f****** jumped on his back and stopped him before he went into the bedroom and grabbed his nine millimeter. You could've stopped it. You could've stopped it.

MUHAMMAD: It's absolutely — just from an outsider's perspective, there's absolutely nothing you could've done.

CHANG: I know.

MUHAMMAD: And I say that because of my conversations with Chris. And so — and I mean, Chris — there's a time that Chris and I didn't speak as much, and we were inseparable at some point in life. I mean, real insider — don't be mad at me, Chris, but – my bedroom set, one day when I walked into his new house and he finally furnished it, he was like, "Wait, wait. Before you come in here, I gotta tell you. I went and bought your bedroom set. Even down to the carpet and the way you did it."

CHANG: No! No!

MUHAMMAD: So that's just how tight we were. And something about beds, cause I bought his first bed in one of his apartments.

CHANG: That's hilarious.

MUHAMMAD: So anyways, Chris and I were really tight.

CHANG: Super close.

MUHAMMAD: We were very close. And so we — there is time when we weren't speaking as much, but the month in which he passed and leading up to it, we started speaking a lot more than we had been. And so — and you know, of your friends, who you can say certain things to, and I was one of those people. And so even in what he shared with me, he didn't reveal to the depths. So that's why I say — and we all have our relationship with him, and with anyone in your life, and so you know to the degree and it may be different. Likewise with my relationship with Phife, I'm sure it's way different than Q-Tip's relationship.

CHANG: Absolutely.

MUHAMMAD: And the intimacy level of what is divulged, it is what it is, but I can just say that I know what Chris shared with me, and I don't think that you could've done anything. Because he carried himself a certain way. And so you don't know that, cause he wouldn't let anyone know that. Even if there are certain things that you feel are like signs on the wall, I don't — I didn't see anything that grand.

CHANG: No, I think that — I think — in retrospect, I think that he probably parsed out information. If we ever got to a certain point in the conversation and I tried to probe further, he would change the subject.

And I realize, too, that I always called him my Rock of Gibraltar. Chris was the person that I could go too. It didn't matter what he was doing. He would always let me in his office, and he would always make time for me. And he was running the world at the time. And he aways let me cry on his shoulder, and he was always there for me for everything.

And then I thought, "Man, Soph. How many people was he that to? You weren't alone. He had a tremendous burden." And in the end, it made me feel selfish. It made me think, "Wow. You wanted him to be this — to have these big broad shoulders to carry you when you needed it, and you didn't stop to think how many people are on his shoulders." So you know, I saw him less than 24 hours before he left. And he said to me, the last thing he said to me was, "Come back tomorrow, Soph. Come and see me tomorrow."

But the one thing that I'm happy for is that Chris is the most laconic person I've ever met, and I never stopped telling him how much I loved him. I took every opportunity that I could. I wrote Chris some of the most beautiful love letters of my life, and we were always — it was always platonic. But I used to tell him — I would put it in writing and I would tell him how much I loved him and why I loved him.

And I thought about this a lot at Phife's memorial — god rest his soul — that it's so sad to me that we wait until somebody's gone to tell them how special they are. This should be an exercise that we do in life. We should remind each other of how much we love each other and why are you special to me. I have — I'm friends, really close friends, not as close lately but really close friends, with a rapper who would — probably some people would characterize as a gangster rapper, and we became really close. And sometimes he would just call me and say, "Sophie, tell me why you love me." And I would tell him. "Because you're this, and you're that." Because sometimes it's not enough just to say that I love you. I need to tell you why, and these are the reasons why.

At both my 40th birthday party and my 50th birthday party I had my closest friends around a table. And I didn't let them toast me. They did. But I started by toasting everybody at the table. This is why this person is in my life. This is what you have given me. This is what you have contributed to the person that I am. And one of the things that I'm the most proud of in this point in my life is my friends.

My friends are f****** amazing. They're brilliant, and they're beautiful. And they're kind, and they're compassionate, and they're generous of spirit and time. And those are all things that inform the person that I am and how I move. And Chris was certainly that. Chris taught me a lot, and like I said, I think that one of the greatest lessons I learned from Chris was loyalty. You couldn't find somebody more loyal than Chris.

You think about your friendships and who can you — just like when they talk about in the presidential race, do you want this person to be making the 3 a.m. call? My version of that is, who can you call at 3 a.m.? Who's going to come over? I always said the first phone call I would make from jail would be to Chris Lighty. And he would come get me.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. True.

CHANG: Hopefully I'll never go to jail cause I can't call him anymore.

MUHAMMAD: It's alright. You can call me although I'm 3,000 miles away.

CHANG: I'll call Shaheed.

MUHAMMAD: Then I'll make a couple more calls.

CHANG: "Mr. Shaheed, we have your friend Sophia Chang here. She beat the s*** out of somebody at a gym cause he got in her way when she was doing kung fu."

But yeah, to go back to the original point, I think that — I think — I wish that somebody would start a conversation around depression.

MUHAMMAD: Well, I think you just did.

CHANG: I want it to be Kendrick. I think Kendrick would do it. He talks about depression a lot in his lyrics.

MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Absolutely.

CHANG: And I think that he has the courage to do it. And he certainly has the megaphone. But yeah, I've really — I can't be the person to start it, because I'm not close enough to it. I've suffered from it.

But I really wish someone would get up and say, "You know, we need to talk about this." I've read a lot about it, and there's a shocking dearth of studies about it. Nobody's studying it. Nobody's looking into it. And we need people to be more equipped to talk about not only depression but addiction, because a lot of times those two things go hand in hand, right, which is what we're talking about in terms of being self-medicated.

RZA, for instance — when I met those guys, they were constantly smoking. And he — I don't think he's smoked now in — what did he say? — maybe a year? And even when he was smoking, he'd be like, "Ah, Soph. I'm not smoking now until January." He would take six months off. He would do it, maybe in some ways to prove to himself that he wasn't addicted, but he would also do it because he understood that there was a certain clarity and a presence that he needed.

Well, he's writing scripts and directing films now. I guarantee you — I know this — that he's not showing up high. There was a time when everybody showed up high to the studio. Everybody got high in the studio. Well, he's not in this industry anymore, and it's not acceptable to him. You can't be the director of a film spending $150,000 a day and having 100 people working on your film and be like, "Oh, what up?" Show up late and be high and stuff like that.

And there's a lot of growth that I've witnessed and one of things is that he's — he just doesn't smoke anymore. Because I think he recognizes, of course it has its benefits, but for the way that he's moving now, he can't do it. He's not doing it. Something you and I would not know about.


KELLEY: I know all about that.

CHANG: Good for you.

KELLEY: I think some of what we're talking about goes back into this conversation about what's happening — how the industry is exploiting musicians, taking advantage of people's mental health, any type of family instability, financial insecurity. Part of that is because of the stereotype. People assume if you're late, it's because you were f***** up last night or are today. And people don't ask what's going on in your life.

And I'll just say if you do ever get arrested, my assumption will be you beat down a chick who was exploiting somebody, maybe not even somebody that you were working with. But that to me is the difference. Partly – well, you're talking about generationally in the industry, why certain people got into the business back then, but also constitutionally and ethically.

CHANG: Well, you know, I've always acknowledged and articulated that being part of hip-hop was a privilege. I was welcomed into hip-hop. This was not my house. I didn't build this house. This wasn't my culture. I was brought in, and I was welcomed. And that's an honor. I was not entitled to be there. And when people don't acknowledge the privilege of being in hip-hop, particularly to the point that you're saying, right?

So most of the artists that I work with grew up poor, most of them. Most of them had some degree of a criminal past. So to be in this world and not to understand my privilege, Number 1, to be accepted into it, but my privilege, period, of my life, being a middle class Korean-Canadian, college-educated woman, is preposterous.

So I worked with somebody recently, a woman, white, and she was talking about one of our artists who lives in a really bad part of town. And his mother and his father and his younger sister still live there. And she said, "Well, he's not going to go to L.A. until we move his mother out of the hood," and she rolled her eyes. And I was infuriated, because I realized, "B****, you don't care. You never f****** asked him what it's like to grow up where he grew up. Did you ever ask him what it meant, why he was concerned that his mother lived where she lived?"

His sister is eight years younger than him, and he was walking her to school. She was five. He was walking her to kindergarten. He was 13. And they saw these people talking, and one of them was in the car and the other one was standing out on the street. And it looked normal, and then the guy in the car shot the guy on the street and killed him. So at five, his sister witnessed a homicide very close up. And he said, "But you know what the f***** up part is, Sophia? I wasn't even phased cause I'd seen it so much by then."

So if this man is telling me that he wants to move his mother out of the neighborhood that she's in because he's concerned for her safety, I'm doing everything in my power. And I sure as f*** am not blithely and condescendingly talking about it at a company meeting. To me, that's racist. To me, you don't deserve to be in this industry exploiting the stories and making money off of this. Get the f*** out of here. Go be somewhere where you don't — where your sensibilities are welcome. Because they're not welcome in my house.

If you can't take the time to figure it out — if he's telling you he wants to do this for his family and that he's concerned — so maybe he doesn't want to share that with you, but if he tells you enough that it's real, that has to be real to you. That's what managers do. That's what we're supposed to do. Again, we're in the service industry, and we're supposed to take care of them. So to be in this industry and to not acknowledge your privilege is an affront to the industry.

And I think that it's incumbent upon everybody to recognize their place and their role. My place was never as a creator. My place was never as a creator, either on — there are some A&R people that were in there producing. Dante Ross is a superb A&R person, and he was a really good producer. I was never that person. I was never going to be the person to say — I was in the studio when RZA was producing "Can It Be." And I watched him make that song. I watched him tell Ghost and Rae how to navigate the beat and how to tell the story.

And I remember he told me that sample, the Gladys Knight sample of a cover, what inspired him to make that record was at one point when she's singing — and it's really subtle but you can go back and hear it — there's a — there's a tiny sigh. And that sigh was the fulcrum around which he built, to me, one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. But I got to be in there to witness that.

I was never that, but I recognize the genius. And I understood the privilege, that I was in the room when he made that record. Same thing when I was — helped coordinate the "Scenario" remix. I was in the room for that. I didn't f****** write the song. It wasn't my idea to get Leaders in there. I had nothing to do with it creatively, but I got to be a part of it.

KELLEY: So you were there when Busta went in and then everybody else had to go rewrite?

CHANG: Probably. Probably because Sean at this time had moved out to Cali so I was put in charge of the logistics. And I was at Battery, and it was an amazing amazing night. And you know, you see people go in and you see people come out. And you see somebody in the booth laying their verse and you see everybody else's face like, "F***. Oh my god." It's like, "I've gotta go sing this aria after Pavarotti just got off the stage? Wait a minute."

That's — but I always knew that it was a privilege. I always knew that you've been welcomed into a home that was not originally yours. And when I see people that don't do that, I am offended, and I am incensed. I'll probably go to jail for that, yeah.

KELLEY: Mm-hm.

MUHAMMAD: Don't worry. We got your bail money.

KELLEY: Yeah. We'll start saving — we'll Kickstarter. All our Microphone Check money will go to get you out of jail.

MUHAMMAD: That's where my imaginary weed stash money is, preserved for bail for real revolutionary who uphold the essence of the culture.

KELLEY: Perfect. That's perfect.

MUHAMMAD: And you definitely have done so quietly.

CHANG: Oh, I've tried.

KELLEY: Fighting from within.

CHANG: Thanks.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you so much for your — I'll say your service. But I don't see it as that. I totally comprehend your words when you speak from a place of it being a privilege. And it's interesting to hear you articulate it that way because for me, I'm like, you are hip-hop. Period. The end. And if that's the case, then you don't really owe anyone any explanations of it. It just is. You a part of this culture or you not. And if you a part of it for the true aspect of the foundation of it, then you don't owe anyone any apologies. But I will say thank you so much.

CHANG: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: Because there are — and you've been in it for a long time, which a lot of people would've just been like, "F*** this. I'm out."

CHANG: 30 years. Although I was out for a minute. I left to do kung fu and have kids. I did cut out for a minute.


CHANG: But never completely.

MUHAMMAD: But never completely. And so you still continue to keep — you remain to be the I'll say beacon, but a beacon everyone can see clearly. But you operate from behind the scenes, from the background, so you're not seen, but you're known by those who should know. And thank you, especially you're still in tune with the youth. You know, Joey's –

CHANG: Cause I have two.

MUHAMMAD: Cause you have to?

CHANG: Yeah, my teenagers. Yeah, no, but working with Joey, absolutely. Working with somebody like Joey, who just turned 21, yeah. It allows me to have my finger on a completely different pulse. Yeah. But I'm not in tune in the way that I was way, way back in the day. I simply don't have the time nor the bandwidth for it. But I appreciate that. I really, really — I love you, and I appreciate those words. That means the world to me.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, what are you talking about, Soph. Don't —

CHANG: It does. It means the world to me, Ali.

KELLEY: Well, thank you for taking the time out on your trip.

CHANG: Thank you. And here we are in Raphael's awesome studio in this room.

KELLEY: I know. We didn't even talk about him.


CHANG: Raphael is — I think he's — if you say that about me, then I would say that about him too. I don't think people realize, number one, the depth nor the breadth of his genius. And I would say the same thing about Nile Rodgers. I don't think people know the extent — the records that Nile produced. And I mean albums. The whole Madonna album.

MUHAMMAD: I think people know about him now.

CHANG: Do you think? Do you?

MUHAMMAD: Maybe a little less on Raphael but Nile, yeah, I think people are knowledgeable on Nile for sure.

CHANG: And — yeah, I think that Raphael, too, is — but Raphael is a humble guy, and he's not self-congratulatory. He's not out there pounding his chest. He's not out there trying to trumpet and tell everybody what he's done. But Raphael, like D'Angelo, one of things that I've always respected so much about them is that they never pander.

I used to wear this T-shirt that says "Raphael Saadiq Is The Truth." Raphael always speaks his truth, whether that's in a conversation or whether that's through his music, and he's never tried to — he's never watched the market, so to speak. Like stockbrokers, they'll short a stock. They'll do that. That's their job. They have to watch the market. They're watching those Bloomberg screens, and they're watching the numbers on the SNP and the Dow Jones and stuff — but he never did that. He never cared about what other people were singing about. He never cared about what it sounded like musically. He just did what was true to him and continues to do so. And that's to me the brilliance of his legacy and will be so in the future.

It's funny. I recently sent a picture of him and Ali to them from 1991, and we were laughing about it the other day.

KELLEY: I was going to ask about that.

CHANG: It was really funny. He looks mad skinny. He's wearing this hat, and he's got a plaid shirt on. And he was laughing. He was like, "Oh my god. I can't believe that I looked like that." But his music is what defines him, and it will — his music is timeless. People are going to listen to "It Never Rains In Southern California" forever.

KELLEY: They play it every time it rains in Southern California on KDAY.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLEY: It's my favorite thing about moving here.

CHANG: And he wasn't sitting there going, "I bet if we write this song, it'll become a staple every time it rains in Southern California." That's not what he does. That's just not what the f*** he does. He finds his inspiration where he finds it, and then absorbs it through osmosis. And then lucky for us, he puts it down. And he shares it with us, right? Because Raphael like D'Angelo was a divine vessel. He — god gave him a gift, and he did and does exactly what you're supposed to do with that. You share it with people. You don't hoard talent.


CHANG: That's not what you're supposed to do. That's an affront to god. "Wait, wait, wait. I didn't give you that s***, so that you could just sing to yourself in the shower at home. That's not what I did. I didn't give you 'Brown Sugar' so you could sing that in that shower. I gave you 'Brown Sugar,' so that you could share it." Like, for D: "I brought you Shaheed and I brought you Raphael so that you guys collaborate and make some of the greatest songs of all time."

And look at what Ali is doing. Ali is — I think he was 18 when I met him, and now he's a grown man. So few people in hip-hop figure out how to reinvent themselves, and reinvent is the right word. But I don't mean total 180s. D-Nice is another example. He's a DJ, a renowned DJ and a renowned photographer. Chris helped him do that. And now Ali is scoring films — I mean, scoring a TV series, a 13-episode TV series for Marvel.

And I was in here yesterday and there was a 30-piece string section. We never would've pictured that. That's part of what's so beautiful about life. You couldn't've imagined that you would be doing that. And here you are, and you're leading the conversation, and you're having the pep talk, and you're being gracious and grateful to the string players who come in here, because they're in service of you and in service of the bigger picture, which is the music.

The watching people evolve is one of the great pleasures of being in the industry. You just watch them, and you say — or Jarobi, who's a chef, you know? Finding those things that you're passionate about and not clinging to your celebrity, right? Not like, "High school was the greatest time of my life, and I just want to be a senior again." Nah, b, like, grow the f*** up. Move on. Find out what that is.

MUHAMMAD: It's interesting. I may have mentioned this to you a few years ago. But I remember I was like 19 or 20, and we were having this conversation about change and evolution. And I remember being so steadfast like, "Nah, I'm never going to change." And you were really trying to —

CHANG: Dissuade you?

MUHAMMAD: Not even dissuade me. Educate me. Like, "Look. You're going to change. That's inevitable in life." And I was like, "Nah, Soph, I'm never going to change." I remember to this day, cause it was probably the most heated conversation you and I have ever had. Like that one particular —

CHANG: I never hated any of our conversations! What am I learning right now? "I fucking hated talking to Soph."

MUHAMMAD: No. It was just such a heated — I remember hanging up —

KELLEY: Heated.

CHANG: I actually remember this conversation.

MUHAMMAD: — and I was really disturbed by the conversation. I was like, "What does she mean?" And it just stayed with me for a while, and then through time, as it does, you evolve if you are paying attention to life and trying to really connect to the spirit of origin and understanding your purpose, you know? And so I did, a long time ago, envision me scoring films, so the fact that I'm doing it now is not foreign to me. It's something that —

CHANG: But I mean, when you were 18 or 19 —

MUHAMMAD: Yeah, no. That was not on the board at all.

CHANG: Yeah. But that's what good managers do too, is try to help you — like you said, it's the long game; it's the long tale. I think artists need to have a team around them that says, "Yeah, you're killing this right now. You're killing it right now, and I get it." But it's what I said to ODB, god rest his soul: "Stop spending your money like you're going to make this for the rest of your life." Unfortunately his life was abridged.

But for instance, when I work with GZA, we talked about him lecturing. Because at a certain point he's not gonna be wanting to tour the world and go to Australia and be performing and rocking the stage. He's going to have a long career for the rest of his life as long, as he wants to do it, lecturing. That is a beautiful amazing thing that I'm so proud of, that we built together.

But to get back to your other point about change, change to me, and paying attention, a lot of it too has to do with a humility and your relationship with god, whoever god is to you. God — and I don't — and I mean that in — god could be the universe, and it could be science. Whatever it is to you to understand that there is a really big picture. There's a beautiful, beautiful universe out there. And if you open yourself — one of my favorite novels is The Outsider by Camus. He — there's a great line at the end of it where he said, "And for the first time in my life I opened myself to the benign indifference of the universe."

And that to me is god, right? If you can understand that there's a really big universe out there and you have humility before that, and you allow yourself to be open to wherever that takes you. It could be gentle and sometimes it could be harsh and sometimes you feel like you've been hit by a train, but to be able to go with that and find yourself within that, and try to be the best person you can within the framework that's been presented to you. That's change, right, and that's growth, and that's what we should all be wanting to do, is change for the better.

When I worked at Universal, I said to this woman — she told me, she said, "The first day you started and you sat with me, you said, 'I want you to be the best version of you and to be better every day.'" And she said, "You know, Sophia, when you said that to me, I thought, 'Who is this woman? Who does she think she is? She doesn't know who I am.'" And she said, "But you know what? I now wake up every day and I tell myself, 'I'm gonna do better today. I'm going to be better today.' My family and I, we say it to each other." And those little tiny things, like the conversation you're reminding me of, that's what we're supposed to do in life.


CHANG: Whatever knowledge we've gained along the way, whatever wisdom, whatever experience, you take that and you share it, just like you share your creative talent, and now you have all this knowledge and wisdom as well, right? That's what we're supposed to do.

When judgement day comes, and I'm sitting across from Allah, Buddha, Vishna, god, Yahweh, whoever it is, they're not gonna say, "How many people did you make rich and famous? How much money did you save for that record company?" That's not what they're going to ask me. I'm gonna be asked, "Sophia, how well did you raise your children? And how many people did you help along the way?" That's what it's for. We are in the service of other people. We are a global community, and we should feel everybody's pain, but we should also feel everybody's joy.

And everything that we have to share, material or immaterial, spiritual, psychic, emotional, intellectual, we should be sharing and not hoarding. That's how we become a better world. We just — it's a better tomorrow. That's the name of my company.

MUHAMMAD: That's hip-hop to me. Period. Book ended.

CHANG: Yeah. That's exactly what it is.

Alright. I really have to go, cause I'm gonna be so late, and I already am so late.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

CHANG: I'm so happy that we did this. What a nice surprise! How serendipitous.

KELLEY: Totally. This was really, really, really good.

CHANG: I love serendipity.

KELLEY: Thank you so much.

CHANG: I'm very very happy.


CHANG: I'm very very happy. Alright.

KELLEY: Sorry you have to go back to the desert. Good luck with that.

MUHAMMAD: To the desert?

CHANG: We're going to Coachella tomorrow.

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Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a world-renowned producer, songwriter and musician, and a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Lucy Pearl and production group The Ummah. He cowrote D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" and has worked with John Legend, Maxwell, Mint Condition, Angie Stone, Mos Def and Gil Scott-Heron among many others.
Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.