So you feel that you’re about to be hip-hop’s next luminary emcee? Well, before you allow your growing audience on Soundcloud to gas you even further, there are several things that artists need to take into consideration. Sometimes you might have to bend your ear toward someone who has made their bones and left some skin in the game; someone who can proffer applicable tenets of wisdom based upon their own hands-on experience.
One such individual who has proven herself to be an indelible figure behind the scenes of the industry that you strive to impact is the self-titled “Music Business Matriarch,” Sophia Chang. To describe Ms. Chang in a nutshell, she’s “Hip Hop’s Truth;” but that doesn’t even begin to detail the impact she’s had on the careers of several rap and soul music artists over the years.
Ms. Chang made her way to New York City by way of Vancouver, BC in 1987 to work for the legendary singer/songwriter Paul Simon. After her eye-opening educational stint working for Simon, she leveled up in the industry—providing her expertise to the Marketing department at Atlantic Records, the A&R department at Jive Records, and running A&R Admin and Operations at Universal. Those gigs in and of themselves are enough to solidify and garner respect across the industry, but Sophia’s grind was (and still is) quite perpetual.
She eventually went on to provide management services to artists, limited almost exclusively to male rappers save for a couple of R&B talents. So you already know that in this testosterone-soaked business that she forged her way through, she’s not one for the bullshit. Her former client roster reads like a who’s who of the Golden Era of hip-hop and soul: the RZA, the GZA, Old Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, Organized Noise, Blackalicious, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo. If those names don’t really resonate with you, up until 2016 Sophia was the acting General Manager of Cinematic Music Group, the label and management company for Joey Bada$$, Pro Era, and Mick Jenkins.
The multi-faceted executive has had her hands in everything from producing runway fashion shows [Vivienne Tam, Project Runway All-Stars] to developing projects for film and television [HBO copped a script from her]. Her radar is fine-tuned to knowing where the checks are and ultimately securing “the bag” for her clients. Her most recent executive role was as the Vice President of Business Development at MedMen—a leader in the medical marijuana investment industry. She currently has taken her foot off the executive gas pedal to sit back and pen her first book entitled, Raised By Wu-Tang—a memoir detailing her life and career in hip-hop. Sophia was gracious enough to break away from penning her upcoming memoir to discuss the things that she feels both aspiring and established artists need to center their business around. Here are her Ten Rap Commandments.
#1 All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Don Passman
The first advice I would give to any artist or manager that aspires to be in the business is to go buy the book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I’ll never forget seeing Daddy-O [Stetsasonic, Tommy Boy Records] on a panel maybe 25, 30 years ago and he said “Look, anything you want to do…you want to be an audio engineer, you want to go into publishing…someone has written a book about it.”
Don Passman’s book is exhaustive. It is very, very clearly written. It’s not dense and doesn’t feel like you’re reading a legal document despite the fact that he’s an attorney. When I was the GM at Cinematic [Music Group], I bought copies for the whole office and I made everybody read it chapter by chapter and we would have a class every week. It was literally like a class. That’s the first piece of advice I’d give to anybody.
#2 Your Manager is the Lock & the Key
Don Passman says it in his book: “Your manager is the most member of your team.”
Your manager will often hire the rest of your team. And if you already have those people in place, he or she—if they are a good manager—will make sure they are all communicating properly, that they are working in concert and will report back to the artist what is going on. The artist does not have time to deal with the quotidian minutia. It’s about creating a balance between being able to create and also just being aware. The person that will key you into your professional life is your manager.
First and foremost, you have to believe that your manager believes in your vision and is passionate about you. I think it’s very important that an artist feels like their manager feels as passionately about their craft and their vision as they do. You have to believe as an artist that your manager always puts your interests first, not theirs. Management is a service industry. It is not about and never about the manager. An artist can always survive without a manager. A manager cannot be a manager without an artist. Artists have to look for a manager that understands that this is a service industry.
You want a manger that can help expand your vision. To me they are the center of the wheel—all spokes feed into the center of the wheel. If your manager does not know how to have a hard conversation with their client then…the famous lawyer John McLean said, “there are managers and there are damagers.” In my opinion, if you don’t have the courage to have a hard conversation with your client, you’re a damager. You’re a liability. Not only are you not good, you’re a liability. You’re holding the artist back.
#3 Squad Deep – Your Entourage
When I talk about an “entourage” I mean more so your boys. I understand completely why someone would want their entourage around them. Again, if I was 18 and suddenly I am touring the world, I’d want my friends around me. [For example] “I never traveled to France before. I’ve never been to Japan. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I want a comfort zone. I want to have the comforts of home travel with me.” So, I completely understand it, but the problem occurs when they get out of control. It is always up to the artist to keep their entourage under control.
That’s one level of it. The other level of it of course is that it is extremely costly. The bunk on the bus, the hotel room, the food, and the flights; it costs a lot. I’m not saying don’t take out an entourage, but more mature artists really don’t. They do it when they’re young and they don’t do it when they’re older because they start to look at the numbers. Make sure you keep your crew in check. Have to.
The problem with artists when you think about the world that they are in is that they are the stars. The whole world treats them like they are the center of the universe. Everybody is so obsequious; they are surrounded by sycophants. Do not hire sycophants!
#4 Do The Knowledge – Educate Yourself
Again, I would start with that book. He covers everything in that book. Everything. I would also ask questions. That’s how I got a lot of opportunities that came to me. I’m not afraid of being ignorant because there is so much I don’t know. You have to have a degree of humility and just ask a lot of questions. You can’t just act like you know everything all of the time, because first of all that’s preposterous since nobody knows everything all of the time. Second of all, you create an atmosphere that is more intellectually stimulating if you exhibit intellectual curiosity yourself. You get the book. You ask questions.
I also encourage everybody to take on mentors. I think artists would really benefit from having mentors and those mentors could be other artists. Like, if I were an artist I would want the RZA to mentor me. He knows so much, he’s so brilliant. He’s read probably 100 times as many books as I have. He’s traveled the world. He’s done so many things. He’s had so much success. He’s made many mistakes. He’s very, very honest. He won’t try to hide behind anything.
#5 Stay on Top of The Bag – Fiscal Responsibility
You have to find a responsible business manager or an accountant and you have to pay your taxes. I know so many artists who’ve gotten in trouble with the IRS because they haven’t paid their taxes. You cannot evade the IRS. [It was Ben Franklin] who said that the two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.
I always break it down: If you make a dollar, consider fifty cents of it gone. Gone! Like really…if you make a hundred grand, you’re really making fifty grand. So let’s say that you make a dollar as an artist. Fifty cents is already gone to the taxman. Fifteen percent goes to your manager. You’re left with 35 cents. Ten cents goes to your booking agent. You’re left with 25 cents. Five cents goes to your [other] manager. You’re left with 20 cents. You’re left with 20 cents on your dollar. You should think that way. You have to be fiscally responsible. There are countless stories of artists that have gotten in trouble with the IRS.
When you are in a position that you actually have enough money to buy something meaningful, buy something with lasting equity—a house as opposed to a car. Look into investing. Look into the stock market. There’s money to be made there. At least look into it as an option.
#6 The Mind and Body Are ONE – Health Discipline
It’s a grueling lifestyle at best. You’re either in the studio and once you’re finished recording, you’re out promoting, you’re out on tour and then back into the studio. There’s very little respite. It’s not like a 9-to-5 and your body can get used to a certain rhythm. It’s so unpredictable and it has to take its toll on the body. It’s very hard to exercise regularly when you’re in the studio at all hours. It’s also hard to eat well. If you’re on the road you’re eating shitty road food, and I believe that your body is your temple. You have to feed it good food. It’s very hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Then again, it’s a social business—there’s drugs, there’s alcohol, there’s sex. This goes without saying: you have to protect yourself. Just be responsible for you and the other person.
I think that depression is rampant in hip-hop, and I think it’s an epidemic and nobody talks about it. It’s a really big f@$%!g problem. I feel like I’ve heard Kendrick Lamar talk about being depressed in his lyrics and if I ever met him face-to-face I would say, “I want you to come out and talk about this.” Kid Cudi is obviously depressed. There are many…Fat Joe talked about it on the [Spotify] Mogul podcast. Joe was depressed. If I had my druthers…what I wanted to do since I lost Chris Lighty was I wanted to have a forum around this, but it’s really hard to get people to talk about it publicly. So it’s this vicious cycle that happens.
And look, I don’t have a depressive nature, so I can’t speak to how hard it would be to talk about this and admit this. And I’m also not a famous person who is supposed to be impenetrable and be this warrior where there’s no crack in the veneer. I’m not saying that it’s easy to talk about something like this, but I’m saying that it’s necessary. I’m saying that people need to start coming out and talking about their own experience with depression so that we can lift the stigma off it. So rather than going out there and talking about Molly, Percocet, Lean, and all of the prescription drugs you take to get high, why doesn’t somebody start talking about why you need to get high all of the time? I have no judgment of doing drugs and getting drunk, I don’t have a problem with that, but the second it starts to affect you and those around you negatively and have a negative impact, you have a substance abuse problem.
You asked how do we make it better? For me, it’s everything. Racism, sexism, homophobia, depression, any of these things; it all starts with a conversation. I’m trying to have bigger conversations. I’m doing interviews like this, giving lectures. I’m getting out there and being public and speaking from my 30 years of experience in this industry and I’m talking about it. I’m trying to create a space where other people feel like, “Oh ok, you know what, we should be talking about this.” Like 90% of the people in the room have thought about it, but haven’t talked about it.
#7 Be Gracious to Everyone
You know, everybody falls at famous people’s feet. It’s a cult of celebrity. They get whisked into doors. They never have to wait in line. They always get the corner table. Right? An artist lives this kind of unreal life, and I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it. I’ve enjoyed some of those benefits being with them. The whole world builds up this sense of self-importance that can be very hollow. If you are weak of character, you will allow it to make you think that you are better than other people; that you are entitled in a way that you are not. You have to say thank you to people because they are working their asses off for you.
#8 Thank Your Team
The problem is with artists [at times] they tend to be so narcissistic, so egomaniacal and so self-centered that they have a hard time thinking of people outside of themselves. They always have to remember that it takes a village. Nobody does it on their own! It takes a village and you have to acknowledge your team.
Now…the cynical side of me (the pragmatic, practical side of me) thinks you should also be nice to that intern because that intern could be running the record company in four years. And the difference between dropping you and supporting you might be how you treated them that one time.
#9 Play the Long Game
The long-game strategy is again to look into investments. A lot of artists just look for the fast money. Sometimes that makes sense. It often makes sense. Especially if they’re saying, “I want to buy house, Sophia. I need a down payment. Get me the cash.” I get it. And even that’s a long game strategy because you’re investing in real estate. I think it’s really important that—and I’ve only learned this myself in later years—that we need (and when I say “we” I mean people of color…and when I say “we” I really mean women of color) to start truly understanding our value of what we bring to the table and when appropriate, we should be fighting for equity.
#10 Samples – If You Borrow, You Must Pay
You have to understand the science of sampling. There are whole industries built around catching samples [laughs]. There are companies salivating with every Def Jam release. They will comb through, listen, and look at the credits. Let’s say they hear whatever sample by whatever artist. They look at the credits and notice that the artist wasn’t credited in the publishing or in the songwriting. They will reach out to the artist and say, “We think there’s been an infringement on your copyright. Let us go after your money and we’ll get paid for it.” That’s one thing. There are industries built around catching samples. I’m not saying the publishing companies. I’m saying industries that go to publishing companies who are watching everything that comes out.
The other thing artists have to understand is that lyrical interpolations, although not technically samples, are copyright infringements. There are record companies and the majority of the claims against them are about lyrical interpolation as opposed to actual samples. So let’s say that a rapper says, “Cash rules everything around me/ cream get the money…” not as the chorus, but just as part of the verse. That’s a copyright infringement. They need to clear that. People do that all of the time.
See, back in the day when I was doing A&R and I was leading sample clearance for Jive [Records], there was this rule that rappers didn’t sue rappers. That’s not the case anymore because the music business has imploded; nobody’s selling CDs anymore, nobody’s selling music anymore. The business model has collapsed, and it means that record companies are looking for other sources of income. One of them is sampling. On the publishing side you interpolated or infringed upon my copyright. You have to be really, really careful.
I understand how essential sampling is to hip-hop. I get it. I talk to many producers about it. I’m never going to question that. The truth of the matter is that you should pay the people whose art you have used in your own. It’s just the right thing to do.
Sophia can be found dropping gems on her blog http: sophchang.com and on social media:
Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums.