How 2 Live Crew's Fresh Kid Ice Became a Worldwide Sex Symbol
2 Live Crew's founder recounts his rise to fame as one of the first notable Asian rappers in America.
Photo by Jake Katel
Lil Wayne once said, "You can make a million rapping about some pussy." He's right—but it wasn't always that way. Freedom of expression in hip-hop was once hotly contested; in 1990, Miami hip-hop group 2 Live Crew were literally put on trial for their sexually charged 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be.
The average hip-hop fan is probably familiar with 2 Live Crew's frontman, Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell—but the group's co-founder, as well as the only person to appear on every 2 Live Crew album, is an equally important figure. He's "The Chinaman," better known as Fresh Kid Ice, the first-ever notable rapper of Asian descent. It's impossible not to note the irony of an Asian man—one of the most desexualized demographics in American culture—co-founding one the most sexually explicit hip-hop groups in history.
Fresh Kid Ice recently released his autobiography, My Rise 2 Fame. The book is equal parts memoir and industry advice, and it wastes no time getting to 2 Live Crew's essence: in the first few pages, he writes about how "girls got fucked, and sucked, and covered in nut [onstage] as the 2 Live shows got raunchier and raunchier." He describes the number of women he's slept with thusly: "Less than Wilt Chamberlain, but more than you and all your friends combined." The book's back half details the dark side of fame, too—from financial mismanagement to the abuse and objectification of women.
Fresh Kid Ice was born in 1964 as Christopher Wong Won in Port of Spain, Trinidad. "I'm Afrochinese, both of my grandmothers were black," he says during a phone conversation. "But my grandfather was Cantonese." During his childhood, Fresh Kid Ice soaked in the rhythm and sensuality of the Caribbean music around him: "It was girls coming out and dancing at festivals and booty shaking—that type of stuff."
In 1977, Fresh Kid Ice's family moved to Brooklyn, just in time for him to witness the birth of hip-hop. In both Trinidad and the US, he was teased because of his Asian heritage. "They'd make fun of your last name and call you 'Wonton,'" is how he describes the abuse from his peers. His upbringing paralleled that of many Asians: "Chris had really strict parents, so he wasn't a wild child," a former classmate guest-wrote in My Rise 2 Fame. A former girlfriend is quoted as saying, "Chris was so shy and sweet—a perfect gentleman—[that] seeing him as Fresh Kid Ice was literally a shock."
In 1984, Fresh Kid Ice co-founded the 2 Live Crew in California with DJ Mr. Mixx and Amazing Vee. The next year—following the release of their single "Revelation"—the group was discovered by Campbell, who signed them to his label, brought them to Miami, and joined as their frontman. I ask Fresh Kid Ice if being Asian changed the group's trajectory. "When we first started, a lot of people didn't know I was Asian," he explains. "But when the videos came out, it basically crossed the group over. Other people could be like, 'Damn, that could be me. I didn't know an Asian dude was rapping like that!'"
As Nasty As They Wanna Be went double-platinum, aided in part by the 1990 ruling by Florida District Judge Jose Gonzalez that declared it the first legally obscene album in history following a campaign against the group that included the sheriff of Broward County, then-Governor Bob Martinez, and Vice President Dan Quayle. Two years later, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta overturned the ruling, setting a precedent with implications that hip-hop could now be as nasty as it wanted to be—and 2 Live Crew could be as nasty on record as they were in their personal lives.
"I got a lot of stories," Fresh Kid Ice says with a laugh. "When we'd hit the [hotel] lobby on tour, fans would be there waiting—girls or guys waiting there with their sisters or girlfriends...we'd say [to the guys], 'Okay you chill here, we'll take your sister up or whatever.' Later that night, somebody would be knocking at the door being like 'Where she at!'"
"It caused some drama," Fresh Kid Ice continued. "We was on tour with Jazzy Jeff and [Will Smith]. Somebody took a girl to the room and her daddy came knocking on everybody's door looking for the girl. [Will] had to jump out the window to get out of there!"
America has a dearth of Asian sex symbols and Asian rappers, but when I ask Fresh Kid Ice if he was treated differently for being an Asian man, he seems confused by the question: "Girls always took a particular liking to me because I was different. I looked different—and instead of complaining, I used that to my advantage."
His words extend to his advice for Asians in the music industry. "We can't have excuses anymore," Fresh Kid Ice states. "Hip-hop is a genre for everybody—music is international—so your bloodline shouldn't make a difference. Look at PSY: he's South Korean and he had one of the hugest records ever."
"The Asians were there in the beginning of hip-hop—but as DJs," he continued. "We've been in the background and stayed behind the scenes, but we learn from our mistakes. A lot of people see us as being passive, but sometimes being passive means that you're learning. Right now, I see us right there with everyone else. [An Asian rapper] has to just come along and do it big."
As Asian rap is more widely recognized—a documentary on the subject, Bad Rap, recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Fresh Kid Ice will invariably be looked upon as a trailblazer who helped clear the way for free expression in hip-hop. He also showed the world how appealing an Asian emcee could be.
Follow Zachary on Twitter.