Yesterday morning, July 13, 2017, in a Miami hospital, Fresh Kid Ice—co-founder of 2 Live Crew and the first notable rapper of Asian descent—died. With his passing, hip-hop has lost one of its finest pioneers.
Most millennials are too young to remember, but 2 Live Crew were some of the first rockstars in hip-hop, immensely popular and controversial. They originated the "Miami Bass" sound and were the first-ever Southern rap group to go platinum. The Crew also broke important ground for free expression in hip-hop. In a decade where rap was still experimenting with playground flows and kid-friendly messaging, 2 Live Crew burst onto the national scene with a jubilant, infectious chant: "Face down, ass up / That's the way we like to fuck!"
In 1990, 2 Live Crew's LP As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which included classic joints like "Me So Horny" and "Dick Almighty," was declared the first legally-obscene album in U.S. history. Two years later, that ruling was reversed by an appeals court, creating an important legal protection for hip-hop that an entire lineage of sexual rappers—from Too Short to Lil Wayne to Danny Brown—can thank.
But what made 2 Live Crew even more fascinating, and helped give them crossover appeal, was the "Asian-looking dude in 2 Live Crew," attributed as "C. Wong Won" on the front of their vinyls, also known as the Chinaman.
Fresh Kid Ice, that Asian-looking dude, was born in 1964 in Port of Spain, Trinindad. He moved to Brooklyn when he was 12, and was known as a shy, respectful student—a "perfect gentlemen," an ex-girlfriend described him. After graduating high school, he joined the Air Force, where, on his weekends spent off-base, he formed the 2 Live Crew with friends DJ Mr Mixx and Amazing Vee. He is the only 2 Live Crew member to appear on every single one of their albums, from 1986 to 1998.
As a fellow Asian rapper and writer, I was fortunate enough to know Fresh Kid Ice in the last few years of his life. In Fresh Kid Ice's autobiography, "My Rise 2 Fame," friends described him as "always the more friendly and approachable one in 2 Live Crew" and "a good man that never stops giving", and I experienced that firsthand. I wasn't the only one to count him as a mentor—Fresh Kid Ice was the first to take a then-unknown Flo Rida on tour.
It's rare to find an OG in this industry who will actually go out of his way to see how you're doing, but Fresh Kid Ice did exactly that, calling me about once a month to check in. Sometimes we talked about business—how to market his book, or my music video—and other times we simply chopped it up, me listening as he told me some crazy story about jumping out a window to avoid a jealous boyfriend during his days touring with Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff.
Unfortunately, kindness isn't always returned in this world. I'm not going to name any names, but all it takes is one read of his autobiography to see how some of the same people who screwed him over and "swindled his earnings," as he wrote, are the ones coming out of the woodwork to salute his legacy.
We're not in this world for long. As hip-hop enters its grunge era and its founders slowly depart for the past tense, it's important to celebrate them while they're still here. Fresh Kid ice was the first emcee in hip-hop to openly embrace his Asian-ness—you can't get more Asian than going by "Chinaman"—and as the profile of Asian rap rises, Fresh Kid Ice will be increasingly recognized as its legendary forefather.
I got the sense that, as he got older, Fresh Kid Ice—who, despite his moniker, had been a bit disconnected from his Asian background during his life—was reckoning with that legacy. "I'm still learning more about [my] heritage," he once confided to me. When I told him about his placement in "Bad Rap," a documentary about Asian-American rappers, he seemed genuinely touched. "Is that so," he mused. The next phone call came a week later. "Let's figure out how to tap into these Asian markets," he said enthusiastically.
To break down two doors in hip-hop—to co-found the most sexually-explicit mainstream rap group in history, and to be the first Asian rapper—is no easy task. But to achieve all that and still be known as a good, giving man, may be the hardest, and most valuable, accomplishment of all. His daughter, quoted at the end of his autobiography, put it best: "I'm proud of my dad with with all that he has achieved in life, but the man truly impresses me is the one I call dad. I'm glad the world got to know Fresh Kid Ice, but the true honor was knowing Christopher Wong Won."
Zach Schwartz is a writer and rapper based in Cleveland, Ohio. As a fellow biracial Asian, he honors the memory of Fresh Kid Ice. Follow him on Twitter.