Words by Eric Diep
There’s one person Spence Lee admires for their transformative influence of martial arts on popular culture. Coincidentally, he shares the same last name as this famous fighter, philosopher, and icon of martial arts cinema.
“I really look up to Bruce Lee,” the 26-year-old rapper tells me over a Zoom call in January. “Today’s day and age is all about creating your own. Everybody loves to create their own, do it yourself. Man, Bruce Lee wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and choreographed all his own movies in the ‘70s.”
“In the ‘70s!” Lee emphasizes. “We can’t let him become just a figurine. Because what he stood for was the philosophy of blending styles to what works for you. That’s why a lot of people in UFC and MMA credit mixed martial arts to Bruce Lee. He was one of them people early on who said, ‘It don’t matter what style you are.’”
Lee carries what he’s learned from Bruce into all aspects of his life, using his life experience to inform his art, and his personal narrative. He believes in telling his story and having a voice, saying every Asian creative should have an opportunity to share their background. That type of perspective was seen last year in October, where Lee made a declaration on his Instagram announcing his name change from Shotta Spence to Spence Lee. “I have grown a lot and it’s time to step into this next chapter, representing the family name,” he wrote.
It was the same week that the Franklin, New Jersey upstart released his song and video for “On God.” Directed by Jason Ano and produced by B-Rackz, the video is a walk through memory lane, as vintage photos of his family and friends personalize his lyrics written through positive affirmations. “On God” is a phrase used to emphasize the truth, but the Chinese-Vietnamese American artist flips it to describe his resolve and all the blessings he’s received from praying to a higher being. He pays homage to his late mentor Chino (“Looked back I got a little spooked ‘cause I thought I seen Chino in the booth”), shouts out mom (“On God I don’t care about none of these bitches, I do all this shit for my mom”), and boasts about his career highlights (“I been setting the trend since I was 16, you could ask Virgil/Did the fashion show with Yeezy/I make it look way too easy”).
With “On God” as another statement of having faith in yourself, Spence evolving artistically from Shotta Spence (though it is still a nickname he goes by) is all rooted in family. “Lee. It’s just that my family name is powerful to me,” he says. “My grandparents came over here from China on Ellis Island. They paved the way for my dad to even have me. They had a tough living situation when it was just my dad and his parents. He had a hustle so that he could have his own.”
“For this next music, there is no other name that could encompass everything and all the different waves that I’m coming with. I just gotta use my name,” he continues.
In that same announcement on Instagram, Spence revealed he had officially partnered with Mike Will Made-It’s Ear Drummer Records and 88Rising “to bridge cultures and manifest my full vision as a global artist and leader.” His follow-up single is just as potent, titled “Foundation,” with a pounding trap beat that sounds straight out of Atlanta. “God is my family, my foundation,” Lee raps, followed by more boasts about being a breadwinner.
Reached by email, Will described Lee as “Ear Drummer to the core.”
“If we were to partner with anyone it would have had to make sense with our vision,” he writes. “88Rising was the perfect partner. I met [88Rising CEO] Sean [Miyashiro], we had some conversations and had similar views on how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey [and] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals.”
After introducing Lee to Miyashiro, Will says 88Rising naturally took a liking to him. “They understood what he was trying to do and where he was trying to take it,” he adds. “I’ve been paying attention to what 88Rising has been building over the years and always respected it. I’m excited about this partnership because it’s unexpected and organic and there’s nothing better than that combo.”
Since Lee started making music in 2008, he has been forward with sharing his parents’ story as immigrants, hoping it relates to his fans with similar stories.
Since Lee started making music in 2008, he has been forward with sharing his parents’ story as immigrants, hoping it relates to his fans with similar stories. As he tells it, his father’s parents fled their communist country to start anew in the United States. Similarly, he explains his mom went through a traumatizing experience of being separated from her family for more than 20 years after she left Vietnam to the United States, only reconnecting with her biological parents when Lee was 2 or 3.
Being authentic is a value that was instilled by his parents. From his mom, he was taught to “give thanks and pray every single day,” and he picked up his fashion sense from her. From his dad, he was taught to never quit and always stay curious when it came to exploring new places. “He opened my eyes to things and my mom opened my heart to things,” Lee says.
Lee was exploring a nontraditional career path, handcrafting clothing, designing, and modeling before his music took off. As a determined teenager, Lee traveled to New York from New Jersey to sell his shirts to people like Heron Preston and the late Virgil Abloh, whom he’d seen DJ and ran into at concerts. It was a full-circle moment to be able to model in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 1 fashion show, chosen by Abloh to represent the youth.
It may be hard to describe the tangible value of hustle like this to Asian parents steadfast in their appreciation of higher education exclusively. His father only wanted Lee to go to college, which he did before dropping out. However, his mom understood her son’s path to success wasn’t going to be the same as hers. “She wasn’t about to tell me, ‘Oh, you have to do this. You have to do that.’ You just have to be real and do what you really want to do,” Lee says. “Live for your own dreams and ambitions and not what anybody else put in there or took out from your light. That's why me and my mom are super close. A lot of the big songs I have I recorded in the house. Like, bass beating the walls and everything. My mom was like, ‘Man, that shit sound good.’”
After meeting Mike Will through an opportunity to style Rae Sremmurd for their “Up Like Trump” video in 2014, Lee began to make inroads and build connections in the music industry with the guidance of Will and his current manager Aubz.
“I took a liking to Spence because he stands for what he believes in and that's an important trait for an artist,” says Will. “I have been his corner coach for a few years now, helping develop him as an artist organically. Letting him grow into being the natural born leader he is. He’s easily an artist that kids would want to be like and the ladies would love: he’s talented, smart, humble, fly, focused, and his work ethic is unmatched. I feel he has a bright future as a creative, from music, art to fashion. His lyrics are powerfully pure and true to him.”
In 2016, Lee dropped his project Upfall with tracks like “Dirty Jersey” featuring 732Cash and “Our Glass, which quickly went viral. As Lee continued releasing music, each of his songs had an element of feeling stylish, uplifting, and deeply personal. He can hop on the melodic rapping wave and can lighten the mood (“Arriba”) or he can show his natural versatility with precision luxury raps over a blissful head-nodding beat (“Young & Humble”). With Lee, his music can get personal like on “September” and “Seed of a Refugee,” navigating tough conversations about losing a friend and being Asian American in the same breath.
Lee thrilled fans last year when he performed at Coachella 2022 for the first time, invited by Miyashiro to be a part of the label’s Head in the Clouds Forever that took over Coachella’s main stage. Footage from his vlog shows him performing in the desert, putting all his energy out to a responsive crowd. He performed his unreleased breezy track “Aura,” at the request of Miyashiro, and “Arriba.”
The whole experience was a success for Lee, who first talked about performing at Coachella one day in 2015 and manifested it in 2022. It also gave him confidence and inspiration that he’s headed in the right direction. Bigger stages. Headliner status. And with his upcoming album, which will embody Lee’s positive spirit while delivering on meaning and substance, he knows his time is coming.
“I feel like the world still hasn’t even heard me,” Lee says. “Because any time I perform anywhere, there’s always new people that are like ‘I never heard of you before. This is my first time hearing [about] you.’ I get messages everyday in my DMs like, ‘I just found you today.’ That's the exciting part of the journey. People still discover who I am and I love that. That’s exciting to me. It might get one million views or two million streams, but there’s seven billion people in the world. We are just getting started.”
Published on March 14, 2023
Words by Eric Diep
Eric Diep has written for Billboard, Complex, Vulture, HipHopDX, and XXL. He is a freelance journalist based in Dallas and loves shumai.