“DIGGIN’ IN THE FILES: 2 LIVE CREW” – BY BILL ADLER
If there’s ever been a time during the last 30 years when rap and hip-hop weren’t somehow outraging common decency, I can’t remember it. Even so, the obscenity dust-ups starring Miami’s own Luther Campbell and the 2 Live Crew were an early high-water mark. Their trial in 1990 generated a ton of national press. The selection below is a very small, but flavorful, slice from my archives.
From the very beginning, The 2 Live Crew was crystal clear about their devotion to X-rated humor. Their first album, The 2 Live Crew is What We Are, included a forthright little single entitled “We Want Some Pussy.” It was followed by Move Somethin’ in 1988 and As Nasty As They Wanna Be in February of 1989. “Me So Horny,” the latter album’s first single, eventually shot to number one on Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks chart.
All along, the crew had its enemies. In 1986 a clerk at a record store in Florida was slapped with felony obscenity charges for selling the crew’s first album to a 14-year-old girl. He was later acquitted. In ’88 a clerk at a record store in Alexander City, Alabama was charged with obscenity for selling a copy of Move Somethin’ to an undercover cop. The charges were later dropped.
On June 6, 1990 a federal judge in Broward County ruled that Nasty was obscene – the first album ever to earn that distinction. Two days later a Broward record retailer named Charles Freeman was arrested for selling the album to yet another undercover cop. Two days after that, Luke and the Crew were arrested for performing their songs in concert.
The Source was still in its infancy when it published a suite of three articles about the Crew and their problems: an interview with Luke and two pieces about the Crew’s rights under the First Amendment to record and distribute their records. (Reproduced below – Click the image to read the full PDF version.) In effect, the length and seriousness of these articles were a way of substantiating the magazine’s mission – it was the first American magazine devoted to rap and hip-hop with national distribution. James Bernard, who conducted the interview, had joined the magazine as its Senior Editor the summer before, after earning a law degree at Harvard. (The magazine’s founders, Dave Mays and Jon Shecter, were also Harvard grads.)
The interview with Luke reveals him to be an articulate and amusing voice in his own defense. He identifies a local rightwing religious nut named Jack Thompson as the prime mover behind his legal troubles. He also notes that he always made two clearly-stickered versions of each of the Crew’s albums: an uncensored version for adults only, and a self-censored one for minors. A lot of good it did him.
Luke also made a startlingly accurate prediction: “It’s gonna go over to the majors [the major labels] next….They’re thinking it’s only rap music, but soon everybody’s gonna have problems.” Sure enough, two years later, no less a revered brand than Warner Bros. was being denounced in Congress over “Cop Killer,” a recording by Body Count, Ice-T’s punk-rock band.
On June 22, 1990, yours truly issued a press release announcing a press conference in support of the 2 Live Crew. Reading it now (an early draft of it is reproduced below), I’m trying to remember if my pals and I were inspired at least in part by James’s intro to his interview with Luke: “We must understand the forces which want to make this joke into a grim reality, and organize against them.”
A day earlier, the Wall Street Journal had published a well-reported account of the divisions within the black community caused by the 2 Live Crew controversy. [Reproduced below.] The Journal, of course, is a business newspaper. Their coverage of the arts and culture has always tended to be pretty spotty. But this piece was written by Leon E. Wynter, a staff writer for the paper, based in Washington, who happened to be black. At the time, Wynter was also writing a column for the paper called “Business & Race.” The killer quote in this piece comes from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was then a professor of English at Duke University. In response to a swipe taken at the 2 Live Crew by the head of the NAACP, Gates noted that conflict between middle-class African-Americans and their poorer fellows “goes back as far as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.” He further noted that W.E.B. Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, “criticized blues as setting black’s back, especially in the eyes of whites.”
On July 10, the Village Voice devoted its entire “Rockbeat” column to the 2 Live Crew and to the press conference we in New York put together in support of the Crew. [Reproduced below. The unidentified gent at the mic in the accompanying photo happens to be the author of these notes.] “Rockbeat” is where the weekly newspaper wrote about the intersection of music and politics. Under the leadership of music editor Robert Christgau, the Voice did a stellar job of covering rap and hip-hop. Christgau himself wrote this account of the press conference, noting among other things that it was announced there that Bruce Springsteen had given Luke permission to use “Born in the U.S.A” as the basis for the 2 Live Crew’s new single, “Banned in the U.S.A.” The piece below Christgau’s commentary is a review of “Banned in the U.S.A.” by someone named Jay Allen. “If the ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ melodies floating over electro-beats are any indication,” he wrote, “the next 2 Live Crew record could be called As Corny As They Wanna Be.” Ouch!
On October 20, following a two-week trial, the 2 Live Crew were acquitted of all charges. Two days later, the New York Daily News ran an article syndicated by the Associated Press headlined “Jurors Say they enjoyed Crew.” [Reproduced below.] The text notes that during the trial the 12-person jury of Luke’s peers had asked the judge for permission to laugh in court – and that permission had been granted. Interestingly, the jurors “did not think race was an issue” in the group’s prosecution” – contrary to what Luke himself thought.
The final word belongs to Jet magazine, which ran a short-ish story on November 5. [Reproduced below.] Jet and its sister magazine Ebony are products of the black-owned Johnson Publishing Company. They began covering rap and hip-hop fairly early on, but they tended to hold it at arm’s length. (Their website currently describes the company as follows: “We are the curators of the African-American lifestyle experience – past, present, and future.”) The article is notable chiefly for the wonderful photo that accompanies it – which captures an ecstatic Luke and his lawyer at the moment the verdict is announced. But the text features a savory quote from the trial testimony of the ubiquitous Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had appeared in court on Luke’s behalf. The 2 Live Crew made references to ”stereotypes of Black men – as hypersexed in an unhealthy way – and blown them up,” said Gates. “You have to bust out laughing.”
And, putting aside the million dollars Luke had had to spend on legal fees, everyone lived happily ever.
Given that it’s that time of year, I thought it might be fun to share the front covers of two different Christmas albums by Mr. Luther Campbell. (Reproduced below.) Released into the world on the same day in 1993, they represent the two sides of Luke: dirty and clean…or, as is often said during this season, naughty and nice. The photo was shot by Eilon Paz for his wonderful Dust and Grooves website: www.dustandgrooves.com. Give it a visit if you get a chance. It’s nothing but fun.
All images courtesy of Adler Hip-Hop Archive.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of Bill’s “Diggin’ In The Files” posts on CrazyHood.com. For the uninformed, “Ill Badler” is the former director of publicity for Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artist Management, where he promoted the careers of hip-hop legends Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass, Slick Rick, and many others.
(Featured image at beginning of post – photographer unknown)