There have been innumerable controversial songs throughout the history of hip-hop, from N.W.A‘s “Fuck tha Police” and Ice-T‘s “Cop Killer” to Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power,” but only one rap song made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. “Big hairy woman/You need to shave that stuff” might not sound as menacing as shooting cops, but 2 Live Crew’s adolescent take on Roy Orbison‘s “Pretty Woman” (on their non-explicit album As Clean as They Wanna Be, no less) landed them before the highest court in the land. Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose 510 U.S. 569 (1994), which set a precedent for fair use, was but one of the controversies that dogged the Miami rap group and its primary spokesman, Luther Campbell, throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
Campbell recently released a new memoir, The Book of Luke. Rather than simply rehash the glory days of 2 Live Crew (tales from that era can be found in Campbell’s 1992 book, As Nasty as They Wanna Be: The Uncensored Story of Luther Campbell of The 2 Live Crew), The Book of Luke takes a more socially conscious approach. Featuring cover blurbs from African-American icons such as Bobby Seale and Dr. John Carlos, the book doubles as an alternate history of the black experience in Miami, detailing the prejudices that followed Campbell growing up, first in Overtown, before “urban renewal” channeled the African-American community into the segregated Liberty City. Campbell also writes about the race riots that racked the town after the police killing of black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie, and how echoes of the strife can be felt in the Trayvon Martin shooting and other tragic cases. Campbell also fondly recalls his Uncle Ricky not letting him watch cartoons as a kid, instead making him tune in to the news so as to learn about “the invisible chains” that American society perpetuates against its people.
Freak tales do arise in the book, but they’re mostly the cautionary sort. These days, Campbell focuses his attention on at-risk youths in his hometown of Liberty City, helping them to use the disciplines of football and a college education as a bridge out of poverty. I reached Luther Campbell in Atlanta, Georgia — right before he caught a flight back to Ft. Lauderdale — to talk about Weird Al, the loss of independent record stores, the cycles of race riots in America and his own mayoral bid.
In The Book of Luke, you draw a parallel between what you were doing with 2 Live Crew and the tradition of Chitlin’ Circuit comedians like Blowfly and Rudy Ray Moore. Few people think of your group in the lineage of comedians, but then I realized that when I was a freshman in high school, my two favorite artists were you guys and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and it made a certain kind of sense.
That’s what we were! Myself and [2 Live Crew producer] Mister Mixx, we had this love for Skillet & Leroy, Redd Foxx, Aunt Esther, Dolemite, Millie Jackson — we loved all those artists. We wanted to be in the hip-hop business, and all the other guys are sampling James Brown, so we decided to sample those comedians so that the music was fun and funny and dirty. And then we changed up songs like “Pretty Woman” and made jokes with those songs. That was the whole intent.