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How 2 Live Crew’s Leader Went from Sex-Rap Mogul to Sociopolitical Pundit

Luther Campbell on free speech, double standards, and racism then and now

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Luther Campbell visits the SiriusXM Studios in New York City. on August 5th, 2015

Cindy Ord/Getty

luther campbell

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.

It’s funny you mention Weird Al. What he was doing was part of the reason why we went to the Supreme Court with our case. Michael Jackson and also Dolly Parton filed a brief in the Supreme Court against us because of what Weird Al and others was doing with their song parodies. They wanted that to stop.

Now it’s a compliment when Weird Al makes fun of your songs.
Yeah, you want him to make fun of you! And the comedians at Saturday Night Live filed briefs on our behalf. But now every politician wants them to do a spoof on them; that’s extra promotion! Look what it did for Sarah Palin. When Chris Rock spoofed me, it blew his career up!

Where I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, the owner of my local independent record store, Hogwild Records, faced trial after the vice squad busted him for selling copies of As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
Wow, yeah. San Antonio, Texas. I remember that. Let me tell you. When you had stores like that, people going to jail over that, that was a real revolution. I could have not fought it and saved myself some money. But that would have been case law that any prosecutor could use against any other hip-hop artist they deemed obscene and quote Luther Campbell as a precedent. “So, Lil Wayne, you say you having sex with a lady cop” — that argument could have been used against any hip-hop record after that. I could have saved millions in not appealing that case. If that had stayed on the books, that case law could have been used against any artist that they want to take off the shelves. 

2 live crew as nasty as they wanna be

Those mom-and-pop record stores have mostly gone away and it’s now iTunes and big chain stores. If this kind of controversy were to arise again, would those stores stand up to the pressure?
That’s why I wrote this book; I want it to be an educational tool. I was going through this controversy, learning that as a black businessman, the system will come to get you. Way back then, I’m wondering, “Why is this coming down on me?” I’m seeing comedians like Andrew Dice Clay doing what he’s doing, not to mention the other comedians we sampled, as well as N.W.A and groups with offensive lyrics.

“I was going through this controversy, learning that as a black businessman, the system will come to get you.”

So why am I being singled out? One, I’m an easy target, an independently owned African-American company; I don’t have a big bank account or lawyers behind me. Two, what are they trying to do? These independent companies [were] starting a movement to get our records sold in stores, so who were we affecting? We’re affecting the major labels, doing this independently, taking those sales away from them in these markets. There were FCC rules in place back then where companies couldn’t own a TV station and radio station in the same market, and they couldn’t own more than two stations in any given market. 

But then I’m looking at the money trail during the Clinton Administration and the major labels giving money to his campaign. They just want to get the Republicans out, but not knowing that they were putting money in for Clinton to deregulate radio. They trying to take control of the music industry because of the independent companies like my company, and I’m changing the business. Every artist wanting to own their own companies: Puff wants to own Bad Boy; Jay with Roc-a-Fella. Everyone wanted their own label.

What ended up happening was the crash of the music industry. Bill Clinton deregulated radio and put Colin Powell’s son Michael Powell in at the FCC, allowing the conglomerates to buy all the radio stations. The conglomerates took the stations, and now they’re programmed from Minnesota or somewhere, playing the same 13 songs. So who owns those 13 songs? The Big Six, now just the Big Three. You get rid of the independent record stores and now, God forbid, iTunes say, “This shit is obscene, and we won’t put it online,” you’re dead. It’d be over!

There would be no way to get the music out there without iTunes and YouTube and big companies now.
There’s no video stations, no more channels like the Box. MTV and BET don’t program music anymore. There’s no outlet.

In the book, you write about the Arthur McDuffie riots that devastated Miami in early 1980, and I’m wondering, as you saw the news of protests about Ferguson and Baltimore, if that prompted you to write the book as a call to action?
Timing is everything. When my career slowed down, I always thought I would write a book. A year ago, after doing columns for the Miami New Times, I thought it was time to do this book. The majority of my fights were over. The last one, about becoming a football coach, was in the book. So now, as I’m writing this book, things that happened back then — the things I learned from my Uncle Ricky, who put me on to these Malcolm X tapes, Martin Luther King tapes… It’s always been a cycle. Ain’t nothing changed. When Malcolm and Martin were living, black people were being treated the same way, with suppression and violence and police shooting us. So I’m writing this book and seeing the same things going on. The Trayvon Martin case going on and I’m thinking back to Arthur McDuffie.

“When Malcolm and Martin were living, black people were being treated the same way, with suppression and violence and police shooting us.”

This book here, I’m looking at it as a hip-hop journey. They need to understand Miami through my eyes and the vicious cycle that we’re in. When I’m growing up as a kid seeing those riots, as a new generation, you going through the same things now. You out in the streets like I was. When kids or adults read this book, they’ll be amazed. It brings up the conversation about what are we going to do today. For it to come out now is a beautiful thing.

Looking back, did you ever wish you kept 2 Live Crew as a socially conscious rap group, as they were on their very first single, “The Revelation”?
Nah, I truly believe everything was done for a reason. God has a plan for all of us. He don’t make no mistakes. This happened for a reason. Being picked to fight these wars against the government, I was chosen for that; being blackballed by the music industry, you the first one to fight, the last to be acknowledged. Ain’t nobody gonna tell my story otherwise. The story needs to be told as a journey through Miami and how I was raised up, the trials and tribulations I went through.

Do you feel that the Uncle Luke persona got away from you, in that it was seen as misogynistic rather than comedic?
If you want to break Luther Campbell down for what I wrote, I’m the frontman for 2 Live Crew, but what did I write on those songs? What is my participation? I was like, “Let’s Party,” saying, “Hey, we want some pussy.” If people want to define me as an artist, they have to pinpoint what I wrote, but they just group me in what the other guys write. When Fresh Kid Ice says, “Lick my asshole,” then somehow, that gets attached to me. Am I defending his writing? Yes, I defend his free speech. If I wrote that, then hey, I wrote it.

Like I write in the book, I saw Full Metal Jacket and that dialogue of the Vietnamese hooker saying, “Me so horny/Me love you long time.” That’s me looking at a movie which was on all the movie screens in America. That movie is art. Oliver Stone isn’t being told he’s a misogynistic pig for writing that in the movie, but all of a sudden, me making a song out of it makes it filth. 

It’s Stanley Kubrick that made Full Metal Jacket.
So why isn’t Stanley Kubrick getting shit for writing, “Me so horny”? For me, it’s a black-and-white thing. When a black artist says something, it’s taken to not be art, but how they feel. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots up a place in his movie, that’s art! “Good job, Arnold, here’s an award for your movie.” When Stanley writes, “Me so horny,” it’s art.

“Why isn’t Stanley Kubrick getting shit for writing, ‘Me so horny’? For me, it’s a black-and-white thing.”

Do you still listen to hip-hop?
I like Rick Ross, some of Kanye’s stuff. I like Drake, Lil Wayne, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Beyoncé, everything Jay Z puts out.

You got to see hip-hop move from the outlier to being the pop standard.
It’s not separated like it used to be. It’s amazing to see that. Part of my fight for hip-hop was to have white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids all listen to it and have an understanding about the struggle and this way of life. A white kid can understand a black kid’s way of life. Rap is like the blues; it’s a way of communicating.

That was part of the big plan, to have these companies put on the radio whoever they wanted. They deregulated these stations so as to program your ass and tell you what you like. They had problems with heavy metal and rappers, and they said we were the killers of this country. In a lot of ways, we did some communist shit when it came to the music industry. But now the pop station is the same shit [as] the urban stations.

One last question for you: Would you ever run for office again?
By running for office as mayor, I energized a block of voters. At the end of the book, I helped Keon Hardemon, who grew up in Liberty City, win election for as Miami’s Commission Vice-Chairman. I want to establish a PAC. I could get more things done and get people to be a part of the political process. That PAC needs to be called the Hip-Hop Party, as Democrats and Republicans don’t do shit for poor people. This isn’t about black or white; there’s more poor white people on welfare than blacks. That will be my next challenge, bringing all poor people together. We got to fight back.

You can call it a “2-PAC.”
The 2-PAC [laughs]! I dig that. That’ll be hot!

In This Article: 2 Live Crew

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