In a world where a song as raunchy as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” is dominating the airwaves, it’s hard to believe that 30 years ago, the potty-mouthed Florida rap group 2 Live Crew was fighting obscenity charges in a federal appeals court.
“I’m just upset I wasn’t asked to make a cameo in the video,” laughs Luther Campbell, a.k.a. Uncle Luke and Luke Skyywalker, the man who masterminded the group, serving not just as a member but the head of his own record label, but initially selling records that would ultimately go platinum, like “As Nasty as They Wanna Be,” out of the trunk of his car.
October 20th marks three decades since a six-member jury found Campbell and the group not guilty of obscenity charges after supportive testimony from the likes of Duke University scholar Henry L. Gates Jr. and veteran music writer John Leland. Earlier that year, the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Florida had ruled “Nasty” as obscene, a decision that was subsequently overturned by the Eleventh Court of Appeals. In the interim, a Broward County sheriff, Nick Navarro, actually arrested and convicted local record-store owner George Freeman on obscenity charges for selling the album.
Atlantic Records head Doug Morris became incensed when he saw TV coverage of the group being arrested in June after a performance at Club Futura in Hollywood, FL.
“Being arrested for selling music?” says Morris, who is now 81 and not only still in the game, running the 12 Tone label, but basking in the success of “one of the biggest hits I’ve ever had,” Joji’s “Run.” He responded to the 2 Live Crew controversy by signing Campbell to Atlantic, agreeing to distribute both “Nasty” and a new single timed for July 4, “Banned in the U.S.A.” — a parody song for which 2 Live Crew received permission from Bruce Springsteen himself to use the mid-‘80s anthem.
“I’m proud of that,” Morris says today. “It was a matter of principle for me, defending freedom of speech and the First Amendment. This embodied that concept more than anything I’d seen. True, some of the lyrics were hard to defend to my wife and some of my friends — people would look at me like my hair was on fire.”
Campbell, who will be 60 in December, still lives in his native Miami, home-schooling his 11-year-old son and, for the past 15 years, coaching high school football. He was no stranger to litigation. The rap entrepreneur sunk “millions” into his successful appeal, and also famously won a U.S. Supreme Court case against Acuff-Rose Music, clearing the way for song parodies like 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman” as fair use. On top of that, he was famously forced to shell out more than $1 million to George Lucas for violating the copyright on his nom de rap, Luke Skyywalker (“I’m bootlegging ‘Star Wars’ movies until I make my money back,” he quips).
“The obscenity case was extremely far-reaching for hip-hop,” Luke says of his pride in the outcome. “This case is the one that allows artists to say what they want on their records. I didn’t have to challenge the ruling in federal court, but I was prepared to go to jail for my rights. When I look back, I realize the far-reaching importance of it, but at the time we were somewhat blackballed by both the mainstream and hip-hop industry. If I hadn’t made the appeal, it wouldn’t have set a precedent and become case law.” (The case actually dragged on for another two years on appeal, and went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling.)
Morris knows the case’s far-reaching implications only too well. Just two years later, Warner Music Group’s Sire Records would put out Ice T and Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” and within three years after that, not only was the publicly traded Warner out of the hip-hop business, Morris was out of a job, and on his way to Universal. In tandem with then-Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, Morris and Universal reaped millions from the success of the fast-rising genre, via deals with Suge Knight’s notorious Death Row (another Warner castoff), Cash Money and Def Jam Records.
“It ended up causing real repercussions at Warners,” Morris says, with considerable understatement. “At the end of the day, I think we all got fired for that.”
The irony isn’t lost on Uncle Luke, either, who was given entrée into the mainstream record business but let it slip away.
“My relationships with people like Doug, Jimmy and [Atlantic Records exec] Craig Kallman were great,” he says. “Doug was an innovator, willing to go out on a limb. I just wish I was a little more mature to understand what he saw in me at the time. If I had kept my mind right, there would have been no Suge Knight… Hey,” he laughs. “That rhymes.”
In fact, the self-styled entrepreneur was one of the earliest promoters of live hip-hop in the Miami area, and proved a shrewd judge of talent, discovering acts like Pitbull, Trick Daddy and H-Town, releasing their earliest music on his Luke Records label, one of the first devoted to Southern rap.
In the end, the 2 Live Crew case was decided on the so-called Miller Test, the “three-pronged definition of obscenity” including elements of community standards, offensive content and artistic merit.
“I stood up for hip-hop,” he says. “Whether I get credit for it or not. I appreciate it if you understand the history and pay respect to people like myself.”
As for his acceptance by the industry at large, Campbell remembers attending a Grammy Awards ceremony right after the case, where a speaker praised a certain artist’s efforts in stemming censorship and oppression.
“I sat there waiting for my name to be called, and I heard, ‘Madonna!’” he laughs. “I haven’t been to the Grammys since. Why should I? They crapped on me!”