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2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and the Fight for Free Speech

Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew during 1989 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

“The ACLU may not want it advertised, but this record is pornographic; that’s one of the good things about it.” – Robert Christgau


BY 1989, Miami rap group The 2 Live Crew’s ultimately double-platinum album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was quickly climbing the hip-hop charts. The lead single, “Me So Horny” was a crossover hit. Their unique blend of Southern rap and “party record” comedy bits had expanded well beyond their core audience of Southern Blacks. The vulgar lyrics and booty-shaking dances had infiltrated the white suburbs. Mothers were appalled to hear their kids’ mouth couplets such as, “You said it yourself, you like it like I do/Put your lips on my dick, and suck my asshole, too. With pearls thoroughly clutched, those mothers turned to conservative and Christian leaders to save the souls of their sons. And this is how Luther Campbell ended up three years later in front of a jury fighting for his First Amendment rights. 


2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and the Fight for Free Speech


Please indulge me for a short personal digression and let’s jump ahead to the fall of 1990. Metal, as it was known, was changing. Metallica was on the verge of selling-out, hair bands were cluttering the airwaves, and grunge was still 12 months away from demolishing everything guitar-related. My friends and I turned to rap. We became enamored with the lyrical content of N.W.A., Too Short, and Ice-T, especially the latter’s Curtis Mayfield-inspired “I’m Your Pusher,” with its drug-related lyrics and cover art that highlighted an utterly boner-inducing sideboob next to T’s mean-mugging [look it up]. I went all-in on the gangsta lifestyle, including purchasing a Los Angeles Raiders Starter jacket [this was a while ago], a team I don’t even root for [my team is the Cleveland Browns, whose lackluster aesthetics rival their play on the field].

On a particularly brisk November afternoon, my crew – there were four of us: myself, Tyler, Armand, and Conner – sat in Tyler’s bedroom playing video games, when Tyler’s older brother Pat walked in, uninvited, holding a cassette tape. On the cover were eight people: four girls in thong bikinis, their backs to the camera, and below them, enjoying the view, were four Black gentlemen, each sporting gold chains around their necks. This was 2 Live Crew. Pat popped the cassette into Tyler’s Sony CFD-440 dual CD/cassette player. 

The opening track, “The Fuck Shop”, began with some comedy dialogue from LaWanda Page, aka Aunt Esther on Sanford & Son, which I immediately recognized since the Redd Foxx sitcom happened to be my father’s favorite show. Next was a short snippet of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” before settling on the main samples: Music Explosion’s “Little Bit O’ Soul” for the verses and Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love” for the choruses – who later sued the group for not clearing the sample. The lyrics described a place where all of your sexual fantasies could come true. Like Perry Farrell’s dressing room. 

The beyond filthy lyrics entered my outer ear, journeying across my ear canal, causing my eardrums to thump with the signature Southern bass sound. A fluid inside the cochlea began to ripple, while hair cells rode the sound waves like a coked-out surfer, bending the stereocilia wide enough to open porous channels where chemicals would flood, sending an electrical signal to my 12-year-old brain. I was truly gobsmacked by what I was hearing. This was new, different from other rap. The entire album felt…naughty. I couldn’t take my eyes off the cover. These men seemed to be relishing in their deviant lifestyle. I had to know everything about them. 


2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and the Fight for Free Speech


Luther Campbell is synonymous with Miami. It’s the city where he was born and raised. He first gained attention as one of Liberty City’s premier DJs. If you had $50, Campbell happily showed up to spin records. “I did parks, car washes, wedding receptions, baby showers, street corners,” Campbell tells SPIN from his Miami home. “I was available.” Those early sets would mostly feature Herbie Hancock, ‘70s British funk band Olympic Runners, and some reggae records. “Miami’s not really the South,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of Bahamians, Jamaicans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans.” Campbell himself is the son of a Bahamian mother and Jamaican father. Then hip-hop came along, down from New York. Campbell was instantly hooked. “I started playing these records at the parks and skating rinks,” he says.

Campbell then came across a California duo called 2 Live Crew. The early iteration of the group was very different from what the group would become. Their first single “Revelation” and didn’t contain a single bad word. “It was a ‘conscience’ record,” Campbell remembers. The record’s uplifting message wasn’t exactly setting the charts on fire. Not to mention the group’s lack of showmanship. “These guys were boring on stage,” he says. 

Campbell helped engineer a new identity for the group. Something more in line with the outrageous comedy records he grew up on, like Dolemite and Redd Foxx. The band agreed, but only if Campbell would join them onstage. “They came to me and said ‘Can you do what you do while our music is going on?’” Campbell became the group’s hype man and de facto leader. He convinced them to record a single, based on a dance he invented in the clubs, called “Throwing the D.” It was a hit. 

The song was included on their debut studio album 2 Live Crew Is What We Are. Other tracks off that album included “Get It Girl” and “We Want Some Pussy.” Their follow-up album, Move Something, pushed the sex-centric lyrics even further. Both records sold well, but it was their third album that would be brought to the attention of Jack Thompson, then head lawyer for the American Family Association. 


2 Live Crew


Back to me for a second. Embracing the hustler spirit of hip-hop, I was soon ensconced in illegal bootlegging. No kid in my sixth-grade class wanted to be caught with a copy of As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Possession of an album that dirty would surely lead to a grounding. Nor could the entire class fit inside Tyler’s bedroom. I was learning textbook supply & demand. Every week, the moment my allowance hit my hand, I ran to Radio Shack and loaded up on Memorex blank tapes. I dubbed dozens of copies of As Nasty…, selling them for $5 a pop. I was making money hand over fist, but also putting myself at great personal risk of suspension or worse, perhaps even possible expulsion from school. I was already on thin ice for the Smarties bust a few months prior. 

Chalk it up to sneaking into a screening of Goodfellas the previous September, but my friends and I became enamored with the concept of cocaine. Since finding the drug wasn’t really an option (although we once overheard Pat talking with his own friends about trying it), we started doing the next best thing: crushing up Smarties and snorting them. My friends and I would glance at each other during class, produce the oblate spheroid wafers from our pockets, line up the pellets on our desk, smash them to a fine powder, and, with a rolled-up dollar (again from my hard-earned allowance), snort the powder up our nose for a blast of candied ecstasy. 

We were riding high, until one day Armand developed a serious nosebleed. It was while sitting in the nurse’s office, a streak of speckled blood oozing down his face, that he sang. The remaining three of us were called to the principal’s office to explain our peculiar predilection. Parents were notified. We were banned from carrying any form of candy. For weeks our pockets would randomly be emptied in front of teachers. Thankfully, I had kicked the habit. Besides, I had a new business enterprise to manage. And business was booming.  

Sadly, it would not last. To cover my tracks (literally), I had labeled each mixtape with the name of a more mainstream, family-friendly artist: Billy Joel was actually Too Short; N.W.A. was listed under Boyz II Men. When my mother found a Memorex cassette labeled Mariah Carey and grabbed it for her listening pleasure when running errands, the jig was up. With “Fuck Shop” rattling the speakers of our ‘88 Buick Electra, my horrified mother turned the car around, dragged me out of my bedroom and demanded to know where I had procured such filth. To her utter dismay, she learned that her once sweet son (and recovering Smartie addict) was the hip-hop bootleg king of St. Michael’s elementary. 

Phone calls were made. Dominos fell. Every kid in my class had to give up their stash. Some wanted their money back. It was already spent. Those Starter jackets weren’t cheap. Neither was the Raiders fitted hat, the Raiders ski-cap for winter, and the full set of Raiders pajamas, which, considering all would be relegated to the back of my closet in less than a year in favor of flannel and Doc Martens, ended up being a complete waste of my earnings. 


2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and the Fight for Free Speech


The American Family Association, or AFA, is not a fan of sex. In 1986, it successfully lobbied [or bullied] 7-11 to stop carrying new issues of Penthouse and Playboy. Guess they weren’t aware of Hawk. They also held boycotts against Pepsi for supporting Madonna and her “Like A Prayer” video, Taco Bell for packaging toys from Japan inside their kids’ meals, which the AFA said promoted Eastern Religion, and ABC for airing Dennis Franz’s butt on NYPD Blue

Now they had their sights set on Campbell. 

Jack Thompson had a thing for Batman. He wore a Batman wristwatch(remember that Tim Burton’s smash adaption came out in 1989); he drank from a Batman mug; on the door of his fridge was a poster featuring The World’s Greatest Detective. Holy Obsessive, Batman! Thompson considered himself a real-life Caped Crusader. “He (Campbell) is peddling obscenity to children and that is why I have to play Batman here – to assist, to cajole, and to sometimes embarrass the government into doing its job,” Thompson told the L.A. Times in 1990. 

Like Batman, Thompson couldn’t seem to let go of the past. Two years prior, Thompson had tried unsuccessfully to unseat Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno. Campbell and many of the rappers on his label vocally supported the Democratic incumbent, who later became attorney general of the United States under then-President Bill Clinton. “He lost the election and has been after me ever since.” Campbell told the L.A. Times. (It should be noted that Thompson, in a last-ditch effort to win, attempted to out Janet Reno as a homosexual. Over the years his vigilante ways have since gotten him disbarred)

Thompson enlisted the help of Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro and U.S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez to effectively ban the album. Both men were willing participants: Gonzalez deemed the album obscene, while Navarro set up sting operations to arrest any record store owner willing to sell 2 Live Crew’s music. 

In an act of protest, 2 Live Crew put on a concert at Club Futura, in Hollywood, Florida, just down the street from Gonzalez’s courthouse. Plainclothes officers were in the crowd to witness Campbell and his bandmates perform the illegal songs. Not wanting to start a riot, the officers waited till after the performance to arrest Campbell and two other members of the group. With the artists awaiting trial, the album was pulled off of shelves around the country. Fearing legal ramifications, Southern music store chain Sound Warehouse agreed not to restock copies of the record. 

As pressure from morality groups continued to grow, Campbell learned that no help would be coming from his peers. “Not one person supported us,” he says. “They (rappers) were cheering the courts on. All the other rap artists didn’t know the significance of this. They didn’t see the big picture, like I did. If I don’t fight, then this case becomes precedent.” 

Adding insult to injury, Campbell watched as notoriously filthy white performers such as Andrew “Dice” Clay and Sam Kinison seemed to perform with impunity. While Campbell was duking it out in the courts, Clay was selling out Madison Square Garden. 

At times, the trial was as funny as the lyrics of “Me So Horny.” The state’s best evidence: two micro-cassette recordings of the Club Futura concert made by undercover detectives were of such poor audio they attempted to rap the lyrics instead. Members of the jury asked the judge if they could be excused to chambers due to laughing fits. “Everyone was turning red-faced,” Campbell said. “When we started hearing laughter from the jury room that’s when I knew we won this shit.” Juror Susan Van Hemert was a middle-aged high school guidance counselor who “took the whole thing as comedy.” She added, “It’s certainly not something I want to see in the malls, or out in the open. But in a 21-year-old club, sure.” The squares had spoken. Campbell and 2 Live Crew were free men. 

After the acquittal, 2 Live Crew went right back into the studio and recorded Banned in the U.S.A. for Atlantic Records. One of the most notable tracks on the album was “Fuck Martinez”, which had a catchy chorus that went something like, “Fuck Martinez. Fuck, fuck, Martinez!” The second chorus switched out Martinez for Navarro. While it was fairly obvious who the band was referring to, Campbell decided to find two random men with those last names to sign releases saying the song was about them. Sweet revenge. For the title track, Campbell managed to get on the phone with the Boss himself. “Oh that was cool,” he says. “I wanted his blessing; I didn’t want to do a parody. If anybody (in the music industry) supported us, it was Springsteen.”


2 Live Crew 1990


Three years after its initial release, As Nasty As They Wanna Be was finally back on the shelves. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned Judge Gonzalez’s obscenity ruling. The Supreme Court refused to hear Broward County’s appeal. Appearing in court on behalf of the Crew was historian and professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who defended the group’s lyrics, maintaining that such material had roots in African-American history. The court also put a stop to any arrest of record store clerks. “What this does is let Black folks know that the First Amendment really does apply to us,” Campbell told the L.A. Times in 1992. Batman, um…I mean, Jack Thompson lost. Thanks to the controversy, As Nasty As They Wanna Be ended up selling over 2 million copies. 

Campbell left 2 Live Crew towards the end of 1992, embarking on an occasionally successful solo career. He has also made appearances in films, such as Ice Cube’s Players Club, provided the voice of DJ Luke for Fresh 105 FM in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, started coaching high school football, and even produced his own adult film in 2007 called Luke’s Bachelor Party. He was an ever-present fixture on the sidelines of the University of Miami Hurricanes football games. In 2011, Campbell ran for mayor of Miami during a run-off. He finished fourth out of eleven candidates, netting 11% of the vote. These days he holds salons with community leaders to discuss issues pertaining to Miami’s black community. 

A couple of months ago, Campbell sat down with vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris to discuss what the Biden administration will do for the Black community. He wasn’t a fan: in 2019, Campbell was dismissive of Harris when she announced her campaign for the Democratic nomination. He criticized her days as a San Francisco prosecutor. “Like everyone else, Black voters want help from one of their own,” Campbell wrote in an Op-Ed in the Miami New Times. “The Bushes made sure their people got oil money. Bill Clinton let the telecommunications industry gobble up small radio and TV stations. And Donald Trump is looking out for his developer buddies through a tax cut and opportunity zones that gentrify minority neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Harris has let Black people know they can’t count on her.” He has since changed his mind. In an interview with POLITICO, Campbell said he, “went back and looked deeper at the record.” 


2 Live Crew Luther Campbell


There’s still the music. Rapping made Luke a legend. It made me an outlaw. And it drove Jack Thompson crazy. When I asked him if he ever finds himself in the studio, he instantly got excited. “I make music all the time,” he says. “I work more now than when I was with 2 Live Crew. I’m always in the studio.”

Please, nobody don’t alert my mother.