By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
On a cool night on Miami Beach's Twelfth Street. A chill wind blows off the ocean, subduing the nocturnal revelers along Washington Avenue's nightclub strip. But in the second-floor suite of Luke Records, things are downright steamy.
While a posse of young bucks stands around stone-faced, three Jamaican chicks shimmy. They can't be contained. One sits in a leather office chair and lifts her leg to reveal pink satin panties. Another pulls up her shirt and rubs her breast. "Ooh, baby," she coos. They're rehearsing.
"Come on in," says a grinning Luther Campbell, dressed in a short-sleeve polo shirt and glasses. He's inserting a tape into a small digital video camera and adjusting the microphone. "We're gonna go down to the beach and shoot these ladies playing in the water." They are preparing a segment for an X-rated video series called the Freak Show, Uncle Luke's latest venture.
It's been nearly a decade since Campbell, frontman for the group 2 Live Crew, commanded headlines like a general at the front of the culture wars. In the early Nineties he took his ribald rhymes and parodies all the way to the floor of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. He amassed an intimidating array of enemies: law enforcement officials, senators, and right-wing zealots among them. They wanted his music banned. But, using the First Amendment to protect his ghetto verse, he survived all that, even thrived. And then at the height of his popularity, it fell apart. Beginning in 1994 Campbell watched as his miniempire disintegrated following a simple royalty dispute.
Today, as evinced by the nubile Jamaicans, the 38-year-old Campbell continues to make money from raunchy fun. But the office isn't as big as it once was and the expense accounts are not as padded. He no longer drives a Viper or leases a jet. He intends, however, to rebuild.
Campbell would just as soon forget about the lawyers who picked at his companies, which grossed $14 million in 1993, until the fiscal bones glistened. He lost untold millions and kept only his recording studio, his home, two cars, and not a whole lot more.
But the final chapter of his backslide has yet to be written. In August two lawyers will square off in a Miami courtroom. Veteran entertainment attorney Richard Wolfe accuses his bar colleague Nicolas Manzini of recklessly mishandling a dispute between Campbell and rapper Peter Jones. In a battle over $2.5 million, the lawyers will likely replay a case that could have been settled for $150,000, but ended up costing Campbell $2.3 million, pushing Luke Records into bankruptcy. The proceedings will provide insight into the treacherous mix of music and money that propelled the Liberty City-born rapper to clash with some of the most powerful forces in America, a fight that opened new legal ground for free speech. And they'll display how, even as Campbell celebrated success on a national level, a minor dispute tore apart his business.
The cast of this drama is comprised of lawyers:
*Manzini is a 48-year-old, Cuban-born, Princeton- and University of Pennsylvania-educated attorney specializing in litigation. When he began work with Luke Records, Campbell's recording business in 1992, Manzini was well-known in legal circles. He is a member of the Florida Bar's board of examiners and aspires to become a judge.
*The 41-year-old Wolfe, who represented Jones in his suit against Campbell, is a stocky man with a trim goatee. He is known as an aggressive and relentless litigator. The University of Miami law school graduate has gleefully recounted making spooky-looking rocker Marilyn Manson cry during a deposition.
*Campbell's former right-hand man Joseph Weinberger is the third player. He is a 41-year-old fellow with glasses and a shock of dark hair that's turning gray. Like Wolfe, Weinberger graduated from the University of Miami. His specialty was tax law. He joined Luke Records as in-house counsel in 1991. His tenure ended after a falling out with Campbell over money the rap star owed him. He also clashed with Manzini. Weinberger pushed Campbell into bankruptcy and bought 2 Live Crew's assets, including copyrights to the group's music.
The central conflict is Wolfe's current lawsuit against Manzini. After Campbell was forced into bankruptcy in 1994, Wolfe was appointed a liquidating trustee; his job was to track down Campbell's assets. The bankruptcy order also directed him to pursue lawsuits, if necessary, against anyone who owed Campbell money. Thus Wolfe decided to sue Manzini, alleging the Princeton grad cut corners. To continue receiving his monthly $10,000 check, Manzini rejected all offers to settle, Wolfe claims. He ignored case law. He even skipped a witness's deposition to eat fried chicken.
Manzini declined to speak to New Times, referring all questions to his lawyers Richard Cole and Aram Megerian, who scoff at the allegations. They contend Manzini handled dozens of matters for Campbell, so he would have received a paycheck whether or not the case was settled. Cole and Megerian assert Wolfe's lawsuit is a part of a vendetta; in 1996 Manzini sued Wolfe for malicious prosecution, then withdrew the suit.
So far, though, all three lawyers have profited: Wolfe is at least a half-million dollars richer (his take for representing Jones); Weinberger has the rights to Campbell's music; and Manzini has earned about $150,000 in legal fees.