Luther Campbell: Still nasty, an excerpt from Ben Westhoff's new book, Dirty South
One evening at the Atlanta airport, I find myself stalking Luther "Luke" Campbell. This is my first attempt to ambush someone, in a journalistic capacity or otherwise, and I don't think I'm cut out for it.
Besides being a candidate for Miami-Dade mayor, Luke is the undisputed godfather of Southern rap music, and I've long been trying to speak with him. Tonight he's slated to perform at a Mexican restaurant in Athens — 70 miles east — and I plan to be there. On the trip over, I'm hoping we can knock out an interview.
The only problem is that I don't exactly have a scheduled appointment. A couple of months ago, he said he'd talk to me, but then stopped taking my phone calls. I've since gotten in touch with his booking agent, who said Luke should be able to meet with me here in Georgia. But after informing me that Luke's Fort Lauderdale flight lands at 7:30, the booking agent dropped off the face as well.
Let me tell you: Stalking isn't as easy as it sounds. For one thing, two Fort Lauderdale planes land at 7:30, one Delta and one AirTran, and each deposits into a different terminal. So I plant myself near the baggage claim, next to a set of escalators where most passengers arrive.
I send a text message to Luke to say I'm here but, naturally, don't hear back. I pace. I sweat.
It's about 7:40 now. I've rented a car here in Atlanta, but in hopes he'll invite me to ride along with him, I've stashed it. For the same reason, my oversize travel bag is with me too.
At 7:45 he emerges, flanked by a sturdy-looking accomplice. Luke wears a small mustache and some scruff on his chin. A middle-aged former football player, he looks and moves like an athlete, and quickly darts left toward the food court. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I take off after him, dodging folks approaching baggage carousels.
"Luke," I say softly, and then again, more loudly. "Luke!"
He turns. I introduce myself as the guy writing the book about Southern rap he talked to awhile back. "Sorry for stalking you," I say with a half-giggle, noting that his booking agent green-lit this meeting, which is sort of true.
"He didn't tell me anything about that," Luke says, turning back around.
An inauspicious start, but I haven't explicitly been told to leave, so I lurk a few steps behind. As they head for the exit, I realize time is probably running out, and summon the courage to mention the interview. "Maybe we could bang this out on the ride to Athens?" I suggest.
He laughs quietly, impressed by my audacity. When a long SUV pulls up to the curb, he indicates I may climb aboard, and I scurry into the back seat.
His mood improves when the concert promoter, who is driving the truck, hands him two stacks of cash. He counts it, stashes it, and leans back in his seat. Before I know it, his tongue is loose.
In his early days, Luke called himself Luke Skyywalker, and 2 Live Crew's first record, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, came out on his fledgling record label, Luke Skyywalker Records, which he distributed out of his parents' house. He initiated the imprint because no one else would give his act the time of day.
"I didn't want to be in the record business, but I had to. In the days of hip-hop from New York, they weren't about to give no rappers from Miami a deal," he says, comparing such Northern prejudice to "slavery."
Never a rapper, Luke didn't appear onstage with 2 Live Crew in its early days. But after a month of lackluster shows, he decided to play a more significant role. "He felt [group members] Marquis and Fresh Kid were at a disadvantage, because they had the personalities of fucking turnips," says 2 Live Crew's DJ Mr. Mixx. When Luke had been a DJ coming up in the '70s, he prided himself on his ability to grab a crowd's attention, so now as a hype man he did the same thing, shouting chants and revving people up with lewd catcalls.
After watching Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket, Luke got the idea to sample a prostitute character, and the resulting song, "Me So Horny," off their 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, became the group's most enduring hit. It also sparked controversy. Luke says he tried to keep his R-rated music out of kids' hands, noting he put warning labels on 2 Live Crew albums and they recorded separate, less-offensive versions of their works. Still, the fact that 2 Live Crew was raunchy and selling tapes to white kids is probably why censors made an example out of the group.
A lawyer named Jack Thompson from the right-wing American Family Association jumped into the fray, which convened with Florida Gov. Bob Martinez to take action. Before long, Broward Sheriff Mike Navarro moved to ban Nasty in that county, and a U.S. district court judge decreed the album obscene, an unprecedented decision mandating that anyone selling Nasty or performing its songs faced prosecution.
Thus, after an undercover officer purchased the work from a Fort Lauderdale store, its owner was arrested. A few days later, authorities cracked down on an adults-only 2 Live Crew show at a club in nearby Hollywood. Luke remembers "horses and helicopters" surrounding the venue, and he and Fresh Kid Ice were cuffed shortly after the concert. The arrests made national news, and the controversy helped spur Nasty sales well over a million.
Yet performing continued to be difficult. Insurers charged venue owners exorbitant rates to host the group's gigs, and dog-bearing cops surrounded 2 Live Crew in-store shows. When they did play, they continued to be arrested, though Luke says they were always quickly bailed out and were eventually acquitted of the charges.
At one point, Luke decided to have some fun with the cops. At a Jacksonville solo concert, he saw the police lurking offstage, ready to haul him in if he performed the taboo tracks. So he asked the crowd to relay a message to the boys in blue for him. "Tell them to kiss my black ass!" he said, proceeding to drop his drawers and moon everyone.
The venue's engineer immediately triggered a massive light and sound display, blinding the police and giving Luke a chance to make his getaway. He removed his shirt, jumped into the crowd, and exited through the front door. There he hopped into a waiting car and made his way out of town on southbound I-95. "The great escape," he remembers with a smirk. "Y'all got to wake up pretty early in the morning to catch me."
At the Athens show, I stand at the rear of the stage, moving aside as women from the crowd climb up. Luke is not so much performing tonight as hosting, imploring the crowd to get loose while a rotund DJ spins trap rap CDs from artists like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame.
The party has a sleepwear theme, so many of the ladies are clad in skimpy negligees — black, purple, and pink numbers that don't hide much. Following behind them are scores of dudes, some toting their own bottles of booze. "The guys must get down," rumble the half-dozen security guards, although they're not particularly adamant about this request. By the time Luke announces that the "contest" will begin shortly, seemingly half of the crowd is up here.
I'm not sure what this contest will entail, but to lubricate the dozen participants, Luke begins pouring tequila from a bottle of Patrón directly into their throats. Luke's traveling partner Chris tells me to help myself to the Bacardi and Coke, and before long I'm chatting up everyone in my vicinity. None of the girls know much of Luke's music, although some of them have seen his VH1 reality show.
Before long, Luke announces the prize, $600, and with that the event begins. Forming a line, the women strut, pageant-like, across the stage, pausing to turn and shake their butts very quickly, as if controlled by one of those vibrating weight-loss belts. They continue in this vein for a while, until Luke urges them to disrobe, implying that whoever gets the most naked will win the purse.
Tops quickly come off and then, to my astonishment, bottoms. Soon the exercise has devolved into a sweaty tongue-wrestling match, with a few naked and near-naked girls frolicking with each other.
"Kiss on the mouth, goddammit!" Luke yells as the circle around him tightens. By now the bouncers have completely stopped keeping order, too busy trying to get a glimpse of the action. I can't see anything myself, which is why I'm not sure if the ladies comply with Luke's instructions to pleasure each other, although, judging from the crowd's reaction, I suspect they do.
It's at this point when Chris suggests I jump in and join the festivities. As a recently married, STD-free man, I respectfully decline.
This story is part of "Luther Campbell: Bass and Booty," excerpted from New Times contributor Ben Westhoff's new book, Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop, published by Chicago Review Press.
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