Luther Campbell on the Rise of 2 Live Crew

Luther Campbell on the Rise of 2 Live Crew
Photo by Stian Roenning

The memoir, due out August 4, begins this way: "I was born on Miami Beach on December 22, 1960. How I came out, what time I came out, I don't know. What I do know is that it was unusual. Miami Beach was still segregated... and black people weren't even allowed there except to work as maids and janitors... I was not even five minutes into this world and I was already making noise some place I wasn't supposed to be."

In The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City, New Times columnist Luther Campbell tells his story. The Miami native — who brought Southern rap to the Billboard charts and paved the way for today's cavalcade of hip-hop artists, from Snoop Dogg to Kanye West — describes Miami's history, growing up the youngest of five brothers, playing football in Hadley Park, and riding the bus to Miami Beach High School just as desegregation was beginning.

Though early in life he aimed to compete in the NFL, after high school, he began working as a DJ, taking the name Luke Skyywalker, after the hero of the Star Wars movies. There were hassles with cops, riots, clubs, a record company, and then 2 Live Crew. That group changed everything by eventually facing down megalomaniacal Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro and conservative Gov. Bob Martinez. This proved that a little lewdness, a few bad words, and some parody are allowed under the U.S. Constitution.

The 320-page book, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, tells this story and more. In the chapter excerpted below, Campbell describes how he and his bandmates tweaked authority and rose to national prominence. It was this ascent, and this attitude, that would eventually take the kid from Liberty City to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. — Chuck Strouse

Black guys talking about sex. In America, that was the single biggest taboo you could be breaking, the fear of miscegenation, the terror that kept 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow in place. And not only did we break that taboo, we smashed it, stomped on it, and danced on it. People were more upset about us than they were about talk of killing policemen and Jews. Think about that.

That was the reason the 2 Live Crew controversy blew up so big, but the reason it kept going so long was because I had the balls, and the means, to fight back. And that's what really pissed these white conservatives off: my freedom, my power to tell them no. Nobody could pressure me. I was black-owned, independent, and making tons of money. I was my own man — a free black man. Nobody owned me. That, I realized, was the thing that really drove them so crazy.

And because I had the only black-owned label, I was the only one who could fight this fight. If I didn't stand up, corporate America would keep trying to censor all of us. That's how I saw it. Unfortunately, nobody else in hip-hop saw it that way. Not at the time. The major-label artists, instead of backing me, they distanced themselves. Groups like Salt-N-Pepa and Kid 'n Play, they wanted to stay acceptable to middle America and sell records. They went on BET and publicly slammed us. Other groups just didn't say anything. No major rappers came out in our defense. Not one. Even guys like Russell Simmons, who as an executive I thought would understand the dangers of censorship, I never heard him say a word. No comment. No commitment.

Mainstream artists wanted to play that respectability-politics card. They wanted to throw 2 Live Crew under the bus and show white people that hip-hop could be well behaved. You only deserve free speech in this country if you're well behaved. In fact, the people who need free speech the most are the ones breaking taboos and challenging the status quo. Respectability politics weren't going to save hip-hop from censorship at the hands of corporate America. We had to save ourselves. We had to fight.

Me, there was never a time I wasn't thinking about fighting. I was born to have this fight. As far as this country was concerned, I was already supposed to be dead or in jail. So I had nothing to lose. The millions I had in the bank — I didn't care about that. They could take it all. My father never apologized for being who he was, and neither would I. This was my music, and I was going to fight for my right to make it. Not because I particularly cared about being a dirty rapper; that wasn't really what the fight was about. The question was whether or not the laws of the land applied to a black man the same as a white man. That's what was driving me. If Andrew Dice Clay and Hugh Hefner have the right to do it, then I have the right to do it. I believed that a black man deserved to have his day in court and see justice served.

I decided I'd challenge the law directly by doing the show at this rundown little place in Broward called Club Futura. On June 9, 1990, Mr. Mixx, Fresh Kid Ice, Brother Marquis, and I rolled up to the club in our white limousine. There were at least 30 police cruisers parked outside. We went in and got ready backstage. I put on my "2 Black, 2 Strong, 2 Live Crew" shirt. As soon as I got onstage, I was looking in the crowd. I could see all these out-of-place people: undercover cops. They were easy to spot because they were old as hell and dressed like they'd just run through Kmart grabbing shit off the racks with the lights out. They kept making eye contact with each other, nodding at each other, talking into their earpieces.

My lawyer Bruce Rogow had told me that if I sang about elected officials, our performance could be defended as a political rally. So we got the crowd going with chants: "Fuck Martinez! Fuck, fuck Martinez! Fuck Navarro! Fuck, fuck Navarro!" Fans were wearing T-shirts that read, "Let Luke play." A lot of them had shirts that said, "I used to live in America, now I live in Broward County." It turned out it was a political rally after all. The cops in the front row all had those mini-cassette recorders sticking out of their front shirt pockets, and you could see the red lights flicking on and off in the dark. I didn't want to make things difficult for them, so I leaned down and sang my dirty lyrics right into their little microphones. They must have had more than a dozen officers in the club that night. Two would have been plenty.

I was there to get arrested. I was there to take a stand for the First Amendment — to take a stand for hip-hop, for my community, for everyone who's ever been bullied into silence by a man wearing a badge.

Luther Campbell and defense attorney Bruce Rogow rejoice in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom October 20, 1990, as they hear a not-guilty verdict in Luke's highly publicized obscenity case.
Luther Campbell and defense attorney Bruce Rogow rejoice in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom October 20, 1990, as they hear a not-guilty verdict in Luke's highly publicized obscenity case.
Photo by Bill Cooke

After the show, we left the club, climbed into our limo, and rolled out of the parking lot. We were followed by a dozen cruisers. They tailed us for a few miles before they hit the lights and pulled us over. All these cars were passing by, fresh out of the show, honking their support for us. I liked that. I stepped out of the limo, and some deputy threw me down on the hood and started patting me down. Then they threw us in the back of the police van. And, of course, Navarro had orchestrated the whole event with the media so the television camera crews were conveniently waiting right where they pulled us over — just like an episode of Cops.

The whole ride down to the precinct, I kept telling them: "I'm not staying in this motherfucker over two hours, bitch! As soon as you get me downtown, I'm bonding out. The bondsman is waiting with the money." They booked me around 3 in the morning. It was a total clown show. The deputies in the station were all smiling and high-fiving each other and slapping each other on the back — because catching a white limousine going 35 mph is really something to be proud of, I guess. Then they threw me in a cell and left me there until the sun came up.

All night, the cops kept coming back and poking their heads in the window just to look at me, like I was the first black man in handcuffs they'd ever seen. Later, I walked out of there with a big smile and a show lined up that same night in Phoenix. Life goes on. See you assholes in court. The next day, somebody hacked the Broward County Police radio band and played "Me So Horny" on it, over and over again, which was hilarious.

Before I had to face a jury, I had to face the nation on daytime TV and the nightly news. The media shitstorm over Nasty had been simmering for a while. Now it erupted. Our arrest for performing at Club Futura was the moment the shit really hit the fan. When I walked out of that jail, I was public enemy number one: Luther Campbell, the hip-hop pornographer, the man in the black hat. The next day, 2 Live Crew was the lead story on Nightline, with Bruce Rogow debating the First Amendment with the barking lunatic Jack Thompson. I went on MTV, Geraldo, Donahue. USA Today, the New York Times, Newsweek, Time magazine — all of them put us on the front page. We were even front-page news in Norway.

As an artist and as a record-label owner, I knew you couldn't buy publicity like this. For every store that pulled Nasty from its shelves, another store doubled its orders. I was printing money with the albums we already had, but I knew we needed to put out a new release to capitalize on and capture the moment. Our current situation called for an anthem. Every song I hear, I automatically change it around in my head. That's how I listen to music. I'll remix it in my head, break it into pieces, looking for the break or a good bit to sample. I'll think up a good parody.

I was listening to a rock 'n' roll station that summer, and Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." came on. Given the situation I was in at the time, in my mind I heard it as "Banned in the U.S.A." It was obvious. I needed to get the song cleared. At that period of time, everybody was getting sued. Hip-hop had built itself on sampling other records, which was fine at a block party, but then people went out and started making commercial recordings with it before standards were ever set for fair use. I had to be careful. I didn't need any more legal problems. I called up Springsteen's manager, who called up Springsteen and got him on the phone. I talked to him for maybe five minutes. He said, "It's no problem, man. I understand the struggle. You can use the song."

Basically, I used it with his blessing for free. After getting so much opposition from all sides, including from my fellow rappers, it felt good to get sympathy and support from a fellow artist, especially somebody as big as Springsteen. We wrote the song, quickly cut it in my studio in Liberty City, shot a video in a fake courtroom, and rush-released it for the Fourth of July. It was a challenge getting it to the radio stations on time, and we wanted every radio station to play it at the same time on the Fourth. "Banned in the U.S.A." was actually the first single ever digitally distributed to radio stations.

The cover of 2 Live Crew's controversial 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
The cover of 2 Live Crew's controversial 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
Photo by Bill Cooke

We beamed it to everyone via satellite. MP3s and Napster and iTunes and all that was still a decade away. I was actually the first person ever to use digital distribution technology for music, only four years after selling albums out of the trunk of my old Honda. Every station in the country played "Banned" on the Fourth of July. That was amazing to me, because all of my success to date had largely come without mainstream radio or TV attention. Now we were too hot to ignore.

As Nasty as They Wanna Be had shipped gold. Banned in the U.S.A. shipped platinum. That summer, we went on tour to support the new album, and that was the craziest three months of my life. I was the most dangerous black man in America. Hands down.

After Broward and all the media, law enforcement had this huge hard-on for 2 Live Crew. "Lock these motherfuckers up" was the mission. Every two-bit Nick Navarro wannabe from Jacksonville to Baton Rouge was lining up to be the next guy to bust Luther Campbell. The cops never wanted Brother Marquis or Fresh Kid Ice, the guys who sang most of the lyrics. Nobody wanted to lock them up. They wanted me. I was the leader. I was the guy on The Phil Donahue Show talking shit. I was the big prize. Before each show, these cops would be like, "Hey, you sing that shit and we'll lock your ass up." I'd just smile and act all innocent and say, "Oh, you're going to lock me up? What you gonna lock me up for?"

To lock me up, they'd have to arrest me first. In order for them to say I was evading arrest, they'd have to tell me, "You're under arrest!" I didn't even give them the opportunity to say that. After every show, I escaped. I was like fucking Houdini onstage. There was a thing we used to do back when I had the original Pac Jam disco. We were famous for "dropping the bomb." I would take a bunch of gunpowder, put it in a pipe, take two electrical wires, twist 'em together, put one end in the powder and the other end in a socket, and — boom! — it'd blow up. They were Jamaican pipe bombs, basically. Big explosion and a bright, bright light that would blind you for a second. It was a big flash, but it was over real quick. Used to scare the shit out of everybody.

Detroit was where I first started dropping the bomb. The cops were all over the place at that show, and just as we went on, somebody told me the cops were waiting outside by my limo as well. It was all planned. "We're gonna get this guy." The Detroit show was crazy. It happened right in the wake of Broward, and that was when we really started amping things up. We brought guys onstage to get lap dances from the girls, and some of the guys would eat the girls out. Sometimes the girls would do backflips and give the guys head onstage. We got this one girl from Chicago, she, like, sucked dick backward. Like, she'd flip over and be sucking the guy's dick onstage. It was some acrobatic shit. It was like a fucking freak show.

All those naked women onstage, and the cops were glaring at me, just watching and waiting for their chance to nab me. I was like a symphony conductor up there, a ringmaster, whipping the crowd and all these people onstage up into a frenzy. Then, right at the climax, right at the end of the last song, I'd grab the mic and yell, "Yeah! I want all these police, the mayor, the governor, and everybody to know one thing: They can suck my motherfucking dick and kiss my ass! Yo! Thank you! We are 2 Motherfucking Live in yo ass, and we don't give a fuck about no fucking cops!"

Luke in his office March 7, 1994, after winning a Supreme Court decision regarding his parody of Roy Orbison's song "Oh, Pretty Woman," in which he replaced the lyrics with "bald-headed woman."
Luke in his office March 7, 1994, after winning a Supreme Court decision regarding his parody of Roy Orbison's song "Oh, Pretty Woman," in which he replaced the lyrics with "bald-headed woman."
Photo by Bill Cooke

They cut the house lights. Pitch-black. Now drop the motherfucking bomb. Boom! Bright flash. Everybody blinded. Next, I hopped down into the crowd and took my shirt off. I always had two shirts on. Ditch the Luke Gear, just a plain T-shirt on, hoodie up, and I was out the door. Gone. Lost in the crowd. No security, no nothing. Just another young black dude in a hoodie. Cops never bother to tell the difference between us anyway. I made my way outside, flagged down this random group of chicks in a car, going, "Yo, yo, I need a ride, I need a ride."

They saw who I was and were like, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" They were all excited and shit. I hopped into the back of their Toyota, ducked down, and sped away. I watched all the fucking cops standing around my limo, looking for my ass. We cruised back by my hotel, and cops were looking for me there too. So we just drove past, went to this other hotel I knew on the riverfront, checked in, and I spent the rest of the evening laughing my ass off at all those cops wasting their fucking time.

I did that shit probably 20, 30 times. Some cities were worse than others. Cincinnati was wild. Those people were scared to fucking death. The police chief actually came and met us at the airport and gave us the usual warning. "Don't play those songs. Don't do fucking nothing in my town." Blah, blah, blah. It was always the same shit. Outside the club, it was like the cops were waiting for a full-blown riot, like this was going to turn into Watts or Newark or something. They had the whole street cordoned off. Rows of cops on horseback. Batons. Tear-gas cannons. Helicopters flying overhead. Snipers on the roof. Motherfuckers had that shit surrounded. The police presence intimidated a lot of the people who'd come to see us. They stayed away. The show was sold out, but by the time we were about to go on, the place was only about half full.

There wasn't enough of a crowd to do my Houdini act; I couldn't disappear if there weren't enough people. I was still ready to go ahead. Fuck it. Arrest me. I'll beat this one too. But the other guys wanted to back off. There had been a divide growing between me and them since the early days, when they just wanted to be rap stars and didn't want to be part of the business.

With the trial and the controversy, that divide was becoming a rift. A lot of people were confused when Banned in the U.S.A. came out and it was subtitled The Luke LP, Featuring 2 Live Crew. But that was just a reflection of where the group was at that time. That trial was all my initiative. Those guys just didn't want to fight, period. Whenever the police started knocking down our door, I was the one who had to step forth as the spokesman. I had to step out front and take all the heat and answer all the questions and make all the public comments.

So when we were facing arrest in Cincinnati that summer, they were like, "Yo, man, we don't want to go to jail." They said, "We should take a vote." They voted me down. They wanted to do a clean show. We performed the clean versions, like we were doing a kids' show. The audience was pissed. I was pissed too. At that point, I knew that when people came to our shows, they weren't just coming to see a show. They were coming to be a part of the spectacle, part of this movement, a part of saying "fuck you" to the establishment. We let them down. I regretted that we backed down. That was really the beginning of the end of 2 Live Crew.

The Book of Luke is available through harpercollins.com, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.


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