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.
Campbell, meanwhile, will be happy if he never has to deal with another lawyer. "I don't give a damn about any of that shit, because if I did, I'd want to blow some motherfuckers' heads off," he says. "I'd blow Manzini's head off, Wolfe's head off, and Weinberger's head off, too. But I'm past that. At the end of the day all of them who fucked me have to answer to a higher authority."
Disputes over stolen songs are the heart and soul of entertainment law. For decades white-owned record companies have been screwing poor black musicians. In the Fifties and Sixties executives started buying tunes from R&B musicians without crediting the songwriters or paying royalties. In the early Fifties bluesman Willie Dixon sold numerous compositions for $30 apiece to musicians and producers without adequate copyright protection. (He had to fight to get credit for writing the Led Zeppelin hit "Whole Lotta Love.") Mississippi Fred McDowell had to take the Rolling Stones to court to get credit for his song "You Got to Move." The matter, however, isn't exclusive to black musicians. The Beatles sued EMI in 1979, claiming they weren't paid all of their North American royalties.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, aggressive hip-hop artists and their managers brought a no-holds-barred, street sensibility to both the music and the record business. They weren't about to be exploited. "It's time to own the plantation, not work on that motherfucker," notorious Death Row Records head Marion "Suge" Knight told Newsweek in a 1998 interview from the California Men's Colony, where he is serving nine years for assault. While the executives' color may have changed, the abusive conduct did not. Knight allegedly threatened violence to gain artists' recording contracts from rival producers.
In April Interscope Records executive Steve Stoute claimed rap star Sean "Puffy" Combs and several henchmen burst into his Manhattan office and beat him bloody. Combs was furious because the company had used his image in another rapper's video, according to news accounts. Police charged Combs with assault.
Such sparks are inevitable when the street meets the boardroom, observers say. "Artists are typically more unsophisticated than the business requires them to be," says Stan Soocher, an entertainment lawyer in New York and author of They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court, which contains two chapters on Campbell's travails. "Certainly with hip-hop there aren't a lot of accountants and lawyers on the streets," he continues. "Those people usually come later."
Profits bring lawyers, adds Jerry Rushin, general manager and vice president of urban music station 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1). "Because they come from the streets, when a lot of hip-hop artists make a deal, a lot of t's aren't crossed and i's aren't dotted," he points out. "This is good until you strike gold. Then the lawyers come in."
Campbell and his group 2 Live Crew were among the first rap acts to stomp on mainstream white sensibilities and clash with the law, then use the conflict to market their music. In 1990, a year after the release of their wickedly funny, cruelly lascivious album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, the group's penchant for trouble brought them national fame.
Prompted by Key Biscayne Sunday school teacher and anti-porn crusader Jack Thompson, then-Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro delivered the lyrics of 2 Live Crew's Nasty album that March to County Court Judge Mel Grossman. Grossman obligingly declared there was probable cause to believe the album was obscene, a ruling that allowed police to remove it from stores. 2 Live Crew fought back in federal court, requesting Judge Jose Gonzalez stop the cops. During the trial that followed, renowned black historian and writer Henry Louis Gates and others (including New Times's then-music editor Greg Baker) testified the group's music was culturally relevant.
Gonzalez found the album's lyrics obscene, which meant sales were illegal in stores where minors were allowed to shop. It was the first time a court had made such a determination about a recording.
Police action was swift. Navarro's deputies arrested a record store owner who sold the album. Similar collars were made in Sarasota, San Antonio, and Dallas. The controversy flared across the nation like an Everglades brushfire during a drought. The wife of then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore, Tipper, deplored the gutter-mouthed rappers, prompting a debate that made it all the way to Congress. (The verse from "Me So Horny" that reportedly got Mrs. Gore's knickers in a twist was "... put your lips on my dick/and suck my asshole too.") Then in June Broward deputies arrested Campbell and his bandmates for performing before an all-adult audience in Hollywood. On October 20, 1990, a jury found the group not guilty. In 1992 an appeals court overturned Judge Gonzalez's obscenity ruling, thus allowing album sales. Eventually more than a million albums were sold.
Although many conservatives considered Campbell the devil's troubadour, residents of the 'hood had a different opinion of him. In his heyday the rapper spent $250,000 on a facility for the Optimist Club football and baseball programs in Liberty City. He created an alcohol-free teen club and on holidays, he loaded up a delivery truck and handed out turkeys, canned food, and gifts.
Meanwhile Campbell created a business kingdom of ambitious reach. He owned music publishing, development, and mortgage companies, a recording studio, and a nightclub.
But he was about to find that the same brazen spirit that propelled 2 Live Crew to the U.S. Supreme Court and a platinum album could be a liability in the business world. He had a difficult time holding on to his money. He'd go out with a crowd and pay everyone's tab. He had two bodyguards. There were rumors he liked to gamble. In 1990 he bought a $500,000 home in Miami Lakes.
In addition to his financial success with 2 Live Crew, Campbell earned substantial money producing other musicians' work. One of his first hits was Peter Jones's 1987 album Gotta Be Tough. In August of that year, the recording reached number 44 on Billboard magazine's chart of top black albums. Campbell paid Jones $95,645 in royalties for Tough and another album, but the rapper grew suspicious. In 1990 Jones hired Wolfe to investigate. Wolfe remembers crunching some numbers. "By my interpretation of the contract, Jones was owed $180,000 in addition to the $90,000 already paid," he recalls. In June 1990 Wolfe sued Campbell.
On March 10, 1991, the then-24-year-old Jones celebrated his budding stardom and an upcoming birthday by arguing with one Timothy Clark in the parking lot of a suburban Atlanta club. Jones ended up shooting Clark in the leg. His lawyer said at the time that Clark threatened Jones. A month later Jones pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm and aggravated assault. A DeKalb County judge sentenced him to one year in prison and four years probation.
Wolfe was unsure about the effect of Jones's arrest on his royalty case against Luke Records. Later that year he offered to settle for $150,000.
Dealing with lawyers had become an unpleasant reality for Campbell. He denigrated them and suspected the lot of bleeding him financially. He also relied on them; people sued Luther Campbell and he returned the favor.
In early 1992 Campbell was trying to replace a lawyer he had just fired. He assigned Joseph Weinberger, Luke Records in-house counsel, to the search. On February 1 Weinberger called Manzini, whom he had worked with briefly in the Eighties.
Manzini recalls Weinberger telling him Campbell needed help with a "big problem," the dissolution of 2 Live Crew. Two of Campbell's partners, David Hobbs and Mark Ross, were complaining about the distribution of the group's proceeds and wanted to split.
Manzini claims that Weinberger urged him to take the job despite his lack of experience in entertainment law. Manzini quotes Weinberger: "We don't want an entertainment lawyer. We've had enough of those. We want a seasoned trial lawyer like yourself. I will give you everything you need as far as entertainment law." Manzini said he responded, "Fine."
Weinberger describes the same meeting differently. He recalls Manzini eagerly sold himself, asserting he had never lost a case: "Nic[k] went ... through all of his qualifications.... Like he was one of the elite trial lawyers in Dade County ... and that he was being considered as appointee for the Third [District Court of Appeal] or Florida Supreme Court, that he was well regarded by local judges, and he was like one of the key forces in the Cuban-American Bar Association, and that he went to Princeton and went to the University of Pennsylvania." Manzini, Weinberger adds, said he liked to settle cases rather than "drag things out."
They made a deal. Manzini's agreed-upon $10,000 per month retainer was more than Weinberger earned as in-house counsel for Luke Records.
Manzini apparently didn't tell Campbell about his debts. He owed more than $53,000 to the IRS. Even his American Express credit card had been canceled. "It's my opinion [Manzini] needed the job to keep the lights on in his office while he got back on his feet," Weinberger now says.
In 1992 Manzini successfully settled the 2 Live Crew case. Although millions were in dispute, both sides apparently left the table happy. (Details of the settlement were not disclosed.) Comments Campbell: "[Manzini] did a good job on the 2 Live Crew case, so I legitimately believed he could handle [Peter Jones]. I mean, what was this versus 2 Live Crew?"
Next Manzini rejected Wolfe's settlement proposal. Campbell had earlier told Manzini he didn't want to pay the rap star more than $50,000, says Manzini.
But both Weinberger and Wolfe say Jones's case was so strong that Manzini should have taken the offer more seriously. Two former Luke Records employees had admitted changing inventory records. There were no accurate sales figures.
Manzini rejected four other offers by Wolfe. Each time Wolfe asked for more money.
Finally, as the trial date approached, both made arrangements to depose Jones. On December 17, 1992, Wolfe, Manzini, and Weinberger traveled to the Burrus Correctional Training Center in Forsythe, Georgia, where the rapper was serving his sentence for the shooting.
Manzini brought Weinberger to assist him, a logical move say Manzini's lawyers, given that Weinberger was Luke's in-house counsel. Weinberger claims it didn't make sense for him to go Georgia; his time was better spent reviewing the books at Luke Records. "I kept saying, 'Nick, what do you need me to go up there for?'" Weinberger says. His question was answered when they got off the plane at Hartsfield International Airport and went to the rental-car desk. "[Manzini] says to me, 'You have to rent the car, I'm having problems with my credit card.' His credit card was canceled!" Weinberger recalls.
They drove to the prison, met Wolfe, then proceeded to a conference room. Jones, in a prison jumpsuit, met them and answered boilerplate questions about signing the contract and its terms. After a couple of hours, the lawyers left. The group was scheduled to depose Jones's father Carster Jones, and then Jones's manager Rodney Terry, that afternoon. But Manzini and Weinberger didn't show up at Carster Jones's house. According to a transcript of the deposition, Weinberger called Manzini's office. "Nick won't be appearing for this deposition," the secretary said. She didn't give a reason.
This was the reason, according to Weinberger: Manzini wanted to eat at a famous fried-chicken place for lunch. "I said, 'Nick, we've got to go to this deposition.' He said, 'No, no, no. We're going to Aunt Fannies,' or whatever it was called, 'for lunch. These people Richard's taking depositions from add nothing to the case.'"
Wolfe was delighted to have the witnesses to himself. "It was great for me," he trumpets. "I asked leading questions, I asked hearsay questions. Nobody was there to stop me."
Manzini's lawyer Richard Cole disputes this version of events. "No, he did not go to a fried-chicken place," Cole says. "And it was Mr. Weinberger who decided the depositions were not necessary." Cole did not know where they ate lunch. Wolfe says a travel itinerary shows Manzini planned on skipping the later depositions.
The nonjury trial before Dade County Circuit Court Judge Peter Capua, an accomplished saxophone player who once performed at the White House, started December 23, 1992. It took place at intervals over the next year and a half. The proceedings were not the stuff of Court TV. The arguments revolved around which arcane formula would be used to calculate Jones's royalties. The central issue became the reliability of Luke Records' accounting.
Manzini made a bold claim. He argued that, because Luke Records never charged Jones for shooting videos and promoting his work, the artist owed money to Campbell. Manzini ignored a clause in the contract stating that the company would only charge Jones recording costs. Then he posited that Luke Records' shoddy bookkeeping had actually overstated the number of Jones's recordings sold.
It was a fatal flaw, says Wolfe.
Manzini was apparently unaware of a 1987 U.S. Court of Appeals decision known as Thomas v. Gusto, which established that if a recording company's sales figures are admittedly unreliable, the artists are allowed to present expert testimony to help determine actual sales figures. That case involved Sixties singer B.J. Thomas (of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" fame) who, along with the Shirelles, sued Gusto Records for back royalties.
"It's a bellwether case," says New York entertainment lawyer and author Stan Soocher. "It's believed to be the first rock-royalty case to make it to a federal appeals court."
Manzini's admission that the company's bookkeeping was inaccurate opened the door to Wolfe. He produced experts and Billboard magazine charts to establish higher sales figures.
Wolfe says Manzini also flubbed by insisting that only one company, Caribbean Record Manufacturing, pressed all Jones's albums. Wolfe produced invoices from two other companies indicating they had also manufactured Jones's albums. Wolfe insists Manzini didn't bother to check the 41 containers full of documents that Luke Records supplied as evidence. "I went through every one of those boxes," Wolfe says.
As the case spilled over into 1993, Campbell claims he was too busy to follow Manzini's courtroom fumbles. That March the X-rated rapper faced a much-publicized challenge when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a Nashville recording company's claim against 2 Live Crew. Acuff-Rose Music argued the group's takeoff of the opening lines of Roy Orbison's 1964 hit "Pretty Woman" devalued the original song. Orbison's version went like this: "Pretty woman, walking down the street./Pretty woman, girl you look so sweet." The Crew's variation: "Big hairy woman -- you need to shave that stuff./Big hairy woman -- you know, I bet it's tough./Big hairy woman -- all that hair ain't legit, 'cause you look like Cousin It...."
2 Live Crew lawyer Bruce Rogow argued the parody was protected by an exception to copyright law that allows use of snippets of a work for criticism, commentary, or research. The case made headlines across the nation. Friend-of-the-court briefs were filed by Harvard Lampoon magazine and political satirist Mark Russell.
On March 7, 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2 Live Crew's favor. "We're still undefeated," Campbell told the press. He spoke too soon.
Seven months later, on October 28, 1994, Judge Peter Capua ruled that Luke Records owed Peter Jones $1.6 million. That would grow to $2.3 million after other costs, including punitive damages, were added.
Campbell didn't have the money. The lawsuits had drained his resources. Although Campbell earned millions in 1993, he said he had spent about one-third of his money on lawyers. Several million more was tied up in equipment, leases, and mortgages. Then there were his personal expenses. He owned a $700,000 yacht, liked to gamble, and three women were after him for child support. In fact, according to court documents, Weinberger had loaned the company about $400,000 to cover expenses.
Weinberger requested that Manzini inform Campbell of the Jones loss. "No, that's your job," was the response Weinberger says he received. "I'm not going to tell him." Then Manzini announced he would withdraw from all pending cases if his outstanding balance of roughly $30,000 was not paid, according to Weinberger. "I thought that was really sleazy," Weinberger comments.
Campbell was unprepared for the Jones verdict. "This came as a complete surprise to me," Campbell says, stretching his elbows across his office table. "Ain't no way in the world you can lose a case like that. Somebody had to have royally fucked up."
Campbell agreed to pay Manzini, but Jones's money presented more of a challenge.
On Halloween of that year Weinberger and Manzini drove to Campbell's home on a cul-de-sac by a golf course in Miami Lakes. "We're sitting there in Luke's kitchen, and [Manzini] is telling Luke he feels really bad," Weinberger recalls. "He guarantees him he'll win on appeal."
Campbell concurs. "Manzini was very upset about it. He said, 'We need to appeal this shit. I guarantee you we can win on appeal.'" Then Campbell's voice lowers: "I kind of believed him."
Weinberger advised against the appeal. Just the cost of filing would be about three million dollars because the state requires a bond of 124 percent of the judgment. "I told Luke, 'You're not going to be able to post bond.' And he said, 'You don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Manzini said I could.'"
In November Weinberger advised Campbell to settle the case with Wolfe. Then he suggested suing Manzini for malpractice. According to a memo written by Manzini, Campbell's response was, "I am a loyal person and I do not understand this type of bullshit."
Then Manzini discovered a potential conflict of interest: Campbell owed money to his advisor Weinberger. The debt prevented Weinberger "from exercising truly independent judgment," Manzini argued. It was in Weinberger's interest to ensure that Campbell avoid bankruptcy, which would have insulated the rap mogul from creditors.
Manzini eventually won the battle for Campbell's trust. As a result Weinberger, sensing he would not get paid, started asking Campbell's creditors to join his effort to force Luke Records into involuntary bankruptcy; by state law three creditors must request that classification. In 1994 Campbell fired Weinberger.
But it was too late. Weinberger and three other creditors successfully pushed the company into bankruptcy in 1995. For $800,000 Weinberger bought the rights to the 2 Live Crew recordings and several other works of recording artists in the Luke Records catalogue. He also forgave Campbell's debt and formed his own label, Lil' Joe Records.
Wolfe still basks in the glow of his victory in the Jones case. Because of his win against Campbell, he's routinely asked to speak at music trade gatherings. This past year he addressed the MIDEM Latin American music convention. In March he was a guest speaker at the Winter Music Conference in Miami Beach. This past month he orated at the Emerging Artists Talent in Music parley in Las Vegas. He partially credits Manzini for his celebrity status. "[Without Manzini's mistakes] I still would have won, I just would not have won by as big a margin," he says. He recently joined one of Miami's stellar firms, Zack Kosnitzky P.A., where he has an office on the 28th floor. He's also added two new clients, Weinberger and Luther Campbell.
Lil' Joe Records's profits have not yet equaled Campbell's debt, Weinberger says. The company receives 2 Live Crew royalties and a percentage of profits from the work of the group's two remaining members. Last year the duo recorded a song for the soundtrack of the Jerry Springer movie Ringmaster, and cut a new version of "Me So Horny," in honor of Pres. Bill Clinton's legal woes, titled "Bill So Horny."
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After paying a total of about $1.4 million, and losing considerable other assets, Campbell has slowly emerged from bankruptcy and started rebuilding his empire. He has a radio show on WEDR, produces several acts, and is recording a solo album.
He's engaged to marry his tall, beautiful, college-age girlfriend Donyale, who accompanied him recently to his Miami Beach studio. It was 1:00 a.m. and Campbell was behind the glass in a soundproof room. As an engineer worked a mixing board, Campbell's vocal gymnastics blasted through the speakers in an angry, insistent rap. Then he pokes his head through the door and asks, "Too hot?" He tones it down on the next take. Perhaps the past few years' turmoil has created a knot of anger. It's hard to tell.
When he and Donyale leave at the end of the session, the animosity is gone. Campbell is tired. It's been a long night, and he's revisited some bad memories. "Look, I hold myself responsible for trusting those people," he muses, referring to the lawyers. "I hope this is the last motherfucking time I have a conversation about this." Then he and Donyale turn toward a white Ford Explorer. "Take it easy," he says over his shoulder.