A media moral panic about their alleged obscenity has catapulted Miami rappers 2 Live Crew to national notoriety. FRANK OWEN reports from Florida.
LEAVING THE VIDEO SHOOT for his new solo single, ‘Banned In The U.S.A.’ Luther Campbell is Luke Skyywalker no more. And he’s pissed.
The nickname he’d been given as a teenager for his fleet-footed activities on the basketball court — and which he carried over into hip hop, naming his Miami-based record label Skyywalker Records — is costing him dearly.
“This multi-millionaire motherfucker George Lucas wants to put me out of business,” splutters Campbell. “He wants to destroy a small black business. Get this monkey off my back.”
George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, doesn’t mind the is government using the name of his film trilogy for a satellite defense system — that’s good clean family fun, after all — but when a bunch of ghetto Blacks use the name to sell dirty nursery rhymes to white kids…
“That’s very different”, says Bert Fields, an attorney for Lucasfilms. “First of all, you’re dealing with the U.S. government. They aren’t our competition. We issue our own records with Star Wars trademarks on them. When people go into a record store and see Luke Skyywalker all over a record, they associate it with us.”
“That’s bullshit,” replies Luther Campbell. “When you go into a record store and look at a 2 Live Crew album cover you see tits and ass and a bunch of black people. Who’s gonna confuse that with a Star Wars soundtrack.”
Presently, Campbell is under an injunction preventing his record company from moving half a million dollars worth of product. He has dropped Skyywalker from his company name and renamed it Luke Records, but that didn’t keep Lucasfilms’ attorneys from succeeding in getting an LA. judge to declare Campbell in breach of the injunction for wearing a “2 Black. 2 Strong. 2 Live Crew” T-shirt (with a small Luke Skyywalker Records logo) when he was arrested by Broward County police following the now infamous concert at Club Futura in Hollywood, Florida. If he’s unlucky, Campbell might end up in jail for wearing a T-shirt. May the force be with him.
The Lucas incident is the downside of a moral panic initiated by an obscure Coral Gables lawyer named Jack Thompson, which has now reached such lofty forums as the New York Times‘ letters page and Geraldo. Corporate cowardice being what it is, Lucasfilms — which according to Luther had been in amicable discussions with his record company for many mouths previous — is merely reacting to 2 Live Crew becoming a topic of national discussion. But the upside, according to Campbell, is that black people are now mobilizing around an issue — censorship — that traditionally has seemed to effect only whites. “I’m glad this is happening to me,” Campbell says. “It’s making me strong. People in the hip bop industry are waking Up, They’re realizing that we’ve got muscle, that we can fight back.”
What is happening to Luther Campbell may be making him strong, but it hasn’t politicized him to any great extent. On ‘Banned In The U.S A.’ he asks the rhetorical question, “Is this not America? We have the freedom of expression. We have the freedom of choice. So all you right-wingers, left-wingers, bigots, and communists. There is a place for you in this world. There is a place for your kind, but not in America, because this is the land of the free and home of the brave, and 2 Live Crew is what we are.”
Confused and disappointing, ‘Banned In The U.S A.’ suggests that a hip hop version of the pledge of allegiance called ‘Me So Corny’ might be Campbell’s next musical move.
But if Campbell is unwilling to see the political implications of what he’s going through, others are. Recently the New York hip hop community gathered at a downtown art gallery to debate the issue that this isn’t just an attack on 2 Live Crew, but an attack on black expression generally. Speaking from the stage, the organizer of the event. Bill Adler, said, “I don’t agree that 2 Live Crew are being prosecuted for their misogyny or their sluttiness. They’re being attacked as an easy target in a cultural war that’s going on right now.” And one of the frontline warriors in that war is Jack Thompson.
Like many a campaigning Christian with access to a fax machine, Coral Gables lawyer Jack Thompson devotes his day to feeding the obsessions of American public opinion, especially concerning the sexual abuse of children and women. Thompson says he became an anti-pornography crusader after he defended a woman in 1984 accused of child abuse who was herself a victim of rape and abuse. Obsessed with obscenity, Thompson is a man on a mission, declaring his conflict with 2 Live Crew merely “an opening shot in a cultural civil war.” Even the Florida bar association became alarmed by his zealotry, insisting he take a psychiatric test. “I passed. They found there was nothing wrong with me,” says Thompson proudly. Like MC Hammer, Jack Thompson wants to save the children. But Thompson’s idealized kids exist only in his head, where 14-year-olds never say “motherfucker” and infants never get erections.
Recently, Thompson sent a letter to Bruce Springsteen protesting the Boss’s decision to permit Luther Campbell to use the chorus of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ on ‘Banned In The U.S.A.’ Headed “Re: Your Facilitation of the Sexual Abuse of Women,” it read in part: “I would suggest ‘Raped In The U.S.A.’ as your next album, Mr. Springsteen, you’re now harmful to the women and children who have bought your albums.”
The origin of Thompson’s feud with 2 Live Crew is in dispute. Thompson claims it began when a mailing from a right-wing California family group called Focus On The Family convinced him that the lyrics of As Nasty As They Wanna Be were obscene. Campbell claims that it began when Luke Records released female rapper Anquette’s single ‘Janet Reno’, in praise of a current state attorney who at the time was running for that office. One of her opponents in that race was Jack Thompson.
“He’s a failure in life,” says Campbell of Thompson. “He’s jealous because I’m a successful black businessman. He’s taking out his frustrations on me.”
SPIN: Is it the violence towards women or the explicitness of 2 Live Crew that you object to?
THOMPSON: The wedding of the two together. I believe that when you wed sexually explicit material with imagery that brutalizes, humiliates, or degrades women, then that can cause some people in effect to act out those images. If you have the f-word nine-thousand times on an album, that wouldn’t make the album obscene in a legal sense. If you had explicit descriptions of sex acts, that wouldn’t necessarily make it obscene. The fact that this sexually explicit and violent album has been aggressively marketed to both adults and children is the reason we’re sitting here. It would never have gotten this far otherwise.
But Luther Campbell says he deliberately made a clean version of As Nasty As They Wanna Be, As Clean As They Wanna Be, to avoid such a charge.
Well, Luther is a liar. They didn’t make a clean version for the purpose of marketing to children; they made the clean version so they could get radio air-time and raise the visibility of the Nasty album. Luther himself admits that thirty percent of the Nasty album has been sold to children. Industry estimates are higher, probably around eighty or ninety percent. [Ed note: Industry sources contacted by SPIN said such a figure is at best a “guestimate,” though it is fair to say that a large proportion of 2 Live Crew’s audience is under 18.]
What do you say to the argument that this is dance music, first and foremost? That the lyrics appear much more offensive when written down than when heard in the heat of the dance floor?
I was more concerned about this after I bought the album and listened to it than by the transcript of the lyrics I first saw. To me, there’s a more compelling, more disturbing message when you actually hear it on the record than when you see it in black-and-white. There’s a power to music: Music wedded to sexually explicit material that calls for the brutalization of women is even more dangerous than if it were on a printed page and distributed to children.
How do you reply to Luther when he says if you want clean music, clean up the streets, clean up society?
Let’s put Luther in the analogous shoes of Josef Mengele. If Josef Mengele were to say, “I’m abusing people, sexual or otherwise, because that’s simply reflective of what’s going on in society, and therefore I’m not culpable for my role in this,” I think most everybody in this society would disagree with that. Luther Campbell is criminally culpable for trafficking in obscenity that glorifies the brutalization of women and trafficking it to children.
What about the argument that this is part of black comic culture, that the people who are offended by 2 Live Crew today are the same sort of people who were offended by Redd Foxx years ago?
The judge said no — 2 Live Crew are not in the vein of Eddie Murphy’s Raw or even Andrew Dice Clay. This is a non-comedic, non-satirical exploitation of women. And as for 2 Live Crew being part of black culture, many black people don’t think so, like Benjamin L. Hooks of the NAACP. 2 Live Crew are not reflective of black culture, they’re reflective of the very worst in society whether it’s white culture or black culture.
People in the hip hop community think that it’s because 2 Live Crew are black that they’re being persecuted. Why isn’t Andrew Dice Clay being booked for obscenity?
I have, as a 35-year-old white man, made myself listen to all the rap that’s out there that some people might say is obscene or sexually explicit. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no other hip hop album that’s obscene, in my opinion. I’ve also come to the conclusion that some rap music is very good entertainment And as for Andrew Dice Clay, I’m the only guy, as far as I know, who has filed a complaint with the FCC about the Saturday Night Live show. I try to be an equal opportunity anti-sexually explicit crusader. I suggest that if 2 Live Crew were white, it would have been much easier to have mounted a campaign against them, because there wouldn’t have been this phony racial argument that Luther Campbell and his disingenuous lawyers have been raising, despite the fact that the first judge who declared this album obscene was black.
I, as a white lawyer, am more than willing to admit that this is a racist country we live in. One of the truest indications of racism in this country is that there is very little being done to wage a drug war. Much of the violence has been in the black community, and white law enforcement has been content to let that violence rage as long as it stays in the black community. If the violence had been raging in the white suburbs, then we would have a real drug war. Now to compare that to the distribution of rap and hip hop in the white community, I think there’s an element of truth in the accusation that the establishment was not aware of what was being sold to black kids until white kids started buying it. But is my motive to punish a black entrepreneur for selling black music to white kids? No. It’s that anybody is selling this to anybody, regardless of color.
What about the argument that 2 Live Crew are merely aping, albeit in a more exaggerated, brutal form, the predominant values of mainstream America in the ’80s: materialistic, macho, acquisitive?
I’d be the first to admit that American society is one that is tainted with materialism, misogyny, violence, sexual abuse, racism, anti-spiritualism. We live in the most depraved century of the history of man. However, does that disturbing landscape of America mean that we should give in to this moral cancer and that we should simply say there are no standards of human conduct, existential or eternal, or do we take a stand and say that values are worth fighting for, and more importantly, the women and children who are harmed by this are worth protecting?
Is this a personal vendetta?
I have repeatedly offered to meet with Luther to try and get some understanding of where we were going with this thing. Repeated efforts have failed. I wanted to resolve with Luther something that’s put him in a very difficult situation. You know, I think the guy’s talented. He’s been a very successful businessman up until now. To me, one of the real tragedies is that this guy is on a collision course with personal annihilation as well as corporate annihilation. I’m interested in stopping Luther for his own personal eternal welfare, whether anyone wants to believe this or not.
Sitting in a topless donut shop in Fort Lauderdale — “If you like our tits, please leave tips” reads the sign on the wall — it’s difficult to ascertain what exactly are those “community standards” that Charles Freeman offended when he sold a copy of As Nasty As They Wanna Be to an undercover cop at his local record store, Taking Home the Hits.
Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro — the man who authorized the arrests of both Charles Freeman and, two days later, 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges — doesn’t want to save Luther Campbell’s soul from eternal damnation. He just wants him to obey the law, no matter how trivial or unjust that law might be.
On entering Navarro’s office it’s easy to see why Luther Campbell has dubbed the sheriff “a media freak.” There’s a veritable gallery of framed cartoons from local newspapers hanging on the wall, most of them making fun of Navarro’s penchant for high-profile PR. There are also signed photos of Al Pacino, Bob Hope, Gloria Estefan, and a host of other celebrities. There’s even an autographed boxing glove from Mohammed Ali.
What do you say to the criticism that there’s too much serious crime in Broward County to spend so much energy on something so trivial?
NAVARRO: We are taking care of all serious crime in Broward County. We have not abandoned anything. I have not added one person to the unit that works this beat all the time. I have six people assigned — they work prostitution, they work gambling, they work pornography, they work obscenity. My agency has 3,000 people in it.
The Miami Herald reported that it took thirty officers, not six, to arrest 2 Live Crew after the Club Futura show.
There’s a lot of exaggeration and lies in the media at the moment. I’m just doing my job. The Miami Herald is lying. They are anti-govemment, they are anti-everything. They are the crusaders, not me. [Ed. note: The Miami Herald stands by its figure of 30 officers assigned to police the event, though not all were involved in the actual arrest.]
The Miami Herald also implied that arresting 2 Live Crew was a move to further your political ambitions.
The Miami Herald is full of crap. I’m not going anyplace. I’m sixty years old and I’ve been a law enforcement officer for most of my life. I’m going from here to retirement, not into political office.
You’re no stranger to media attention. Before 2 Live Crew, you were often featured on talk shows and in newspapers. Is all this media chatter essential for doing your job?
The media has helped us a lot in law enforcement — to find fugitives, to find missing persons, and in many other areas where we wouldn’t have solved crimes if it wasn’t for the help of the media. I have always had good relations with people in the media, but all of a sudden you folks are becoming a pain in the neck.
Isn’t there something un-American about arresting people for obscenity?
I am a law-enforcement officer and I enforce the laws of this country. That is my job like your job is sitting there asking me these silly questions. My job is to enforce the laws, and even if they might be silly sometimes, I have to do it.
What do you say to people who claim that this is a racial thing — 2 Live Crew are being prosecuted for obscenity because they’re black?
Iheard this argument in the courtroom from 2 Live Crew’s attorneys, that this was the new black culture. I took offense at that because I know too many nice, decent, hardworking people in the black community for that to be true.
But what about the argument that 2 Live Crew are a legitimate representation of young black inner-city culture as opposed to bourgeois black culture?
How about the young black person who is a member of the church choir, who is a very devout individual, who is very studious and very earnest? You mean to tell me that 2 Live Crew represent him? I know a lot of kids who are trying to get on in the world and they’re being pulled down by the likes of 2 Live Crew. 2 Live Crew are representative of these individuals? No, they’re not. Uh-uh. No way. Let me set the record straight. This is not an attack on rap music generally — we have a rap group in the sheriffs office who perform at schools telling kids to stay off drugs an d stay in school.
© Frank Owen, Spin, September 1990