2 Live Crew: Nasty or Nice?

DEFENDING 2 LIVE Crew’s right to party feels more like a chore than a privilege. Graphic slapstick writ large, As Nasty As They Wanna Be isn’t a very entertaining record, and their references to Cheech and Chong, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and the nameless, faceless bitches who do the nasty for them stack up to a circus of excess.

Even with a jaunty novelty like their new ‘Banned in the USA’, a play on ‘Born in the USA’ (which Springsteen gave them full permission to use), the highest praise you could shower on 2 Live Crew is that they’re controversial: nothing close to crafty at the simplest of rhymes, and never all that provocative rhythmically. The hoopla surrounding 2 Live Crew is a case of our media culture gone amok, touched off by conservative extremists and ambitious hacks creating a monster out of what might otherwise have been a zit on pop’s complexion.

The band’s first LP, Move Somethin’, was released in 1988, with only skirmishes of reaction. It contains just as many vulgar, sexist jokes as their current record. They produced it on their own Skyywalker label, and it sold more than a half-million copies by word of mouth. None of their crudities has been broadcast over the airwaves.

Then in January of this year, a self-anointed anti-pornography lawyer from Miami named Jack Thompson received a mailing from a national “pro-family” fundamentalist group called Focus on the Family, which convinced him that 2 Live Crew’s second album, the million-plus-selling As Nasty As They Wanna Be, was obscene. Focus on the Family is headed by radio psychologist James Dobson, who actually counted 87 descriptions of oral sex, 116 mentions of male and female genitalia, and lyrical passages referring to male ejaculation on the album.

Thompson sent a copy of Nasty‘s lyrics to Florida governor Bob Martinez, as well as to every sheriff in the state. Martinez promptly declared the record obscene, and Federal District Court judge Jose Gonzales did the same a short time later, turning the controversy into a legal issue. Sheriff Nick Navarro of Broward County, just north of Miami, then had the group arrested on June 6. Essentially, three right-wingers targeted the group as criminals and ended up making them media groupies.

The instances of sex acts on this record may sound outrageous, but vulgar onslaught is 2 Live Crew’s shtick. Theirs is a comedy of excess, and these piqued law-men aren’t privy to the joke. Like a lot of young rappers, 2 Live Crew follow the impulse to inflate black stereotypes and turn them back on their oppressors as harrowing jokes.

‘If You Believe in Having Sex’, for example, sends up the Miller Lite slogan, and every once in a while they drop white cue phrases into their mix, like “naughty private parts,” as if to cackle at the very judges and other restrictionists who are listening in. “Tastes great!/Less filling!” becomes a ribald, male-versus-female pep rally, a gag on fellatio that has a giddy boomerang effect on its source. To take any of this comic-book braggadocio seriously, you’d have to believe by extension that pro wrestlers fully intend to follow through on their limb-tearing threats, or that Woody Allen promotes the nervous neurotic behavior he portrays in his movies.

The joke is truly on the legal system, and bigger than even 2 Live Crew may have expected: the week after their record was declared obscene, the album sold a million copies in record stores nationwide. Tower Records in Boston reported sales of up to 100 records per week, making it one of that store’s 10 best-selling titles.

And note that the group took every precaution not to bait the system: the record was issued with voluntary warning stickers and in an alternative version coyly titled As Nice As They Wanna Be, which holds a cleaned-up rendition of ‘Me So Horny’ that actually made the Top 40. That these rappers are aesthetically inferior is beside the point. That locker-room antics can lead to the country’s freedoms being held hostage is what should be worrying people.

Before anybody started complaining, these records found a mass audience, and whatever else you may think about them, no matter how paltry their satire, 2 Live Crew have successfully intimidated the prejudices they target in their music. Even a brush fire will cause alarms, and you’ve got to hand it to them: they know how to nib provocative sticks together and run. So perhaps the right gets the enemies it deserves: 2 Live Crew are not much more than the stench of Jesse Helms lighting his own fart.

© Tim RileyThe Boston Phoenix, 27 July 1990

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