Luther Campbell’s importance in the story of commercial rap has been severely underrepresented. Luminaries such as Russell Simmons and Dr. Dre have been given ample opportunity to mythologize and re-emphasize their places in hip-hop history through both film and literature. But as the leader and creative engine behind the groundbreakingly nasty Florida rap group 2 Live Crew, Campbell has found his legacy reduced to little more than a disembodied voice screaming “Pop that!” from some forgotten champagne room in Ybor City.
After spending recent years running for mayor of Miami and coaching a high school football team, Uncle Luke has returned to present his legend in his own terms. The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice and Liberty City finds our gap-toothed protagonist recounting his life as a relentless hustler with an inventive mind and a desire to avoid the dead end life of a weed dealer (“Drug money don’t stick to nothing but a good time”). You watch him go from being the kid with the lemonade stand featuring Miami’s most profitable Pac-Man machine to the music entrepreneur behind the first Southern rap group’s chart-topping albums who can’t help but piss people off every step of the way.
Throughout his life, Luke always had a knack for successful business models. As a promoter, he developed an early rap touring circuit, bringing in new artists, helping them break their records in Florida and giving them their first performances outside of New York. He came up with the idea of releasing clean and explicit versions of albums. As a member of the Ghetto Style DJs, he gained a reputation for throwing the best parties by having the most powerful sound system and by guaranteeing to beat the shit out of anyone caught starting a fight at one of their events. Conflict is a constant theme in The Book of Luke, whether it’s with corrupt cops in Miami, sketchy record labels or the United States Supreme Court.
Despite the mainstream view of 2 Live Crew being a group of profane pussyhounds, Uncle Luke’s memoir isn’t about partying and getting laid. Campbell exhibits an impressive command of Floridian history throughout the book, detailing the Caribbean background of Miami’s early black settlers, the rise and fall of Overtown, Miami’s first prominent black neighbourhood, and the redistricting and racial integration of schools in Liberty City that contributed to Miami’s simmering urban tension in the ‘70s and ’80s.
He writes about the civil rights climate there at the time, pointing to cases of police brutality against black men in Florida that didn’t quite reach the national conversation. The 1980 McDuffie race riots figure in prominently, making Luke’s parties a source of both social protest and sorely-needed entertainment in a newly battered and guarded Liberty City.
There’s also some great parts about how growing up in an Afro-Caribbean melting pot fostered Campbell’s early appreciation for the power of bass, stemming from the traditional party music of those cultures. I didn’t really expect the guy behind “Face Down Ass Up” to be such an incisive ethnographic commentator but hey, here we are.
Rap is the most regional of all genres, the style of music where the place that an artist comes from is given the most importance. The music of 2 Live Crew sonically and culturally represented the spirit of Miami but lacked the lyrical references to their setting that have helped canonize the work of rap groups from other corners of the States. Luther Campbell has filled that information gap with this book, a compelling history of the music scene from an occasionally forgotten corner of America where a different hip-hop creation myth ran parallel to the one that was being written in New York. Now that we’ve got people driving around bumping NWA again, it might be high time for a reappraisal of 2 Live Crew’s back catalogue.
Rollie Pemberton is rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. Follow him on Twitter.