If 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell Could Go Back in Time, He Would Clean Up His Act

“We were the outcasts of the entire music business."

by Anna Gaca
Oct 5 2014, 4:29pm

At the height of their popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, 2 Live Crew were legendary for their contributions to the sound of Miami Bass, as well as their vividly sexual rhymes: "Lick my ass up and down/ Lick it til your tongue turn doo doo brown" in "C'mon Babe" or, "I like the way you lick the champagne glass/ It makes me wanna stick my dick in your ass" in "Pop That Pussy." When the likes of Tipper Gore and the American Family Association decided that dirty rap threatened modern youth, the members of the Crew were exhibits A, B, C, and D. Family-values organizations dispatched teens to buy the group's albums in order to have record store owners arrested. The recording industry introduced glaring black-and-white Parental Advisory labels to protect itself from outrage against the lyrical atrocities of 2 Live Crew.

The debacle was better publicity than the group ever could have bought. 2 Live Crew earned a legacy as shameless pioneers of strip club rap, and for sheer shock value no one has really topped them since. But it's 2014, and Luther Campbell, AKA former 2 Live Crew frontman Luke Skyywalker, has settled down. He still lives in his hometown of Miami, where he's a businessman and a columnist. But when I heard that Campbell was giving a talk about sex and hip-hop, I couldn't help but expect something racy.

"A discussion about sexuality and hop hop would be incomplete without the inclusion of the 2 Live Crew's genre-pushing lyrics," read a press release for Campbell's guest lecture at Dillard University in New Orleans, where school president Walter Kimbrough teaches a course on sex, gender, and ethics in hip-hop. President Kimbrough is not your average higher education leader. He tweets under the handle @HipHopPrez, and he opened by singing "Throw That D" so smoothly that Campbell threw up a hand in admiration.

"People would go crazy in the parties when the 2 Live Crew came on," Kimbrough told his students. "This was part of my college experience. We were shocked that people could say this."

Beneath 2 Live Crew's legacy of raunch lies a secret history of political activism. 1989's As Nasty As They Wanna Be was the first record ruled legally obscene. The Crew ended up in court themselves, accused of breaking the law by performing their songs. Campbell fought all the way to Supreme Court, winning a precedent-setting case on parody and copyright.

"We were the outcasts of the entire music business. It nearly got to the point where we couldn't get on regular tours," Campbell said. "Me and Ice Cube became real good friends because we used to sit back and talk about how the New York artists would disenfranchise us."

If he had it all to do again, he admitted, the Crew wouldn't have been so naughty. "Some of the things that were said I wouldn't have allowed to be said," he explained. "In some of the cases, some of the guys went overboard." The one-time provocateur has cleaned up his act considerably. In 2011, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Miami.

"I ran for mayor knowing I wasn't going to win," Campbell told the audience. "It's 70% Cuban in Miami and probably 30% African-American." What he wanted to do was prove a point: hip-hop notoriety is a path to influence, not a barrier.

"Birdman right now could go into the mayor's office and demand certain things in his community," said Campbell, making an example of the Cash Money co-founder. "The mayor of New Orleans would be scared to death if Birdman did a commercial saying, 'I don't like the mayor, you need to support this other guy.' There are a whole bunch of people out there who voted for Obama. There are a lot of 18-year-old people with voter registration cards that never had them before. Artists need to get these people energized and back to the polls."

Campbell has a lot of faith in the social prerogative of hip hop, but he's frustrated by how little current artists do to advance the cause. To his ears, today's big stars sound like increasingly pale imitations of the old school. "Today, everybody is singing on the same beat. Everybody's trying to be like somebody from the past," he complained. "If you look at one of our videos: jet ski, party in a house. You take a look at a Rick Ross video, you see the same thing. Were we ahead of our time? Yeah, to a degree. But when are these guys gonna get out of doing parties in clubs?"

He couldn't resist aiming a cheap shot at Nicki Minaj's assets. "All the girls in hip-hop are doing nude videos right now," he added. "But back then, all the girls had original body parts."

Is it Luther Campbell's job to tell younger artists how they should or shouldn't be making music? Maybe not. Jet skis are cliché, but so are old men griping about the declining morals of the youth. Campbell wouldn't be as relevant today if not for the continued popularity of the musical aesthetic he helped create. Besides, it's hardly appropriate to bodysnark on Nicki Minaj while sitting in front of a giant screen that says, "sex, gender, and the First Amendment." Attitudes like that are the reason we need songs like "Anaconda." 2 Live Crew put four women in thongs on the cover of As Nasty As They Wanna Be and rapped about sex constantly. There's something ironic about Luke Skyywalker telling other rappers they ought to stop getting naked and consider petitioning their elected representatives.

The difference is that Campbell isn't in a position to censor artists, nor would he want to be. He spent two million out of his own pocket on the Supreme Court case. "It wasn't about money," he said. "It was about our rights. It was about saving hip-hop." He's not a politician; he just happens to find the political process a more useful way to effect change. Last year, he helped a man he met through a youth outreach program win election as Miami's youngest city commissioner. His column for the Miami New Times covers everything from LeBron James to the county school board.

It all seems hopelessly normal, but evidently, this is what being in 2 Live Crew makes you want to do with your life. Campbell could have set himself up as the star of a new group, or scored millions off production deals like Dr. Dre. His old buddy Ice Cube is still in the game, rapping alongside his two eldest sons. It's not difficult to imagine a world where Campbell, rather than Coolio, would be the guy writing extended softcore commercials for PornHub. I'm glad I don't live in that world. Seeing an infamous bad boy grow up is reassuring. Listen to all the filthy rap you want. You'll probably turn out fine.

Follow Anna Gaca on Twitter - @tweeasfuck.