As the catalyst for a terrifying governmental attempt to censor ostensibly obscene musical expression — making it a crime in some districts to tell a dirty story with a beat — Luther Campbell, leader of the 2 Live Crew and owner of Luke (formerly Luke Skyywalker) Records, has followed Larry Flynt into the free-speech history books as another crude sleazemonger of trivial artistic merit whose prosecution nonetheless threatens basic constitutional freedoms. What Miami’s 2 Live Crew does is hardly new (check old party records by Blowfly or Redd Foxx for historical precedents), but rap’s enormous word-of-mouth audience turned what should have remained a fringe novelty for Hustler readers into a massively popular (and, unfortunately, influential) pop phenomenon. Coupled with Southern fear of a black planet, that was all it took to bring the 2 Live Crew into the crosshairs of a hysterical judiciary, resulting in the group’s third album being outlawed in some counties of Southeastern Florida in June 1990.
The Crew’s amateurish first album sets the basic parameters: simple boomin’ tracks (the Miami sound generally uses ultra-deep synth bass as the rhythmic foundation) with scratches, obvious samples and energetic dance-party rhymes, several of which crudely discuss the group’s hobby (e.g., “We Want Some P–sy!!”).
Besides his improving production skills, Campbell’s serious marketing savvy emerged on Move Somthin’, the first 2 Live Crew record to be released in both clean and dirty versions. Brother Marquis and Fresh Kid Ice make a game effort to make the expurgated version work (actually, the rewriting isn’t noticeably awkward), but it winds up being a party without a bottle opener.
An emboldened and meaner-sounding Crew reached its dubious apex on the overwhelming As Nasty as They Wanna Be double-album and its expurgated single-album extract, As Clean as They Wanna Be. Although the notorious “Me So Horny” — a catchy sexcapade built around a hooker’s line bitten from Full Metal Jacket — is fairly innocuous, other numbers like “Put Her in the Buck” and “The Fuck Shop” (which uses guitar lines from Guns n’ Roses as well as the Music Explosion) are as obsessively animalistic as the most violent porno movie. That people enjoy such nauseating garbage is a really sad comment on the state of American culture. Clean adds a goofy frat-styled parody of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and manages to do an occasionally clever job of sanitizing “Me So Horny” and reworking tracks like “The Funk Shop.” Still, the songs are about what they’re about, and the euphemisms leave little doubt as to what’s not being said.
With official attacks on Nasty turning the 2 Live Crew into a cause célébre, the unrepentant group refitted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” with new topical lyrics and used it as the lead-off track of Banned in the U.S.A., the first Luke release via Atlantic’s distribution wing. The album jumps back and forth between raps about the legal battle (with relevant audio actualities and fictional narration) and the Crew’s traditional paeans to bodies and boning: a very strange blend but, under such weird circumstances, probably as logical as they’re gonna be.
The live album — apparently the first-ever full-length rap concert LP — is a poorly recorded cattle call, in which Luke and the boys deliver a selection of their crudest sex raps (plus a couple of previously unrecorded sure-to-be-classics) to an enthusiastic Phoenix crowd. (Interesting choice of venue.) Regardless of the band’s ultimate place in history, the sound of an audience cheering “Head! Booty! Cock!” is unquestionably a cultural low.