Born c. 1961 in Miami, FL; son of a hairdresser and a custodian; children: daughters. Spun records with Ghetto Style DJs, c. 1979; worked as hospital and hotel cook, c. 1980-85; performed at Liberty City street parties 1980-85; music promoter, 1982--; founder, and owner of Luke Records (formerly Skywalker Records), 1984--; member of the 2 Live Crew, 1985-91. Author, with John R. Miller, of As Nasty as They Wanna Be, Kingston, 1992. Addresses: Record company-- Luke Records Inc., 8400 N.E. 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33138.
Perhaps the most controversial figure to emerge from the rap/hip-hop scene, Luther Campbell has made a name for himself that may forever live in infamy. As lead rapper for the 2 Live Crew, his crude lyrical renditions and lewd onstage antics incurred the wrath and indignation of religious groups across the nation. And in 1989 the release of As Nasty as They Wanna Be firmly established Campbell as every parent's worst nightmare.
The youngest son of a hairdresser and a custodian, Luther Campbell grew up in Miami's impoverished Liberty City. He skipped school to shoot dice and bribed teachers with his winnings. Though his siblings all went to college, Campbell did not learn to read or write until the 11th grade, when he was bused to a white Miami Beach high school.
Though uninterested in academics, Campbell was avid about music. Before graduation, he spun records with a group called Ghetto Style D.J.s. Afterward, he played parties while working as a cook at a hospital and a hotel. But music couldn't keep him out of trouble. He was arrested four times, on charges ranging from aggravated assault to carrying a concealed weapon, none of which resulted in a conviction. In 1985 police found him with a 9-mm semi-automatic machine gun; he told the New York Times he led a gang in those days but in an interview with Rolling Stone Campbell claimed his arrests resulted from self-defense. "Gang members would come to our dances," he asserted, "and we would defend ourselves and the people coming to see us."
Whatever the truth about those years, Campbell was finding his vocation: rapping, spinning discs, and promoting rap shows. "Whoever had the most bass, with their speakers and stereo setup, was the best group," Campbell told the Chicago Tribune. "To attract crowds, you had to have serious bass."
Campbell's raps were almost all about sex, the rawer the better. "We listened to [comedians] Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Redd Foxx," he told The Chicago Tribune. "Those records were all over the community. Everybody had them. And then we combined that with what guys talk about in the locker room. Everybody could relate to that."
In 1985 Campbell, who had adopted the name Luke Skywalker, promoted a show by the 2 Live Crew, a group consisting of Trinidad-born rapper Chris Wong Won and California scratch DJ David Hobbs. Campbell, Won, and Hobbs hit it off and it was decided that Campbell would join the group. The trio cut "Throw the D," a record that referred to a specific part of the male anatomy and had the heavy bass Campbell used at street parties. The New York Times called "Throw the D" a "propulsive, uptempo dance tune with a monstrous, reggae-style bass line."
The record was released on Campbell's small, independent label, Skywalker Records. The label's name was later changed to Luke Records when George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars series and owner of the rights to the name Luke Skywalker, sued Campbell for unauthorized use of the name. "Throw the D" sold 200,000 copies despite zero publicity, a cover that warned of graphic language, and a distribution system that essentially consisted of Campbell hawking the single out of the trunk of his car.
Encouraged by their initial success, the group recruited New York rapper Mark Ross as a fourth member and began work on The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are. Released in 1986, the album contained crude numbers like "We Want Some Pussy," and sold half a million copies. 1987's Move Somethin' was even more explicit. Songs like "S & M" and "Head, Booty and Cock" helped power the record past the one million mark in sales.
With Move Somethin' the group began to hear rumbles of legal problems to come; police charged an Alabama record-store owner with obscenity for selling the disc, but a jury acquitted the merchant after failing to find the album requisitely objectionable.
Controversy shifted into high gear with the release of 1989's As Nasty as They Wanna Be, an album that included references to oral and anal sex as well as sexual violence against women. Calling the album obscene and claiming it was being sold to minors, the fundamentalist American Family Association urged public officials to take action against the group. Florida governor Bob Martinez got involved and ordered state law enforcement authorities to look into the matter. On June 6, 1990, Broward County federal judge Jose Gonzalez ruled Nasty obscene.
Within days, police arrested a Fort Lauderdale record-store owner who sold Nasty to an undercover officer. Then, on June 10, Campbell and two other members of the band were brought up on obscenity charges for using four-letter words and referring to sexual organs during a performance at a Hollywood, Florida, nightclub. The national media pounced on the story. Were the arrests racist? Why ban Nasty and not the equally vulgar records of comedian Andrew Dice Clay? Did the banning of the record violate the band's First Amendment right to free speech? Was the 2 Live Crew any good?
Campbell himself claimed racism. "To get the record store to pull my record off the shelf," he told the New York Times, "the Broward police had to drive by stores selling X-rated videos, clubs with X-rated live sex shows and stores selling magazines like Penthouse and others--but they just singled out my record, produced by a black group with their own independent black company. Now if that's not racism what is?"
There was, however, a positive side to the furor. Powered by the controversy, Nasty' s sales ballooned from one million to more than three million. Luke Records became the most successful independent label in the United States, and Campbell prospered. Rolling Stone claimed he owned three record labels, a recording studio, a construction company, three discos, and an investment portfolio brimming with mutual funds and real estate. One magazine valued his assets at $11 million.
Campbell became a ghetto role model. Carl McMillon, a realtor who grew up with Campbell, told the New York Times, "These guys are respected in the black community. They aren't selling drugs. They aren't robbing people. They are telling young black kids not just that you can be as nasty as you wanna be--but that you can be who you wanna be."
In September of 1990, Luke, featuring the 2 Live Crew, released Banned in the U.S.A., a record that mixed raunch with mock news reports and anti-censorship raps. Among these, "Banned in the U.S.A."--sung over the backing track of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in The U.S.A." (with Springsteen's permission)--portrayed Campbell as a crusader for First Amendment rights. As Campbell saw it, the furor over his music was way out of proportion with what he was saying. "I only rap about sex, but they treat me like I'm rapping about violence and overthrowing the government," he told the Chicago Tribune. "This country just isn't ready for a rich black man to be rapping about his penis."
As time passed and Campbell was acquitted of obscenity charges, some began to see him and his group simply as mediocre artists caught in a societal debate about censorship and rap music. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "The quartet's lyrics are undeniably crude, vulgar and misogynistic, but they're not pornographic.... 2 Live Crew's clunky music could hardly be described as funky much less sexy." By the time the band released Sports Weekend (As Nasty as They Wanna Be Part II) in November of 1991, the Nasty furor had died down. Stripped of issues and controversy, Entertainment Weekly called Sports Weekend "Nothing but unprintable titles, ugly gay-bashing and spurious sexual boasting."
In late 1991, citing personal differences, the 2 Live Crew disbanded. The following summer Campbell reflected on the previous two years. He appreciated concern about the impression the group's music might make on young people, but saw control of a child's listening habits as a parent's responsibility and not a matter for government intervention. He pointed out that he did not let his daughters listen to his records. "There was never a time I ever let my girls listen to the adult stuff," he told the Chicago Tribune, "because I'm a concerned parent and I figure I'm the one who's supposed to govern my house."
Likewise, he saw that despite the wealth Nasty brought him, there were many things the notorious album prevented him from having. "I know because we're rappers we're the outcasts, but I've been hurt more than a lot of other rappers because I can't do major concert halls now and I don't get the endorsements that other rappers get." "The notoriety," he told the Chicago Tribune, "has restricted me from a lot of the extras that go with being a successful music act."
In 1993 The Source reported on a visit to Japan Campbell had recently made, a promotional tour capitalizing on the growing popularity of hip-hop music and fashion among Japanese youth. And in a striking contrast to his stage persona, Campbell began a series of crusades for those in need. In just three days he collected more than 30 tons of clothing, food, and toys for the Haitian refugees refused entry into the United States. When Hurricane Andrew hit the coast of Florida, Campbell rented a truck, filled it with food and supplies, and distributed them among the destitute residents of southern Florida. He has sponsored several football and Little League programs, college scholarships, and charities for AIDS victims and the homeless. For his "selfless efforts to help those around him," Campbell was presented with the 1992 Hip-Hop Humanitarian of the Year Award by The Source.
But Campbell came under attack again in 1993 when the 2 Live Crew was cited for copyright violations. A Federal Appeals Court alleged that the band's parody of the Roy Orbison hit "Oh, Pretty Woman" was "blatantly commercial" and constituted an infringement under the fair-use doctrine. The case was scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall of 1993.
Luther Campbell's Career
- Selective Works
- With the 2 Live Crew The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are Luke, 1986.
- Move Somethin' Luke, 1987.
- Move Somethin' (Clean Version) Luke, 1991.
- As Nasty as They Wanna Be Luke, 1988.
- Sports Weekend (As Nasty as They Wanna Be, Part II) Luke, 1991.
- As Clean as They Wanna Be Luke, 1991.
- Sports Weekend (As Clean as They Wanna Be, Part II) Luke, 1991.
- The 2 Live Crew's Greatest Hits Luke, 1992.
- Solo releases I Got S**t on My Mind Luke, 1992.
- In the Nude Luke, 1993.
- Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1990; October 30, 1990; July 17, 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 1, 1991.
- New York Times, June 13, 1990; June 20, 1990; September 2, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, August 9, 1990.
- Source, January 1993; March 1993; June 1993.
- Village Voice, October 16, 1990.
- --Jordan Wankoff