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A Rapper Under Siege Fires Back : Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew defends his freedom of expression as the sexually explicit album undergoes attacks in Florida

March 25, 1990|CHUCK PHILIPS

Luther Campbell is a wanted man.

Ever since Florida Gov. Bob Martinez tried to get Campbell's rap group 2 Live Crew and its sexually explicit "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" album prosecuted last month for violation of the state's pornography and racketeering penal codes, Campbell has been under siege.

Recent rulings by district court judges in Florida's Lee and Broward counties have declared the album obscene and banned it for sale to both adults and minors. Cooperating with police, all local record retailers in the two counties voluntarily removed the album from their shelves, according to police spokesmen in both counties.

Adding to the controversy, the Hialeah Gardens, Fla.-based Peaches record chain pulled the album from all of its 22 Florida stores. Similarly, the 52-store Spec's chain and its 450-outlet parent company, the Albany, N.Y.-based Trans World Corp., discontinued selling any record with warning labels--including the 2 Live Crew package--to anyone under 18. And on Thursday, the Musicland Group, the nation's largest record store operator with 752 stores, including Musicland and Sam Goody outlets in Southern California, ordered all stores to stop selling the "uncensored" versions of the recordings.

The most dramatic incident, however, occurred March 15 when a 19-year-old Sarasota, Fla., record store clerk was arrested on a felony charge after selling a copy of the "Nasty" album to an 11-year-old girl.

Hoping to prevent additional obscenity arrests and reverse the pornographic stigma attached to the album, Campbell's attorney filed suit on March 16 in Federal District Court in Fort Lauderdale, seeking to declare the record not obscene and to enjoin the Broward County Sheriff from arresting those who sell it to adults. It's a move without "historic precedent in popular music," the rapper's lawyer says.

While the national media have been reporting all this with the blow-by-blow intensity of a prize fight, there has been little attention focused on Campbell himself.

How does he defend music whose explicit sexuality makes even many rap sympathizers wince? Music so filled with graphic, locker-room language that the group has been called the "Kama Sutra of rap" by Newsweek magazine. The lyrics are far beyond the bounds of what can be printed in a mass circulation newspaper such as The Times.

"These people act like I invented the idea of sexually explicit material," Campbell said. "Haven't they ever heard of Richard Pryor or Andrew Dice Clay? X-rated adult comedy albums have been available for years. Why, all of a sudden, is everybody picking on me?"

In a telephone interview from his Coconut Grove, Fla. home, the 29-year-old rap entrepreneur--better known by his professional name Luke Skyywalker--insists that his music is adult comedy, not pornography, and that those who seek to prohibit the sale of 2 Live Crew's music simply do not understand it.

"When people see a sculpture in a museum of a naked man with his penis hanging down, do they say that the guy who created the statue is a sex fiend? No, they call it art and they praise the person who created it.

"Well, the way I feel about it, 2 Live Crew is no different from sculptors who carve naked statues. We're not sex fiends. In our minds, we're artists," Campbell said, speaking in soft measured phrases.

Florida's governor isn't the only one who doesn't share Campbell's sense of humor or artistic outlook. Campbell's records have been denounced by media watchdog organizations such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon's Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association and Dr. James Dobson's Pomona-based Focus on the Family for being "pornographic."

2 Live Crew lyrics have also been cited as a source of concern by legislators who are sponsoring or intend to sponsor warning label proposals in 15 states, including Florida.

Often criticized as being misogynistic, the group's material frequently describes violent sexual acts involving oral copulation, sadism and masochism.

Still, sales of "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" have never been better. The expletive-laced recording, which was released last June, has sold more than 1.2 million copies and is still in the Top 40 in Billboard magazine's pop and black music album sales charts.

Although a sanitized version of the record titled "As Clean as They Wanna Be" is also available, the sexually explicit album outsells it nine to one, according to Skyywalker Records, which Campbell owns. The label is part of a vast musical enterprise that includes 16 rap and R&B acts, a 24-track digital recording studio, a 6,000-square-foot record warehouse and a cluster of Miami nightclubs.

In response to the complaints, Campbell declares, "It's like anything else. If you go into (the album) thinking that you're not going to like it . . . that it's going to be degrading or disgusting, then that's what you're going to get out of it.

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