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Businessman With a Nasty Rep : Rap: 2 Live Crew's controversial Luther Campbell says he's 'just a hard-working guy marketing a new product.'

July 25, 1990|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Luther Campbell, the most controversial figure in pop music, is standing in the parking lot of his two-story Luke Records headquarters in a low-rent area of town. He seems reluctant to go inside because of all the phone calls.

It isn't just the media on the line with more questions about why his group, 2 Live Crew, was canceling an 11-city U.S. tour (the answer: exhaustion). Campbell, whose company has grossed more than $17 million in record sales alone so far this year, also seems drained by all the calls from attorneys, agents and other business contacts.

The parking lot offers the tall, lean rapper a temporary refuge from attention that has been virtually nonstop since the group's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" was declared obscene June 6 by a federal judge in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

It's been so nonstop, in fact, that Campbell's physician ordered him to cancel the upcoming tour--including two shows tonight at the Country Club in Reseda and a date Friday night at Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.

"I'm really tired," Campbell says. "Between 2 Live Crew, my solo projects, and the pressures of running the day-to-day business--It's wearing me out. I need a break."

But Campbell seems more than simply tired on this day. He also seems frustrated by how everyone just talks about him as this one-dimensional "obscene" rapper.

Suddenly, he draws an imaginary circle in the air and slices a thin wedge out of its center.

"Most people don't realize it, but 2 Live Crew is a very small piece of the pie," says the 29-year-old former high-school linebacker. "There is a lot more to my company than sexually explicit rap comedy."

Campbell pauses, shading his eyes form the bright afternoon sun.

"A lot of people have gotten the impression that I'm this rude sexual deviant or something," he continues. "But contrary to what has been printed about me in the papers, I'm no moral threat to anybody. I'm just a hard-working guy marketing a new product."

Hard work is nothing new for Campbell. You don't go from hawking records out of the back of your car to heading a multimillion dollar corporation in four years by coasting.

Campbell's enterprises include 16 rap and R&B acts, 23 employees, three labels, two publishing companies, a 24-track digital recording studio, a video production facility, a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and a cluster of Miami nightclubs.

He insists that only three of the 16 groups he produces perform sexually explicit material. The rest of the acts on his roster cut PG-rated R&B dance fare and what he refers to as "milk-and-cookie" love ballads.

Plus, Campbell says his publishing arm is about to acquire a collection of Top 40 and film music catalogues, which he hopes will help him penetrate the mainstream pop music market.

But his critics are not impressed.

Jack Thompson, the Florida anti-obscenity crusader who instigated the campaign that resulted in the 2 Live Crew obscenity ruling, says he believes Campbell is practicing a corrupt aberration of capitalism.

"There is nothing noble or Horatio Alger-like about Luther Campbell," Thompson says. "Obscenity is criminal contraband and that's what this guy deals in. It's easy to make money selling illegal goods. What could possibly be admirable about that?"

Jerry Rushin, vice president of WEDR-FM in Miami, disagrees. Rushin, a close associate and confidante of Campbell's since 1975, sees Campbell as an exemplary role model for young people struggling to escape the harsh economic realities of ghetto life.

"Success never went to Luther's head. That's why the community is 100% behind him," Rushin says. "From the beginning, Luther has understood the value of maintaining two distinct personalities: The public sees the raunchy Luke rap persona. But there is another side which people rarely get a glimpse of: Luther, the soft-spoken, well-mannered serious businessman."

Campbell credits Rushin with teaching him how to avoid the trappings of stardom.

"When I climb on stage I become the guy who gets wild with the scarf, the gold chains and the whole nine yards," Campbell says. "But when the show is over, I know how to leave it behind."

Campbell is a wealthy man. He drives a Jaguar, plays the stock market aggressively, owns a jet and lives in a 10-bedroom house overlooking two acres of mowed lawn in the suburban community of Miami Lakes.

Even before the controversial federal obscenity ruling and Campbell's subsequent arrest for performing material from the album at an adults-only show in Hollywood, Fla., the company estimates that it grossed more than $12 million from records in 1989. As of June, 1990, sales had already passed the $17-million mark. His company's records are available in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Britain and Japan.

But Campbell says he has his sights set on even higher goals.

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