"That’s the message, that black is bad and white is right": Luther Campbell on racism, the police, bringing politics back to hip hop and how Al Gore and Bill Clinton ruined the music industry

Salon talks to the 2 Live Crew frontman about "The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City"

By Matthew Pulver

Published August 6, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carlo Allegri)
(AP/Carlo Allegri)

“America has never been an easy place for a black man who doesn’t know how to apologize,” concludes Luther “Luke” Campbell in the first chapter of “The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City,” which was published this week. Campbell has never apologized, and he’s had to fight, from his days as a small-time hustler and aspiring DJ tussling with cops all the way to the Supreme Court.

As frontman for raunchy rap group 2 Live Crew, Campbell fought the last major battle on artistic expression and its protection under the First Amendment. He's proud that no artist has faced an obscenity charge since his victory in 1992. But that fight was only one of many for Campbell, whose family’s lessons in black radicalism guided him through the gauntlet of being black and unapologetic in America.

Campbell’s latest fight is in the pages of his new book, in which he sets the record straight on stories that either defame or omit him. He wants to remind everyone that he was a pioneer. He cleared the way for the lyrics we hear as commonplace today. He essentially created Southern hip-hop, which has become the geographical and stylistic center of the genre. He created the first major black-owned independent rap record label in America, a full decade before those credited with the feat. And in defiance of the box the world placed him in, Campbell returned home to fight for poor kids in Miami, becoming a respected mentor, politician and community organizer.

I spoke with Campbell over the phone to ask him about the book and his extraordinary life and to get his unique perspective on rap, race and America. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’re already a rap icon as the face and force behind rap group 2 Live Crew. What led you to write a book?

I just think it’s the perfect time to do a book on my life’s story. I’ve been in the business over 25 years now. You know, this year will be the 25th anniversary for “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.” It’s time to do a book on my life story. It’s time to let the world know about Luther Campbell, about Luke Records, about the precedents that I set and all these things that people take credit for right now and still don’t give me credit for. I’m just like everybody else: I look at hip-hop award shows and I see them honoring people, and I’m not getting honored. Me, 2 Live Crew, none of us for some of the things where we set precedent.

OK, well, if they ain’t gonna give me my credit for things that I’ve done, if they want to continue blackballing me, I’ll do a book. This is the perfect time because it’s 25 years of everything. My youth football program, 25 years. I think the world needs to be set straight on a lot of things, and the world needs to know, you know, hey, we ain’t just the first rap group in Miami — nah, I’m the guy who created hip-hop in the South. We’re the reason why guys like Lil Wayne can say explicit lyrics; we’re the reason "Saturday Night Live" is still on TV; we’re the reason why you got guys owning their own record companies, because there wasn’t no LaFace, there wasn’t no Bad Boy, there wasn’t no Cash Money, none of that. I pretty much did that, set that whole new standard and changed the entire game. I never get credit for any of that.

Now people can read it in the book and I’m not angry no more. I feel like I’m vindicated because the world will get to know who did what, and how they did it, how it was done.

A lot of readers will be surprised to learn how you effectively created Southern rap, especially in Atlanta, which is now the capital of hip hop. Tell me more about that history.

I was going up to Atlanta and doing shows, and Atlanta radio stations were playing straight hip-hop. They wasn’t giving a rat’s ass about an artist from Atlanta. They wouldn’t play an MC Shy D or a Kizzy Rock, guys who were poppin’ in the club, know what I’m sayin’? And it took me to go and sign an Atlanta artist. Same thing goes for New Orleans. When I signed this artist Bust Down, these radio stations weren’t giving these guys the time of day. And the industry wasn’t giving them the time of day.

The average young person, they think Master P was the first person to have a record company. And if you let the industry tell you, they’ll tell you, “Oh yeah, Master P was the first guy.” Which is totally untrue. They won’t tell you the history, they won’t say that this guy went to the Supreme Court, this motherfucker got locked up in jail.

They say Steve Rifkin started guerrilla marketing, street marketing — that’s bullshit. I did that from the beginning. I didn’t have money to hire a promotion person in each city, so I had to market the way you would a presidential campaign, with fliers and posters and all that. I was the first on too many fronts. Girls in videos, videos shot in nightclubs, stuff like that. Let everybody else tell the story, this is all new. I’m getting blackballed in the business.

While it’s all cool now, everything is hunky dory, but nobody wants to tell who paved the way for all that. This book will explain who paved the way. You’ll get a good history lesson on this guy Luther Campbell, Luke Records, 2 Live Crew, H-Town, Pitbull and all these people that were discovered through this little record label in the South.

Your father and uncle brought you up in the political tradition of the Black Panthers and other radical black voices. Black Panther founder Bobby Seale even writes a blurb on your book’s back cover. How did that help you in your career and its struggles?

My dad was very, very political. He worked as a janitor, but most Jamaicans are very political. He always talked about the politics in Jamaica and he always talked about politics and racism here in the United States, things that he had to go through and what we’re going through. Same thing with my uncle. I would spend weekends with him. He would teach me how to read the newspaper. He taught me how to look at the news every night. He said, “You ain’t gonna be looking at no cartoons and shit. Cartoons are diverting you from what you need to look at.”

He would sit me down and teach me the messages. He said, “There are two different people reading the newspapers: a black person reading it and there’s a white person reading it. Now, I’m gonna explain to you what the white person is getting out of this article and what the black person is getting out of this article.”

He would tell me about the news. He would say, “When the news come on, the first thing you’re gonna see is black people acting crazy, black people robbing people. The next thing you’re gonna look at is what country they want to have a war with, what propaganda they wanna put in your mind.” Back then it was the Russians. Today, everything the Taliban, everything is Muslims.

He would say, “By the time you get to the sports it’s gonna be the same thing: black people doing stupid stuff: who went to jail, who beat up their girlfriend.” He said, “By the time you get to the end of the news you’re gonna see how positive it is to be white. The white community, they’re walking through the tulips, or they in the park, you know, picking daisies.” He said, “That’s the message, that black is bad and white is right.”

He put me on to H. Rap Brown and Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. I would sit there and listen to all these tapes and everything, so when it came around for me to be attacked I was the perfect one. People didn’t know, they just thought I was this guy doing this wild music and all that, but I understood how America works, you know, I understood everything about why I was being  attacked.  So that’s why I sat there and I beat ‘em. If it was 100 attacks that came at me I beat ‘em 98 times.

You took a case all the way up to the Supreme Court, ran for mayor of Miami, and faced rebuke from figures as high as the vice president. Does rap still have the power to effect political change?  

Rap does have the power. Like right now, people will say, “Why did you run for mayor?” I speak about it in the book. I ran for mayor in a predominantly Latino city, knowing that I had not too much of a chance to win, but hip hop is all about all races of people. Everybody loves it. There’s no separation when it comes to the music. And I got just as many whites and Latinos as blacks to vote for me. There’s a younger generation and an older generation that understands what’s going on. I was the number one Democrat in the race, beat all other Democrats and lost to a Republican in a Republican town. I ended up getting a bloc of voters who already went and got energized when Obama ran the first time. Everybody went and got a voter registration card. So they have these voter registration cards and they’re sitting on ‘em, and they’re not being energized the next person because now we’re going back to the same status quo.

So hip-hop artists, I always try to tell them, “You have the power.” If people are looking at you on social media, like Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj, instead of sitting there and fighting Drake and all these different people, these people have voter registration cards. Meek Mill right now could get any person elected in Philadelphia, same way I got a guy named Keon Hardemon, who was a nobody, never ran for office in his life, just came out of college, to beat an incumbent by double digits because we ran a hip hop race. And these same people who had the Obama cards, the ones who voted for Luke, jumped up and voted again.

If the Tea Party can create a party, then there should be a hip hop party, know what I’m sayin’? We used to do it back in the day with Ice Cube and all them, we got involved. But now Russell Simmons and these guys of the world, they started getting this money from these conglomerates, and then they started calling it “Rap the Vote” and “Rock the Vote” and all that, but then when you saw them come into town, they were registering people to vote but then they said, “Oh, we can’t endorse nobody.” Nah, fuck that. We got a bloc of people that need to say, “We’ll vote for this person right here.” And every one of them guys that’s out here right now, they could get somebody elected, and that’s my word. Lil Wayne could go to New Orleans and say, “Hey, all y’all young folks with the Obama cards, we’re gonna go early vote today and go vote for Joe Blow.”

They can do that, but the guys nowadays, they’re not into that like we were back in the day with the Ice Cubes, the KRS-Ones, the Public Enemies. We were into that. But everybody running around trying to see who got the biggest car. I mean, that’s all cool, that’s all fine and dandy, go enjoy yourself. But you got to be involved in something. Right now, it’s me and Snoop Dogg involved in youth sports. That’s bananas! We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary of the Liberty City Optimists. The first professional football player that came out of my program was Chad Johnson. Last year we put ten kids in the NFL out of my program. The year before that we put another five in the NFL.

You made your entrance onto the public stage in 1983 in the African Square Park show. Both the riot you ignited and the press conference you disrupted made the Miami Herald. Over the next 30 years you became a community organizer, ran for mayor and help put Keon Hardemon on the commission. How do you think you’ve been so influential in Miami for so long, more than three decades now?

Because I never left. You know, most people get successful and they leave. Everybody wanna go to Hollywood, everybody wanna go to New York. I never left. That was part of my teaching from my dad and my uncle. It was like, “You know what happens when black people get successful? They leave and they go to other cities.”

Who’s gonna show these young people the light? You know, I had those opportunities. Trust me. I turned down many opportunities. When I was doing “Player’s Club” and “Ride” and all these different movies, and my movie agent said, “Look, you can do more work if you live in LA.” Nah, because the kids have got to see me. You know, Luke is here. Luke Records is here in Miami. We’re doing big things here. So now that’ll inspire other artists and other entrepreneurs.

Even with the football thing, I looked at it and I was like, “How do I get these kids?” You can just talk until you’re blue in the face. So I just started taking them to colleges over the summer, on these college tours, and I wanted them to see other kids that looked like them. This kid looks like you and he plays for University of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Florida State. You can do it yourself. And so the kids will come back home and you wouldn’t have to tell them to get their grades up.

The people of Miami, they’ve always protected me. The old, the young, the Latins, the whites, the blacks, Jews, they always protected me. Because they know me from being the little DJ, the guy who was in the park playing, the guy who was in the park, like I say in the book, when the police came and told us, all us “niggers,” to get out of the park and we all ended up having a big riot. They know me. And I ain’t never left them.

Your last real battle with the law was in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2002, where we’d eventually see Walter Scott murdered by a white cop just some miles away from where Dylann Roof would kill nine black churchgoers two months later. After years of fighting, you had to take a plea deal because you and your counsel realized you were in “Klan country,” as you put it. Tell me about your experience there.

Everybody was so subdued [after the Walter Scott and Emanuel AME murders]. You didn’t see an uprising in South Carolina, which I kinda knew there wasn’t gonna be an uprising like it was in Florida and New York and all over when Trayvon Martin and all them got killed, like so many uprisings that I’ve been a part of.

There are some good people in South Carolina, but that’s the home of the slave trade. You go there and it’s a constant reminder of the slave trade there. They ain’t torn down those places. You go to some parts of South Carolina, the block where the ship came and sold black men and women, it’s still standing in [those] towns. So it’s a constant reminder.

To this day it burns me up that I didn’t fight that fight. Because I fought every other fight. But I hire a lawyer from that area, a white man who tells me that the prosecutor is a Klansman — him, the judge and everybody else — you’re gonna lose and they’re gonna throw the book at you. It’s a white guy telling me this. He said, “I don’t care how much evidence you got.” I had all the evidence in the world: videos and everything, signed affidavits, you name it. And he said, “You ain’t gonna win.”

So when I saw that in South Carolina, was I surprised? No, I wasn’t. Was I surprised the police shot that man in the back? I wasn’t surprised, because I was hoodwinked and bamboozled by the police in Charleston, as well as [by] the prosecutor. The prosecutor just made up a charge and charged me with it after I provided the police with all this evidence.

But I knew, those people in South Carolina, they’ve been treated like half-men and half-women for many years, so for them not to uprise, it wasn’t no surprise to me. And I just felt so bad for them because they’ve always been talked to and treated like that, so that’s expected. These things have been happening to these people for the longest. Stuff is just being brought to light in South Carolina now.

What advice would you have for young rappers and musicians, since you were the first rapper to own your own label and control your own music, especially as the old label system has disintegrated?

I look at two people who really screwed up the music business, two people who everybody right now swears they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. One, Al Gore, whose wife Tipper Gore came after me — and I talk about it in the book — he and everybody else who did. Democrats. The other one, Bill Clinton. Everybody loves Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton deregulated the radio stations. Before, when I was a young man, you had a radio station in every market owned by a person in that market. That was the FCC rules and regulations.

When he deregulated radio where the conglomerates could now come in and buy those radio stations, the conglomerates came in, bought all the radio stations from that little man, gave him millions of dollars and took his radio station. And that’s why you have all these syndicated shows on there. You only got 13 songs, if that. The record companies are jumping up and down like, “Oh shit, we can get rid of all these independent record companies,” but then they got it too because they had to close down shop because the radio stations ain’t gonna play but 13 songs.

Then you got the internet, which Al Gore introduced to the world. Now they add the music onto the internet and killed all these record stores, killed all the pressing plants, killed everything. So all these jobs went with it too. So now the labels are getting killed and the artists are getting killed.

But for a guy like myself it ain’t no problem because I’m used to working underground. I’m an underground king. I could live like that. I’m used to functioning that way.

I would tell people--I talk to young people all the time--look here, make music people wanna hear, and you won’t have to worry about it. You have an easier way to introduce music to people because you have social media. Before, I had to beg and plead to try to get a record played on the radio. I had to go store to store, DJ to DJ and get my record played. Right now you have new avenues to promote and market your own music. As far as being with a major label? Just put your record on iTunes and sell it yourself. The ones who really got the shaft thinking they was real smart were the record labels.

Just make good music. Now, you’re not gonna get on BET, you’re not gonna get on MTV, you’re not going to the award shows. Just make your money and be happy. Don’t sell out to the clique just to get on the BET awards show.

Matthew Pulver

MORE FROM Matthew PulverFOLLOW https://twitter.com/mattpulver

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2 Live Crew Black Panthers #blackli Books Hip Hop Luther Campbell Music Obscenity Politics Rap The Book Of Luke