"Stale white bitches tried to take us down": Luther Campbell on 2 Live Crew, race, hip-hop and the conservative, Southern '80s

"The day some white teenager got caught with a 2 Live Crew album, that’s what started the whole sh*tstorm"

Published August 29, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Bill Cooke)
(AP/Bill Cooke)

Excerpted from "The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice and Liberty City"

After we put out "The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are," I got some letters from a PTA group in Birmingham, Alabama, saying that children were getting hold of our songs and that they were inappropriate and what could I do about it? I was totally sympathetic to their concerns. Once we started doing more adult material at the Pac Jam II, I drew a clear line between kids’ shows and adult shows. We’d do an early show, serve nothing but soft drinks, and all the kids could come in and have a good time.

Later we’d clear the club and let all the grown-ups line up for the late show. We IDed everyone to make sure everyone was over eighteen, and then do an explicit show for the adults.

With the albums, I turned to my old friend common sense and decided to do something similar. I did what the movies did. They had a ratings system, PG and R and so on. That worked and everyone agreed to it. Music didn’t have anything like that, but I figured it should. I put parental-advisory stickers on my records. I called retailers and told them, “Hey, if you see a sticker on our album, do not sell it to kids under eighteen.” A lot of stores kept it behind the counter, the same way they’d do with Playboy and Penthouse, so that people had to ask for it and show ID. That parental-advisory sticker was my idea, not the recording industry’s.

Where I first ran into trouble was that some leftover, unstickered copies of the explicit version of "The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are" were still out in stores. In April of 1987, in Callaway, Forida, some little town out in the Panhandle, a store clerk sold a copy to a fourteen-year-old girl. The clerk got arrested for the “sale of harmful material to a person under the age of 18,” a third-degree felony. A lot of stores around the area started pulling the album.

That first arrest in the Panhandle, I thought it was unfortunate, but I didn’t see it as the start of a pattern of legal censorship. I didn’t want that to happen again, so with "Move Somethin’" I was even more careful. We started doing clean versions of the songs alongside the explicit versions. We made a clean album for minors and an explicit one for adults, and on the explicit one I put a parental-advisory sticker and gave specific instructions to every retailer that it was not to be sold to minors. We put age restrictions on alcohol, cigarettes, R-rated movies, porno mags—there was no reason we couldn’t do it with music.

Or so I thought.

The legal war against hip-hop started on June 29, 1988, in Alexander City, Alabama, this little backwater town on I-280 about forty-five minutes north of Auburn. The record store there, called Take Home the Hits, was run by a guy named Tommy Hammond. He knew he was working in a conservative, rural community, so he kept all the rap and explicit albums behind the counter and out of sight. Customers had to ask for them. One day a cop came in and asked for a copy of "Move Somethin’," and Tommy sold it to him. Nobody was underage. This was a grown man selling recorded material to another grown man. In America.

The cop left and came back a half hour later with a detective and uniformed officers in tow and they arrested Hammond for selling pornography. It was the first time in the history of the country that a record-store owner was held liable for “obscene” music. The cops, apparently, had been getting complaints from Christian fundamentalist groups about the sale of offensive and vulgar material, and the Alexander City sheriff Ben Royal was, I suppose, a real God-fearing, Bible-thumping, easily offended type of guy.

At first I wasn’t even mad. I was genuinely confused. Dolemite and Skillet & Leroy and all these comedy records we were sampling, those had been around for years. They were filthy as hell, real nasty, and nobody had ever tried to censor them. Andrew Dice Clay was doing his stand-up act and putting out his albums at the same time we were, and his routines were just as raunchy as what we were doing. Nobody was getting arrested for selling his albums. What was going on? My father and my uncle Ricky taught me a lot about racism and how it works, but I was about to learn a lot more. I was about to feel the full weight of American racism come down on my head. I’d unleashed something incredibly angry, and incredibly powerful.

Dice is white, you see, so he could say whatever he wanted. Parents might protest him, and they did, but he was a white man making a lot of money for a white-owned corporation; nobody was going to take away his right to free speech. All those old chitlin circuit albums we sampled, they were dirty, but white people never listened to them. They didn’t cross the color line, so nobody in power really cared. It was the same with the first 2 Live Crew records. We’d sold hundreds of thousands of records to black people at black record stores, and no cop or judge ever said shit about it. Nobody cared if we were corrupting young black minds with our evil jungle music. But the day some white teenager got caught with a 2 Live Crew album, that’s what started the whole shitstorm right fucking there. There were black record stores in Alexander City that sold our music and went on selling our music during this whole controversy, and not one cop ever darkened their door. But Tommy Hammond’s record store was the record store serving the white side of town. 2 Live Crew had done the one thing you’re never supposed to do. We were black men coming across the color line talking about sex. We were black men in the company of whites, and we’d forgotten to lower our heads and shuffle away.

Back when I was doing the Pac Jam Teen Disco at the skating rink, the owner of the rink, who was white, told me I had to have security. I thought, Okay, let me get some security this white guy will feel good about. I brought in these two huge white dudes, Damien and his brother Rocco. Fucking huge guys. Big fucking necks and shit. I got them and a couple of off-duty white cops to make everyone in this suburban strip mall feel okay with us having all these black kids out here. Damien and Rocco always used to hang out at this strip club down the way from the skating rink, this place called Tootsie’s. One night after we closed up they said, “Hey, let us take you over to Tootsie’s.”

I said, “Fuck no. I ain’t going to no white strip club.”

“Why not?”

“Look, you and me, we friends. We cool. But I can’t go in there, a black man looking at a bunch of naked white women. Those rednecks in there will fucking kill me.”

Growing up, I was never scared of anything. I bused over to Miami Beach for school, hung with all the rich white folks out there, no problem. I stood up to the corrupt white cops hassling us every night on Twelfth Avenue and got my ass thrown in jail. I was a bullheaded, stubborn motherfucker who always spoke his mind and went and did as he pleased, but even I knew where the line was—and the line was at the door of that strip club. Slavery, Jim Crow, the whole history of black oppression in this country was built on the fear of the oversexed black man threatening the purity of the white race by coming after innocent little white women. For a hundred years down here in Florida, black bodies had turned up shot by the railroad tracks or drowned in the swamp, and nine times out of ten it was some guy accused of raping a white woman, or just looking at her the wrong way.

“Nobody’s gonna do shit to you if you’re with us.”

Naked women were everywhere. It was the first time Uncle Luke ever set foot in a strip club—a historic moment in the history of hip-hop, and a lot of inspiration for future 2 Live Crew concerts. But I never would have done it without those two big white dudes having my back.


When we started making the music raunchier and dirtier, it was all black folks buying the records and coming to the shows. This music was part of our culture. We got the joke. My mom always used to say our music was hilarious, but we were the only ones who knew it was supposed to be funny. Since we started out making black music for a black audience, I never really thought much about how it would be perceived when white people started listening. Even when the records took off and it was clear that white people were buying them, I didn’t see it in the same way as me going to that strip club. In that club, those rednecks might see me as a physical threat and jump me. That I understood. But these were just some funny raunchy songs. I honestly didn’t see that people would react the same way.

Not only was I breaking the single biggest racial taboo in the country, I was breaking the rules of how business worked, too. Up until that time, black-owned businesses were allowed to thrive in America as long as they stayed in their place. Black-owned beauty-care companies were allowed to sell beauty products, but only to blacks. A black man could own a hotel that served blacks, but only in Overtown or Harlem. John H. Johnson could print Ebony and Jet for black readers. But black companies didn’t serve whites and they didn’t take business away from whites; that wasn’t allowed, especially in the music industry. The first man to do it was Berry Gordy with Motown, and he did it by making Motown and its acts as squeaky-clean and respectable as possible, by being safe for white people, safe for The Ed Sullivan Show. When they put the Jackson 5 out there, Gordy deliberately shaved two years off the ages of each kid in the group so white families would be sure to see them as black boys and not black men. They were teenagers singing about schoolyard crushes, not grown men singing about love and sex.

When the hip-hop generation came along, we refused to play that game. We didn’t apologize for our blackness. We bragged about it. We told the truth about life in the ghettos and we were selling a ton of records to white kids. Rap was doing what school busing and affirmative action and these other things failed to do: it was integrating the culture. Busing and affirmative action put blacks and whites in the same building, like when I was back at Beach High, but we still didn’t share any culture in common. Hip-hop changed all of that. It tore right through all those barriers.

The Alexander City case was the signal to me that white kids getting into our music was the source of the problem. That’s when Focus on the Family started putting out their pamphlets and leaflets and we became their menace. My staff would talk to record-store owners on a weekly basis, so we knew what was going on. They’d call us and say, “The cops were just in here and threatened to put us in jail for selling your record.” I got a call from a record-store owner in Fort Lauderdale who told me that. Some people didn’t think it was worth the trouble and didn’t sell the product, but others were like, “Fine, take me to jail. You can’t do this. This is America.”

All these older, conservative white folks, they were upset by all hip-hop, but what was unique about Luke Records was that I owned it. It was mine. Viacom could control the videos that Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J put on MTV. Time Warner could control what songs they wanted Ice-T to put out on his albums. Nobody could tell me shit. Nobody could put a muzzle on me. I owned the megaphone; they didn’t. And unlike the generation of black busi- nessmen who came before me, I didn’t stay on my side of the color line. I wasn’t safe and respectable. I took ownership and control away from them. White people didn’t like the explicit language of what we were saying, but what really scared them was that they had no way to stop me from saying it. They couldn’t boycott me. They couldn’t call up and threaten the shareholders. They couldn’t send Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton down to guilt me and hustle me. They couldn’t do shit. That’s why, in Callaway and Alexander City, they were coming after me with the only thing they had left: using the cops and the courts to try and take away my First Amendment right to free speech.

Part of the reason those New York groups looked down on us was just that attitude of being New York: “We created hip-hop, so all that West Coast and southern shit ain’t hip-hop.” But part of it was just they didn’t like our image. They were “serious” hip-hop, and we were just a bunch of rowdy, unsophisticated niggers from down South, making them look bad. Maybe 2 Live Crew wasn’t socially conscious rap, maybe the lyrics were silly and raunchy and juvenile, but doing what we did, taking ownership of our music and breaking those sexual taboos, was more dangerous, more political, than anything coming out of New York. Chuck D used to say that hip-hop was black America’s CNN. He’s right except for one thing: White people own CNN. White people own Fox News and ABC and NBC and Facebook and Google. They can set the agenda. They can say whatever they want. Black people didn’t own hip-hop back in the eighties.

Out on stage, Public Enemy was doing all their “Black Power” and “Fight the Power” and all this, but it was all for show. Behind the scenes, Public Enemy didn’t have any power, no real economic power. Chuck D didn’t own shit. He was on Columbia Records. White corporate money controlled his voice. His white road manager was backstage in Savannah, telling us, his own brothers, that we couldn’t have any stage time, couldn’t have a voice, because they thought they were better than us, more important than us. But they weren’t. When you’re black and you’re from a place like Liberty City, just showing the world that you’re having a good time is a political act. It’s a statement: you can’t get us down, you can’t break our spirit, we’re still gonna dance and fuck and have a good time. Bass music and 2 Live Crew gave black people in Miami and all over the South something we could brag about, something that we owned and we controlled. And that scared the hell out of these stale white bitches who tried to take us down.

Excerpted from "The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice and Liberty City" by Luther Campbell. Published by HarperCollins. Copyright 2015 by Luther Campbell. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Luther Campbell

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