For the latest in this series we take a look at one of hip-hop’s most notorious groups and how their highly controversial album As Nasty As They Wanna Be saw them end up in court.
The roots of what became known as gangsta rap, which in turn served as an ideological blueprint for much of the hip-hop that came after can be traced back to a number of acts, rappers, and records that sprang up towards the end of the 1980’s, a time when this fledgling music was beginning to find it’s teeth. N.W.A. arrived full of anti-authoritarian fuck-you attitude, original gangster Ice-T infused street-tales based on real-life experiences with a smooth Superfly attitude, and other acts such as Texans the Geto Boys took Scarface-movie imagery and violent fantasising to whole new levels.
And then there was 2 Live Crew. Coming out of Miami, to where they had re-located from California when there first records proved to be exceptionally popular there, band founders Dj Mr Mixx (David Roberts) and Fresh Kid Ice (Chris Wong Won) were soon joined by Brother Marquis (Mark Ross) and rapper and impresario Luke Skywalker (Luther Campbell) who not only became a member but also their manager and label boss putting their records out on his eponymous label.
The resultant debut lp The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, released in 1986, proved to be a clear indicator of what was to come, and tracks like ‘We Want Some Pussy’ and ‘Get It, Girl’ caused a certain level of moral panic in Florida with their lewd humour and sexually graphic lyrics (such as “With my dick in my hands as you fall to your knees, You know what to do, ’cause I won’t say please”).
Deemed obscene by by the powers that be, this was one of the first albums to display the Parental Advisory stickers that would soon become so unbiquitously attached to hip-hop music. Campbell would later insist this was his doing, saying “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.” Despite this a store clerk would later be arrested for selling a copy to a 14 year old girl (although they were later acquitted).
By 1989 the band were ready to release their 3rd lp Nasty As They Wanna Be, and preceded it by releasing the single ‘Me So Horny’ which featured a prominent vocal sample taken from the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. It would prove to be their breakout single gaining frequent radio and MTV play and racing up the Billboard charts, as did the album which also featured charmingly titled tracks called ‘Dick Almighty’ and ‘The Fuck Shop’. With this new found profile came a new level of backlash against the content of their songs and after the album was released an organisation called the American Family Association (AFA) began actively seeking a legislative ban from then Florida Governer Bob Martinez. Ultimatley this led to a ruling from a U.S District Judge called Jose Gonzalez who deemed the album obscene and banned it’s sale across the state. Once again a retailer, this time a record shop owner called Charles Freeman, was prosecuted for selling a copy, this time to an undercover cop.
By this time word was out, not just across America but around the world. Here in Britain I remember hearing about them before I had a chance to hear any of the music, such was the controversy that was generated by the ban and the issues around free-speech that it flagged up. Was this ban as much about white America’s broader discomfort with hip-hop or were there legitimate concerns to be addressed? As far as Campbell was concerned race was definitely an issue. “We’d sold hundreds of thousands of records to black people at black record stores” he later noted “and no cop or judge ever said shit about it. Nobody cared if we were corrupting young black minds. But the day some white teenager got caught with a 2 Live Crew album, that’s what started the whole shitstorm right fucking there.”
It was certainly true that once 2 Live Crew came to the attention of the white establishment they found themselves on the receiving end of a level of legal action that was unprecedented. However, it also caught the attention of free speech campaigners and with their help the ban was over-turned in 1992 in the court of appeals.
Of course, none of this harmed sales of the album which by this time had reached the 2 million mark. 2 Live Crew would go on to release the album Banned In The U.S.A., whose lyrics spoke frankly of their displeasure relating to the court case. By this time though the initial notoriety was fading and interest in the group started to wane. The truth was that musically speaking there was much better hip-hop around, and although they would carry on releasing records on and off and in various line-ups until as recently as last year 2 Live Crew came to be seen as a one-trick pony rather than a group of any lasting substance, none of which is to underplay their notable influence on the misogynistic tone of much that followed in their wake.