RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If anything needs a parental advisory, it's this music from the early '90s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C'MON BABE")
2 LIVE CREW: (Rapping) C'mon, babe. C'mon, babe. C'mon, babe.
MARTIN: And that's pretty much all we can play of 2 Live Crew. Their music was so offensive, so sexually explicit, that it eventually became the subject of an obscenity case that made its way through some of the highest courts in this country. The man at the center of it all was Luther Campbell, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker. That was his stage name and the alter ego that helped make 2 Live Crew one of the most legendary and notorious rap groups. Campbell has written a new memoir about his life and that time in the music industry. He begins his story, though, in Miami, in a neighborhood called Liberty City. That's where this man, who is famous for lyrics I cannot read without cringing, grew up listening to some surprising music.
LUTHER CAMPBELL: You know, all I heard was Burt Bacharach over the weekend, you know? Early in the morning, you got Burt Bacharach playing, you know. And then late in the afternoon, when my mom and her friends get some drinks in them, then you heard Millie Jackson.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Can you walk me through - I'm curious because you write in the book about how much you did love to put on a good party. And you were the DJ at these - in this really vibrant music scene in Miami at the time. And you and your friends were really successful at turning this into a business. But can you walk me through what that felt like, when you're in a moment, you're in a crowd and you can feel the vibe, and you know exactly the song you're going to play to take it to the next level?
CAMPBELL: Man, it was - and it's always, to this day - an amazing moment when you're able to just turn people on. You know, and me, being the star of the show, I would DJ last. So everybody would have played every hot song at least two times. So when I came on, I had to be a little more creative. So I would go and get an old song, like Herbie Hancock, "Rockit."
(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK SONG, "ROCKIT")
CAMPBELL: You know, I had to basically separate myself from the average DJ.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK SONG, "ROCKIT")
MARTIN: What made you really successful in that world was your ability to break artists, to anticipate people's tastes and to find people who hadn't really popped yet. When you look back at that, what - I mean, that's kind of risky. Did you ever have room for self-doubt? Or you just had to say, no, I'm going with my gut; this person's going to be a star.
CAMPBELL: When I looked into the creative records, I did not want to be the guy that just played the music that was on the radio. Forget about these records with the name labels on here. I'm going to look for the records with generic labels, the - you know, not the nationally branded artists. And I said look, I'm going to just think about the actual song and the songs that I'm going to stand behind. And so, I mean, people were looking at me crazy when I discovered Pitbull. They were like, Pitbull? Who is this guy? You know, we already got...
MARTIN: He's pretty big now.
CAMPBELL: Thank you.
CAMPBELL: A Cuban rapper? They were like, are you serious?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNATIONAL LOVE")
PITBULL: (Rapping) Spinned all around the world, but I ain't gon' lie, there's nothing like Miami's heat. You put it down like New York City...
MARTIN: Campbell's DJ business grew. He discovered this group called 2 Live Crew, and he brought them to South Florida. He went from being their promoter to joining the group as a performer. At the time, rap groups like Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A. were breaking into the mainstream, and 2 Live Crew was looking to stand out.
CAMPBELL: You know, I sat there and - if we're going to compete with these guys, you know, we don't have the same budget that they have. So what we're going to have to do is do something different. What my mom and them used to listen to, you know, this will set us apart from everybody else. Let's do comedy. Let's sample some of these comedians, some of these famous comedians like Redd Foxx and Leroy and Skillet and Aunt Esther. And we'll keep this base music, this up-tempo, this Miami-style music. You know, we're going to do dance. And that set us apart from everybody else.
MARTIN: That might not be the first thing that people identify with 2 Live Crew, comedy.
CAMPBELL: You know, when people heard the music, it was shocking at first.
MARTIN: That might be a word that people would associate sooner than comedy. Shocking, yeah.
CAMPBELL: Yeah, exactly. They were shocked.
CAMPBELL: I could understand that now.
MARTIN: (Laughter) So in the beginning, did you not - did you now anticipate that the music and the explicit nature of it - because it was really explicit - did you do not anticipate that it would stir up such ire, such anger in parts of the country?
CAMPBELL: No, I did not at all. I did not at all. I mean, you know, even with the videos, I'm like, I'm a product of my environment. My environment is Miami, Fla. This is where I live. We go on the beach on Sundays, and everybody running around here half naked. So my videos are going to look like Miami. I'm not going to look like I'm in New York, you know. So when I did get a call from a PTA group out of Alabama that said our kids are getting this, I had no problem creating that parental advisory sticker and putting it on the record and start doing two versions of the songs.
MARTIN: I remember being in music stores and seeing those CDs with those parental sticker labels.
CAMPBELL: Oh, so you got a couple...
MARTIN: (Laughter) No, I couldn't buy them.
CAMPBELL: Go ahead, you can tell them. You can tell.
MARTIN: But, you know, when you're little and you see the sticker, then you want to buy it - right? - because you're thinking, oh, that must - you know, that's, like, off-limits.
CAMPBELL: You know, I had to do creative things. Again, I - it's this little guy, I mean, I'm doing this on my own. I'm like, OK, when Michael Jackson record comes out in the record store, I had to ask some girls with some big old butts because I knew I wasn't going to get the same visibility in that record store as Michael Jackson.
MARTIN: So you knew the sex would sell. You knew that.
CAMPBELL: Of course. I looked at the things that Larry Flynt was doing, what Hugh Hefner was doing. These things were already a part of the society at the time.
MARTIN: The calls for you to tone down your music and to even - calls for record stores to get rid of your albums altogether - those started getting louder, and lawsuits were filed. You kind of doubled down. You, instead of caving, you made "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," which ultimately landed you in court under obscenity charges.
CAMPBELL: As things went on, you know, just like you said, I did double down. I was basically saying, hey, look; I'm going to just fight the system. You know, at that time, I feel like it was racially motivated. I'm a black man; everybody else is doing this. I own my own black record company. They're only coming after me because of this right here. So why should I not fight this? I got to take on this fight.
MARTIN: You won the significant free speech ruling that ended up affecting the rest of the music industry. But did you feel like you had the support of the industry when that ruling came down? And did you feel that you had been vindicated?
CAMPBELL: Let me tell you, I felt like the only person that was with me was me and the people of my community, the people in Liberty City. That was it. And that's why I always came back home, even when I became more and more successful - you know, because, you know, you have rap groups in the height of it all going on TV, you know, from Salt-N-Pepa to Kid 'n Play talking bad about, you know, what we were doing on records. And, you know, you had the Russell Simmons of the world. You know, all these same people who you'd have thought that would have supported us coming after the music.
MARTIN: After the trial, you write in the book that you took your onstage persona to this completely different level because you started getting really into sex films, and - as a producer. And there was a really strong sexual element to your live shows. When did you decide - because you did decide to shed that persona - how did you make that decision?
CAMPBELL: I had to basically take a look at myself. You know, I said, OK, I've won every battle. You know, I won the parody case. You know, I went to jail for music. At one point I just said, look, I got to grow up. You know, I want to focus more being - more about being an executive and then, at some point in my life, being a father. And then I could get on with the rest of my life.
MARTIN: Your life is really different now. You write in the book, you went home to Liberty City, set up an organization to help kids and mentor them through football - pretty different life than you were leading as a music star and producer. You've got kids. How much do they know about your past, your music? Do they listen to your albums? Do you let them?
CAMPBELL: I mean, I got kids now 24 and 25 years old, and...
MARTIN: They know.
CAMPBELL: Yeah, they know. Did they - were they fans? No. To say any one of my kids, you know, oh, Dad, I like this song here, man. Yeah, man, you really did it on "I Wanna Rock." You know, that "Raise The Roof," oh, man. You know, no, so none of my kids want to be involved in none of the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANNED IN THE U.S.A.")
2 LIVE CREW: (Rapping) We're 2 live, 2 black, 2 strong, doing the right thing and not the wrong. So listen up, y'all, to what we say. We won't be banned in the U.S.A. Banned in the U.S.A.
MARTIN: Luther Campbell, formally of 2 Live Crew. He spoke to us from the member station of WLRN in Miami. His memoir is called "The Book Of Luke: My Fight For Truth, Justice, And Liberty City." It's been so fun to talk with you. Thanks so much for taking the time, Luther.
CAMPBELL: Hey, it's great to talk to you as well, and you have a great rest of the summer.
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