As 2 Live Crew’s hype and front man, Luther Campbell was the face of one of the most controversial outfits in the history of hip-hop. In the late eighties and early nineties, the Miami native led the band’s numerous battles against state and federal obscenity laws after authorities in Florida arrested record store owners for selling 2 Live Crew’s breakthrough album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The band’s success made them unlikely first amendment heroes—a role further bolstered by winning a landmark copyright case in U.S. Supreme Court for the right to parody. With songs like ‘The Fuck Shop’ and ‘Throw the D’, 2 Live Crew’s highly explicit, comparatively up-tempo and misogynistic booty bass not only infused hip-hop with a new form of smuttiness, it also influenced generations of bass music producers. At this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, A.J. Samuels caught up with Campbell to talk about his bid for mayor, the Occupy movement and the art of mastering vinyl.
A.J. Samuels: Over the past decade or so, a number of bass music sub-genres have emerged with roots in Miami bass—dubstep, ghettotech and juke come to mind. How do you see your contributions to the Miami bass sound with 2 Live Crew?
Luther Campbell: Well, part of me is from Jamaica and the other part from the Bahamas, so I was always into reggae, dub and calypso. And, you know, Miami is a serious melting pot—it’s not like the more segregated American south. And the influences here are much more from the islands, from the Caribbean. Musically, that means first and foremost: very heavy bass, congas and high-hats. With 2 Live Crew, it was always important for us to have our own sound. When we were coming up, hip-hop was all about East and West: New York, Run-DMC, Mantronix, N.W.A., and all that L.A. and Oakland stuff. Those guys really had a sound that was connected to where they were from. It was cool to sound like where you lived and where you grew up—but not, like, in a provincial way. So when we were writing, we asked ourselves: what are we all about? And the answer was: we were Latin, Caribbean, Jamaican, and African-American. And the common thread there was undoubtedly bass.
A.J. Samuels: What were you doing musically before 2 Live Crew?
Luther Campbell: I was a DJ, so speakers, cabinets, sound systems—that shit was always incredibly important to me. At parties, we had sound systems with, like, forty speakers for the floor, and thirty-five of them were bass cabinets. And that shit wasn’t just for the club; you needed it in your car too.
A.J. Samuels: So you had experience figuring out how to achieve the heaviest bass sound specifically for the heaviest sound systems?
Luther Campbell: Damn right. But believe me, it’s not just about the instruments or drum machines or the mix. With 2 Live Crew records, I would go to the mastering lab where they were cutting the vinyl. You know, there’s only so much bass you can put on vinyl before the needle starts skipping, because eventually the grooves will be too close together. I would always make sure that the cutter would make the separations between the grooves a tiny fraction of the size of the needle, right? You know, on the very edge of skipping . . . as thin as possible. At one point in time, we always made a certain batch of records that you could only really play with diamond needles, like for DJs and true bass heads. It was for the heavy drop. You don’t just take an 808 or 707 and 303, program some shit and then have a good sound.
A.J. Samuels: Would you say understanding bass music in general is a matter of experiencing it on a proper system, like a tricked out car stereo or in a club?
Luther Campbell: No doubt. I mean, back in the day you’d put on a Run-DMC or LL Cool J record, and after that my record, and, shit—the difference was crazy man. It was a whole part of the sound spectrum that our music opened up! But even if you didn’t have crazy-ass bass enhancers you could still feel it. And if you did, as soon as you pop on a button to get the bass pumping, shit would just rumble, because our records were literally cut different.
A.J. Samuels: What do you think today’s digital production possibilities bring to the table?
Luther Campbell: For me, not a whole hell of a lot. Digital bass will always sound tinnier to my ear. You know, next year we’re actually getting ready to relaunch Luke Records, and for all the real bass music we’re going to put out, most of it will be done analog. Plug-ins won’t do the trick. I don’t listen so much to all this juke or dubstep, but dudes have been paying homage to me, telling me what an influence 2 Live Crew was and all that, so it’s all good. When I ran for mayor last year, I went to a party for the Winter Music Conference and people, like, freaked the fuck out when I walked in. But the connection to electronic stuff was there from the very beginning, because when we toured England or Germany for example, we’d play acid parties, not just hip-hop venues.
A.J. Samuels: 2 Live Crew’s lyrics were at least half the equation for your success. Was there a natural connection for you between the music and the sexual nature of your rhymes?
Luther Campbell: Hell yes! Sex and bass are a match made in heaven, which became even more obvious for us when we’d watch people dance to our music—especially outside of Miami. In the clubs in L.A. or New York, it was all about grinding, people grabbing each other and just getting freaky. They were practically fucking on the dancefloor in an attempt to recreate the dances we had in our videos—some of which were, like, invented for the shoot.
A.J. Samuels: Last year you ran for mayor of Miami and ended up coming in fourth place. Were you always politically active or did the band’s civil liberties cases make you political?
Luther Campbell: 2 Live Crew drove me to politics, as strange as that sounds. We constantly found ourselves dealing with different municipalities in Florida who wanted to censor us—and then later on a much larger scale all over the U.S. Of course, censorship is political, because it’s about understanding your rights and understanding the constitution. When you start understanding laws, you also start understanding the difference between a good lawmaker and a bad one. And sometimes you have ridiculous politicians who try to tell you what you can and can’t say on a record . . . just to get some brownie points from his or her constituents and show how they’re fighting “immorality” and “obscenity”. As an artist, you have to know how to deal with that.
A.J. Samuels: Lots of people remember 2 Live Crew fighting Florida’s obscenity laws, but actually your biggest civil liberties battle was in the U.S. Supreme Court over copyright infringement and the right to parody Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. Which of your court battles was more important in shaping your political trajectory?
Luther Campbell: Obscenity, no doubt. It just seemed bizarre that you could have The Playboy Channel and Penthouse and all that, but you couldn’t have “Me So Horny” or “Face Down Ass Up”. In the beginning, what was considered “obscene” was different from district to district, because depending on where you were, it was or wasn’t enforced. Like, in one record shop it was OK to sell As Nasty As They Wanna Be, but a couple miles down the road, it wasn’t. The whole thing was like a litmus test for how progressive or conservative the individual municipalities were. But before the obscenity cases went to court, it was just some cop or county sheriff saying what was right and wrong. I just couldn’t wrap myself around the idea that Andrew Dice Clay could get away with his act and people were being arrested for selling our records. At first I thought it was because stand–up comedians had a history of defending what they do, and musicians hadn’t done it yet. But then I realized . . .
A.J. Samuels: That it was racist?
Luther Campbell: Absolutely. And it just got more and more political when Tipper Gore came out with that “Focus on the Family” shit and the Parents Music Resource Center. It was a blacklist . . . pun intended. 2 Live Crew just became a pawn in the censorship game. In my opinion, Al Gore was actually a better candidate for president than Bill Clinton—he just had all this baggage from his wife.
A.J. Samuels: It’s ironic that one of the most conservative censorship campaigns would be spearheaded by somebody so close to America’s self-styled progressive poster boy.
Luther Campbell: Go figure.
A.J. Samuels: But 2 Live Crew’s parody case was also pretty important too, no?
Luther Campbell: Well, it changed the whole landscape of sampling and allowed people like Weird Al and Saturday Night Live to continue doing their thing without getting sued by Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. So, yeah it was. It’s no exaggeration to say that some politicians and fellow artists conspired to stop us from doing what we do.
A.J. Samuels: There are few cities in America where the gap between the haves and have-nots is as visible as in Miami. Ferraris and Lamborghinis seem to be constantly rolling through South Beach or barreling down U.S. 1 past some of the area’s poorest neighborhoods. You grew up in Liberty City, which has one of the highest unemployment and crime rates in the city. Did that have an effect on you politically speaking?
Luther Campbell: The disparity in Miami is fucking unbelievable. I mean, we’re talking about two different worlds with rich and poor, and little to no mobility. The middle class is almost non-existent. City hall here is just full of elitists. Their job is to continue to make certain people rich and take advantage of other people’s communities. Black people don’t have jobs and suffer serious police brutality, especially in the Haitian neighborhoods. Everything black just gets treated like garbage. It’s that bad. If you’re Cuban, it’s different. It’s easier to get a job downtown and all that. But they take care of their own, you know? Don’t get me wrong: a lot of Cubans are good people, but everybody’s got their own interests in mind.
A.J. Samuels: Who voted for you when you ran for mayor?
Luther Campbell: It was all over the place—black, white, Jewish, you name it. I was the only candidate who really won at the polls. I’m telling you, it’s such a tricked-up system here with buying and selling votes and absentee ballots.
A.J. Samuels: You’d think there would’ve been a clamp-down on vote-rigging in Florida after the Bush-Gore debacle in 2000 . . .
Luther Campbell: You would, wouldn’t you? But things don’t change here. Liberty City looks exactly the same as when I grew up there. And, politically speaking, it’s not a party thing. I’m a registered Democrat, but that’s all just a bunch of bullshit. I’m two seconds away from going independent. The Democrats didn’t do anything for me when I was running my campaign. Maybe it’s because I don’t look like them. Do you think the Democratic Party has become too conservative? Absolutely. It’s not what it used to be. But the funny thing about the Republican Party is that the real republican Republicans—the ones we always had a problem with; the ones who are, like, two seconds from being KKK—they all joined the Tea Party. The racist motherfuckers are all there, and I think it’s actually making Republican leaders more moderate.
A.J. Samuels: In one of your recent columns for the Miami New Times, you came out in support of the Occupy movement. What’s the protest landscape like in Miami?
Luther Campbell: It’s happening in Miami, but not as much as in other places. Personally, I think the movement is incredibly important. When I was a teenager, they held the Democratic National Convention down here in 1972, which brought out all the hippies and zippies. They took over the park at the beach but they weren’t active enough, you know? The Occupy movement gets it. They are out there with all their fury fighting against the goddamn propaganda machine.
A.J. Samuels: What do you mean?
Luther Campbell: Look, for the average American, if you put somebody on TV in a blue suit with a certain haircut and a certain look, and people will listen to what the guy has to say. They’ll believe it. They’ve done, like, a million studies on it. That’s some key shit. And when this guy tells you “Nancy Pelosi is a rapist! She rapes men!” people believe it before she even gets her day in court! So when people say America’s broke and shit, I know they’re
juggling the numbers. Wall Street’s not broke. They’re fucking with our investments, our retirement funds. And the protestors understand that. They know that this is what’s fucking the country up. We live in a heavily propaganda-driven society with major mass manipulation.
A.J. Samuels: Do you think there have been any major improvements under Obama?
Luther Campbell: Let me tell you: I voted for Obama the first time and I’m going to vote for him again, but only because all these other guys are so fucked up. To be honest, I expected more. When Bush was in power, he took care of his constituents. Obama gets elected and he
talks about saving the world, but he should take care of his fucking people, because we’ve been getting fucked for the past eight years.
We’re like fucking first graders compared to the rest of the world. I mean, America’s got guns and some nuclear shit, but that’s about all these days . . . Oh yeah, megachurches, too.
A.J. Samuels: Are you religious?
Luther Campbell: I guess so, but it’s not like I run to the church every day. I pray at home and read the Bible, but I try to study other religions as well. You know, when I was growing up, my mama told me I was Baptist and a Democrat . . . so when I was young, I didn’t explore. But who knows? I might be Muslim—hell, I might even be Jewish.
A.J. Samuels: In the past, you’ve dabbled in the adult entertainment industry as both a producer and director. Are you still involved with that at all?
Luther Campbell: No, and I don’t miss it either. For me, that was really about making money and filling a market niche. When I decided to get into the business, there was practically no tasteful African-American porn. It was always some grimy Motel 6 shit. I wanted to make some classy urban stuff, you know? I only did one hardcore movie, but to tell you the truth, I just didn’t like the whole experience. Internally, I just couldn’t deal with it. It wasn’t me—even though it sold like crazy . . .
A.J. Samuels: You mean morally you had problems with it?
Luther Campbell: Yeah, it just wasn’t right for me. I do think some porn is art, but it’s just not my art form. Sex, for me, is more personal. It’s not a business. It’s not work. When I sing “I want some pussy!” it’s more like I’m celebrating it by telling people to go out and get some. But not when it’s all cold and impersonal. Nevertheless, I respect porn stars. They put a lot of time and energy into what they do.
A.J. Samuels: Art Basel is on now. Have you checked out the main show?
Luther Campbell: No. Even though I’m an artist, I’m not really the “artsy” type. But Art Basel is great for the city. I’ll probably go with my wife and check out some of the public stuff. I like paintings, but when I look at a sculpture or some shit, I don’t get it. I won’t lie.
A.J. Samuels: Have you been to any of the parties?
Luther Campbell: I haven’t been invited. Artsy people getting loose? Interesting. ~
Photo by So-Min Kang, Luther Campbell lounging at the Delano Hotel in South Beach.
Published May 24, 2012.