2 Live Crew

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2 Live Crew

2 Live Crew, the primary progenitors of a hip-hop sub-genre called Miami Bass, will probably be better remembered for their important legal battles than their music. Their sexually explicit songs that often objectified women and which featured relatively simple bass-driven beats drew the attention of many conservative law enforcement officials from their hometown of Miami, as well as elsewhere. 2 Live Crew's legal perils during the late 1980s and early 1990s opened up debates about censorship and made them unwitting proponents of free speech.

Foreshadowing the legal battles over intellectual property that dogged the group a few years down the line, the group's first legal confrontation involved the appropriation of the name Luke Skywalker as a stage name by the group's leader (born Luther Campbell, Dec. 22, 1960). Lucasfilm, the owner of the Star Wars trilogy trademark, promptly sued the group when they began to find aboveground exposure when 2 Live Crew's second album, Move Somethin' (1987), reached number 68 on the Billboard pop chart. As a result, Luther Campbell's stage and record company names were shortened to "Luke" and "Luke Records," respectively. The album that gained the most attention, though, was As Nasty As They Wanna Be (1989) which reached the pop album charts' Top Forty and spawned a hit single, "Me So Horny." Despite its many detractors, from conservative law enforcement officials, right-wing Christian groups, and music critics, As Nasty As They Wanna Be sold over two million copies, many of which were likely sold because of publicity drawn from criticism of the group.

Enraged by the explicit content of 2 Live Crew, a Coral Gables attorney named Jack Thompson launched an all-out war against the group, culminating in a Broward County, Florida judge deeming the album obscene under state law in March of 1990. Soon after, a record store owner in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and another in Huntsville, Alabama were arrested by local sheriffs departments for violating obscenity laws. Around the same time, 2 Live Crew was arrested for performing songs from As Nasty As They Wanna Be in a Florida nightclub and, when visiting the same town, alternative band Too Much Joy was arrested for performing songs from that album in an act of protest. These events escalated into a full scale debate within the media over free speech and first amendment protection, with radio and television talk show pundits arguing over 2 Live Crew's social and musical merits.

The two record store retailers were eventually acquitted, as were 2 Live Crew and Too Much Joy—all by juries that either criticized local authorities for wasting their time or, in one case, wanted to deliver the not guilty verdict in the form of a rap. In May 1992 the obscenity ruling was reversed by the eleventh United States Circuit Court of Appeals and an appeal was refused to be heard by the United States Supreme Court. But 2 Live Crew's legal woes were not over, as they faced another suit filed against them for the unauthorized sampling of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." The owners of the song's copyright, Acuff-Rose, argued that 2 Live Crew's use of the song devalued the original's worth. After a protracted legal battle that eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, that court ruled in 1994 that the 2 Live Crew version constituted fair use under copyright law and was therefore legal. In a time dominated by easy access to digital recording and transferring technology, this was seen as a significant ruling by legal scholars.

Riding the wave of publicity after the As Nasty As They Wanna Be scandal, 2 Live Crew milked another couple of minor hit albums in 1990 and 1991 (Banned in the USA and Sports Weekend, respectively). Soon after, however, the group's mainstream success fizzled and the original lineup disbanded, with Luke going on as a solo artist, periodically releasing solo albums on his own label.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Campbell, Luther. As Nasty as They Wanna Be: The Uncensored Story of Luther Campbell of the 2 Life Crew. Kingston, Kingston Publishers, 1992.

Shabazz, Julian L. D. The United States of America vs. Hip-Hop. Hampton, United Brothers, 1992.

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2 Live Crew

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