Florida Man Sticks It to America: Luther ‘Uncle Luke’ Campbell’s Memoir of Bass, Community Activism, Football, and DebaucheryJared Lazarus/Miami Herald/MCT
You won’t find anyone better versed in 2 Live Crew than a certain evangelical ex–golf pro with a Batman complex. Circa 1988, attorney Jack Thompson, master transcriber of the profane, would fax dirty rap lyrics to lawmen and lawgivers throughout sundry counties in Florida in an attempt to have the group banned, but unwittingly providing yet another promotion and distribution network for the rap group that Senator Bob Dole believed was “undermining the national character of America.” Fax machines in precincts in the Southeast trilled like cicadas. Units were moved. The Nuisance Abatement Board of Broward County felt galvanized.
“We were using everyday language to talk about a subject that everyone enjoys and participates in,” shrugs Luther Campbell in his tell-some memoir, The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City, which was released this week.
It stands to reason that Thompson’s fax attack reached Greenwood County, South Carolina, Sheriff Sam Riley. When Campbell appeared onstage at the Greenwood Civic Center in June 1992, he explained who he was (somewhere between “free speech crusader” and “Captain Dick”) and told his audience that he couldn’t cuss, nor use the nasty dancers, and that it all really sucked, but he would clean it up and do the best he could. He then vanished behind the curtain. Outside the civic center, a rodeo was in progress. Men were thrown from bulls while clowns ran for their lives in circles. Campbell’s kerchiefed head popped back out to denounce these yahoos, the same demographic that had called him an “an un-American piece of shit.” There was a scattered whoop of support. Bummed, he attempted to rile the ticketed without blaspheming anyone’s mother, just trying to hype himself mostly, all of which lasted long enough to believe it wouldn’t. Nor did it. Something tripped the switch in Luke’s head — perhaps the born need to stick it to the national character — followed by bleeping-bleep testimony required to break the law, which also conveniently notified the bass that it was time to ventilate. Out came the dancers, the gluteally impossible on a subwoofer gust, and off went the sound. Campbell, not for the first time, had sworn himself out of the building. Maybe 20 dudes were left to chant “Doo Doo Brown” amongst themselves. The sun hadn’t even set.1
The following morning, between the story “Beethoven’s piano on tour”2 and an MC Hammer–related drive-by, the McCook Daily Gazette claimed the plug had been pulled three-quarters of the way into the show. One of my sources at the scene said otherwise, clocking the performance at 30 seconds, tops. It was as if Uncle Luke had been booked for the sole purpose of shutting him down.
The Greenwood incident lacked the SWAT teams and helicopters, or the onstage brawls with Run-D.M.C. and whipped-cream bazookas necessary to make the memoir, but it does point to a professional consistency: Luther “Luke” Campbell was dedicated. It’s been 25 years since Jack Thompson’s war on obscenity, when a record-store clerk was arrested for selling a cassette of As Nasty As They Wanna Be and 2 Live Crew was setting off “Jamaican pipe bombs” at the end of shows so they could dissipate into the crowd and shake the fuzz.3 At the time, Campbell was entangled in censorship and intellectual property lawsuits with George Lucas (“the Star Wars guy”), Broward County, and the estate of Roy Orbison — the latter due to a hirsute parody of “Pretty Woman.”4 Rap, as we love it, was in deep you know what. Campbell joined the talk-show mayhem, arguing his case on Geraldo and The Phil Donahue Show. Seating Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro and Luke next to each other, Rivera said it was the “bleepiest” show he’d ever hosted. The cutaways to audience members were like caricatures of revulsion. Next stop: SCOTUS.
Miami Bass made daytime television around the time the cheerleaders at my high school did a “Get It Girl” halftime routine. The song sampled black comedians LaWanda Page and the duo Leroy and Skillet — bawdy Laff Records acts that Campbell grew up listening to while his parents were out.5 The same Leroy and Skillet and LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther!) walked into Red Foxx’s house on Sanford and Son and so into my mom’s den every night around suppertime. One room over sat a blown EV speaker, consigned to tweeter purgatory after being introduced to 2 Live Crew on Christmas Eve 1987. We’re all going to hell.6
Luke’s day(s) in court also had their Pigmeat Markham moments — a comedy of sweaty bible hands that could only occur in Florida. At one point, the jury submitted an official request to Judge Jose Gonzalez for permission to laugh after seeing officers stumble under oath through “Face Down Ass Up.” (Sheriff Navarro claimed to have an inter-departmental rap group called Hands Up.) Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s co-counsel pulled Campbell aside to say he’d been enjoying bumping their music at the office. Campbell’s lawyer, Bruce Rogow, would make the judge screen pornography acquired from an adult video store located across from a Broward County sheriff’s station, a shrewd tactic to prove that his client wasn’t violating “existing standards of decency in the community.” (He wasn’t.) Transcripts from a 2 Live Crew performance, bootlegged transparently undercover at Club Futura in Fort Lauderdale, were tossed because the 808 low-end from “Throw the D” — a song written by Chris Wong Won during a flight back to March Air Reserve base in Riverside, California — suppressed the evidence. The bass itself had come to their defense. As did some good old-fashioned ineptitude. Transcripts reveal one detective trying to figure out how to disengage his micro-recorder. After the trial, someone not named Luke hacked the Broward sheriff’s radio band and put “Me So Horny” in heavy rotation. Campbell relays this in fascinating detail while still in disbelief.
Of all the things 2 Live Crew were,7 illegally obscene was not one of them. By August 1992, Nasty’s obscenity ruling (“appeals to the loins”) had been overturned and Hurricane Andrew blew Miami’s street signs away.8
In Charles Willeford’s 1984 scuzz-noir Miami Blues, a detective with false teeth notices a sign on the wall at a Miami-Dade police station depicting the barrel of a .38 aimed at him. The caption reads “Miami: See it like a native,” mocking the tourism posters featuring a topless woman snorkeling. To black neighborhoods like Overtown and Liberty City, Willeford’s mordant parody, with its racist subtext, is closer to the truth. Luther Campbell’s family was part of the relocation of the black middle class when African Americans and Bahamians were forced from Overtown to Liberty City after the construction of I-95 literally ran over their neighborhood. In May 1980, when five officers (four white, one Cuban) were acquitted after a black insurance agent was beaten to death after flipping them off at a stoplight, the McDuffie riots left Liberty City decimated. In his book, Campbell notes that Cuban and Anglo property owners used the millions in relief aid to move their businesses elsewhere.
With no outlet in the neighborhood, Campbell and his crew Ghetto Style DJs would open up his all-ages Pac Jam club9 within walking distance in Liberty City. (I was once told the bass in this tiny green room violated OSHA standards.) Evolving from a hypercompetitive mobile DJ scene, the Miami Bass sound was an assimilation of the city’s African American, Afro Caribbean, West Indian, and Latino populations. Propagating from walls of speakers that literally threw shade, low-frequency bass waves are technically displaced air generated by displaced people, in gutted areas where, as Campbell puts it, “black people having a good time is a political act.”
The media tended to focus on outrage and hindquarter quake, neglecting the dire conditions in Miami itself. Liberty Square — built in 1936 as the first WPA project-housing initiative in the South — is currently slated for demolition, as the city promises to build new homes for its residents. Campbell’s concern is they’ll just be pushed south to areas like Homestead, near the edge of the Everglades/civilization. The wash house behind Campbell’s childhood home in Liberty City should be preserved as a historic landmark. Once guarded by barbed wire, it served as mini-storage for his label, the launching point for a raunchy but wildly successful self-reliant hip-hop empire that would ultimately lose its catalogue to its own accountant, who now sits on an archive of unheard tracks by one of the most influential rap producers of that era — David “Mr. Mixx” Hobbs. Please. Somebody.
Hobbs now lives in Cleveland. Luke is reformed, and a high school football coach whose players have no interest in 2 Live Crew. Jack Thompson is disbarred and the only words banned in Florida are “climate change.” The groups’ other members — Mark “Brother Marquis” Ross (who once wrote a song called “99 Problems”) and Chris “Fresh Kid Ice” Wong Won — still live in Miami, occasionally performing with Luke as 2 Live Crew.
“We were the assholes of the industry,” Wong Won wrote in his own recently self-published memoir, My Rise 2 Fame, with writer Jacob Katel. Wong Won barely survived the excess himself, nearly losing his arm after being thrown from a Camaro Z28 and surviving two strokes, type 2 diabetes, and encephalopathy.
Miami, like rap itself, is a mythmaker’s paradise, oversold on its own exaggerations. (In Book of Luke, Campbell takes only a parenthetical I’m-not-making-this-up pause for a relatively wholesome incident involving a little person.) Did everyone wear protection at these orgies? And what happened to all the women involved — the strippers, the dancers, the moonlighting sex circus extremists, the girls who weren’t trying to freak themselves to fame — without whom the music wouldn’t have been possible and might not have, if you’ll pardon the expression, sold dick? Their story awaits.
“That was a dark time,” Campbell told me back in December. “There were so many parties I can’t remember them all. Everybody tells stories about me better than I do anyway.”
Jack Thompson told his share, and his contributions to Miami Bass shouldn’t go unnoticed. Campbell recently ran into his former adversary while doing an interview for HBO’s Real Sports. “They wanted a ‘coming together’ thing,” Campbell says of reuniting with the man described in his memoir as “batshit crazy.” “So we came together. I think it was kind of awkward for him.”
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback from StopSmiling/Melville House. Born in North Carolina, he currently lives in Brooklyn. He would like to thank Vincent Whitehurst and Jacob Katel for their assistance on this story.