They entertained, they angered, and they pushed free speech to the limit. The 2 Live Crew is one of hip hop’s most notorious groups, and not in the same way as Public Enemy and N.W.A. Those aforementioned groups used the social and political climate of the time to shock America, but the 2 Live Crew did things differently, as they shocked America by using raunchy and sexually explicit lyrics, and this lyrical stance brought the Crew both fans and resentment from moral advocate, and would become the battleground for freedom of speech in music.
Although the 2 Live Crew was a Miami-based group, their origins actually lie in Riverside, California, where in 1984, DJ Mr. Mixx (b. David Hobbs), Fresh Kid Ice (b. Chris Wong Won), and Amazing Vee (b. Yuri Vielot), released the first ever single by the group, “Revelation.”
“Revelation” was typical of the “electro-rap” that was popular in Southern California at the time, but the single was virtually ignored, and it seemed like the 2 Live Crew would be just another hip hop group that would flame out. But in a twist of fate, the single was picked up by a local radio station in Miami, and the track became a club hit in South Florida.
Seeing that their brand of hip hop would flourish in the fertile Sunshine State, Mr. Mixx and Fresh Kid Ice (sans Amazing Vee) relocated from California to tropical Miami in 1985, and that same year, the Crew released “What I Like,” which became another hit in South Beach. Soon after, Brother Marquis (b. Mark Ross) joined the group.
But the game-changer for the group would occur the following year, when Luke Skyywalker (b. Luther Campbell), a Miami native, signed on to manage the group, but soon after, he became the face of the group as their leader, and this would be where the group’s famous (or infamous, whichever way you see it) sound and lyrical stance would come into play.
In 1986, the Crew released their debut album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, and the singles on the record sounded nothing like their previous output. The signature synthesized “Miami Bass” beat was still there, but the lyrics now contained sexually explicit innuendos in songs such as “We Want Some P***y,” and “Throw the D.”
Naturally, the tracks got ignored by radio for its explicit content, but despite the lack of radio airplay, the LP became a word-of-mouth hit and was certified Gold by the RIAA. Almost immediately after the album became a hit, moral advocates and evangelicals began slamming the album for its obscene nature, and in 1987, a Florida record store clerk was arrested and charged with selling the album to a 14-year-old girl, which was a felony under the state's obscenity laws.
The clerk was eventually acquitted of the charge, and Campbell sensed then that the group’s raunchy records would bring in unwanted attention. So, he came up with the idea of selling “clean” versions of the Crew’s albums so that younger fans would be able to enjoy their music without the X-rated lyrics and to hopefully appease parents and moral advocates.
That same year, Move Somethin’ became the first album in history to have an alternate “clean” version, and it was an even bigger hit than their debut. The raunchiness on the "dirty record" was taken up a notch, led by the infamous “One and One,” a very adult remake of the Kinks classic “All Day and All of the Night.” The album caused even more controversy as states, especially those in the conservative south, saw the album as a degradation of moral character, and they moved to stop the sale of the album by holding record store clerks liable for the obscene music, such as what happened to a clerk in Alexander City, Alabama in 1988.
This didn’t stop the group from releasing records nor did it stop fans from eating them up, and in 1989, the Crew released their third album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which would become their biggest selling LP. The album eventually sold over two million copies and went Double Platinum on the strength of their, now legendary, X-rated lyrics and the single “Me So Horny.” “Me So Horny” went to no. 1 on the Rap charts and, shockingly, climbed to no. 29 on the Hot 100, becoming one of the rare singles in the history of Billboard to climb into the Pop Top 30 with virtually no radio airplay.
As much as As Nasty as They Wanna Be attracted a legion of fans, it also brought even more heat to the group over the album’s X-rated content, including Jack Thompson, a Florida lawyer and influential member of the American Family Association, an ultraconservative non-profit that promotes fundamental Christian values.
Thompson was thoroughly convinced that the “Parental Advisory” label that was slapped on the album would not be enough to dissuade kids from purchasing the record, so he went to then-Florida Governor Bob Martinez to complain about the LP, and he succeeded in getting the governor’s office to look into the album to see if it violated the state’s obscenity laws.
But local law enforcement officials didn’t wait for Tallahassee to make a decision on the matter, as in early 1990, they began rounding up record store clerks for violating local obscenity ordinances, and it was taken even further in Broward County, where County Circuit Court judge Mel Grossman gave Sheriff Nick Navarro the green light to charge store clerks for violating the county’s obscenity laws by selling the LP.
The 2 Live Crew saw this as an assault on their First Amendment rights, and Campbell stated that moral advocates should focus their attention more on solving poverty than what is said on music records. But that didn’t stop the press from Christian groups and moral advocates to get As Nasty As They Wanna Be taken off store shelves, and in the summer of that year, they finally achieved that goal when the album became the first in history to be labeled legally obscene by U.S. District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez, which made the LP illegal to sell in Florida.
Later that year, three members of the Crew was arrested when they performed the record at a show in Hollywood, Florida, and soon after, freedom of speech supporters began to take up the group’s cause. The members were acquitted of obscenity charges in 1991, and the next year, the U.S. Appeals Eleventh Circuit Court overturned the obscenity ruling on the album, citing that the lyrics had deep roots within the African American community, and as such, was protected under the First Amendment.
During the turmoil, the Crew released their fourth album, 1990’s Banned in the U.S.A., which spoke out against the obscenity charges that was levied on the group and the assault on their freedom of speech. The album contained the hit title track (#13 R&B/#20 Hot 100/#1 Rap), the raunchy “Pop That C*****e,” and the cult classic “Do the Bart.”
The controversy that swirled around As Nasty as They Wanna Be proved that “all press was good press,” as the album continued to sell like hotcakes. But although the Crew came out the victors of the battle for free speech, their legal troubles were far from over.
First, George Lucas sued Campbell and his record company, Skyywalker Records, for copyright infringement, which led him to change the label’s name to Luke Records. Then, in 1992, the same year the obscenity ruling was overturned, rock legends Van Halen sued the Crew for ripping off the break from their song “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” for the group’s single “The F**k Shop.” But despite the constant legal troubles, the Crew was still putting out records, but by 1993, the group fell victim to another plague that they wouldn’t recover from – changing taste.
The hip hop world was gravitating to the G-Funk and gangster rap of the West Coast, and this left groups like the 2 Live Crew stranded on no-mans-land. The Crew would have another Gold album in 1991’s Sports Weekend, but after that, their commercial fortunes began to dry up as their sound and lyrics became outdated, and in 1998, the 2 Live Crew officially disbanded.
Even though the Crew is not officially together, they have remained close, including performing several reunion shows in South Florida and around the country, and although their sound is not nearly as controversial as it was in their heyday, most of the lyrics in today’s hip hop world wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the 2 Live Crew pushing the boundaries and showing America that every artist had a right to freedom speech, no matter how nasty that speech was.