He may have called for “a kinder, gentler nation,” but the first year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, 1989, turned out to be Ground Zero for the Culture Wars. It was the year of Robert Mapplethorpe’s A Perfect Moment exhibit, the year of Andres Serrano and Piss Christ, the year of the Helms Amendment restricting the use of funds by the National Endowment for the Arts – and it was the year of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
Luther Campbell was nothing if not a provocateur. (Considering the quality of his music, whether he was much of anything besides a provocateur is open for discussion.) Calling himself Luke Skyywalker, in open (and ill-advised) defiance of George Lucas’ possessive trademarking of all things Star Wars, Campbell took it upon himself to push the envelope of public decency in his quest for notoriety. As it turned out, he would get all he could handle, and the travails surrounding As Nasty as They Wanna Be would launch a new round of soul-searching throughout the record industry as it struggled to deal with the marketing of increasingly confrontational rap artists.
A record store in Florida already had encountered legal troubles over the Miami-based 2 Live Crew’s debut, … Is What We Are, in 1987 after the parents of a 14-year-old girl complained about the album’s lyrics. The next year, an Alabama record-store owner was charged with pandering obscenity, and later acquitted, after he sold a copy of the group’s second album, Move Somethin’, to an undercover cop. These controversies, as well as the inclusion of the bouncy hit single “Me So Horny,” served to spur sales of As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which quickly moved 2 million units.
“Me So Horny,” based on a sample of a Vietnamese girl taken from Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, earned considerable radio play for its “clean” version (Campbell, in a move that later would be copied by numerous rappers, had released an alternate version of the album that even got a separate title, As Clean as They Wanna Be). Even the “nasty” version of the song, which was doubly charming because it was degrading to women and racist, was one of the tamest tracks on the album, which even critics who weren’t interested in censorship considered debased (not to mention amateurish, but that’s another story).
The album’s success only spurred moralists such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, which sent an attorney to Florida to suggest to the state’s governor that the album might be more than just Nasty – it might be actionably obscene. Eventually a state judge found probable cause to consider such a matter, and in early June 1990 a second judge, Jose Gonzales, convened a trial that ended with his own ruling that the album was indeed obscene. Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro had already begun a campaign to intimidate local retailers, warning them they could be arrested for selling Nasty; once Gonzales had entered his ruling, Navarro launched a sting operation to find a merchant willing to sell the album.
Ft. Lauderdale record store owner Charles Freeman announced that he would not abide by Gonzales’ ruling, and on June 8, 1990, he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. Two days later, Campbell and two other members of 2 Live Crew were arrested after a performance at Club Futura in Hollywood, FL. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, TX, detectives visited 84 record stores and warned them to remove Nasty from the shelves in order to avoid similar charges. Such warnings also were given to retailers in Eau Claire, WI; meanwhile, a town government in Rhode Island trumped up a number of “safety” concerns in an attempt to prevent a nightclub from hosting a 2 Live Crew concert.
All this activity opened not one, but two cans of legal worms: obscenity law and prior restraint. Obscenity, of course, is the trickier one. The modern definition was established as a result of the landmark case Miller v. California, and the three-part test goes like this: “(1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) measured by contemporary community standards, the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
During the original trial over Nasty, jury members had laughed repeatedly at the album’s lyrics, enabling defense attorneys to argue that the album had artistic merit as comedy or satire. Meanwhile, literary critics (including Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) argued that the language on the album had significant roots in African-American vernacular, games and literary traditions. Gonzales (who had deemed himself qualified to judge “community standards,” based on his 28 years on the bench) dismissed those arguments, ruling (among other things) that rap music in general, because it (to his mind) focuses on words rather than music, does not qualify as “art.”
Even by the dicey standards of the typical obscenity case, Gonzales’ ruling was full of holes, and two years later a federal appeals court reversed his opinion, saying (among other things) that Gonzales had failed to adequately establish “community standards” via expert testimony, and that he had not required the prosecutors to establish their case beyond submitting a tape of the album. Campbell and the other arrested 2 Live Crew members had already been acquitted in state courts; the federal decision cleared Freeman of any wrongdoing.
As for the prior restraint issues that surrounded Nasty, Gonzales did get one thing right – he ruled that Navarro’s threats against retailers were unconstitutional. Additionally, the Rhode Island town that attempted to halt a concert was cited for invoking unconstitutional prior restraint. However, the threats by police against retailers in Texas and Wisconsin were typical of a pattern that began to emerge more generally surrounding controversial music. Following the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album and its track “Fuck Tha Police,” a web of police threats nationwide led to the cancellation of several dates on the group’s 1989 tour; Ice-T’s band Body Count faced similar hassles on its tour after releasing the song “Cop Killer” in 1992.
More generally, the controversies (and arrests) surrounding Nasty led to a significant “chilling effect” among retailers across the country, culminating in decisions by many chains and independent stores to curtail their sales of albums with “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” stickers. Earlier in the 1980s, the recording industry had established its voluntary regime of stickering “explicit” albums in order to fend off more draconian measures desired by groups like Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource, and hoped that the stickers would lessen the risk of censorship by governments at all levels. Instead, beginning about 1989 and continuing well into the ’90s, the stickers gave law enforcement officials easy targets for intimidation and prosecution, and gave store owners an easy standard for deciding which merchandise to avoid carrying.
The mainstreaming of rap music in the ’90s, and the shift to online distribution of recordings (legal and illegal), have to a large extent mitigated these problems. But the drama surrounding 2 Live Crew proved historic in many respects, and the Nasty album now is remembered (for better or worse) as marking a turning point in the debate over what kinds of content and language are appropriate in pop music.