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).