Happy Birthday, Luther Campbell!

Campbell, at his mayoral rally last year at club Eve in Miami
Campbell, at his mayoral rally last year at club Eve in Miami
photo by Marie-Josse

In the minds of many, Luther "Luke" Campbell, born 51 years ago today, seems to court controversy. Despite his many guises -- performer, entrepreneur, promoter, opinion-maker, politico -- his chief role seems to be that of firebrand who's never backed off when confronting authority.

Best known from early on as the leader of one of South Florida's first insurgent rap group's, 2 Live Crew, he raised the ire of the morally indignant by openly celebrating the sexual exploitation of the opposite sex, with album art that featured scantily clothed women all too willing to show off their "wares." He initially ran afoul of the legal lions when a parody of Roy Orbison's classic "Oh, Pretty Woman" landed him in front of the Supreme Court following a challenge from the song's publisher.

Later, using the name "Luke Skyywalker" for both his own handle and that of his fledgling record label, he was sued by George Lucas for infringing on the name of his Star Wars character, Luke Skywalker. Subsequently, he was the target of legal action by members of his own group after they claimed that he had denied them their royalties.

These early encounters notwithstanding, the incident that landed him the most significant amount of publicity and notoriety was his ongoing battle with the late Broward sheriff Nick Navarro. In 1989, 2 Live Crew came to the attention of Florida Governor Bob Martinez, who then came to the conclusion that the lyrical content contained in their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was obscene and ought to be yanked from store shelves. A Florida statute defined obscenity as "work that has no serious artistic, scientific or political value, is patently offensive and would be found prurient by an average member of the community."

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Navarro, perhaps seeing himself as the moral enforcer of that mandate, made it his mission to arrest local record store owners who displayed the album in their shops. And he didn't stop there either; following a performance at Club Futura in Hollywood, Campbell and another member of the group were arrested and charged with violating obscenity laws.

After a headline-making trial, they were eventually acquitted, leading the judge to reprimand Navarro and his officers for their obvious zeal in prosecuting a case that had no legal justification. Indeed, a Federal appeals court overturned the lower court's conclusion that the album was in fact obscene.

Still, that didn't stop Campbell from lashing out at his opponents on his next album, Banned in the USA, which found him eloquently exclaiming "Fuck Martinez" and "Fuck Martinez" while citing the governor's wife for her ability to "suck a mean dick."

Ahem.

Campbell would later face continued scrutiny as a columnist for our sister paper, Miami New Times, and as a candidate for mayor of Miami-Dade County (he came in fourth). But his battles over lyrical content placed him among a select number of music makers who have battled the scourge of censorship over the decades.

Music oversight began in earnest in the '50s, coinciding with the rise of rock and roll. That's when early rockers like Elvis Presley and Little Richard not only challenged traditional moral values and staid Middle American mores, but also dared to breach the walls -- both physical and psychological -- dividing the races. Sexual expression and spontaneous behavior were brought to the fore and authorities reacted by banning songs from dozens of artists, many of whom happened to be black.

That suppression continued in earnest throughout the early '70s and '80s, when music censorship expanded from songs to music videos. Heavy metal and rap took the brunt of the offensive, but no one was immune. The campaign eventually found fruition with the Parental Advisory label that was adapted in 1985, initiated after the so-called Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) pressured the music industry into a voluntary code of enforcement that would effectively keep music they deemed offensive away from younger listeners.

Any evidence of profanity gives cause for censorship, but even the vaguest references can cause consternation. In the 1940s, a song by singer George Formby, "When I'm Cleaning Windows" was banned by the BBC radio due to "smutty lyrics." They were certainly mild by today's standards:

"The blushing bride she looks divine
The bridegroom he is doing fine
I'd rather have his job than mine
When I'm cleaning windows..."

In 1956, Billie Holiday was temporarily banned from the radio for her song "Love for Sale" due to lyrics that supposedly referenced prostitution. Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out Of You" also raised the ire of the authorities for a lyric that boldly stated "I get no kick from cocaine." It forced a change to the tamer "I get perfume from Spain," and eventually, "I get no kick from champagne."

The rebellious rock and roll that ushered in the liberated youth movement of the '60s also kept censors busy, driving them to ridiculous extremes. Ed Sullivan insisted that the Rolling Stones change the chorus of their hit "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's spend some time together" when they appeared on his program, a confrontation that caused Mick Jagger to grimace with disdain when he sang the song while looking straight into the camera. On the other hand, Bob Dylan steadfastly refused to perform on the Sullivan show when he was told to change the lyric to his politically charged protest tune, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues."

Even the beloved Beatles weren't immune to the iron hand of public scrutiny. The so-called "butcher cover' adorning their album American album Yesterday and Today -- featuring the foursome dressed in bloody smocks surrounded by dismembered dolls -- was recalled shortly after its issue and replaced by a much more generic looking photo featuring four bitter looking Beatles.

Later, their label, Capitol Records refused to release John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Two Virgins album due to its cover photo capturing the two fully nude. It was finally issued in a brown paper sleeve. Lennon himself, no stranger to controversy, also created a massive public uproar two years earlier when he was quoted as claiming the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. That led teens throughout the South to burn the band's albums at the urging of bombastic deejays.

Here a few other notable examples of musical censorship:

  • Detroit rockers, the MC5, were denied airplay due to the battle cry that echoed through their signature song, "Kick Out the Jams," which ended the exhortation with the word "motherfuckers."
  • The cover of San Francisco's Moby Grape eponymous debut had to be airbrushed in order to hide one band member's offending middle finger.
  • The cover of Blind Faith's only album was deemed inappropriate for store display due to the fact it showed a nubile and nude underage girl. The substitute cover captured the band in a sepia-toned studio shot.
  • The BBC, reticent to broadcast any song that contained overt product placement, forced Ray Davies of the Kinks to interrupt an American tour to fly back to England in order to change a lyric in the band's hit song "Lola." Never mind that the tune referenced a transvestite. The offending verbiage referenced "Coca-Cola." Davies changed it to say "cherry cola."
  • The BBC also threw a fit when the Sex Pistols, a band that was determined to wreak havoc from the get-go, released the song "God Save the Queen" and forced programmers to pull it from their playlist. It insinuated that the Queen was a fascist ("God save the Queen/That fascist regime"), and capped the comment with a cover sleeve that defaced Elizabeth's image.
  • Frankie Goes to Hollywood received the same disdain from BBC's Radio 1 when the network pulled their single "Relax" after asserting that the line "when you're gonna come" referred to an orgasm. The song subsequently went to number one.
  • MTV had a meltdown over Tom Petty's song "You Don't Know How It Feels" thanks to the invitation, "Let's roll another joint."
  • Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" featured a shouted refrain "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" followed by a "Motherfucker!" exclamation. Some radio stations simply censored the word "fuck" while others blocked out the passage entirely.
  • More recently, Lady Gaga stirred international outrage with her track "Judas" (culled from her album Born This Way). It was banned in Lebanon for being "offensive to Christianity." Apparently the internal and external bloodshed the country has witnessed over the decades is in keeping with religious principles, but this song isn't. Likewise, VH1 India (we didn't even know there was such an entity!) censored the mention of the word "Jesus" from the song.

Clearly Uncle Luke is not alone in his struggle against censorship. He embraces the battle. Based on what he wrote in his blog when his New Times column was announced, he's unabashedly unapologetic. "I am a free-speech guy," he wrote. "It's just a match made in heaven. Can you believe it? Me turned loose on the world in New Times. Wow."


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