When my friends and I first heard this album, we basically had a big laugh about it. The kind of boisterous but slightly forced and nervous laugh that comes from not really knowing what you're laughing at. Little did we know we were listening to a record that would have far-reaching implications for Rap, and not just because it would become the first album in U.S. history to be declared legally obscene.
We listened to the record on dubbed cassettes, copies of copies recorded by somebody who knew somebody and then passed around through an ad-hoc social network, because the album wasn’t available in any stores, at least the ones we went to. It was treated the same way kids handled other kinds of middle-class contraband like racy magazines or those two cans of beer you managed to sneak away from the family picnic without anyone knowing – to be handled with utmost secrecy and awareness of prying adult eyes.
And for good reason. This is not an album to listen to in mixed company. To describe the tracks as “dirty” would be like describing an active volcano as “a slightly warm hill.” With a lead single that sampled lines spoken by a Vietnamese prostitute in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, the record is a non-stop collection of descriptions of body parts, activities, insults, "humor," and thug and club life. The tracks are glaringly, cartoonishly, viciously dirty in thought and execution. They're also not particularly musical, clever, or memorable. While there were other bands that also got R- and X-rated with their material, this album took things in a whole new level of gleeful explicitness that crossed the line into the anti-social. If you heard someone rapping along to these tracks on the train, you would change seats.
The mastermind behind the album and the group was Luther “Luke” Campbell, a DJ and rapper whose label was named ”Skyywalker Records” until George Lucas sued him. Although I've never met him, I suspect he’s the kind of guy who wouldn't be out of place barking in front of a burlesque joint in Tijuana, if he wasn’t doing basically the same thing in South Florida. It was clear from the get-go that Campbell was about money and the decadence that comes from a life spent hanging around successive strip clubs and rap shows. And he wasn’t shy about promoting himself any way he could – in the excellent ESPN “30 for 30” documentary The U, Campbell all but brags about how he helped bankroll the orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and illegal cash payments to student-athletes that was the 1980s University of Miami football program.
Thanks to Campbell’s efforts and the emerging Miami Bass sound, for a hot minute this album was the talk of the music world, eventually going double-platinum. Media controversy came right along with it. The situation became much like the good town folk getting up in arms over Elvis gyrating his hips on stage in the ‘50s, or The Rolling Stones having to modify the words in “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so it would be acceptable for the Ed Sullivan Show in the ‘60s. Only this was the ‘80s, where emerging national and global media allowed outrage on both sides of the debate to spread faster and farther than ever before.
The fight for 2 Live's Crew's right to party XXX-style had a comic element to it, with the band making the controversy about their album a part of the show. Where rap fans, other musicians, and pundits saw a fight for artistic freedom, Campbell and his crew also saw the two things rappers (and most other musicians, for that matter) want – attention and money. It wasn't about creating dialogue about sexual morays. This was about a rap group's right to say the vilest things they could think of, put it on wax, and sell as many copies as possible to the general public.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida eventfully ruled the album obscene in South Florida. The Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals eventually overturned the decision, but not before a few headline-grabbing episodes such as the band being arrested when they performed the album at a local sex club. Chatter about the record also led to the popularization of the Parental Advisory Warning label, a well-meaning effort by Washington politicians to police smut in music that ended up as a quick reference to help kids figure out which records would most outrage their elders.
Make no mistake, this wasn't the only record that celebrated raunch or objectified women. American music has a long history of records that take walks on the wild side, with varying degrees of artistic merit. Hostility and even outright violence toward women in American entertainment is nothing new and isn’t confined to Rap music. It wouldn’t be difficult to put together a mix tape of Blues, Country, Punk, and Heavy Metal that reflect the worst ideas about relationships between men and women.
This wasn't even the only album of its time to loudly cross lines of taste. The much more influential album Straight Outta Compton by NWA (released the year before 2 Live Crew’s record) had the same kind of material, but also included, for example, a woman directly calling out the rappers for their foul language and attitude. Other acts like Digital Underground and early Beastie Boys approached their dirty talk with much more of an attitude of camp and parody.
Those records also had a lot more artistic merit than 2 Live Crew's album, which, taken as a whole, now sounds little more than an item in a checklist titled Must-Haves for Guys Who Want to Be Total Creeps (other items: a van with tinted windows, roofies, and plenty of Axe Body Spray). On the Righteousness scale, Campbell is far closer to Larry Flynt than Rosa Parks in terms of sympathetic causes. It's one of those great cases that helps remind us that Freedom of Speech applies to everyone, and good taste isn't one of the yardsticks of that protection.
In the years following the controversy, the group tried to stay in the spotlight by releasing As Clean As They Wanna Be (a version of their previous album with the dirty talk taken out) and Banned in the USA, their own commentary on the controversy, neither of which sold nearly as well as their “masterpiece.” In my neck of the woods, the fascination with the album didn't last long. A few minutes with Licensed to Ill or 3 Feet High and Rising or The Low End Theory were enough to make most of us forget all about it.
I lost track of my cassette copy of it a while ago, and have no urge to add it back into my collection. Not that there’s any need to have it; Long-term, thanks to cable TV and the Internet, the floodgates of dirty talk opened wide and never closed, to the point that it's just not a big deal to hear that kind of talk anymore. These days you're as likely to hear 2 Live Crew-level nastiness coming from Amy Schumer in a basic cable stand-up routine as you are from a rap group.
The free exchange of swear words isn’t the ultimate legacy of this album, though. The lasting imprint isn’t so much about sex per se as the general mindset of hostility toward women, including the liberal use of the words "B----" and "H-" to describe anyone of the opposite sex. If you've ever wondered why 21st century rappers ranging from superstars like Kanye West and Jay-Z to teenagers laying down their first tracks casually refer to females using what used to be considered pretty hateful language, the time period of 2 Live Crew's ascendance is pretty much where it started.
Another after-affect for the new generation of rappers grew up thinking the way to get famous is to create an atmosphere where to not debase women is equivalent to surrendering your own manhood, and the only women in your videos or on your stage better be wearing a bikini and high heels and gyrating at your feet. 2 Live Crew’s album, whatever its musical merits, went a long way in helping degrade the dialogue between men and women, a give-and-take of ideas and dreams ranging from flirtation to the deepest spiritual love that was the backbone of much of American Pop music.
Attempting to copy the success and notoriety of As Nasty as they Wanna Be and records like it has led other rappers to create a style of Rap music (including but not exclusive to “Gangsta Rap”) that sells records but lacks the vocabulary to engage or even think about women in anything but the basest terms, if at all. The legacy of 2 Live Crew’s 15 minutes of fame is a genre that sells records but doesn’t have the words to explore and describe an important part of the human experience.
At least that's how my slightly older, slightly more world-weary self sees things. Who knew I would become such a fuddy-duddy? Now get off my lawn.