Showing posts with label parody. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parody. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

First Amendment jedi 'Luke Skyywalker' turns 60, recounts storied battles for equality, liberty

My daughter co-directed this promotional video, published yesterday, for the multi-talented Jerrika Karlae.

I like hip-hop and rap, but not as much as I used to.  My taste in music, I admit, has been softened in middle age by nostalgia and an inexplicable draw to indie pop, AJR being my current fave (see "Bang!" on Today in August, on Ellen in October, and at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in November).  But I like to think that I still can appreciate a broad range of music, and for various reasons.  I like Karlae because she's a woman innovating in a genre that has been dominated by male artists (she's not just Young Thug's fiancée), and she represents the multiracial Atlanta arts scene on the contemporary cutting edge. (HT@themorgansteele, without whose aid I would not know Karlae.)

I was a 2 Live Crew fan in secondary school and university, and it wasn't all about the music then, either.  The group's breakthrough album As Nasty as They Wanna Be and its curious companion album, As Clean As They Wanna Be, both came out in 1989, in my last semester of high school.  There was a lot to like about 2 Live Crew.  I liked the music, which had the imprimatur of my best friend, a musician with discernment decidedly superior to mine.  But 2 Live Crew's dispositive selling point for me was a tendency to precipitate First Amendment litigation.

A student journalist in the wake of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (U.S. 1988), I was learning a lot about the First Amendment, sometimes in the classroom and sometimes in the vice principal's office.  Meanwhile, in 1989, 2 Live Crew, through its Skyywalker Records, sued the sheriff of Broward County, Florida, for declaratory relief from obscenity prosecutions over As Nasty As They Wanna Be.  And in 1990, Roy Orbison's record company sued 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, a.k.a. "Luke Skyywalker," for copyright infringement in As Clean As They Wanna Be's "Pretty Woman," a parody of Orbison's 1964 classic.  2 Live Crew prevailed on appeal in both cases, the former in the Eleventh Circuit and the latter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Reluctantly, Campbell did back down on the use of "Skyywalker" when the DJ stage name ruffled Lucasfilm feathers in trademark.

Lately, I've eagerly read more about 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell in the latter's 2015 memoir, The Book of Luke.  The book is full of intriguing revelations from behind the scenes about the band and the author.

Campbell's recounting of his Miami youth is thought provoking on the subjects of desegregation and diversity.  Characterizing busing's mixed legacy, Campbell describes a black neighborhood, Liberty City, devastated by the dispersal of its youth, and, at the same time, a broadened cultural competence derived from school and sports with some of the first non-black people Campbell knew.  He writes:

Being on Miami Beach, even though the school was using us and just passing us along, I still got an education in how the world works outside the ghetto.  Most of the guys from my experience, the guys who never left Liberty City, they didn't learn the same things I did. ... They didn't see how to transform themselves into something more than that. ... 

Going to Beach High also made me realize that all white people aren't bad.  The system is bad, the game is rigged, but not all people are bad.  By going there and playing with white friends, Jewish friends, Cuban friends, it just broadened my horizons.  There are good people and bad people in every walk of life.  There are racist white people and prejudiced black people, and every individual is his own person.

He drills down further into the rigged game to describe the socioeconomic conditions that undermined the civil rights movement in the long term.  In plain language, Campbell explains:

Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, their whole message was about economic self-sufficiency, about how blacks needed to own and patronize our own businesses, to lift up and take care of ourselves.  And I believe that.  The problem was that the government had denied us our property rights for so long that we didn't have much to work with.  The small value of what we did own, our business district, they destroyed when they put that expressway through.  Most blacks didn't own any assets or property to borrow against.  Banks discriminated, so we didn't have access to business loans or financial capital that you need to run a business.

Campbell capably carries through with this theme of systemic racism to illustrate its impact on the music industry.  Nicknamed "Luke Skyywalker" for his Jedi-like mastery of the DJ table, Campbell and 2 Live Crew, each, were already successful acts when Campbell joined the band and brought it within the sphere of Miami's unique cultural mélange.  Rather than navigating the infamously insular and monopolistic world of white-owned record labels, Campbell created Skyywalker Records to be the band's own publisher.  He recounts a climate in the media business even more hostile than one might expect to the evolution of music by black artists:

The white executives didn't get us, or just didn't want us. But it was really the black executives, the ones who'd been brought up to run the R&B imprints, who tried to kill hip-hop at the start.  To them, rap was too black, too ghetto.  It reminded them of life in the streets, the world they'd spent their whole lives running away from.  They were caught up playing that respectability politics game for those white-owned companies.  They wanted to make R&B into upscale, sophisticated music, show how far blacks had come, show how we were becoming high class.  It was the same in the black media.  Black radio stations didn't call themselves black anymore.  They were "Urban Contemporary."  They barely gave rap any airplay at all, or if they did it was only in special shows on the weekends.  Ebony didn't put a hip-hop artist on its cover until 1991, twelve years after "Rapper's Delight" sold eight million copies.  The white folks over at Rolling Stone had Run-D.M.C. on their cover in 1986, five years ahead of Ebony.

Luther Campbell, 2017
(photo by David Cabrera CC BY-SA 4.0)
Contrary to rap's stereotype, new music was not about new lows in "nasty" for Campbell.  The dichotomous debut of As Nasty and As Clean in 1989 was in fact a label equivalent of how Campbell always had run his DJ business.  At least according to his own retelling in the book, Campbell worked hard to put on all-ages shows with security employed to keep out alcohol, drugs, and violence, and then to put on adult-restricted shows later at night.  The band proactively labeled its music for indecent lyrics, and Campbell personally communicated to distributors and retailers the admonition that under-age consumers should be permitted to buy only clean content.

Predictably, the dirty content received more media attention and generated more commercial success than the clean; certainly eighteen-year-old me was more interested in the former.  Yet in the harsh reaction of public officials to indecency, and in media ignorance of the band's efforts at social responsibility, Campbell saw more than mere market forces at work.  In 1988, Alabama record store owner Tommy Hammond was arrested on obscenity charges for selling the 2 Live Crew album Move Somethin' from behind the counter to an undercover police officer.  Campbell dates "[t]he legal war against hip-hop" to that arrest and explains further:

The cops, apparently, had been getting complaints from Christian fundamentalist groups about the sale of offensive and vulgar material, and the Alexander City sheriff Ben Royal was, I suppose, a real God-fearing, Bible-thumping, easily offended type of guy.

At first I wasn't even mad.  I was genuinely confused.  Dolemite and Skillet & Leroy and all these comedy records we were sampling, those had been around for years.  They were filthy as hell, real nasty, and nobody had ever tried to censor them.  Andrew Dice Clay was doing his stand-up act and putting out his albums at the same time we were, and his routines were just as raunchy as what we were doing.  Nobody was getting arrested for selling his albums.  What was going on?  My father and my uncle Ricky taught me a lot about racism and how it works, but I was about to learn a lot more. ...

Dice is white, you see, so he could say whatever he wanted.  Parents might protest him, and they did, but he was a white man making a lot of money for a white-owned corporation; nobody was going to take away his right to free speech.  All those old chitlin circuit albums we sampled, they were dirty, but white people never listened to them.  They didn't cross the color line, so nobody really cared. ... Nobody cared if we were corrupting young black minds with our evil jungle music. ... But Tommy Hammond's record store was the record store serving the white side of town.  2 Live Crew had done the one thing you're never supposed to do.  We were black men coming across the color line talking about sex.  We were black men in the company of whites, and we'd forgotten to lower our heads and shuffle away.

Campbell in the book goes on to trace his 2 Live Crew and Luke Records career through gang violence bleeding into the concert arena, stand-offs with law enforcement and protestors, and famous and less famous lawsuits.  He reflects ultimately on contented family life and the privilege of giving back to Liberty City.  I won't spoil all the fun; the ride is worth the cover price.

For my part, it's gratifying to better know the real Luke Skyywalker, both the Jedi knight who inspired me when I was a kid, and the Luther Campbell he became.  His tastes have changed, too: as he puts it in the book, a little less groupies and Hennessy, a little more football practice, fretting over SATs, and "raising hell about housing and education."  Every individual might be his own person, but there sure seem to be some universal truths to getting older.

Luther Campbell turns 60 today, December 22, 2020.  The book is Luther Campbell, The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City (Amistad 2015).