From county sheriffs to state governors, to Van Halen and George Lucas, veteran raunch rappers 2 Live Crew have pissed off a lot of people in their more than 25-year career.
And while they’ll surely be remembered for their lascivious lyrical content, their contribution to the evolution of hip-hop and musicians’ right to free speech cannot be overstated.
“That’s one of the things we’re most proud of,” said rapper Fresh Kid Ice, born Chris Wong Won. “If it wasn’t for 2 Live Crew, a lot of groups or artists wouldn’t be able to say the things they wanted to say or express themselves the way they wanted to. Everything would just be PG Nickelodeon-type stuff.”
Considering the amount of inappropriate material that’s just a Google click away in 2013, it seems almost quaint how vitriolic the public’s reaction was to the band’s most successful album, 1989’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, a fitting title for a record loaded with unapologetically sexual party raps, the likes of which had rarely been heard in hip-hop up to that point.
By all conventional industry logic, the record should never have been the smash hit it became. But it was, thanks to the success of the lead single, Me So Horny, which spread like wildfire mainly though word of mouth since radio stations were reluctant to play the song. Combined with the endless controversy the single attracted, the album eventually sold more than two-million copies worldwide.
Of course, there were some hurdles to jump before achieving double-platinum status, like when the governor of Florida at the time, Bob Martinez, under the urging of conservative lobbyists, ordered prosecutors to assess whether the album violated state laws. As a result of the growing controversy, County Sheriff Nick Navarro warned that selling the album could put you in jail after a judge determined it was, in fact, obscene. 2 Live Crew then filed a countersuit against Navarro in June 1990, with U.S. district court judge Jose Gonzalez upholding the decision, making it illegal to not only sell the album in three counties, but also to perform it.
“It is an appeal to dirty thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind,” Gonzalez said in his ruling at the time.
Just two days later, a record store retailer was arrested, and eventually convicted, for selling a copy of the album to an undercover cop. (His conviction was later overturned, but not before he lost his store.) Only a couple days later, 2 Live Crew rappers Fresh Kid Ice, Luke Skyywalker and Brothers Marquis were arrested after a concert in their home state. This sparked a wave of controversy, causing As Nasty As They Wanna Be to shoot back up the charts nearly a year and a half after its release, creating considerable buzz for their fourth album, Banned In the U.S.A. a month before its release date.
“At first we were (surprised by the public’s reaction), because we were just making music, you know?” Ice said from his Miami home. “It was all about having a good time; it wasn’t about putting people down or anything. It was just party music. Any type of press is good press as they always say. It was something that had to be done and we were the ones in the position at that time to do it. They came after us and it made an impression on the world.”
While their arrests were eventually thrown out, the trial preceding that decision was something of a media circus, with esteemed academic and author Henry Louis Gates Jr. testifying in defence of the group’s lyrics, saying they had deep roots in African-American cultural traditions. By 1992, Gonzalez’ decision was overturned, but not before 2 Live Crew had become household names across North America and effectively ushered in a new era of gangster rap that would be popularized throughout the ‘90s.
Interestingly enough, this was not the full extent of 2 Live Crew’s myriad legal troubles. In 1990, Van Halen sued the group for over $300,000 over an uncleared sample of their song, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love. This was quickly followed by a copyright infringement lawsuit brought on by Star Wars creator George Lucas, who successfully got Luke Skyywalker to change his moniker. But it was a case from 1994 that would ensure the X-rated hip-hop group would be written about in legal textbooks for years to come.
In 1989, the group released the song Pretty Woman, a parody of the Roy Orbison classic ‘60s ballad, Oh, Pretty Woman. 2 Live Crew’s request to produce the song was turned down by music publishing firm Acuff-Rose. The group recorded it anyway, and Acuff-Rose sued for infringement. A district court ruled in favour of the group, saying the parody was made in fair use. A later appeal reversed the decision, leading to 2 Live Crew taking the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark decision in June 1994, Justice David Souter ruled that the song was distinct from Orbison’s, and was indeed made in fair use.
Even with all their contributions to modern rap and free speech, it’s this last bit of legal trivia that Fresh Kid Ice thinks will cement their legacy for years to come.
“That’s one of the better things (from our career) because it makes sure the group will live on for a long, long time,” he said.
Fresh Kid Ice and Brother Marquis play Moe Joe’s Thursday (Aug. 15). Doors are at 9 p.m. and tickets are $15 at the door.