N.W.A, 2 Live Crew and the Flaccid Legacy of Music Censorship
Rock music always challenged the system, but a pair of rebellious rap crews had to face down the government itself
Black Sabbath were pinned as worshippers of Satan for years. Ozzy loved it, and audiences lapped it up. He once told a reporter at Hit Parader, “I don’t know if I’m a medium for some outside source. Whatever it is, I hope it’s not what I think… Satan.”
Rockers were outlaws out of the gate. Bill Haley, that middle-aged dude who looked like Duane Eddy’s dad, with a cigarette dangling from his fingers, became radical when his tune “Rock Around the Clock” served as the soundtrack for Blackboard Jungle, the 1955 flick on teenage delinquents wreaking havoc in schools. The movie was a hit, and it became clear to the grown-ups who moved entertainment that the generation gap sold units. The song hit number one in May, when the movie came out, and stayed at the top until late in the summer.
Elvis was also on the scene with a 1954 tune, “That’s All Right.” Three years later he hit the Ed Sullivan Show and was filmed from the waist up. Network censors determined his stage dance to be indecent.
Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, and Gene Vincent carried the ball of “fuck you.” They were all mining black music, shit that the slaves played to each other to stay sane. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House were the progenitors of rap. Johnson died at twenty-seven, Patton at forty-three, both living and dying in Mississippi. Son House, also born in Mississippi, lived to a ripe old age of eighty-six, probably by making his way north to Detroit.
The cops came down hard on the blues guys, likely due to an inbred, cultural aversion to blacks. But being black wasn’t their only crime — these guys were cranking out some heavy noise, something that had nothing to do with white people’s music. They were different.
They were bad. Different is bad.
By the mid-50s, radio stations were playing Elvis and the black sound he mined. Then they weren’t. Stations in Chicago were deluged with letters from listeners who urged them to stop with the rhythm and blues.
In Houston a group called the Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commission made a list of objectionable records. All were on indie labels. All were by black artists.
“Smash the records you possess which present a pagan culture and a pagan concept of life,” the Catholic Youth Center in Minneapolis wrote in a newsletter distributed to area youth. The place had been open for twenty years before the crazy sounds hit the airwaves and turned all to bust.
A bunch of “crazy Negros from the South” endangered all that proselytizing. Different is bad, remember.
Gang activity and music were linked immediately. What could be scarier than the notion of music-crazed youths rampaging collectively? This was before anyone really knew what a gang was or could be. The Crips would have been seen as invaders from another planet.
Link Wray was wicked before the wicked shit. He took rockabilly and slowed it down to an echo-laden tromp. So when the single “Rumble” came out in April 1958 it became the first instrumental ever banned from some stations because it was thought the title hinted at teen gang violence.
“There was a guy named Link Wray when I was in the student union of this major university, and I heard this music, ‘Da da DAAA,’” Iggy Pop said in a TV interview a few years back. “And it was called ‘Rumble.’ And it sounded bad. I left school emotionally at that moment.”
There’s been lot of noise in the intervening decades about rebellion and oppression and rock & roll all mingling together, most of it well chronicled by music-scribe types and tenured professors who think they rock and need a research project. There were parental groups, moral majorities, moral minorities, and other strident foes of the First Amendment who felt music had gone too far. And that music was showing little restraint.
The sounds of the street, not to mention the daily vibe and the sentiments that drive that vibe, are slow to reach the rulers of the world. So it’s no surprise that it took a year for the N.W.A song “Fuck Tha Police” to hit the sensitive ears of the FBI.
In a letter dated August 1, 1989, a year almost to the day of the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, Milt Ahlerich, a seventeen-year veteran of the FBI, fired off a letter in anger to the promotions director at Priority Records, the distributor of Eazy-E’s Ruthless label that had put out the LP. The subject was the song “Fuck Tha Police.”
Over the year after the LP hit, cops were hearing about the song, talking among themselves about what it meant for them. Some of the police understood; others began complaining to their bosses, associations, unions, or whatever representation they had. The FBI at the time was hardly as bogged down in ineptitude as it is today. Not only was it larger, but it also was seen as the top cop shop, an agency that law enforcement types aspired to. Ahlerich was the agency’s spokesman, and he dealt with the press daily. So after hearing from cops everywhere both in his office and outside of it, he composed the letter:
A song recorded by the rap group NWA on their album entitled Straight Outta Compton encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention… Advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recording such as the one from NWA are both discouraging and degrading to those brave, dedicated officers.
Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. — Milt Ahlerich, assistant director, Office of Public Affairs
Actually the number killed in 1988 was 195. By 1991 it was 148. All too many, to be sure, but the FBI makes stuff up, numbers especially.
“It was a matter of people coming to me and saying ‘Hey, listen. This has caught our attention,’ and I felt pretty strongly about it,” says Ahlerich, who later went on to be head of security for the National Football League.
Ahlerich’s letter was the first time the FBI had actively meddled in a musical release. Objection from the Feds in the late eighties didn’t have the same implication it does now, as the government has, over the years, shown an inclination to retaliate against those who think differently. But in 1989 this was truly something new.
“The FBI should stay out of the business of censorship,” said US representative Don Edwards, a former FBI agent and then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. It’s now the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice and has nothing to do with the Feds’ infringement on the First Amendment.
But back then Edwards could make a difference.
Ahlerich contends the letter was meant to make the label and its distributors aware of the content. “It was never aimed at the performers,” he says. “They were just young guys, trying to make a buck and make some music, as they were artists. I’m not sure I agree with that type of art…. But I made their career for them,” he added.
A couple of months after the letter hit the news, Representative Edwards fired off a letter to the FBI:
The FBI has developed an official “position” on a rap song by the group NWA and has conveyed that position to the group’s record publisher, Priority Records. I am afraid this smacks of intimidation.
The FBI should not be music or art critics. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the FBI to single out a particular song or film or book and write to its distributor. The only credible purpose of such an exercise is to encourage the distributor to drop its promotion of the work or the performer and that would seem to be censorship.
NWA was hassled all tour long, including an arrest in Cincinnati for violating the city’s obscenity statutes. In Detroit, cops threatened to arrest the group if they included “Fuck Tha Police” in the set list. But nothing came of it. Along the way N.W.A influenced a legion of rebellion.
Since the N.W.A fiasco, the murder of cops has dropped until very recently. So much for bomb throwing from the FBI.
Then came Luther Campbell, a rap impresario from Liberty City. He had a head full of salacious party-time anthems in 1985, when he met the California-based 2 Live Crew, who had a Florida hit called “Revelation.”
It was tame, not hard enough to be gangster and not soft enough to tilt the ballad machine. Besides, Campbell eschewed the gangster stuff, as he grew up in it — ditto the drugs. His bag was sex.
“So I put my own money into the group and then joined them,” Campbell says. He wanted dance-party music with adult-themed lyrics, like the routines he saw Redd Foxx and Aunt Esther do on television. “I saw them on Sanford and Son and realized they were also hard-core adult-themed comedians. So [2 Live Crew] was going to be funny and fun.”
Once Campbell was part of 2 Live, the party was on. The first LP, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, came out in 1986 and featured the single “Throw the D.”
By 1992 the Feds were worried about speech in the moral-majority era, as obscenity prosecutions conducted by the Department of Justice rose from 37 in 1988 to 120 in 1989. Parental freak-outs were coming fast, and there’s nothing like a raging housewife on Donohue to put your music in the front row, which is what 2 Live Crew wrought.
The foundation of today’s right to hear anything you want — and the right of an artist to play and record and release it — started with a crusading Florida sheriff in early 1990. The law in Broward County, home of then spring break capital Fort Lauderdale, was overseen by Sheriff Nick Navarro, who claimed his office was getting complaints about music by 2 Live Crew that was popping up in stores.
By then the band’s second LP, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, an indie slab of vinyl featuring across the cover the asses of four down-for-it ladies, was selling like crazy. After obtaining a court order that the material might run afoul of obscenity laws, Navarro sent his agents out to advise record store owners that selling Nasty could result in obscenity charges.
“It was a watershed moment,” says Bruce Rogow, Campbell’s lawyer. “That run for 2 Live Crew was extraordinary. It was an oddity in that no one else in the country came after them. Luckily for 2 Live Crew, the sheriff in Florida decided to take them on.”
In response to the sheriff’s warnings, Campbell filed a lawsuit against the county, asserting his First Amendment rights. It placed the case in front of a federal judge.
In June of 1990 U.S. district judge Jose Gonzalez ruled against 2 Live Crew, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge declared a musical recording obscene. The ruling put Campbell on the map as one dirty artist, in league with Mae West, Lenny Bruce, and the Miami-shot Deep Throat.
“I read [the judge’s decision] and thought it was great,” Rogow says.
Campbell, though, was devastated. He tore it up into little pieces and called it “toilet paper.”
But Rogow knew something was about to break, even before the decision came. “No matter what happens in this case, you win,” Rogow told Campbell. “If the government says you can’t have something, everyone is going to want it.”
If the judge had not found the material obscene, it would have ended there. But with the decision to quash art, “he prolonged it,” Rogow says.
Campbell wasn’t thinking about the future, though. “I was thinking about Bruce’s argument, that we had proved our case so well, and when I understood my case, I felt it was an idiotic ruling,” Campbell says.
Three days after the judge’s ruling Campbell and two other Crew members were arrested after a nightclub performance and charged with obscenity for their act. The cops were there, armed with Gonzalez’s ruling. And if something is deemed legally obscene, you can’t play it in public.
“I told the guys to be prepared to go to jail for this,” Campbell says. “I knew the police were there.”
Several months later a six-person jury, five whites (four women, one man), and one black woman, acquitted 2 Live Crew. Meanwhile a three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gonzalez, and the US Supreme Court, in declining to hear the case, solidified the appellate ruling.
2 Live Crew had fought the law and won.
And in the meantime the As Nasty as They Wanna Be went double-platinum. Not only was it dirty, it was good dirty.
Campbell notes that he went to the wall to defend musical artists’ right to be protected under the First Amendment, all the while fending off zealots from the other side who accused him and 2 Live of making music that degraded women. “We had the Al Sharptons and the Jesse Jacksons coming at us saying this is wrong, against women and so on, and I said, ‘You guys are not looking at the big picture.’ I wasn’t fighting for music or my livelihood — it was about the right to create something.”
Campbell’s battle has given him a profile among the First Amendment crowd but has earned him little praise from the music industry. “No one has asked me to talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about it, and we’ve never been recognized for it,” Campbell says. “We’re the Rodney Dangerfields of the executive and music business. I felt the establishment was after us in the first place because we weren’t part of the record industry. I was selling records out of the trunk of my car, and the record industry didn’t feel that we should exist. They weren’t giving us any deals, and they were telling us we weren’t going to make it anyway. I now realize it was political. We got no support from the music industry because we weren’t part of the music industry. I didn’t give money to the politicians the way the labels did, the way the corporations that own the labels do and did. If you’re not affiliated with one of those major labels, it gives law enforcement and politicians a green light — you’re fair game if you’re doing something they don’t like.”
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From Jane’s Addiction to Body Count, music censorship swelled in the early 1990smedium.com