Luther Campbell has undergone a series of startling public transformations over the course of his long and eventful career. He first exploded onto the national scene as the ribald frontman of raunchy Miami bass legends 2 Live Crew, dragging bass firmly in the mainstream with hits like “Me So Horny.” But when a Broward county sheriff named Nick Navarro announced that record stores selling 2 Live Crew’s 1989 breakthrough hit As Nasty As They Wanna Be were potentially criminally liable for breaking state obscenity laws, Campbell became an unlikely First Amendment martyr. Bruce Springsteen even gave him permission to use “Born In The U.S.A.” for “Banned In The U.S.A.,” a single spoofing his legal travails. Campbell emerged triumphant, but a few years later he found himself back in court, this time after the publishing company Acuff-Rose sued 2 Live Crew for spoofing “Pretty Woman,” whose copyright it owned. The Supreme Court upheld that parody constituted “fair use” under the legal definition and consequently was protected by the Constitution, a ruling that helped expand the parameters of what constitutes free speech.
Between legal battles, Luther Campbell somehow found time to run his own record label, break new stars like H-Town, and release albums both as a solo artist and with 2 Live Crew. Campbell has aged into an elder-statesman role in hip-hop over the last decade as his focus has shifted from music and business to filming a reality show featuring his family (Luke’s Parental Advisory), coaching football, writing a provocative column for the Miami New Times, and now running for the mayor of Miami-Dade county. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the controversial Southern rap icon about the Tea Party, why his early X-rated shows were maybe “a little more outgoing” than church folk were comfortable with, and whether Floridians try to get him high when he shows up at their front door to campaign.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to run for mayor?
Luther Campbell: Miami-Dade County, it’s a banana republic we live in. When you have public-housing projects being taken over by the federal government, and at the same time you’re having the transit department taken over by the federal government, and police are killing innocent young men in certain neighborhoods, the community gets into an uproar and has been for years.
AVC: How did it get that bad? How did things get to such a state?
LC: The politicians that have been elected are basically run by special-interest groups and lobbyist groups, individuals who are only concerned about building and stealing money from people who don’t have a voice. The elected officials of certain African-American areas are taking advantage of people. The police does what it wants to do, and it’s just bad. At the same time, our mayor [Carlos Alvarez] got recalled. It was one of the first times in the history of this country where a mayor has been recalled. And they upped the property taxes to 14 percent, and at the same time they built a baseball stadium that nobody wanted and they also gave everybody in their office a raise.
AVC: So how does this compare to the Miami you lived in growing up?
LC: In the Miami where I grew up there’s always been friction between police officers and average American men. I’m running for mayor to make one Miami. I’m the only candidate in this race that’ll get people to vote across racial lines. I don’t think any other candidate has earned the people’s trust, and I don’t think any other candidate would vote across racial lines. So when I look at myself and the things that I’ve done for all of the communities of Miami, not just for the African-American community, it represents Miami the proper way. I’ve been bringing this great music industry down here, and just putting the world’s eyes on Miami for the things that we’ve done. People respect me for that.
AVC: You want to have more cops in the communities. Cops don’t get a whole lot of respect in hip-hop circles.
LC: Yeah, they’re definitely not part of the community. I want to bring back Officer Friendly, the police that maintain a presence in the area. I want mothers and fathers to know the cop that’s working their street. We need to bring the beat police back because what happens is, they use the communities of Liberty City and Overtown as a training ground for officers. These kids are fresh out of the academy. These kids are going out there, a little nervous about where they are, because half of them have probably never seen a black person in their life. They’re being told that this area is full of felons, which is not the case, because everybody in those areas are good citizens. That’s why they’re shooting innocent people. And that’s a problem. The community is very sick of it, and that’s why I’m getting the wide range of support that I’m getting around the county.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re being taken seriously by the press?
LC: People in Miami know me. I know that in order to be a good leader, you have to be a community servant. I’ve been a community servant for over 30 years. Yeah, I’ve been serving my community, and the first thing I did when I got my first check, I bought my mother a house. With my next check, I funded my youth program that’s been around for over 30 years right now, Liberty City Optimist, and I’ve been working within the community with different politicians. I’ve been doing this for years. And I know the political landscape, so people down here know me, they know I know the political landscape, people who just got down here, who may be working in the press, they might not know that, and some of the other people who probably just got here don’t know that. So that’s why it’s so important for me to be involved in the conversation, go to forums, to talk to people about my platform and let them hear that I’m well informed of the issues that affect all different nationalities in this community as well as different communities.
AVC: Do you feel pressure to watch what you say now? As a rapper, you have a lot more freedom to say what you want than as a politician.
LC: I look at it like this: You got guys like Schwarzenegger. We had a president that was an actor. You’ve had Sonny Bono and Jesse “The Body” [Ventura]. I’m not the first entertainer to turn politician, and the difference between me and those guys is that I owned and operated my own company. I come from the background of being a record executive. The record company is a very shrewd business. It’s almost like becoming a mayor. It’s not a difficult job at all. I think it’s just bringing the community together. You know, if I got a $7 billion budget, I would definitely hire the best people to work in those departments because there was a lot of cronyism involved here in Miami, a lot of friends helping friends and family members becoming the head of these different departments and, with that, the departments are failing, and they’re failing the people. It makes sense for a guy like myself, who has no friends in need of favors, who’ll take no lobbyists’ money, runs a $5 campaign. I’ll be the people’s mayor. And it happens to be the people’s office.
AVC: You’re certainly not the first entertainer to run for office, but you do have a more “adult” background than most.
LC: Well, then again, Larry Flynt ran for office, right? What makes me different than Larry Flynt and all of these other controversial people running for office is that I’ve been working in the community for years. People see me out in the park with the kids for years. I tell them I don’t want no publicity for that. They see me working at these different high schools, they see me working with the seniors and helping build senior homes, not senior homes but senior facilities so seniors will be able to go enjoy themselves. So when people see me at the community meetings for over 20 years, it’s a no-brainer. They see me develop a style of music and a business that everybody in the South right now respects. The fact that I started Southern hip-hop speaks volumes. It’s a no-brainer. Everybody knows that’s what I do. I’m a businessman first. People who don’t know me think of me just as Luke The Rapper.
AVC: So why do you think it’s taken so long for Southern hip-hop to get respect?
LC: Southern hip-hop took a minute to get respect when I was doing it, but you know, I think right now, it’s at its peak, its all-time high. I don’t know if you remember the New Music Seminar they used to have in New York, but I told people way back then, about 15 years ago, that Southern hip-hop is actually going to take over all the hip-hop, and when people were telling me “Southern music is not going to last,” I told ’em, “Well, here’s something different.” Because the South is bigger than California or New York, and at the same time, it’s much more versatile. You know, the styles would be different. And so here you have it. What I predicted a long time ago has come to pass. One day I’ll get honored by BET and the Grammys for some of the things that I did, but you just had to hope because a lot of people just don’t like me for whatever reason. I just keep it going, I don’t really worry about any of this.
AVC: Do you read the comments on your column?
LC: Yeah, sometimes I read ’em when I want entertainment. If you read them early on, if you know the history of the column, I started out bashing the Tea Party, so I got a lot of Tea Party people, no matter what I say is wrong. I can say, “Jesus Christ is white” and they’re going to say, “No, no, no, no, no!” You know what I’m saying? So I know exactly some of the people who are on there just to talk trash and then I know some of the people have a good opinion. Everybody don’t agree with me. I can tell when there’s an intellectual person in there and their opinion makes sense. I take that into consideration. But some people are just ignorant.
AVC: As in every conversation, the ones who get heard are the ones doing the shouting.
LC: Oh, yeah. Let me tell you, no doubt about it. Let me tell you something. I respect the Tea Party. I don’t like their views. At the same time I respect that they’re putting people into office. They’re going to vote. They energize a base of people like no other. That’s the American way. I fully respect the Tea Party. But I just don’t believe in their views. I don’t like their views. I think they’re probably going through some growing pains. I don’t think all Tea Party people are bad. I think some people use it, use the Tea Party, as a platform for bigotry, just like any other party. But most of the time, I respect them for who they are.
AVC: In your column you write that you feel like they’d crossed a line between free expression and inciting violence.
LC: Let me tell you, when you’re out at rallies, and you got your gun, and you’ve got the big signs [saying] you hate the president and cross his face out and then something terrible happens to a congresswoman these people don’t like, that’s crossing the line. That’s not the First Amendment. To me, that’s crossing a line, because now what happens to the country? What happens when a lady gets shot and then there’s another rally, and now all the Democrats come to their rally with their guns, and now the Tea Party members are standing across the street protesting with their guns. You’re going to have a big-ass OK Corral shootout. One thing leads to another. That possibly could happen. You have the right to bear arms and all that. But c’mon man, don’t do that. You have that right and you should have that right, but at the same time, there’s no place for it because now you’re gonna get a whole bunch of innocent peoples shot and killed because all it takes is one person to come to a rally, and they’re all nice and toasty or whatever, drinks they like to drink, you know, Budweiser, and before you know it somebody says the wrong word. One guy across the street on Colt .45 and another one across the street on Budweiser, and somebody get called a name and there it is. You got a massive shootout.
AVC: Could you talk a little about what you get out of coaching on an emotional level?
LC: I tell people this on the road, when I am speaking at these different forums, it’s like this: In order to win you’ve got to have a great team around you. A great coach is half. With a great team, people are responsible for different departments, different areas in the game. That’s what I tell kids. I hold ’em accountable or responsible and I tell ’em it’s a lot like life. You have to be responsible and be held accountable. I use football as a lifelong lesson for kids, in teaching ’em their responsibilities. And that’s pretty much how I’ll govern. I’ll have the individuals that are department heads in the county. They will be held accountable. They’re responsible for their department. And if they can’t get it done, then they will be replaced or removed. But before I go in, I will audit every department and I’ll evaluate every individual in every department. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got all the departments, people, filled. Once I call for people to turn in their resignations, the ones who do stay, some of ’em will probably end up going to jail, cause everyone’s got their hands in the cookie jar.
AVC: In a profile in The Weekly Standard, you said that you thought African-Americans are naturally conservative. What did you mean by that?
LC: We’re a churchgoing people. When we got the right to vote, we were originally Republicans. A Republican president gave us the right to vote. So originally, we were Republicans. That made us conservative. We’re faith-based people. I know it first-hand, because when I came around, doing my music, being a little more outgoing, that rubbed a lot of African-American people the wrong way. When they saw girls in videos from South Florida, that was like, unheard of within the African-American community around the country. Even hip-hop was something that was frowned upon by the African-American community for many, many years. That shows how conservative we are. We’re real spiritual and churchgoing people. And that’s how it was for many, many years. Lately, we’ve become a little more liberal, but for the most part, we have more Republican ways than we do Democratic ways.
AVC: Is there anything you regret in your past?
LC: I would say, you know, some of the shows went a little too far. Some of the concerts went a little too far.
AVC: You crossed a line.
LC: Yeah, some of those shows kind of crossed the line. But then again, I was young at the time. All young people, we make mistakes. But then in life, you have the opportunity to right them and do great things and do better things. And I did that. I did great things, better things. I’ve helped more people in serving my community, as well as this country.
AVC: So at the height of your infamy, the late ’80s, the “Me So Horny” era, did you think to yourself, “In 23 years, I might be the mayor of Miami?”
LC: Let me tell you, I always thought I was going to be a politician first. I thought I was gonna be a politician first, but when I got involved in music, from a DJ’s standpoint, I took it as it went on. I never thought I would be a record executive. I never thought I’d be the guy to discover hip-hop music created in the South. Things kinda came and opportunities presented themselves. I did it, really, because people told me I couldn’t do it. When I tried to get the group 2 Live Crew a deal with this idea that I had, people said, “No.” They didn’t understand the idea. They didn’t see it. Once they told me no, I ended up falling into this group that I did not want to be in.
AVC: Why didn’t you want to be in it?
LC: It was not my thing. I didn’t want to be a rapper. I didn’t want to be in a rap group. I didn’t want to own a record company. My own goals were trying to be like Al Hayman. I wanted to be the greatest concert promoter in the world. I wanted to do leagues of tours, promote major tours. That was my thing. That’s what I was grooming myself to be. I just fell into this music business and once I did one record, in order to get paid for that record, you gotta do another record. So I kinda fell into being in the music business.
AVC: It seems like a little bit like Eazy-E, where he was a big-picture guy and he had this idea for a group that he didn’t necessarily want to be a part of.
LC: I get criticized for the music of the group 2 Live Crew. But I always tell people, every writer gets their share. I don’t get paid for the work that the other members do. I get paid for the work that I do. And I tell people, even today, “Look, just read my lyrics.” And if you do that, then you have to cross-check my lyrics versus the actual whole song. A lot of the songs I created, I came up with the ideas, but at the end of the day, every other individual writes his own songs. Now, if I wrote the lyrics for everybody else and if I got all the writers’ shares, then you judge me for what I wrote. But people don’t look at it like that.
AVC: How did dialogue from Full Metal Jacket become the chorus for “Me So Horny”?
LC: I watched a lot of army movies. I would stay up all night if it’s a good army movie, but they don’t make them anymore. And [Full Metal Jacket] was one of my favorite movies and I was just sittin’ there one day, looking at the movie, and the girl comes in there talkin’ about, “Oh, me so horny, me so horny, me love you long time.” So I ended up callin’ up [producer] Mr. Mixx. I already had the idea for the music of a song. You know, I wanted to use [“Firecracker” by] Mass Production, so we used that, but we still needed a hook. So when I saw that, I was like, “Oh man.” I called Mr. Mixx up and he put it together and told the guys, basically, “write a song about being horny: whatever situation you wanna be horny in!” So everybody started writing their verses, and then we put it down.
AVC: Do you see crunk as being a natural extension of Miami bass?
LC: Oh, no doubt. No doubt. It is. If you ask Lil Jon, he’ll tell you that. Lil Jon was one of the few guys that I think was doing great music. He was on his way to doing something special. Doing an extension of bass music. And he did R&B bass at first, and then took it to another level and started doing, you know, crunk music. So everything he’s done has been an extension of bass music.
AVC: You haven’t put out an album since 2006. Are you still making music?
LC: I won’t be putting out one too soon, you know. If I become the mayor, you know, hopefully I’ll get everybody to vote for me and I’ll become the mayor and I’ll be too busy runnin’ things, you know what I’m saying? But at the same time, I’ll still make appearances, because I think that’s a way to stay in touch with the people.
AVC: Is music still something you feel passionately about?
LC: Definitely, definitely. You know, I’m a weird artist. I have to be really, really, really worked up to go onto the studio. Basically, I have to hear things that are on the radio or in the club that gets my competitive juices flowing. But right now I don’t hear anything that gets my competitive juices flowing like I did before. The music today, right now, I’m not really impressed by the creativity.
AVC: What was the last thing you heard and were like, “Wow. This makes me wanna make music myself.”
LC: I think Jay-Z’s last album. Maybe it was Blueprint. It kinda got me worked up and wanna go do a record because of the creativity of the music, as well as the delivery of the lyrics. His albums really get me worked up. But for the most part, what we used to do, it was more than just one artist. It was quite a few artists, and you would just wanna go in the studio and take the music to another level. Right now, everything is basic. The music is different. The artists are different. If this was back in the day and I was running for political office, all the rappers would be in support of my campaign. I wouldn’t even have to call them up. These days, these guys are competing with how many girlfriends, or how many people’s girlfriends they took. How many diamonds. The music and the artists are completely different than they were back in the day. Back in the day, we were always community-oriented. And we always supported one another. Nowadays, it’s not like that.
AVC: When you go door-to-door meeting constituents, how many people go, “Holy shit, it’s Luther Campbell.”
LC: All of them. I go door-to-door and they love it. I go in their house. Last week, I was in one lady’s house and she had me cooking. She was so excited. She was like, [frantically] “Oh, let me do this, let me check this out, let me do this.” And before you knew it, she was cookin’ and I was holdin’ a baby.
AVC: Do people try to get you high?
LC: Nah! High? Nah. Well, no, one day I was in Homestead, I was in these portable houses, I guess these Section 8 buildings. Some girls were standin’ outside and they had their marijuana, and I was like, “Hey! You girls gotta vote for me for mayor. Right? I’m gonna legalize medical marijuana.” [Laughs.] And she was like, “Well, you need to start smokin’ now!” And I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” And the girl, she invited me into her house, and like, “Well, you can come in here, Luke.” And I was like, “Oh, no, no. Hell, no. I ain’t going up in there, no way!” I was like, “Nah, nah, nah, nah.”
AVC: Do you consider yourself a role model?
LC: Do I consider myself a role model? I think parents are role models. I just help kids. Last year we put 32 kids in major universities through the thing we call football, as well as through art programs. And I tell ’em, “Look, I’m not the role model. Your mother and your father are your role models. Look up to them. And not necessarily me. I’m just in community service and I’m here to help anyway I can.”
AVC: You said that you’re kind of already the unofficial mayor of Miami. Why go through the bother of making it official?
LC: Well, Trick Daddy is the mayor. I was always the godfather. But I know I can serve this community better than anybody that’s in this race. That was one of the first things I did. I looked at the individuals in the race. And I said, “Is there anybody that I would vote for? Anybody that is not going to be corrupted?” And I see all the corruption. I see everybody in this race as being a corrupted politician. Maybe, you know, little Jewish lady named Gabrielle [Redfern]. She has some crazy ideas, but everybody else, I just do not trust these individuals. I think they’ll continue the status quo of disenfranchising the poor. And I just can’t sit back and keep looking at this. And the way our government is going, privatizing prisons, I already know who’s going to jail first for the money. So that’s just not my thing. I’m not about to sit here and allow that to happen. I’m putting up a fight, because everybody knows one thing: I am a fighter.