Luther Campbell: Breaking Boundaries

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Luther Campbell always liked when he got to hear the music first—before the radio stations. As a young DJ in Miami, Florida, in the 1980s, Campbell was part of a “record pool” which gave him early access to new singles and new artists. In his early twenties, he would spin records at parties, often at his mother’s house. He’d play reggae or whatever else got the people moving. That led Campbell—who also goes by Luke, Uncle Luke, Luke Skyywalker, and likely several other names throughout his career—to join a like-minded DJ group. He both produced beats and spun the records he had early access to at local parties. Little did anyone know that these humble, music-loving beginnings would eventually lead Campbell and his group, 2 Live Crew, to upending the world with their brash style of “nasty,” sex-infused, boundary-breaking songs.  

“I was able to listen to the music versus letting the radio program program me,” Campbell says. “And I was able to play music that people never heard of first, before it got on the radio, and make the crowd move. I enjoy entertaining people and making them feel happy.” 

Campbell began to travel around his hometown, spinning his songs at car washes, birthday parties, and weddings. Bodies moved and he knew how to turn their ignition. Then in 1984, a record he heard changed the course of music history. Campbell came across otherwise unknown new music by the California-based rap group 2 Live Crew, which released its first revolutionary single, “Revelation,” in 1984. Campbell took the record he’d found home, listened to it, and liked it. The music fit just what the Miami party scene needed. Campbell thought it would be a hit and broke the album in the Miami scene. The band’s telephone number was on the album, and Campbell, seeing potential, dialed the group up.  

“I reached out to them and said, ‘Hey look, I like your record. I want to break your record and play it here. If I break your record, there are two things I need. One, you come down here and do a show for me, I’ll fly you in to do a promo show. And then I’ll bring you back to do a paid show,’” Campbell says. “They were all game for it.” 

At the time, the members of 2 Live Crew lived across the country. Comprised of DJ Mr. Mixx (David Hobbs) and rappers Fresh Kid Ice (Chris Wong Won) and Amazing Vee (Yuri Vielot), who left the group in 1985, the group was ready to find a home where they were loved. With Campbell in Miami, the band already had an audience. It was time to see what they could do. After they all met and played their first few shows, Campbell had an idea for a new song.  

Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew during 1989 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

“As a DJ, what I would do is take certain songs that I played and I would create a dance to it,” he says. “We would have a bunch of different dances to different songs. But we’d only focus on certain dances at a time. Once people got tired of them, we’d introduce another one. That’s what made our DJ group somewhat different from everybody else.” 

One popular dance in Campbell’s circle at the time was called “Throwing The Dick.” One can imagine the actual movements, but suffice it to say it fit well in the sweaty sexualized clubs Campbell knew well. The dance got the people going and the soundtrack to the gyrations was 2 Live Crew’s 1986 song, “Throw The D,” which Campbell produced. It was a giant Miami hit.  

Campbell wore many hats for the band. First, he was a promoter, then producer, and then manager, working to secure the group a record deal they liked. But fruit for the group did not come quickly. “We couldn’t get a deal,” Campbell says. “No one wanted rap music, there was no such thing as hip-hop in the south. We couldn’t get no deal.” 

As Campbell worked to find or create a record deal of his own, he also took on the role of the group’s hype man on stage. He brought his signature big energy to back up the emcees’ lyrics. It was an uphill battle outside of the clubs that loved the group in Miami, but Campbell trusted his ear. As a DJ, he was essentially playing the role of A&R man, picking and choosing which songs and bands had the potential to hit. He knew 2 Live Crew had a chance. So, he kept watering the proverbial plant. He pushed their songs wherever he could, representing the group along the way the whole time.  

“I believed in the group,” Campbell says. “When I broke the first record, I knew the group had something unique going on. When people said ‘no,’ I said, ‘fuck it.’ I believed Mr. Mixx was a good producer, I believed Chris was a good rapper. I believed we could do some special things.” 

In 1986, 2 Live Crew released its debut album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are. By then, the group had recruited another emcee, Brother Marquis (Mark Ross). Campbell had also established his record label—Skyywalker Records—and he’d officially signed the group to put out the album. The record included “Throw The D” and other songs like “We Want Some Pussy,” “Get It Girl,” and the remix of the song “Beat Box,” which is the tune Campbell first heard that originally made him fall in love with the artists, he reveals. The album, as one might expect, stirred up some controversy, which Campbell fielded as the defacto 2 Live Crew spokesman. It was deemed obscene in Florida; a man was even arrested for selling it. It was also soon certified gold.  

“It was stressful at times,” he says. “But it was fun.” Campbell adds, “A lot of people can’t make another hit, that’s why you see one-hit wonders.” 

In 1988, 2 Live Crew released its sophomore follow-up, Move Somethin’, which also went gold. The album included the titular single and the hit “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” But the proverbial excrement hit the fan blades in 1989 when 2 Live Crew released its now-notorious LP, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which included the song “Me So Horny.” That track sampled a bit of dialogue from a prostitute from the 1987 war movie Full Metal Jacket. The album, which went platinum, brought the group to the attention of millions, including politicians who wanted them silenced.  

“Everything was organic,” Campbell says. “We were having fun. Every time people tell me no, then I do it. I’m a fucking rebel. Ain’t nobody going to tell me not to do something. That’s just the bottom line. If I feel it’s the right thing to do, I’m going to do it.” 

Some people protested the album, the case was even brought to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. The record eventually sold over two million copies (and counting). But perhaps one moment sums up the band’s introduction to (White) American mainstream culture, and that’s 2 Live Crew’s appearance on The Phil Donohue Show in 1989, during which the group performed their hit “The Fuck Shop.” Watching the clip, which is on YouTube today and has over 1.5 million views, you can see faces aghast at the lyrics, women accompanying the rappers dancing and gyrating and you could hear the questions about pornography magazines from Campbell between verses. By today’s standards, it’s light fare and nothing artists like Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion wouldn’t doBut in 1989, it appalled more than it probably should have.  

“I loved it,” Campbell says. “I don’t have bad memories. Everything that people may think is bad, was great. I loved [going on Donahue]. It was a movement. That’s why people play [the song] right now today.” He adds, “That’s part of hip-hop history. We went on there—I knew what show I was going on. I didn’t think it was The Arsenio Hall Show. We knew exactly what we were doing and what we were getting into.” 

It might be easy to wag a finger at 2 Live Crew. To say, why rock the boat? But that would be a limited perspective, especially since, at the time, others were doing similar things, like the very successful Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy.  

“We weren’t doing nothing that Hugh Hefner wasn’t doing,” Campbell says. “But everybody loved Hugh Hefner for what he did.” 

It might be obvious, but Campbell is something of a workaholic. Like most workaholics, he doesn’t celebrate professional achievements. Instead, he thinks of them as that which should of course happen given all his work and planning. So, why consider them marked occasions? When his son was born, though, that’s one of the few times he felt unbridled excitement.  

“In the music business,” he says, “you don’t have too much time to be excited, you’re constantly working on the next project.” 

In 1989, Campbell put out 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be under his record company, Skyywalker Records. But after its success, the company was successfully sued by Star Wars creator, George Lucas. Campbell changed the name to Luke Records. Today, Campbell says the suit was brought up by Tipper Gore (wife of Al) who was then on something of a political rampage to “focus on family,” which meant attempting to curtail (i.e., censor) that which she deemed anti-family. Regardless of the suit’s impetus, Campbell says he “weathered that storm and kept moving.” Other cases followed, many he won, though they cost him lots of money. Later, in the mid-’90s the members of 2 Live Crew went their separate ways. More recently, in 2017, Fresh Kid Ice passed away, ending any possibility of a reunion.  

“I always still consider those guys as friends,” Campbell says of his former 2 Live Crew brethren. “But one thing we’re all guaranteed in this life is that you’re going to die, whether it’s now or later. Chris was a great guy and a great artist.” 

Today, Campbell is 61 years old. He says he doesn’t feel (or look) that old. He never really took drugs as a young person, so he contemplates, maybe his body has some more vim and vigor in it than those who did. “Nobody can guess my age,” he says. He still tours and still sells out shows. He sees others in the music business now finding the music he and his cohorts made, sampling it, taking from it, learning from it. He’s shopping projects. He worked with NBA star LeBron James on the popular television documentary Warriors of Liberty City for the Starz Network. And 2 Live Crew merchandise is still selling. In other words, Campbell is doing just fine some three decades since the height of the 2 Live Crew whirlwind. He’s ridden the wave from the early days as a DJ through now as a famous cultural influencer. He knows how hard life can be, and he just wants to make it a little easier on you.  

“I love going into the studio and coming up with something totally different than what everybody is listening to. And looking at the expressions on people’s faces after you’ve created something that you feel is special. I love entertaining people.” He adds, “That’s why I like doing party music. Uplifting music, not no sad music—I love making people happy.”

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

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