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Censorship and Hip Hop: 2 Live Crew’s landmark case

Today in music history, we reflect on the infamous 2 Live Crew, and their LP “As Nasty As They Wanna Be”. The reason why? Not because of its catchy Miami Bass grooves or its comedic rhymes, but for its severe controversy and Supreme Court tales.

On the 6th of June 1990, the explicit album became the first to be declared “legally obscene”. Whilst the “party rappers” had huge influences on the sound of Southern Hip Hop and Miami Bass, they were also known for being, well, horny. Federal District Judge Jose Gonzales made the ruling that the album violated community obscenity standards across Florida counties.

Causing a Streisand Effect, it only brought more attention to the album. Sales sky-rocketed into the millions as the album was censored and outlawed. Record store owners were detained just for selling the album, and the group itself was arrested for performing their notorious sexually charged songs at a strip club in Florida.

Five of their eight LPs have an ass on the front cover. There’s nothing the crew loved more than sex, clearly. All you have to do is look at lyrics like “She’ll climb a mount, even run the block, just to kiss the head of this big black cock, it’ll tear the pussy open cause some satisfaction, the bitch won't leave its fatal attraction.” Or take a look at the track list for more convincing:

Think of their music as the soundtrack to an Austin Powers sex scene (that’s probably happened, but I haven’t put myself through all of those films)… with famous cuts like “Me So Horny” that are instantly recognisable for their divisive lyrics and bouncy Vice City production.

Arising in the 80s (rap's early days), they aren’t quite Run-D.M.C., Geto Boys, Too $hort, Ice-T, or Eric B & Rakim, but their story is interesting. Whilst they never made their mark critically or developed much-staying power amongst Hip Hop heads as the genre continued to grow and evolve, the two emcees do give an interesting insight into the issues that a very religious, racist America saw concern in.

Their most famous track, from the unapologetic debut album “Is What We Are”, is “We Want Some Pussy”, which will ring bells for any 20-something who thought Project X was the coolest film ever made when they were 12, dressed head to toe in Hype clothing, and constantly being told by their parents to turn off Call of Duty. It’s crazy to think that was 10 years ago, but the song itself came out in 1986, so I’m sure your parents also have some split opinions on the single. With questionable lyrics like “The girls would say ‘stop’, I’d say ‘I’m not’”, we won’t have them anywhere near our Hip Hop Mount Rushmore, despite their influence.

Gonzales’ opinion was that it was an “appeal to dirty thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind”. What a misguided, slippery slope he tried to enforce, and what this could have done for censorship today is a troubling thought. Eventually, the ruling was overturned. It was argued that the LP lacked “serious artistic, literary, political or scientific merit” and so the obscenity was not in the eyes of the law, justified. However, the duo wiggled their way out of the sticky situation, with their lawyer arguing the group’s songs “reflect exaggeration, parody, humor, even about delicate subjects”. And hey, at least on “The Fuck Shop” there is a PSA to remind people to wash their dick after sex.

It was a landmark case to be overturned, think of the violent, grossly misogynistic Hip Hop and horrorcore we’ve had since, whether for better or worse. Think of Immortal Technique, Eminem, or early Tyler, The Creator. As long as art is just art, and doesn't harm anyone, freedom of expression should be justified. However, lyrics have been used in cases against rappers like Tay-K, YNW Melly, and Bobby Shmurda, so at the very least, don’t self-snitch… That applies to the UK too – “I see the USA takin' the piss out of knifes (Ah?) Ever cornered a man and tore out his flesh while you look in his eyes? (Yeah)” … you sure those are just lyrics, Digga D?

For Newsweek, columnist George Will argued lyrics from 2 Live Crew were “misogynistic filth” that objectified and targeted black women. It’s a complicated issue and a tug of war between racism, and misogyny… Should black voices be heard no matter what? Or should sexism in music be condemned entirely? It’s hard to defend 2 Live Crew’s lyrical content, but their prosecution was certainly targeted, and wrong.

The case reflects a lot about America’s feelings about Hip Hop at the time, or anything that went against the grain - anything creative or expressive (punk music, metal, even Elvis was seen as a “sexhibitionist” by churches who believe he damaged the minds of young Americans). As much as the problem with the music is a religious issue, it’s a race issue too – like the mistreatment of N.W.A members by the police in the 80s, or even just this year, rapper Jim Jones claims he was profiled whilst shopping at Gucci. Racism is ingrained into America to this day, in a post-Trump, post-George Floyd world, where black people are often only treated with respect if they have money.

My mama was raised in the era when Clean water was only served to the fairer skin Doin' clothes, you woulda thought I had help But they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself You see it's broke n**** racism That's that "Don't touch anything in the store" And it's rich n**** racism That's that "Come in, please buy more" "What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things" Used to only be niggas, now everybody playin' Spendin' everything on Alexander Wang New slaves

Banning expression is never the answer, the issues lie in the communities within, which no one in power is doing enough to help. Whilst yes, 2 Live Crew did have problematic lyrics – they should not have been a target by the law. Artistic expression from black people is constantly censored. Fivio Foreign’s latest album was rumoured to be so watered down and radio friendly simply so the mayor wouldn’t ban drill music, much akin to what happened here in the UK.

Censorship has long been a problem in the UK, whilst we all know the story of the Sex Pistols, in 2015, Tyler, The Creator was banned by Theresa May from the UK for a total of 4 years. The Home Office stated, “Coming to the UK is a privilege, and we expect those who come here to respect our shared values”. Whilst many rappers with criminal records have been denied entry, Tyler was not a criminal and was judged purely on lyrics he wrote as a teenager/young adult; “Based on lyrics from 2009, I am not allowed in the UK for three-five years (although I was there eight weeks ago). That is why the shows were canceled,” Tyler tweeted about the incident. Reasoning being, his lyrics “based on the premise of your adopting a mentally unstable alter ego who describes violent physical abuse, rape and murder in graphic terms which appears to glamourise this behavior” – is that not quite literally Eminem? Why wasn’t Eminem held to the same standard for the references to rape and homophobia under alter egos and personas on The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, or Relapse? – much like Tyler’s earlier work, taking huge influence from Shady. A multi-diamond selling white rapper (with total sales of around 227.5 million), has been welcomed to arenas and stadiums countless times, whilst he has fictitious songs about graphically murdering his ex-wife.

At one point, Odd Future was even allowed to tour with Eminem, but after Tyler made comments on Eminem’s recent output Eminem responded (and then took back his comments) in the song ‘Fall’ with the line “Tyler create nothing, I see why you call yourself a f*****, bitch”, whilst also tastelessly calling out Earl Sweatshirt in the same song. We just caught Tyler at Parklife, who made sure to give a special ‘shout out’ to May, which led to chants of “fuck Theresa May”. I was lucky enough to catch him twice before his unfortunate ban, and now two times since he’s returned! Tyler’s ban only made his return more exciting than ever, however – a surprise show in May 2019 in Peckham had to be shut down because of large crowds, before returning in September for three nights at Brixton Academy. The irony of “homophobia” being a part of his ban, whilst Eminem has never faced the same treatment, and Tyler’s album IGOR details his love for a man is quite apparent… an album which caused him to win ‘Best International Male Solo Artist at the UK’s very own BRIT Awards’ in 2020, ending his speech with “I know she at home pissed off, thank you Theresa May”.

2 Live Crew still tour to this day, performing in London (Canada’s London, unfortunately), just next month. As much as their music doesn’t hold up, the story behind it represents a lot about the values of the country they call home. There is so much to dig into with this story – David Bowie stopped mid-performance to condemn music censorship, standing up for 2 Live Crew, with his huge platform. "I've been listening to the album by 2 Live Crew. It's not the best album that's ever been made, but when I heard they banned it, I went out and bought it. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech – it's one of the most important things we have”, he stated. However, as much as I agree with Bowie to an extent, misogyny and mistreatment of women shouldn’t be normalised whether it’s exaggerated for musical purposes or not; 50 Cent has previously admitted to his own misogyny, letting it slide due to ‘free speech’, which is pretty inexcusable.

There is so much to dig into with this story – David Bowie stopped mid-performance to condemn music censorship, standing up for 2 Live Crew, with his huge platform. "I've been listening to the album by 2 Live Crew. It's not the best album that's ever been made, but when I heard they banned it, I went out and bought it. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech – it's one of the most important things we have”, he stated on stage.

“As Nasty As They Wanna Be” was also the final album released under Skyywalker Records after a lawsuit from George Lucas himself. There just seems to be endless stories and complications with these guys… Fittingly, their next album was titled ‘Banned In The U.S.A’ – likely a parody of Bruce Springsteen.

“As Clean as They Wanna Be” was the censored version of the album, with specific disclaimers that there were no explicit lyrics on the tracklist - even though there was still explicit lyrics. God knows what most of the censored songs sound like, but that’s for another day… Of course, sales for the “clean” version were low, but it did contain bonus tracks (that resulted in MORE lawsuits, see Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc).

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about old school Hip Hop, it’s the ridiculously long sex skits, that probably made your parents think you were watching porn, when really you were just trying to enjoy some Biggie, but big thanks to Kendrick Lamar and Anderson Paak for bringing back that trend in recent years!

The album is worth checking out though, for its place in history - sex-obsessed, sex-positive (mostly), and maybe without the landmark case we wouldn’t see songs like “WAP” ever hit the mainstream. 2 Live Crew, whilst not revered for all the right reasons, defined the sound of Miami Bass and Florida Hip Hop for a future of young stars, all while being horny on main, before that was possible.

Every day, there’s a different story in music history, on the 7th June 1993, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, on his 35th birthday, to signify he was quite literally, an ‘icon’. Come back to REPEAT for more history lessons over the next few months…

Written by Jay Fullarton

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