2 Live Crew: How The Rap Group’s Free Speech Victory Insured America’s Right To Be “Nasty”

2 Live Crew, "Banned in the U.S.A." [front cover image]

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL — On October 20, 1990, it became official: The hip-hop group 2 Live Crew could legally be as nasty as they want to be — and so could the rest of us (or not, if we so choose).

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The three rapping members of the Miami-based foursome — Luther Campbell, Mark “Brother Marquis” Ross, and Chris “Fresh Kid Ice” Wongwon — had been on trial for performing material from their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be at the Futura Club in Hollywood, Florida.

Just four days before the concert, Broward County U.S. district court Judge Jose Gonzalez declared Nasty obscene and, as such, not protected by the First Amendment and illegal to sell in his jurisdiction.

When the group belted out numbers such as their signature hit “Me So Horny” to a paying audience, then, they violated the county’s obscenity regulations. Out came the handcuffs and, potentially, a giant gag order slapped across the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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Alas, the American public’s deep embrace of freedom of speech (at least back in 1990) won out.

Following a two-week trial, the jury deliberated just two hours and found the 2 Live Crew members not guilty. Jury foreman David Garsow, 24, told the press:

“There was very little argument. As the cross-section of the community that we are, it was just not obscene. People in everyday society use those words.”

Another juror, assistant middle school principal Susan Van Hemert, explained, “I basically took it as comedy.”

A third jury member, 65-year-old Beverly Resnick, agreed and said, “In many instances we were just containing ourselves out of respect for the court.”

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As Nasty As They Wanna Be is, in fact, loaded with nonstop, graphic sex talk using words generally avoided in polite company or on broadcast television.

2 Live Crew, As Nasty As They Wanna Be [front cover image]

Stores sold the record emblazoned with the music industry’s self-regulating “Parental Advisory” sticker on its cover, and the paying customers at Club Futura on the night of the arrest were all over 21. These factors played into the final decision, but jurors said they were most impacted by expert testimony from music critic John Leland and, most of all, Duke University professor Henry Louis Gates, an esteemed expert on African-American art and culture.

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Professor Gates praised 2 Live Crew’s lyrics as a send-up of the stereotypes of hypersexualized Black men. He also connected it to the tradition of African-American wordplay known as “signifying,” telling the court:

“It was the way the Black people could fight against the oppression of their slave masters, and rapping is a contemporary form of signifying.”

Gates also said the music contained “great humor, great joy.”

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Still, even after the power of Professor Gates’s argument, members of the 12-person jury — 11 of whom were white — said race didn’t affect their decision. Juror Resnick stated:

“This was their way of expressing their inner feelings; we felt it had some art in it. We should have the freedom to speak and say the things we feel. The day we can’t, we’re in big trouble.”

Following the announcement of the not-guilty verdict, the courtroom exploded with cheers. 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell proudly announced:

“We’re going back on tour now. If people want to come and see us perform, you can. If you don’t, don’t.”

The group also quickly released “Banned in the U.S.A.,” a song about the experience that sampled Bruce Springsteen, with The Boss’s full approval.

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Still, 2 Live Crew’s victory did not cast the final word regarding As Nasty As They Wanna Be and legal obscenity in Broward County. Earlier in 1990, an undercover cop purchased a copy of the LP from Charles Freeman, who owned the small E-C Records store in Fort Lauderdale.

The officer promptly arrested Freeman, and a judge ordered the father of four to pay a $1,000 fine and $87 in court costs. That ruling was never overturned.

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Ironic pop group Too Much Joy fared better in the court system. As an act of protest and solidarity with 2 Live Crew, the band performed six songs from “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” during a concert at Club Futura in August 1990.

Officers promptly booked everybody in the group but the drummer (who didn’t sing), as well as Futura owner Kenneth Gerringer.

When the case came to court in January 1991, the jury stepped out for just 13 minutes before acquitting everyone involved.

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In 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit overturned Judge Gonzalez’s initial obscenity ruling. Broward County filed an appeal, which the United States Supreme Court summarily dismissed.

America once again defined itself as the land of the free, this time by also being the home of the “Nasty.”

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Read more:
New York Times
Reasonable Doubt
Los Angeles Times

Main photo: 2 Live Crew, “Banned in the U.S.A.” [front cover image]


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