Arrested For Your Art - The Story Of 2 Live Crew's "Obscene" Album

Hip-Hop group 2 Live Crew released their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be in early 1989, which included their hit single "Me So Horny," with voice samples of the title phrase from the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. The clean version of that song was a hit, but the rest of the album - even the sanitized version - wasn't suitable for airplay, with songs like "Dick Almighty" and "Get the F--k out of My House" typical of the track list.

A year after the album was first released, it raised enough hackles in 2 Live Crew's home turf of Southern Florida to earn some protests. Local authorities acted on complaints, judges made some questionable rulings, and by the summer of 1990 the album was declared legally obscene. The Big Brother fears came true: you could be arrested for performing songs or selling an album, and that's exactly what happened. Here's how some offended activists turned a regional rap act into a national sensation and put the first amendment on trial.

Banned In The USA

Obscenity controversies have a long history in the US. Radio shock-jock Howard Stern, comedians George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, The Kingsmen (who covered "Louie Louie"), Frank Zappa, Dead Kennedys, GWAR, film director Stanley Kubrick, and bands Cannibal Corpse and Cradle of Filth have all had their run-ins with the law or moral guardians over the "obscene" content of their work, and that's just to name a few.

But 2 Live Crew emerged at a particular peak time for moral guardians and music censorship in the US. The famous "Tipper Sticker," foisted upon the public by the PMRC after lengthy debates in the mid-1980s, was already affixed to album labels to warn people of potential offensive content. The Conservative Christian group "American Family Association" (AFA) decided that the sticker on As Nasty As They Wanna Be was not enough, so they used their connections to convince Governor Bob Martinez, County Circuit Court judge Mel Grossman, and Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro to go along on a plot to have the album banned outright.

On February 26, 1990, a Broward County Deputy Sheriff purchased a cassette copy of the album from a local record store and transcribed the lyrics (Florida tax dollars at work!). The lyrics and the tape were sent to judge Grossman, requesting that he find probable cause that the album was legally obscene, which on March 9, he did. The sheriff's office then sent letters to record stores as a "courtesy," warning them that they could be arrested under Florida obscenity laws if they sold the album.

If the target was Madonna or George Michael, their record labels would have put up a fight and ordered the stores to keep the albums in stock, but 2 Live Crew was distributed by Luther Campbell's Skyywalker Records, that didn't carry the weight of a sternly worded letter from the sheriff. Very quickly, the album disappeared from the racks; a temporary victory for the AFA.

Does the legal finagling seem kind of hazy? That's because it kind of was. It is unusual for a handful of officials to conduct such a sneaky backroom deal like this. Most laws are passed with at least a little more clarity.

The AMA, by the way, is also the group behind the "One Million Moms" effort to boycott retailer J.C. Penny for hiring Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson, based merely on her being a member of the GLBT community. The channel they went through to go after 2 Live Crew was the lawyer and activist, Jack Thompson.

Meet Jack Thompson

Where to begin? To those of you who did not already groan (or burst into giggles) at the name, Jack Thompson is one flamboyant, larger-than-life character. He has made a name for himself as a crusader against all he finds indecent in both music and video game media for going on four decades now. His music crusades have included attacks against Madonna, N.W.A., Ice-T, and 2 Live Crew; his video game crusades likewise the Grand Theft Auto series and the numerous first-person shooter games such as Quake and Doom.

It is tempting to dismiss some of the outrageous stories of his bizarre shenanigans as myth, but one keeps running into confirmations again and again. Some random stunts Thompson has pulled:
  • He sent people pictures of his photo ID with a picture of comic-book superhero Batman pasted over his own. He also referred to himself as Batman and to 2 Live Crew as the Joker.

  • He once presented Attorney General Janet Reno with a form she was to fill out, with checkboxes to indicate whether she was homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Reno tried to make light of the matter and in doing so, touched his shoulder; Thompson promptly sued her for assault. And lost.

  • He reneged on a public challenge to a video game company to make a video game according to his specifications, in which an outraged parent would go on a killing spree against video game manufacturing executives, offering $10,000 to charity if they made good. Somebody did indeed make this game, and Thompson immediately back-peddled.

  • He attempted to sue Facebook for $40 million because Facebook users were posting derogatory comments about him. The case was dismissed.

  • He filed court documents in a 2007 case that included graphic images depicting "gay sex."

  • He filed further court documents the next year that included images such as swastikas, squirrels, a hand with the word "slap" under it, kangaroos, and many other things. Both of these filings were his defense in his disbarment hearing.

Those last two are hard to describe without a picture; this Slate article does contain a couple of scans but with some images censored. But still, there is enough to convey the flavor.

And why not get more straight from the horse's mouth? contains plenty more material posted by a group apparently in support of him, though even they admit:

"Jack Thompson is also known for his exceptionally vigorous communications, which frequently attack not only the content of the video game, but also threaten and debase the people who play them. This extends to all people he considers his opponents, from other lawyers to musicians to producers."

Thompson was disbarred from practicing law permanently on September 25, 2008, by the Florida Supreme Court. Thompson has since announced that he will start practicing law again anyway. In fact, it seems the man hardly sleeps, so we have to stop talking about him or he'll take over the whole article. But here, one last thing, is a quote from this last letter...

"...the lawyerly labors of a man who a) secured the first FCC decency fines in the history of this country, b) the first verdict in world history that a sound recording was obscene..."

Yes, that's the 2 Live Crew recording he's referring to.

Crew Sues and Loses; Album Declared Legally Obscene

The 2 Live Crew retaliated, suing sheriff Nick Navarro for intimidating record store owners into pulling their album. Of course, finding "probable cause" that the album is legally obscene is very different than declaring it legally obscene, and now a judge had to make that call and settle this thing.

The Miller Obscenity Test (all 3 standards must be met)

1) The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

2) Measured by contemporary community standards, the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law.

3) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
That judge was Jose Gonzalez of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, who heard the case on June 6, 1990. Surprisingly, judge Gonzalez applied the Miller obscenity test in the case, which was based on a 1973 ruling that dealt with distribution of porn. The case was never before used as a test for obscenity in music, as it stipulated that the work in question had to lack "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

By this time, "Me So Horny" had long since reached its chart peak of #26 on the Hot 100, so to find the album legally obscene, Gonzalez had to declare that an album containing a Top-40 hit had no artistic value, and that's exactly what he did. He called the album "an appeal directed to the 'dirty' thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind."

Another big part of this Miller Test is community standards - what's clean in New York City could be objectionable in Omaha. So judge Gonzalez had to determine exactly where the album was objectionable. Instead of calling in experts or doing some kind of research, he simply applied the ruling to his own community: Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties. His reasoning was that since he lived in the area most of his life and had seen lots of seized porn, be could make the call on behalf of the community.

So it was on June 6, 1990 that As Nasty As They Wanna Be was officially obscene and therefore illegal to sell and perform in three Florida counties.

The Arrests

The first arrest was on June 8, when record store retailer Charles Freeman sold the album to an undercover cop. Yes, they sent the vice squad! Freeman was convicted by a jury and fined $1,000. His conviction was eventually overturned, but not before he lost his record store and was arrested for dealing crack.

Then on June 10, 2 Live Crew played their first concert after the ruling: a show in a Hollywood, Florida nightclub called Club Futura. This was in Broward County, where the law was in effect, and when the group got on stage and were as nasty as they wanted to be, three of the four members were arrested (their DJ Mr. Mixx got off because he wasn't a vocalist).

The next test came in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, Georgia, where 2 Live Crew was scheduled to play a teen hangout called The Ozone Club. This is where lots of hardcore bands with names like Decimation and F.U.C.T. would perform, but it was the newly notorious rappers who caught the attention of local authorities. Empowered by the Florida ruling, they decided that 2 Live Crew violated their community standards as well and was therefore obscene. On June 14, the rappers took the stage with cops standing by ready to make arrests, but instead of doing their typical show, they let the crowd sing the dirty words for them, creating the farce of 500 teenagers technically breaking the law by shouting lyrics like "face down, ass up, that's the way we like to fuck!" No arrests were made that night.

The next logical step was for big-name bands to come to Florida, perform the 2 Live Crew songs, and get arrested in protest. It was a New York rock band called Too Much Joy that went through with it - they tried to get big acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers to join them, but couldn't get any takers and did it alone. They learned some 2 Live Crew songs, performed them at Club Futura, did their 9 hours in jail and got lots of publicity in the process. The were later acquitted by a jury that deliberated 13 minutes.

Publicity and Support

2 Live Crew found a powerful ally when Bruce Springsteen entered the scene. Springsteen granted the group permission to remake his song "Born In The U.S.A." as "Banned In The U.S.A.," which became the title of their next album and a great slogan for their predicament. Record store owners in other cities found police crawling their aisles searching for the offensive album. Canadian record retailer Marc Emery was arrested in Ontario (quite far away from Florida, isn't it?) for selling the album; he later became a famous marijuana activist. Meanwhile, the forbidden fruit of 2 Live Crew, predictably, became a tantalizing temptation for every teen in America, most of whom wouldn't have sought the album out if it hadn't been for the media attention. Atlantic Records picked up distribution, and the album kept selling, eventually moving over 2 million units.

"The Streisand Effect" is when the attempt to suppress some piece of information or art immediately causes it to become more famous than if it had been left well enough alone. It's named after singer Barbra Streisand's attempts to suppress tabloid photos of her wedding at her home, causing the photos to become world-famous thanks to rampant curiosity. Similarly, the banned songs of 2 Live Crew found an unlikely audience far beyond listeners with a taste for dirty rap songs. Kids in the suburbs added the album to their collections, where it shared space on CD storage units with more credible offerings from acts like Public Enemy and LL Cool J. Doubtless, a few other rappers would have been envious of the success and maybe began hoping that their lyrics would be banned as obscene, too.

Interest in the group quickly died down as authorities gave up on enforcing these goofy obscenity rulings, which shut off the publicity spigot. The band scrapped some of their planned concerts, and a Banned In The U.S.A. pay-per-view was cancelled. By the time 2 Live Crew was cleared in their Hollywood nightclub arrest (by a jury that included a 76-year-old woman), their 15 minutes were up.

On May 7, 1992, the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals overturned the obscenity decision, and all charges were dropped and all that had gone before came undone. An interesting witness for the band was a Rhodes scholar named Carlton Long, who testified that the album contains the oral traditions and musical conventions known as call and response, doing the dozens, and boasting, which derive their roots from segments of Afro-American culture and therefore had artistic value. The court agreed.

Where are they now?

2 Live Crew lasted a few more albums before dissolving into a huddle of lawsuits - against each other over money, and also by outside forces over their casual attitude towards copyrights and sampling. Some of them have sporadically tried to get the group back together or go solo with varying results. One has been seen running with the Juggalo crowd.

Jack Thompson has of course gone on to become the scourge of both the music and video game industries. Like a slasher-movie villain, he goes down a lot but never stays down. While some may wonder if Thompson has a racial motivation - he picks on rap and hip-hop a lot - remember that Thompson also targets media enjoyed by every walk of life and seems to have just as many problems with his own race as any other. Similarly, remember that conservative Christian groups have targeted heavy metal, hard rock, disco, and so on all the way back to Elvis shaking his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was just hip-hop's turn this time.

But still, doesn't it seem like there's a little racial motivation out there whenever a conservative Christian group is up in arms about music that's associated with a minority race? Yeah, probably.

Was 2 Live Crew the first band arrested for performing an "obscene" song in public in the US? It could be so, but there's piles of half-precedents. Jim Morrison of The Doors was arrested a few times, but for things like indecent exposure and disturbing the peace, not singing obscene music. Comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce were arrested for performing obscene material, but they weren't singing. Frank Zappa's album We're Only In It For The Money got censored by MGM for supposed obscenity and Zappa also got arrested for "conspiracy to commit pornography" in a hilariously botched police sting for an audio tape, but it wasn't singing. The cast of the 1969 musical stage show Hair got arrested for being "detrimental to the morals of youth" - in Mexico. Let's just say that we could dig all day, but the 2 Live Crew case was remarkable for its blatant disregard for free speech rights and how far it advanced before it was undone.

~ "Penguin" Pete Trbovich and Carl Wiser
March 21, 2012
Updated March 6, 2021

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Comments: 5

  • Fantria from Phoenix, Azwho's grosser? the 2live crew for rapping about all the wild sex they have......or the women who allowed them to do all the wild things said in their songs? some of it is obviously exaggeration but ALOT of it is fact
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaI never thought much of Rap, hip-hop or any of that junk. But hey, if that is what you want, who am I to say no?
  • Manolo from Portugalgot to love how that "great" country works..
    police asked and payed to Frank Zappa to make a soundtrack for a alledged [*censured*] movie, he accepts and gets time in jail for "conspiracy to commit [*censured*]ography"..
    really.. if the whole continent was blown out nothing of value would be lost.
  • Zhivko from Bourgas, BulgariaWell, not to sound blunt.. but 2LC were among my first vinyls ever, along with some pretty good stuff like KLF, having "the beat" i needed. Who cared what they were singing (rapping) when the beat was right. They still show up promptly among any "old school" gigs me and my friends do. Just for he heck of it. Good that US is just a part of the world and this is probably the main reason why those lyrics are still around to be repeated by generations ahead. Funny, if they knew that some years after, all the things they sang were branded "obscene" are few clicks away from visual preview. Eh.. what's next?
  • Casey from Glendale, AzI never could take the 2 Live Crew seriously. Here we have gross looking men talking about how much sex they get...come on...complete bull[*censured*]. But great to laugh at though
see more comments

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