In Tommy Hammond’s record shop in Alexander City, Ala., tucked safely out of harm’s way, is a small box where he keeps music cassettes with warning labels. These days, the box is overflowing with rap, heavy metal, rock, R&B, you name it. And the stack gets bigger every week.
Maybe it sounds paranoid to keep music stashed like this, but Hammond sold a rap tape one day in 1988 and became the first American to be found guilty of breaking obscenity laws by selling prerecorded music. Thus, reluctantly, a First Amendment hero was born. ”It’s getting to be very, very sad,” Hammond says. ”A small group of religious fanatics is trying to get these laws passed and take away freedom of speech.”
On June 29, 1988, a local cop — Hammond calls him a ”good customer” — came into Hammond’s shop, Taking Home the Hits, and bought albums by a couple of his regular favorites plus a rap tape, Move Somethin’ by the 2 Live Crew, which features raunchy, four-letter descriptions of sexual acts. The next day, two cops, including the one who made the ”undercover” purchase, returned and arrested Hammond for violating an Alabama obscenity law. Two months later, a municipal judge convicted him and fined him $500.
”The problem here is not a dirty rap tape,” Hammond says, ”the problem is they’re taking away your rights little by little.” Within 15 minutes of being sentenced, Hammond appealed his conviction. The risk was considerable: Because he was found guilty in a municipal proceeding, Hammond’s appeal led to a retrial in Alabama circuit court, where a more severe sentence (up to one year in jail and a fine of $10,000) could have been handed down.
Fortunately for Hammond, a circuit-court jury in Alexander City cleared him last month. After the prosecutor played the entire Move Somethin’ album in court, defense witnesses testified about the musical and cultural merits of rap, as well as the local availability of sexually oriented books, magazines, movies, and videos. Jurors then decided that the album was not obscene according to community standards. ”A couple of the jurors told us they did not want the government telling them what music they could listen to,” Elizabeth Johnson, one of Hammond’s lawyers, said.
The Alexander City decision may discourage some obscenity prosecutions for music, but arrests certainly will continue. A narrower law forbidding the sale of obscene works to those under 18, passed since Hammond’s arrest, was used last year to convict Tommy Hammond’s brother, Bob, who operates a record shop in Sylacauga, about 25 miles from Alexander City. (Bob Hammond was fined $3,000 and given a one-year suspended sentence.) Cautious merchants, including Tommy Hammond, now ask for ID when selling stickered albums.