Encore

As Obscene as They Wanna Be?

2 Live Crew sparked controversy five years ago -- The group was deemed unfit for human ears due to its raunchy lyrics

Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew assured their place in history on a very sour and unexpected note: On June 6, 1990, to a packed courtroom in Miami, U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzalez read a 62-page decision that found the rap group's As Nasty as They Wanna Be obscene, making it the first musical recording to be so labeled by a U.S. court. Branding Nasty ''an appeal to 'dirty' thoughts and the loins,'' he effectively made it illegal to sell the album or perform its songs in three South Florida counties.

The verdict came in a suit brought by 2 Live's Skyywalker Records against Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro, who had threatened to arrest area record-store operators for carrying Nasty. It couldn't have been better timed to fire up a simmering national debate. When the trial began, at least 18 states were considering mandatory record-labeling measures. To head off such legislation, the Recording Industry Association of America had announced that record companies would voluntarily place warning stickers on potentially offensive albums.

Outside the courthouse, Navarro warned store owners, ''If you sell it, you're going to jail.'' Two days later, Charles Freeman, a Fort Lauderdale record-shop owner, was arrested for testing that proclamation. And after a defiant 2 Live Crew performed the banned songs at Hollywood, Fla.'s Club Futura the night following Freeman's arrest, deputies arrested Campbell and Chris ''Fresh Kid Ice'' Wong Won; a third member, Mark ''Brother Marquis'' Ross, later surrendered to police. (All were acquitted when a jury rejected obscenity charges.)

Two years later, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta overturned Gonzalez's decision, finding that the judge had insufficient grounds to issue his ruling. Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says both that reversal and the U.S. Supreme Court's subsequent refusal to hear the case ''resoundingly beat back any attempt at censorship...and has licensed musicians to be as expressive as they want to be.'' But the debate rages on. At a recent stockholders meeting, Time Warner heard the familiar cry from a new source: conservatives and black activists jointly decrying violent rap lyrics.


TIME CAPSULE
June 6, 1990
Madonna's ''Vogue'' was in style during its third consecutive week atop the charts, moviegoers didn't forget Total Recall, Stephen King kept readers up late with The Stand, and couch potatoes pleaded guilty to Night Court.

Originally posted Jun 02, 1995 Published in issue #277 Jun 02, 1995 Order article reprints