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2 Live Crew fought the law with its album, 'As Nasty As They Wanna Be'

2 Live Crew in 1989 (Mr. Mixx, Brother Marquis, Luther Campbell & Fresh Kid Ice)
Raymond Boyd / Contributor
Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives
2 Live Crew in 1989 (Mr. Mixx, Brother Marquis, Luther Campbell & Fresh Kid Ice)

2 Live Crew didn't just test the boundary of good taste; they s*** all over it.

In 1989, their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be boasted some of the raunchiest music ever heard — and fans loved them for it.

Some in law enforcement did not. And their legal battles cleared a path for other rappers to follow.

"Before 2 Live Crew, hip-hop was fairly tame," says cultural critic Kiana Fitzgerald. "They became hip-hop's early provocateurs, to put it lightly."

The Florida group was looking for some way to stand out from the New York and Los Angeles rap scenes that dominated hip-hop at the time.

2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell told NPR in 2015, "If we're going to compete with these guys, you know, we don't have the same budget that they have... This will set us apart from everybody else: Let's do comedy. Let's sample some of these famous comedians like Redd Foxx and Leroy & Skillet and Aunt Esther."

Fitzgerald says those comedians put out their own "very, very explicit and salacious" albums, and they were underground hits with the previous generation.

Luther Campbell's plan worked — perhaps too well. Record sales exploded around the country, even earning the group a Top-40 hit on the pop charts with "Me So Horny." That exposure opened 2 Live Crew up to constant criticism, and eventually, legal trouble.

"One year after the album was released, a Broward County judge declared the project obscene, making it the first album to be deemed so, legally," writes Kiana Fitzgerald in her new book Ode to Hip-Hop.

Author Kiana Fitzgerald
Luis Alvarez-XOA Productions / Running Press
Running Press
Author Kiana Fitzgerald

A record store owner was arrested. Even some members of the 2 Live Crew got busted for performing the music live at a Hollywood, Florida, nightclub.

Eventually, all those arrested came out on top of their legal challenges.

"They really set a legal precedent for hip-hop artists today to be able to create in the way that they choose to," says Fitzgerald. She cites Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Lil Wayne and other rappers "who really make sex a part of their persona."

They don't have to fear jail time for their creations because 2 Live Crew paved the way for them to be As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 10, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A earlier version of this story did not make clear that it was two members of the 2 Live Crew group that were arrested and one record store owner, not several employees.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.