* * *
Bass and Booty
ONE SPRING evening at the Atlanta airport, I find myself stalking Luke Campbell. This is my first attempt to ambush someone, in a journalistic capacity or otherwise, and I don't think I'm cut out for it.
You probably know Luke's group the 2 Live Crew and their song "Me So Horny," off the 1989 As Nasty As They Wanna Be album, which local authorities deemed obscene. The subsequent free-speech battle went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Luke's a polarizing figure, and you may find him contemptible, what with his porn company, lewd stage shows, and songs like, "Head, Head, and More Head." Still, he's the undisputed godfather of southern rap music, and I've long been trying to talk to him. Tonight he's slated to perform at a Mexican restaurant in Athens — seventy miles east — and I plan to be there. On the trip over, I'm hoping we can knock out an interview.
The only problem is that I don't exactly have a scheduled appointment. A couple of months back he said he'd talk to me, but then stopped taking my phone calls. I've since gotten in touch with his booking agent, who said Luke should be able to meet up with me here in Georgia. But after informing me that Luke's Fort Lauderdale flight lands at 7:30, the booking agent dropped off the face as well.
Let me tell you: stalking isn't as easy as it sounds. For one thing, two Fort Lauderdale planes land at 7:30, one Delta and one AirTran, and each deposits into a different terminal. And so I decide to plant myself near the baggage claim, next to a set of escalators where most passengers arrive.
I send a text message to Luke to say I'm here, but, naturally, don't hear back. I pace. I sweat. I weigh my pros and cons.
On one hand, if I don't talk to this guy I don't really have a book. On the other hand, his bodyguard may tackle me.
I continue waiting. It's about 7:40 now. I've rented a car here in Atlanta, but in hopes he'll invite me to ride along with him, I've stashed it. For the same reason, my oversized travel bag is with me too.
Most likely, I will recognize him. In his solo videos from the 1990s, he usually wears a mischievous smile, flashing the gap in his front teeth while making filthy promises to his harem of bouncing dancers. In his 2008 VH1 reality show, Luke's Parental Advisory, he wears a more sober expression; balancing his line of work with family is not easy, you see. Lucky for him, his wife "understands that I'm like a gynecologist. If I don't see pussy every day, something's wrong," he notes.
At 7:45 he emerges, flanked by a sturdy-looking accomplice. Luke wears a small mustache and some scruff on his chin, and is clad in Adidas track pants and a University of Central Florida shirt. A middle-aged former football player, he looks and moves like an athlete, and quickly darts left toward the food court. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I take off after him, dodging between folks approaching baggage carousels.
"Luke," I say softly, and then again, more loudly. "Luke!"
He turns. I introduce myself as the guy writing the book on southern rap he talked to a while back. "Sorry for stalking you," I say, with a half-giggle, noting that his booking agent green-lit this meeting, which is sort of true.
"He didn't tell me anything about that," Luke says, turning back around.
An inauspicious start, but I haven't explicitly been told to leave, and so I lurk a few steps behind as they approach a soul food stand called Paschal's. Everyone there seems to know him. The robust woman serving up his peach cobbler flirts with him, and he flirts right back. She wraps up his meal and proceeds to undercharge him.
As they head for the exits I realize time is probably running out, and summon the courage to mention the interview. "Maybe we could bang this out on the ride to Athens?" I suggest.
He laughs quietly, impressed by my audacity, and picks up his BlackBerry. "We'll see if there's room in the car," he says, dialing the show's promoter to arrange pickup. When a long SUV pulls up to the curb, Luke indicates I may climb aboard, and I scurry into the backseat.
He's not in a good mood, though, clearly annoyed with the transportation situation. He calls our vehicle a "1976 Excursion," thought it's at least two decades newer than that. Before we can start our interview, he insists I'm going to have to pay him for any valuable information. I suspect he's joking, but I'm not sure.
His mood improves when the promoter, who is driving the truck, hands him two stacks of cash. He counts it, stashes it, and leans back in his seat. Before I know it his tongue is loose. He begins reeling off some killer anecdotes, like the one about how he pissed off the Jacksonville police by showing them his ass, and the one about how he kicked butt at the Supreme Court.
Then there's the one about how he alone is responsible for southern hip-hop. "We inspired other cats from down here to be their own motherfuckers, to talk like where they were from," he says. "I started this shit, the whole fucking South."
IT'S TRUE. Long before Lil Wayne was performing tracks like "Pussy Monster," Luke battled censors to make rap safely profane. Before "Dirty South" was coined, he fought New Yorkers who didn't think the region made real hip-hop. Before independent labels like Rap-A-Lot, Cash Money, and No Limit began selling directly to their fans, Luke was plying his wares from his mother's washroom. Before "To the windows/ To the wall," before the "Laffy Taffy" or the "Crank That" dances, Luke was putting butts on dance floors.
"All that crunk stuff comes from Luke," says Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul. Adds Mr. Collipark, the man responsible for Soulja Boy and Ying Yang Twins, "2 Live Crew is like the godfather of everything I do. As nasty as it was, it was so creative."
Indeed, perhaps Luke's greatest legacy is putting the sex in rap. All those fat-bootied, barely clad, gyrating women you see in videos? Luke started that. Back in the day, rap was just one of hiphop culture's four "elements," alongside DJing, break dancing, and graffiti, all of which informed its imagery.
That was fine and good, but it wasn't Luke. "We didn't write on the walls in Miami, we booty-shaked," he says. "I looked at their shit, like, 'Motherfuckers flipping on their heads? How you gonna get some hos like that?'"
Starting directly out of high school in the mid-1970s, he plied his trade as a record-spinner and party promoter with a crew called Ghetto Style DJs. They bumped reggae, disco, rock, or anything with bass. Manipulating the knobs to maximize the low-end frequencies, they wanted the crowd to literally feel the music in their joints.
Miami bass is sometimes called the bastard stepchild of hiphop, and indeed it takes some cues from the funk, electro, and 808 drum sounds of early New York rap. Owing to Miami's Caribbean immigrant population, bass music also has quick-paced, percussion-driven island sounds, sexually suggestive chants, and calls and response. It's not music for your mind, it's music to shake your rear. Think Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)."
Ghetto Style DJs didn't invent Miami bass. Collectives like Soul Survivor DJs and South Miami DJs had already kicked off the style, and Luke in particular looked up to a guy called Jeff Walker, whom he calls the "first mobile DJ."
But Luke and his crew made a name for themselves by hustling hard and performing anywhere — parks, car washes, beaches — until the police chased them away. "We'd set up in the big field in back of the school, take the lightbulb out, and pull the juice from the [socket]," he remembers. "Two to three thousand people out there on a Sunday, jamming like a motherfucker."
They used much of the same equipment as Jamaican DJs of the era, and the scene resembles early events in the Bronx, where originators like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash set up impromptu, unauthorized soirees for neighborhood folks.
Luke says he wasn't familiar with them, however. One difference was that he didn't mine the "breaks," like Herc and company. What they did was isolate a song's break section — usually two-thirds of the way through the track, when all of the music stops except for the percussion — and play it over and over by going back and forth between two records. That's the technique that formed the basis for rap as we know it.
Instead, Luke and his contemporaries would speak over records, pulling the fader down to briefly silence a song, and adding their own ad-libs in place of the regular lyrics. Luke learned early on that creating a party atmosphere was important, and he knew just how to do it.
"[Girls] would be shakin' their ass, and I'd just make up the songs," he says, speaking of events at spots like Crandon Park and Miami's historically black Virginia Key beach. "I said, 'Take it off! Take it off!' Then the crowd said, 'Take it off!' Before you know it, they're taking it off."
CONTRARY TO his wild image, Luke actually comes from a very stable family. Pops was an elementary school custodian from Jamaica, and Mom was a Nassau, Bahamas-bred beautician. They met in Cuba, and Luke was born in 1960, coming of age in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, which he remembers for its brazen criminality. "It was the Nixon days, and everybody was robbing and selling drugs," he says. "It was like the wild, wild west."
Though his four brothers attended college, Luke didn't go that route. A pampered linebacker and defensive end who didn't learn to read until the eleventh grade, he lost interest once a coach explained his long odds of making the NFL.
Instead, he took a job as a cook and dishwasher at Mount Sinai Medical Center, playing records in his off hours. In those days being a successful DJ wasn't just about good technical skills or a large record collection. Rather, it was an arms race. Whoever had the most speakers won the day, so Luke set about building up his arsenal, acquiring all the fifteen-inch Electro-Voice brand subwoofers he could get his hands on. "You had to have stacks," he says, declining to say how he got the dough. "At first you needed sixteen [to be competitive], then it went to twenty-four, then forty-eight, then sixty-four."
Ghetto Style DJs were anxious to take him in, considering they only had a measly pair of speakers to call their own. Luke says he loved competing with his fellow turntablists. "I had to go deep in the crates and make some old shit sound good," he says. "I had to get some reggae, and then I had to talk some shit. I had to be more creative."
They inaugurated an event at the Sunshine skating rink called Pac Jam, with roller-skating in the early hours and a dance party later. Attempting to one-up his peers, Luke debuted his own songs, which he created by adding chants and catchphrases to other artists' music. For his first tune, "Ghetto Jump," he'd yell out, "Jump, Jump!" and the crowd would comply. Another track was called "Throw the D," which included a dance where guys pretended to thrust on women, often with their pants pulled down.
By the mid-eighties, Ghetto Style DJs were bringing nationally known acts to town, like Run-DMC. Luke maintained a full concert schedule. On Friday night he'd play a junior high cafeteria, Saturday he'd do a high school, and Sunday was Pac Jam, with scattered bar mitzvahs and weddings in between. All told he might perform before four thousand people over the course of a weekend.
It was around this time that a lightbulb went off in his head: he had a powerful platform to exploit. "I could break a song," he says. "If I played your [music], you were a hot group."
"COLLEGE TOWNS everywhere look the same," Luke says now, looking out the Excursion's window. "Same sports bar and wing places. Same Cracker Barrel, Waffle House. Same horny college girls."
It's nine o' clock, and we've arrived in Athens. There's a warm spring breeze, and said college girls are spilling out of dorm rooms (no idea if they're horny). We pass a random group of them waiting at a stoplight, led by a particularly comely blonde whom Luke has never seen before.
"I love you, Jenny!" he yells, sticking his head out the window. Everybody laughs.
The Excursion pulls up to the Hilton Garden Inn, a downtown spot decidedly more posh than the fleabag motel I've reserved on the outskirts of town. I follow the guys in. As the promoter pays for the rooms by way of another stack of cash, the clerk asks if I need a key card.
"No, I'm not staying here," I say, before Luke cuts in. It's either a gesture of goodwill or a way to get back at the promoter for the substandard SUV, but he insists I'm welcome to my own room, just so long as I'm on a different floor than he. "When my wife's not here, I have a good time," he says. He quickly corrects himself, "I mean, I have a good time when she's here, but ..."
He turns his attention to the desk clerk, a recent University of Georgia graduate whose cheeks immediately flush. It's not that he's saying anything particularly salacious, it's just that he can't help himself from flirting. "I've got a gift," he imparts later.
Neither the clerk nor the bottle-blonde bartender who wanders over are very familiar with the 2 Live Crew, but it's clear they've got a celebrity on their hands, and so we're treated to a round of drinks at the bar.
These women aren't just talking to Luke, they're also talking to Luke's younger, bulkier accomplice, whose name I've learned is Chris. (Luke calls him his "road dawg," and also the "HHC," which I believe stands for "Honorary Hoe Coordinator.") But the weirdest thing is that the ladies are also talking to me. Luke mentions I'm writing a book about hip-hop, which they purport to find fascinating. It occurs to me that I've become part of Luke's entourage.
As we down lemon drop shots, the HHC breaks down the grittier requirements for membership in Luke's posse. A writer they met up with a few years back was required to — how to put this — insert a golf club into one of Luke's dancers. But as for me, I have a choice: I can either perform oral sex on stage or have oral sex performed on me. As a married, STD-free man, neither option bears much appeal, but all I can think to do is laugh noncommittally.
After briefly adjourning to our rooms, we meet back in the lobby at a quarter to one, about the time I usually return home from a night out. Luke now wears a black shirt and pants and a newsboy cap, and he and the HHC drink something from Styrofoam cups. We pile back into the Excursion and head a couple miles northeast, to an area which is off the Hilton's complimentary map.
The venue is a Mexican restaurant called El Paisano, which plays cumbia music and serves food in the front but transforms into a massive, barnlike club in the back, decked out with black lights and spinning laser beams.
A line of folks wait to pay twenty dollar cover charges, but we enter through the rear. Weed smoke fills the air, three or four hundred people groove on the dance floor, and I'm disoriented by massive, pounding bass. I set my hand atop a vibrating table, which begins to rattle off of its axis.
Luke takes the stage to little fanfare and, grabbing the mic, invites the room's hot chicks to join him. "Where my good-pussied bitches at?" he inquires.
BEFORE LUKE reimagined them as crotch-grabbing rabble-rousers, the 2 Live Crew was a vaguely conscious Southern California trio, formed around three airmen first class stationed at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. Aspiring rappers Chris Wong Won, who went by Fresh Kid Ice, and Yuri Vielot (Amazing V.), teamed up with producer David Hobbs, a.k.a. Mr. Mixx, the only guy in the barracks with turntables.
They held shows on and off base, and in 1984 released a single through an L.A. distribution company called Macola Records, who would later put out N.W.A's debut. The song was called "The Revelation," and it employs a dark tone. Amazing V. raps:
Now your pocket is full, but can't you see
That your soul will burn in hell for eternity?
"We didn't have an actual identity," Mr. Mixx says now. He never particularly cared for the whole damning-of-the-souls concept — that was V.'s idea — but the song nonetheless came together well. It takes its sonic cues from Bronx originator Afrika Bambaataa's track "Planet Rock"; after hearing it, Mixx was inspired to buy an 808 drum machine at a pawnshop for $300.
The flip side of the single was called "2 Live," and the record circulated all the way to Miami. Luke Campbell was so impressed that he invited them to come to South Florida and perform at the skating rink. "I was shocked that I got a phone call to go out there and do a show," recalls Mixx, adding that they were practically unknown in California and hadn't seen any money from their Macola situation. "I was like, 'You serious?'"
Luke promoted them by playing their music when he deejayed, and after coming down and playing some successful shows, they eventually moved to the area. Amazing V. dropped out, a new MC named Mark Ross (Brother Marquis) came on, and Luke became the group's manager.