By Amanda Mester, Ambrosia for Heads
On July 13, 1990, the first album to be adorned with a parental advisory sticker hit the shelves, ushering in a new era in the recording industry and re-igniting a heated discussion about censorship, freedom of speech, and morality.
Banned in the U.S.A. was 2 Live Crew’s fourth album, and certainly not the first with the highly sexual content the Miami group had become known for, but it was the first since two of the group members were arrested for obscenity (and later acquitted at trial) in June of 1990. While not as commercially successful as 1989’s double Platinum-selling As Nasty As They Wanna Be, Banned in the U.S.A. and its sticker represented, for many, the manifestation of a Puritanical assault on not just human sexuality, but the sexuality of African Americans. Formed in 1985 by DJ Mr. Mixx, Fresh Kid Ice, and Amazing Vee, Southern California’s 2 Live Crew took on Brother Marquis and Luke Skyywalker on as members after a fateful move to Miami, where Luke gave them a record deal, becoming the front-man and manager. The 4-man group (Amazing Vee did not go to Miami) became synonymous with “Porn Rap,” a label that has also been assigned to works by Too Short, Necro, Kool Keith, and others. Also popular in the worlds of Ghettotech and Baltimore Club Music, Porn Rap was certainly first and most commonly associated with the Miami Bass scene, of which 2 Live Crew became the face. Sexual explicitness had been around for decades (some early Blues, called “Dirty Blues”, was filthy), but in an era of high media scrutiny and the nationwide concern about Rap music and its content, 2 Live Crew became the social pariah du jour, boosting album sales and making Banned In The U.S.A. a musical middle finger to the mudslingers.
Originally envisioned as a solo vehicle for Luke, the album was eventually released as a group effort, perhaps indicative of a desire to show a united front in the face of such criticism. That criticism, mostly launched atop of a platform of moral superiority and concern for children, had followed the group since its 1986 debut, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are. Shortly after its release, a man was charged with a felony for selling the obscene material to a minor, and while he was eventually acquitted, tracks like “We Want Some Pussy” and “Throw the D” earned the group lots of attention and even more naysayers. Lyrics like “With my dick in my hands as you fall to your knees / You know what to do, ’cause I won’t say please / Just nibble on my dick like a rat does cheese” and “It’s all in the hips, so go berserk and let that dick do the work” were not any more explicit than, for example, Blues singer Lucille Bogan’s 1935 song “Shave ’em Dry” (“I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb / Daddy you say that’s the kind of ’em you want, and you can make ’em come”) or Blowfly’s 1980 track “Rapp Dirty” (“Ride down the road carrying a load / Feeling more sexy than a pregnant toad”), but the group’s presence in the Miami Bass scene gave them a ton of exposure and their wild stage antics contributed greatly to their reputation.
It was those stage antics that, on June 11, 1990, got Luke and Fresh Kid Ice arrested. According to The Los Angeles Times, the two were “were booked on charges concerned with the ‘prohibition on certain acts in connection with an obscene, lewd performance.'” However, the cause for that arrest was, in many ways, predicated on something that happened years earlier. In 1985, an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center compiled a list of 15 songs deemed unfit for children, including work by the likes of Madonna, Prince, AC/DC, and other Pop and Rock stars. The rise of MTV and television culture, according to The Washington Post, contributed greatly to the spike in concern over music’s visual and lyrical suggestiveness and with the release of the “Filthy 15” (a list including Madonna, The Mary Jane Girls, and Sheena Easton) the PMRC had launched a crusade against the crude, entering into public discourse the idea for parental advisory warning labels.
By the time 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” came out in 1990, the group had earned the attention of Florida Governor Bob Martinez, who attempted to rally together politicians from across the state to ban the sale of As Nasty As They Wanna Be in every county in the state. Martinez called the group “smut peddlers” and their arrest came just a few days after a judge in Florida called the album obscene, actually making it a crime to sell it in South Florida’s Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties. However, the charges didn’t stick and although some cities protested 2 Live Crew performances across the country, the guys had survived the mob’s pitchforks and then some. Banned in the U.S.A. contained “Fuck Martinez,” a bold rebuttal to the governor’s futile attempts at censoring the group (“All the fellas say; Martinez’ wife, you know she sucka me dick!”). Clearly, Luther Campbell (who would later dabble in politics, as a 2011 candidate for Miami-Dade mayor) was down for an unconventional debate, of sorts.
Banned in the U.S.A. was a 25-track affair (many of them were skits and interludes) with political undertones not heard in prior works by the group. The album’s eponymous lead single became the group’s best performer on the charts. Implementing part of a speech by President H. W. Bush and a newsreel explaining the album’s ban gave the song and, by extension the album, elements of introspection and commentary associated with artists like N.W.A. and Public Enemy. In many ways, 2 Live Crew’s reputation for making strictly party and sex records has kept them out of most discussions about political Rap, but this album stands as a true testament to an artist’s overwhelming desire for self-determination and the frustration in being told their creativity is not being showcased in an acceptable form:
Freedom of speech will never die
For us to help, our ancestors died
Don’t keep thinking that we will quit
We’ll always stand and never sit
We’re 2 live, 2 black, 2 strong
Doing the right thing, and not the wrong
So listen up, y’all, to what we say
We won’t be banned in the U.S.A.!
Also released was an accompanying album film, featuring footage of live performances, interviews with group members, news footage, and clips of critics like religious and political personalities. The album’s legacy was so much a part of popular culture at the time that David Alan Grier lampooned it on “In Living Color,” portraying Luke as a songwriter for children’s music. Around the same time, the group appeared on “Geraldo” alongside Kool Moe Dee and 3rd Bass, where they discussed obscenity laws.
In the years since the Grammy Awards committee launched the “Best Rap Album Category,” only one album—Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist has won, without a parental advisory sticker on its mass-release. Among the Top 10 all-time-selling Rap/Hip-Hop albums, eight releases sport these stickers. The two who don’t, Beastie Boys’ 1986 Licensed To Ill and MC Hammer’s February, 1990 Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, predate the sticker’s existence. The sticker has gone from a detractor for parents purchasing and condoning specific Rap artists, to a sticker almost taken as a mandatory album accessory 25 years later.
Freedom of speech has come a long way in Uncle Luke and Brother Marquis’ path. The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Kim allegedly recorded themselves engaged in a sex act for a would-be multi-platinum, critically-acclaimed album. Eminem spouted homophobic slurs and threatened rape upon his own mother on 2000’s “Criminal,” part of a diamond-certified, Grammy Award-winning album. More politically, perhaps, Oakland MC Paris would release “Bush Killa” two years after Banned In The U.S.A., figuratively attacking then-US President George H. Bush. The lines have gotten blurry. Simple sex-raps have transformed from niche in shock-acts like 2.L.C., N.W.A., Ice-T, and Geto Boys, to a staple in albums by Jay Z, Eminem, Big Boi, and Kendrick Lamar. Once a novelty, Hip-Hop’s relationship with sexuality has moved from the bedroom to the recording room, in nearly every significant critical and commercial album of the last 25 years.
While 2 Live Crew went on to release several more albums, Banned in the U.S.A. may have been the earliest contributing factor to the group’s eventual breakup and disappearance from the charts. According to a recent interview, Fresh Kid Ice shared with the Murder Master Music Show that “when it was time for royalty time—around Christmas time, we received less than $10,000 for a royalty check,” he said. “On a gold record…The album and the single went gold. And we had a gold video out. Remember the ‘Banned In The U.S.A.’ video? That was a gold video and we received nothing for that.” Nevertheless, a quarter of a century ago today, 2 Live Crew made music history.