Businessman With a Nasty Rep : Rap: 2 Live Crew's controversial Luther Campbell says he's 'just a hard-working guy marketing a new product.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luther Campbell, the most controversial figure in pop music, is standing in the parking lot of his two-story Luke Records headquarters in a low-rent area of town. He seems reluctant to go inside because of all the phone calls.

It isn't just the media on the line with more questions about why his group, 2 Live Crew, was canceling an 11-city U.S. tour (the answer: exhaustion). Campbell, whose company has grossed more than $17 million in record sales alone so far this year, also seems drained by all the calls from attorneys, agents and other business contacts.

The parking lot offers the tall, lean rapper a temporary refuge from attention that has been virtually nonstop since the group's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" was declared obscene June 6 by a federal judge in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

It's been so nonstop, in fact, that Campbell's physician ordered him to cancel the upcoming tour--including two shows tonight at the Country Club in Reseda and a date Friday night at Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.

"I'm really tired," Campbell says. "Between 2 Live Crew, my solo projects, and the pressures of running the day-to-day business--It's wearing me out. I need a break."

But Campbell seems more than simply tired on this day. He also seems frustrated by how everyone just talks about him as this one-dimensional "obscene" rapper.

Suddenly, he draws an imaginary circle in the air and slices a thin wedge out of its center.

"Most people don't realize it, but 2 Live Crew is a very small piece of the pie," says the 29-year-old former high-school linebacker. "There is a lot more to my company than sexually explicit rap comedy."

Campbell pauses, shading his eyes form the bright afternoon sun.

"A lot of people have gotten the impression that I'm this rude sexual deviant or something," he continues. "But contrary to what has been printed about me in the papers, I'm no moral threat to anybody. I'm just a hard-working guy marketing a new product."

Hard work is nothing new for Campbell. You don't go from hawking records out of the back of your car to heading a multimillion dollar corporation in four years by coasting.

Campbell's enterprises include 16 rap and R&B; acts, 23 employees, three labels, two publishing companies, a 24-track digital recording studio, a video production facility, a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and a cluster of Miami nightclubs.

He insists that only three of the 16 groups he produces perform sexually explicit material. The rest of the acts on his roster cut PG-rated R&B; dance fare and what he refers to as "milk-and-cookie" love ballads.

Plus, Campbell says his publishing arm is about to acquire a collection of Top 40 and film music catalogues, which he hopes will help him penetrate the mainstream pop music market.

But his critics are not impressed.

Jack Thompson, the Florida anti-obscenity crusader who instigated the campaign that resulted in the 2 Live Crew obscenity ruling, says he believes Campbell is practicing a corrupt aberration of capitalism.

"There is nothing noble or Horatio Alger-like about Luther Campbell," Thompson says. "Obscenity is criminal contraband and that's what this guy deals in. It's easy to make money selling illegal goods. What could possibly be admirable about that?"

Jerry Rushin, vice president of WEDR-FM in Miami, disagrees. Rushin, a close associate and confidante of Campbell's since 1975, sees Campbell as an exemplary role model for young people struggling to escape the harsh economic realities of ghetto life.

"Success never went to Luther's head. That's why the community is 100% behind him," Rushin says. "From the beginning, Luther has understood the value of maintaining two distinct personalities: The public sees the raunchy Luke rap persona. But there is another side which people rarely get a glimpse of: Luther, the soft-spoken, well-mannered serious businessman."

Campbell credits Rushin with teaching him how to avoid the trappings of stardom.

"When I climb on stage I become the guy who gets wild with the scarf, the gold chains and the whole nine yards," Campbell says. "But when the show is over, I know how to leave it behind."

Campbell is a wealthy man. He drives a Jaguar, plays the stock market aggressively, owns a jet and lives in a 10-bedroom house overlooking two acres of mowed lawn in the suburban community of Miami Lakes.

Even before the controversial federal obscenity ruling and Campbell's subsequent arrest for performing material from the album at an adults-only show in Hollywood, Fla., the company estimates that it grossed more than $12 million from records in 1989. As of June, 1990, sales had already passed the $17-million mark. His company's records are available in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Britain and Japan.

But Campbell says he has his sights set on even higher goals.

Last week, 2 Live Crew signed on with Solters, Roskin and Friedman, a top-level Los Angeles publicity firm whose other clients include Michael Jackson and Andrew Dice Clay, and struck a tour deal with the New York-based Famous Artist Agency, which also represents such pop stars as New Kids on the Block and Luther Vandross. Plus, Campbell is being considered to star in his own R-rated weekly sitcom titled "The Big Dis." on HBO.

Campbell, who directs the 2 Live Crew videos, says he hopes eventually to expand into producing and directing full-length feature films.

Campbell recently invested in a sports management company and a construction firm.

The construction firm was formed to provide affordable housing in low-income black neighborhoods. He says 400 houses are currently under construction and should be ready to live in before the end of the year.

The walls of his office are lined with 2 Live Crew posters and court sketches of people who participated in the historic obscenity hearings. A copy of the Bill of Rights hangs in the corner.

"I always figured that if I ever made it, one day I would try to put money back into the community, to help those less off than myself."

Much of Campbell's community activities involve educational projects. He funds several programs to help underprivileged Miami high school students and contributes money to the United Negro College Fund and local college football programs. He also visits local schools, encouraging youngsters to finish their education, practice safe sex and stay away from drugs.

In conjunction with several other Miami club owners, Campbell has also initiated a program to register voters in the black community.

"The majority of citizens between the age of 18 and 24 do not vote," Campbell says. "You want to know why politicians are not paying attention to what young people think? It's because these right-wingers know young people don't vote. We'd like to change that.

"Poor kids see me as a role model," Campbell says, stretching his legs out across his office desk. "They listen to me more than they would some guy in a suit who knows absolutely nothing about the street. They know that I came from the same community. My success is proof that a person can escape the ghetto."

Luther Campbell--the youngest of four brothers--grew up in what he calls a "tough ghetto" in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. His father was a custodian, his mother a hairdresser.

As a teen-ager, he dreamed of becoming a disc jockey, but soon adopted the moniker Luke Skyywalker and settled for deejaying at outdoor dances.

He later began promoting rap shows with acts like Run-DMC and the Fat Boys at Miami-area high schools, parks and roller rinks.

Campbell was bused to Miami Beach High School, from which he was graduated in 1978. During this period, he admits to having had problems with local authorities. "I got into a lot of trouble when I was young," Campbell says.

Between 1979 and 1987, Florida police records indicate that Campbell was arrested five times. Charges varied from aggravated assaults to using a firearm in the commission of a felony, but Campbell was never convicted.

"In the areas where I used to hang out, a man has to carry a gun," Campbell says. "It's no secret that I used to run with a tough crowd, but one day I arrived at the crossroads, and I made a conscious decision to turn my life around."

It was spite, Campbell says, that drove him to enter the music business. After a local studio allegedly cheated him out of royalties over a song he produced, Campbell says he decided to try making his own records under his own Luke Skyywalker Records label.

Joining forces with a Southern California rap group called the 2 Live Crew, he recorded a sexually-tinged tune in 1986 titled "Throw the D." Campbell sold the single out of the trunk of his car, selling more than 250,000 copies.

Campbell claims he was living at his mother's house during this period, but Davania Branch--a 23-year-old Miami day care teacher who claims to be the mother of Campbell's second child--says he was living with her at the time.

Branch, who recently filed a paternity and a palimony lawsuit here against Campbell, is seeking to recover child support and additional funds she alleges that Campbell owes her regarding contributions she made to his business between 1985 and 1987.

"All I'm asking for is what is rightfully mine and my daughter's," Branch said in separate interview. "A man who cannot provide a reasonable amount of support for his own flesh and blood is no hero in my book."

Campbell denies most of Branch's claims.

"In the last six months, I've had 10 different lawsuits filed against me," Campbell says. "As soon as the word gets out that you've got two cents over your lunch money, everybody wants to sue you for it."

Subsequent releases of Campbell product such as 1986's "2 Live is What We Are" and 1987's "Move Somethin' " both featured lascivious lyrics and sold close to 1 million copies each. "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" passed the 1 million mark long before the obscenity controversy erupted. More than 2.2 million copies have been sold.

Filmmaker George Lucas filed a $300-million trademark infringement and unfair competition lawsuit against Campbell in March, claiming that the rapper's use of the stage name Luke Skyywalker diluted the value of Lucas' trademark. Lucasfilm attorneys alleged that Campbell's sexually explicit music was "completely antithetical" to the wholesome image of Lucasfilm's "Star Wars" hero. Pending the suit's outcome, a Los Angeles judge in May temporarily barred Campbell's use of the name.

Campbell says he stopped using the stage name; he did change the company name to Luke Records. But in June, he was still associating himself with the Skyywalker name. The night he was arrested, for example, Campbell was wearing a Luke Skyywalker T-shirt. Lucasfilm wants Campbell cited for contempt of court.

Atlantic Records, a part of the giant Time Warner empire, recently signed a distribution deal with Campbell, pledging financial as well as moral support for the legally embattled rapper's independent company. His latest single, "Banned in the U.S.A.," is already No. 41 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart, and his new expletive-laced album, which was released Tuesday, is expected to rival "Nasty" in terms of sales.

Atlantic is also financing a documentary on 2 Live Crew by filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who directed the critically admired rock movie "The Decline . . . of Western Civilization." The film will be released next month on video.

A confirmed bachelor, Campbell says he likes to spend his free time watching sports and news-oriented TV programs. His favorite toy is his satellite dish, which, in conjunction with a trio of big screen TVs set up in his living room, allows him to monitor the progress of several football games at once.

When he's not touring with 2 Live Crew, Campbell says he tries to pay frequent visits to his 7-year-old daughter (not to be confused with the child in the Branch lawsuit) and his parents.

Campbell's mother says she's proud of her son and can't understand what all the hoopla is over his sexually explicit lyrics.

"Luther is a decent man--I'm his mother and I ought to know," Yvonne Campbell said in a phone interview. "As far as I'm concerned, 2 Live Crew is just a job. Those songs help pay the bills, that's all. It's not as if he's a drug dealer or a thief. It's a business and the way I feel about it is, if the record is not broken, why fix it?"

Not everyone agrees with Campbell's mother. Her son has been called a misogynist, a smut-peddler and, even, a sex fiend.

Says Florida State Rep. Joseph Arnall: "When you demean women to the extent that 2 Live Crew does, I think it's deplorable."

Campbell says most critics of 2 Live Crew's lyrics fail to appreciate the context of the humor.

"I sleep well at night," Campbell says. "When I look in the mirror, what I see is a successful young black entrepreneur.

"Only once in every 20 years does a small independent company surface that is capable of selling records in the volume that we're currently selling records. I must be doing something right."

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