The Man Who’s Taking the Rap : Pop: Charles Freeman left a Brooklyn ghetto to get away from ‘a life of crime.’ Now he faces a year in jail in Florida for selling a 2 Live Crew album.
Thanks in large part to the national obscenity controversy surrounding the Miami rap group 2 Live Crew, the group’s “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” album has sold more than 2 million copies--earning the Crew’s leader, Luther Campbell, approximately $6 million.
And making him a national celebrity.
Nearly 1,000 of the “Nasty” albums were sold at E.C. Records, a tiny store in nearby Ft. Lauderdale--earning its owner, Charles Freeman, about $3,000. And putting him in line to become, possibly, the first person in the United States to go to jail for selling obscene music.
While Campbell is touring the country with 2 Live Crew and promoting his recent solo album, which has sold more than 500,000 copies, Freeman is back home facing up to a year behind bars.
“I’m just an average guy, trying to make a living,” he said by phone from his store. “I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs.”
For weeks now, Freeman has been worrying about a Friday court date during which he was to be sentenced by a Broward County judge--not knowing when he kissed his wife and four children goodby whether he would be returning home.
But Wednesday, Judge Paul L. Blackman approved a motion granting the retailer a Nov. 16 hearing to allow his attorney to argue for a new trial and a judgment for acquittal. The decision meant Freeman’s sentencing would be postponed until after the hearing.
The action may have only postponed his agony.
“This bust has totally disrupted my life,” Freeman said after hearing Wednesday of the postponement. “I couldn’t sleep last night. My business has been crippled. My wife and kids are upset and my ulcers are about to kill me. I vomit after every time I eat.”
The irony, Freeman said, is that he left “a life of crime . . . running with gangs” in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Florida to pursue a legitimate career after his mother warned that he was going to end up in jail.
“I never imagined I’d be about to go to jail for selling a record,” he said. “I’m just trying to earn an honest living down here. No judge should be allowed to dictate what kind of music an adult can listen to.”
Freeman, 32, was arrested June 8 for selling a copy of 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” to an adult undercover police officer two days after a U.S. district judge in Ft. Lauderdale ruled that the record violated a Florida obscenity statute.
He was convicted of selling obscene material on Oct. 3 by an all-white jury and faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Freeman said he has been selling albums by 2 Live Crew and other “even more sexually explicit” rappers, along with a small stock of gospel, comedy and R&B; records, since he opened his mom-and-pop shop in 1987.
Nobody in the black, middle-class neighborhood where he rents the 800-square-foot storefront ever complained, he said, until anti-obscenity crusader Jack Thompson initiated a campaign against the “Nasty” album in January.
“2 Live Crew’s ‘Nasty’ album was dead and buried before Jack Thompson came along,” Freeman said. “He gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and brought it back to life. Thompson was unemployed before he got into this obscenity thing. Now he’s out there trying to earn money on the lecture circuit debating about 2 Live Crew.”
Thompson, in the middle of 30-stop college campus tour, was unavailable for comment. But Det. Eugene McCloud of the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, the officer who arrested Freeman, said the record-store owner has no one to blame but himself.
“It’s like some guy stealing crack cocaine in the streets saying, ‘Hey, I dare you to do something about it,’ ” McCloud said. “Well, eventually a guy like that tends to draw attention to himself. The only reason Mr. Freeman was arrested was because he openly defied the law.”
Still, people in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Freeman grew up do not view him as a criminal. One of six children reared in a welfare-recipient family, Freeman quit the gang he ran with in 1977 to move to Ft. Lauderdale. He worked as a maintenance man, a porter and a street deejay before opening his store.
His aunt, Mary Alice Freeman, said Freeman’s relatives and childhood friends support him “110%” in his free-speech battle.
“He’s like a hero to everyone back home,” his aunt said from the apartment building where Freeman was raised. “We’re all glued to our TV sets waiting to see if they put him in jail.”
Freeman’s First Amendment stance has drawn him into the national anti-censorship debate. He has appeared on “Donahue,” “Crossfire,” “Geraldo” and “Good Morning America.” His attorney, Bruce Rogow, suggested that Freeman’s act of civil disobedience is historic.
“He is a modern First Amendment martyr,” Rogow said. “If only there were 1,000 Charles Freemans. The fact is, if all the retailers in America had the courage to stand up to the censors like Charles did, none of this would be happening at all.”
Some of the most powerful forces in the music industry have pledged to support Freeman in his legal battle. On Friday, Freeman is scheduled to meet in Washington with Recording Industry Assn. of America Executive Vice President Hilary Rosen. Freeman said he is grateful that the record industry has finally signed on to support him in his struggle.
“The crusaders are after mom-and-pop shops like mine right now, but you big retail chains and record companies better watch your backs,” Freeman said. “If I go to jail, you better believe they’ll be coming after you next.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.