Interview: Uncle Luke
Jesse Serwer chats with Luther Campbell about the DNA of Miami Bass and the birth of Southern hip hop
Luther Campbell, you might say, is both the Kool Herc and Russell Simmons of Southern hip hop. With 2 Live Crew and Luke Records, “Uncle Luke “ gave Miami – and, by extension, the South – its first rap group and label, defining the sonic and visual aesthetic of an entire region, then marketing and selling it with then unheard-of guerilla tactics like outfitting the Miami Hurricanes football team with Luke Records gear.
In a new autobiography, The Book of Luke: My Fight For Truth, Justice and Liberty City, Campbell details how Miami Bass – the bottom-heavy, up-tempo sound popularized by 2 Live Crew and other Luke Records acts like Anquette and MC Shy D – grew out of the teen parties thrown by his Ghetto Style DJs crew in the early ’80s. As a promoter, club owner, label head, pirate radio station proprietor, clothing manufacturer and the foul-mouthed hypeman for rap’s most X-rated group, Luke pretty much did it all, single-handedly building hip hop’s first artist-owned music empire. But, Campbell says, “everything I know about the music business started from me being a DJ.”
Here, he tells Jesse Serwer how Jamaican sound system culture and the 808 drum machine fused together to birth Miami Bass, how he saved Saturday Night Live and why he thinks 2 Live Crew were Golden Era hip hop’s most revolutionary act.
In Miami, our whole thing was to talk over the records. To get the party started. The best DJ was the one who had the most shit to talk about.
Why was it important to put the name of your neighborhood, Liberty City, in the title of your book? It’s not a place very many people from outside of Miami know about.
Basically, it’s what made me as a man. Understanding the struggle of the average person in Liberty City – and how we built Miami – it just brings my story full circle. If it was Kool Herc, I’d assume he would have to bring his borough into the story. Being that I am the person that started Southern hip hop, and it started from Liberty City, it just made sense that I identified that on the cover of the book.
It’s interesting that you mention Kool Herc. He essentially adapted a style of deejaying from the Caribbean, where you’re talking over the record, for his audience in the Bronx. You did something similar with Bass. Even though it was Miami’s answer to the hip hop coming out of New York, as you mention in the book, the musical template came from Caribbean rhythms.
In Miami, our whole thing was to talk over the records. To get the party started. The best DJ was the one who had the most shit to talk about. That’s what made me, along with the beats and the tempo. Unlike everybody else in hip hop, our tempo stayed the same as the Caribbean tempo. We kept it at 100-and-something beats per minute, and the bass came from the reggae songs that I was familiar with. My dad is Jamaican, and my mother is from the Bahamas. All of the congas and the tom toms, it was important to have that in there. That identified our music, and separated it from anybody else.
How important were those early days as a DJ?
Everything I know about the music business started from being a DJ. DJing helped me become a great A&R and a great producer. I could see what works. Down here, it was about how many bass speakers you had. And then, you have to generate a lot of bass. That made you a popular DJ in your set. So I’d play songs like [Lovindeer’s] “Don’t Bend Down,” a lot of Shabba Ranks, Junior Demus, Nicodemus, and then we’d play some Haitian music, some calypso. But along with that, we would play things like [“Pump That Bass” by] Original Concept, Jazzy Jay, Mantronix. Those songs were real popular, because they had the same tempo. And if the tempo wasn’t fast enough, we would speed it up.
In the book, you boil the premise of breaking records as a DJ down to a practical business proposition: If you could make a song by an unknown group a hit, you could get people to do shows for you for free. That’s essentially how you found 2 Live Crew. Can you explain the philosophy?
I learned from this guy Frankie Hollywood, who used to DJ at this club, Big Daddy’s Lounge, on 79th Street in Miami. I noticed he stood behind a record. He would say: “This record is a hit, this gonna be big.” Once you’re able to break records, that separates you from being a regular DJ. Understanding that in one weekend, I was playing before an audience of 5 or 10,000 people – not every night, but it was 2,000 on Thursday all the way ‘til Sunday – I would go to those artists, who were mostly independent, and say: “Listen, I’ll bring you down here, but I’m gonna make your record a hit, then I’ll bring you down here, you’ll do a promotional show for me, and then I’ll bring you back again and then you come and do a paid gig.”
When I started doing records, I already had relationships with people like Red Alert and Mr. Magic and Chep Nuñez, because they were affiliated with all those artists I was booking down here. That’s what separated me from other artists in the South: Even though New York artists didn’t like our music, the people in the industry, they loved me.
Who were some of the out-of-town acts that you brought down and broke in Miami?
Well, of course there was 2 Live Crew [2 Live Crew originally formed at the March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, and relocated to Miami after teaming up with Luke to record the 1986 single “Throw The D.”] Schoolly D, Divine Sounds, Original Concept, Mantronix, Jazzy J, Roxanne Shante. Back then, hip hop wasn’t playing on the radio. If we weren’t playing it, it wasn’t gonna get played [in Miami]. We’d make it a hit, then the other DJ crews would start playing the song, and when it became hot enough, we’d bring them down and do shows. I was booking Run-DMC when they were getting $500 a show. I remember the day when they said they were gonna get more money. We were at Howard Johnson’s. They said, “Luke, that’s the last time you’re gonna book us for $500, because we’re gonna go on tour.” And, from that day on, everything started making big money.
How did Bass take hold as the sound of Miami?
Back then, you had different sounds. You had Pretty Tony and Trinere, and it was mostly dance-type music, [or] disco. There was more singing going on in the songs. We did songs that were strictly designed to be played at [Luke’s Liberty City club] Pac Jam, and be played by DJs. Those songs were Miami Bass. There wasn’t no singing. [Sings Debbie Deb’s Miami freestyle classic, “When I Hear Music.”] It was all boom-chat-boom-chat-boom-chat.
I couldn’t go to a studio where Pretty Tony would work at, and try to get that sound. I had to go somewhere where the speakers and everything were designed around having that bass.
What was it about that sound that the kids gravitated to? Cause it started with kids, right, in the teen clubs?
It was already what they were listening to. Everything that the DJs would play was all bass. We didn’t have no hi-hats, hardly any lyrics. If you’re a guy like myself and you’re a DJ, and you want to stay true to what you do, if I’m gonna make songs, they’re gonna go “boom boom boom” with heavy bass in it. And that’s what we did. [2 Live Crew’s DJ and producer] Mr. Mixx – there is the creator of Bass. He did that. He had this drum machine, an 808, and we started recording at a little studio called Circle House Studios. Which is a big studio right now. We were recording there because of the group Inner Circle, who did “Bad Boys.” It was a Jamaican studio wired for that kind of bass. And that’s what I wanted in the music. I couldn’t go to a studio where Pretty Tony would work at, and try to get that sound. I had to go somewhere where the speakers and everything were designed around having that bass.
Can you talk a little about the dance culture that was happening in Miami?
[The Ghetto Style DJs] would do the call and response and the chants, but at the same time, we were making up dances. Every week, it would be something different. The first dance we made up was the first rap record [in Miami], called “Ghetto Jump.” I used to put this Wild West theme song on, and then I’d say, “Everybody Ghetto Jump!” I’d make 2,000 people in the skating rink jump up at the same time, and they would do crazy stuff in the air. So these guys [Krush 2] came and said, “We want to do a record.” I said, “Ok, you gotta do a free show for me once we do the record.” They did the record, but they refused to do a free show. I got pissed off and said, “I did one record, I’ll do another.” 2 Live Crew, they were down here at the right time, and they said, “Ok, we’ll do it.” That’s when we created “Throw the D.” Which was another dance we were doing, where the girls would “Throw the P.” One thing led to another, and that song became the first song that we put out.
If I lost my parody case [Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music], you would have no more Saturday Night Live. That’s how important that case was.
You’ve had a varied career, but it’s the videos with the strippers and the court cases that have defined you in most people’s minds. Reading the book, it seems like you had a lot of things to clear up.
The book, I guess you’d say, is a vindication. It’s telling the real story about how hip hop started in the South. Everybody just runs past the precedent that we set, and the shit that I had to go through. I don’t want to talk about all the wild sex parties on the road with 2 Live Crew. My life ain’t about that. I don’t get the same respect that the Russell Simmons and the Lyor Cohens and the Jimmy Iovines get. But when you look at my track record, from where I started at and where they started at, my record is much better. I did it out of the trunk of my car. I stood up for free speech. If I lost my parody case, you would have no more Saturday Night Live. That’s how important that case was. Right now, today, that is the most used case when it comes to intellectual property on the Internet. Nobody talks about that.
It wasn’t [Loud Records founder] Steve Rifkin who was the first to do street-team marketing. I had to do that, because I had no [major] record company behind me. I looked at the whole concept of a presidential campaign with big signs on the ground, and I said, “Let me take that and put signs in your door.” Or let me go into the club with the label jacket on and give out records. That’s where guerilla marketing came from. We had to do that. Who created these wrap vans? There wasn’t no such thing as wrap vans. We painted the vans, because that’s what we used as a promotional tool.
Who was the first one that did hip hop in the South? If you let BET and them tell it, they’ll tell you [J Prince] with the Geto Boys. Or Master P with “Ice Cream Man.” Name me a rap artist from Atlanta in 1986. You can’t find one. They was a satellite of us. I signed the first rap artist in Atlanta, MC Shy D, he used to open up for us when we played a place called Shyran’s Showcase. Who did explicit lyrics first? No, it wasn’t the boy from Oakland, Too Short. It was 2 Live Crew. You had Schooly D saying some things, but we went out there with some hardcore stuff. We set all these precedents. Who went to fight for it? Ain’t nobody fought for hip hop like I did. And spent the amount of money that I spent for guys to be able to do what they’re doing right now today.
Public Enemy were controversial, but I don’t remember Public Enemy getting locked up.
One interesting comparison you make in the book is with 2 Live Crew and Public Enemy. You were probably the two most controversial groups of your era. Public Enemy were the militant revolutionaries, and 2 Live Crew were the bad boys. But you suggest that what you did was more revolutionary.
Yeah. When you get banned and you’re not part of a conglomerate and a machine like CBS, when you’re independent and all on your own, and you have police dogs and helicopters flying over the venue, you’re going to jail. I went to jail. Several times. When they said, “Don’t sing this song,” and I was going up there and singing the shit and saying “Fuck y’all and fuck everybody,” they locked us up. That’s revolutionary right there. Public Enemy were controversial, but I don’t remember Public Enemy getting locked up. They had big lawyers behind them. Chuck and all of them, they’re my dudes and all that, but they did not go through that. They didn’t get their records thrown off the shelf. When you got record store owners put in jail for selling your music, and a federal judge that says your music can not be sold to nobody in the United States of America, that’s a whole different movie. They were fitting to ban this music.