Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Problem With Luke

Why I Can't Support Including Luther Campbell As A VH1 Hip Hop Honoree

I don't want to offend my fellow hip hop fans down South again, like I've done so many times before, but I'm having a lot of trouble getting behind the honorees for this year's Dirty South edition of VH1's Hip Hop Honors.

For sure, my East Coast bias is well-established. I like my hip hop with a distinctly New York aesthetic; slow, sample driven, gritty, lyrically dominant. But for the most part, I'd like to think that I have an open mind. I love Outkast as much as the next man, and have been loquacious in singing the praises of Scarface. Further, while I've never been a fan of say, Too Short, I can respect that his Freaky Tales were potent, and applauded his induction into the unofficial Hall of Fame at 2008's Hip Hop Honors ceremony.

So as I perused the list of honorees for 2010, I tried to stay positive when thinking about the contributions of the chosen artists. There's nothing not to like about Organized Noise, and J Prince is certainly a a hip hop mogul to be proud of. I could push back a little on Jermaine Dupri, but dude gets a pass just for dating Janet Jackson alone. And Timbaland, come on, a strong case can be made that he is the greatest producer of all time. The fact that VH1 only added him after-the-fact, undermines the show's credibility. In fact, I think they disrespect Timbaland by labeling him as a Dirty South honoree. His impeccable body of work requires no geographic qualifiers.

My real beef however is with the inclusion of Luke Campbell of 2 Live Crew fame. There's no doubt that his impact on the culture was substantial. I included "Me So Horny" as one of the "Most Influential Songs In Hip Hop History" on a Lamont's List post back in 2006. But the inclusion was given for it's relevance in maintaining free speech, not because of its artistic merits. "Me So Horny" (made bearable only because it was rapped over a barely altered sample of Mass Production's 70's classic "Firecracker") was by far the best song the group ever made. The rest of 2 Live Crew's catalog features a dismal collection of tuneless productions, crude samples and rhythmless off-key rapping.

To be honest, I don't really have a problem with the remarkable filthiness of 2 Live Crew's songs. I generally don't take issue with the sometimes unhealthy themes contained in rap music. It's not like I haven't sang along with all sorts of pathological, misogynistic, but nonetheless catchy, songs over the years. My belief is that artists ought to be able to express themselves, even when we don't like the thoughts and sentiments that they are exposing. And as long as the production is lively and the rhymes are fluent, who am I to pass judgement? Great art is supposed to sometimes make us uncomfortable. Rappers have no obligation to teach us life lessons or to keep their language pristine. In the words of Charles Barkley, like athletes, rappers "are not role models".

No, the reason I always cringed when I heard a 2 Live Crew song on the radio or saw them on TV was not because of their vulgar, x-rated lyrics, but because the music was so bad that it barely rose to the level of "art". I was certain that they were setting hip hop back a peg or two with each new release, reinforcing stereotypes, objectifying women and generally making us all look like clowns.

So more than 20 years removed from the controversy surrounding "As Nasty As They Wanna Be", it's easy, maybe even fair, to look back at Luke as some sort of boundary-pushing anti-hero who also happened to be a PR genius. But I can't overlook just how awful his music was. Since I am first a foremost a fan of hip hop as an art form, I have to ask the question: is he really somebody we want to be honoring?

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