Court decisions to the contrary, 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" is by no means as raunchy as rap gets. In the months since the Crew's album was declared obscene in Florida, sexually explicit rap has become something of a growth industry, with an expanding number of acts out to prove just how nasty they can be.
Although the vast majority of rappers rarely venture beyond the innocent innuendo of Candyman's "Knockin' Boots," a few make no bones about their crotch-level perspective.
Some, in fact, see the parental warning label as a banner of defiance. One compilation, assembled by the anti-censorship Right to Rock Network, proudly calls itself "Explicit Rap," while another describes its contents as "2 Nasty 4 Radio."
Others, like No Face or BWP (Bitches With Problems) claim comedy as an excuse, comparing their rhymes to the sex-centered humor of Redd Foxx or Rudy Ray Moore.
There are those, however, who have climbed onto the sex rap bandwagon simply to make money. How else to explain exploitation acts like H. W. A. (Hoes With Attitude) or Poison Clan, which bills itself as "the Baby 2 Live Crew"?
Even so, few in the music industry see sexually explicit lyrics as a meaningful marketing tool. "I don't believe that being a so-called audio pornographer is the best way and the easiest way to make money," said Bill Adler, a publicist who has worked with such rap stars as L. L. Cool J, Public Enemy and Run-D. M. C.
"It's very, very stressful. I don't think any of us would have wanted to go through what Luther Campbell [of 2 Live Crew] went through this past year. It's such a dreary, long-term struggle on this stuff."
Some stores simply won't stock potentially problematic products. That has obviously been the case with "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" since the obscenity ruling in Florida, but it doesn't necessarily take a court case to scare off retailers.
For instance, the 135-store WaxWorks retail chain refused to stock N. W. A.'s "100 Miles and Runnin' " because of an oral sex how-to called "Just Don't Bite It." Likewise, Geffen Records was so offended by the vivid descriptions of violent sex in a self-titled album by the Geto Boys that the label flat out refused to release it. And though the album has since found distribution elsewhere, a number of national chains have declined to carry it.
"It's sort of a double-edged thing," said Janine McAdams, R&B music editor at Billboard. "There's no way I can say that people aren't trying to gain attention with records that push the boundaries of what you can say, because of course that's what sells.
"But on the other hand, I think it is a free speech issue. A lot of the street-oriented rap records speak to a certain audience in their language, and I would be lying if I said a lot of people didn't use this kind of language to express themselves. Which makes this a difficult issue even for people who believe in freedom of speech, like myself. Because some of the records you hear, they just make you cringe."
Explicit rap records make some listeners do more than cringe, insists Jack Thompson, the Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer who filed the complaint that led to the first of several 2 Live Crew obscenity trials. After the album was ruled obscene, record store owner Charles Freeman was jailed for selling the album; however 2 Live Crew members were acquitted of obscenity charges stemming from a live performance.
In Thompson's view, sexually explicit rap records can actually inspire listeners to rape.
"I happen to believe the law enforcement and other first-hand testimony of people who indicate that there's a causal nexus between some sexually explicit material -- specifically, obscenity that humiliates or demeans or visits violence upon women -- and the acts toward women," he said.
Pressed for more specific information linking rap to rape, however, Thompson hedges: "Rap records? The general point is obscenity, and I don't think this rap music has been around long enough necessarily [for anyone] to have the clinical data to show that rap music itself, as a genre of obscenity, has caused any sexual abuse."
"Jack Thompson is not protecting me from anything," countered Phyllis Pollack, a rap publicist and anti-censorship activist. "What does he think, if women see a Madonna video or listen to Bitches With Problems, that soon women will be wilding in Central Park? It's absurd. He claims to be protecting women. Far from it. He's trying to take away from women's empowerment."
Female empowerment may seem an odd issue here, given the number of explicit rap acts that have been accused of misogyny or worse. But for Lyndah McCaskill of BWP, it's exactly the issue. Release of her group's album has been held back by Def Jam records because, she says, some of the lyrics were deemed "unladylike."