2 Live Crew wins in court but loses on charts

March 10, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The hottest single at the Record Town music store in Mondawmin Mall is "Power of Love" by Celine Dion. I know this because Record Town posts a list of its top 20 singles for the convenience of customers.

Salt 'N Pepa, Bryan Adams and Ace of Base made the list. So did Culture Beat and Toni Braxton and Queen Latifah. But I stare at the posted chart -- and stare at it some more. I get real close and squint and stare again. But try as I might, I can't find anything there by the notorious rap group 2 Live Crew.

"Hey man," I say, beckoning to a young sales clerk named Kevin. "What's up with this? Is 2 Live Crew hot or not?"

Kevin chuckles. "I think their popularity has pretty much died down," he says, taking me over to the CD bin to show the group's latest release (a title I must censor here for publication): "Back At Your [body part deleted] for the Nine-4." The group is now called the New 2 Live Crew, by the way, because two of the original crew are gone. Billboard magazine ranked the new release No. 11 on the R&B charts last week, down from No. 9, in February.

"Is this a big seller?" I ask Kevin, hefting the CD experimentally -- as if by judging its weight I could judge its contents. There is a label on the cover warning parents that the work contains explicit lyrics. The label is unnecessary. Most of the titles on the CD are too explicit to print in this newspaper.

A big seller? "Not really," answers Kevin. "I mean, somebody will pick up the album every now and then, but basically 2 Live Crew has never been very big here. If anything, people used to buy them because of the hype."

Ah yes, the hype. We are in Mondawmin Mall, an urban shopping center that serves the predominantly black community of West Baltimore, and it was the group's notoriety -- the hype and hysteria that surrounds them -- that brought me here. 2 Live Crew may be the most infamous rap group in the country. Seems like every time I turn around they are being sued, or arrested, or accused in some congressional hearing of corrupting the young.

But every time they are attacked, 2 Live Crew manages to beat the rap (pun intended).

"2 Live Crew is undefeated in court," said one of the group's attorneys after their latest legal triumph. Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew in a copyright infringement case. 2 Live Crew had released a raunchy take-off of the Roy Orbison ballad "Pretty Woman," to the outrage of the company that owned the rights to the song. The justices ruled unanimously that parodists must be given broad latitude in their use of other people's work.

A few years ago, the courts threw out obscenity charges stemming from the Miami-based group's nightclub act, and courts have refused to uphold attempts to prohibit record shops from selling their albums. Each time, the actions by the self-appointed defenders of public morality caused a sharp increase in the sales of 2 Live Crew's albums.

Generally speaking, 2 Live Crew may be undefeated in the courts but they are losers on the charts.

"As far as 2 Live Crew's popularity goes, I think their notoriety has a lot to do with it. They haven't had a hit in the top 10 or top 20 for quite a while," says Roy Sampson, operations manager of WXYV-FM (102.7), Baltimore's top-rated urban contemporary station. Mr. Sampson says that most of the group's numbers contain too much profanity to be played on his station.

"Its a decision based on our audience, not on what the self-appointed censors want," he says. "We're looking for a primarily female audience, so we would tend to stay away from songs that are offensive to women."

There is a lesson here that the moralists and the censors might do well to consider. Right now, for instance, Congress is considering holding yet another hearing on the supposed evil influence of rap music. But you aren't going to defeat rappers in court. Trying to do so will only heighten their popularity.

On the other hand, rappers are vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. We ought to be asking kids: Do you really like what the rappers are saying? Is this how you feel about yourself? Then we should help kids find the right answers.

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