Fans who braved the Carolina rain to meet Luther “Luke” Campbell this past weekend in Charlotte—including a local DJ who brought seemingly every LP Campbell and his former rap group, 2Live Crew, ever pressed—came to hear about the music and madness of the Miami rap scene, and to collect signed copies of The Book of Luke, Campbell’s new memoir.
They left with a dose of Luke’s unique brand of cultural wisdom.
The 54-year-old rap pioneer, youth football philanthropist, and legendary party promoter has a decades-long reputation for pornographic lyrics and hypersexual showmanship. He invented the “parental advisory” sticker for music albums after battling Tipper Gore and a host of political adversaries in Washington who wanted to censor rap content because, in Luke’s telling, white kids in the suburbs, and not just black kids in the hood, were listening to it.
But he’s also a serious student of American politics, with plenty to say about his disappointment with the Democratic Party, the prospects for a President Kanye West, and the appeal of Donald Trump.
In his book, Campbell recounts the vicious racial history of his hometown of Miami: the deliberate displacement and blighting of black neighborhoods, the resistance to and consequences of integration, including shipping black football prospects like himself off to white high schools in Miami Beach—where blacks remained unwelcome in the 1970s when they weren’t wearing football uniforms—and his own court battles over obscenity and free speech.
When he’s not promoting parties or youth football, Campbell writes a regular column for the Miami New Times, opining on everything from county budgets and upcoming elections to frequent and fervent defenses of President Obama. He takes his politics so seriously that he ran for mayor of Miami-Dade County in 2011, finishing fourth in a crowded field. He jokes that he did well among the living, but couldn’t defeat the dead.
“I figured I wasn’t going to have enough money to buy those absentee ‘dead people’ ballots that they have in Miami,” he says with a laugh, referring to well-known rumors of voter fraud in the Magic City.
I ask Luke if he thinks a fellow rapper like Kanye West, who trolled the world by saying he might run for president in 2020, could actually win.
“Somebody like Kanye? Probably not,” Campbell says. “Somebody like Common, maybe. Or Eminem. One of those guys would have a better chance.” During the book talk we’d run through the names of other celebrities, highbrow and low, who’ve gotten elected: Gopher from The Love Boat (Congressman Fred Grandy), Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard (Rep. Ben Jones), Rep. Sonny Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, SNL comic-turned serious Sen. Al Franken—and or course President Ronald Reagan, whose acting career included co-starring with a chimpanzee.
Campbell says Kanye’s problem is that he’s all flash and no substance. “Kanye lives in the life of the social media world” where it’s all about making a splash, so “people probably wouldn’t take him as seriously,” he says. To make the transition from hip-hop to politics, “you would have to really be about politics. You can’t do it ‘just because.’”
So when Luke ran in 2011, was he doing it “just because”?
“Originally, I was running to win,” he says, “but then at the same time I knew it was going to be virtually impossible.”
“At the same time, what I can do and I think what I did real well, was to be able to go into all those debate halls with the other people that were running—we started off in little rooms like this but then they had to start going to auditoriums, because of the celebrity part of it—and it allowed me to go into places like Aventura, Bal Harbor, and Miami Beach, and actually tell the black story.”
So what does Campbell say about Trump, the celebrity roiling the 2016 presidential race? A lot, it turns out.
Trump is popular, Luke says, “because just like me, he’s not a regular politician. People just don’t want regular politicians.”
Campbell calls Trump’s rise in the GOP polls “a great thing, because I think a lot of politicians do need to loosen up.”
“People want to elect people that’s been through something,” he says. “I mean normally you wouldn’t find a guy who’s been through Chapter 11 three times” vying to be president. But someone who says ‘I’ve been bankrupt … I’ve been divorced.’ A lot people can relate to that.”
But what about Trump’s racially divisive comments? Campbell has what to many will be a disturbing answer: They won’t hurt the former Apprentice star because “whether they want to come out and say they do or not, when [Trump] talks about ‘I’m gonna put a big old wall up [on the border with] Mexico,’ he’s tapping into a lot of people who won’t say it on the surface, but [for the] man in the barbershop, it’s, ‘Man, I can’t get a job because the Mexicans got the jobs.’”
“It’s not politically correct, but massive amounts of people can relate to it, and not just whites, or people that run with the Klan; a lot of black people feel that way too, they just won’t say it,” Luke says.
Another Luke fan, Rashad Phillips, chimes in. “What Luke is saying is dead right,” says the 36-year-old New Jersey native, who has lived in Charlotte for 20 years. “People in the barbershop, you ask them, ‘What do you feel about the upcoming election?’ and they’re like ‘Yeah, I like what Trump is saying.’ Specifically, what I got yesterday, was, ‘I like a businessperson—he can fix the economy; he can get money back in my pocket. He can cut the taxes down.’ Those are the words that I heard.”
Luke and Philips see another potential opening for Trump: the Gen-X and Millennial hip-hop artists including Kanye, Diddy, Nas, Raekwon, Mac Miller (who raps “I’m on my Donald Trump” and even includes Trump himself in a video), Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Meek Mill (“Doing Donald Trump numbers”) and Kendrick Lamar (“I wanna be a Trump, Donald that is”). They’ve all dropped the real estate tycoon’s name in their lyrics as a metaphor for getting money, marrying a model, and being a mogul.
“Trump has always related in New York with hip-hop,” Campbell says. “People don’t remember that he was the guy that Russell Simmons and Puff Daddy and all those guys hung out with, way back, on a regular basis. All the New York hip-hop moguls, they patterned themselves around Trump,” from the braggadocio to the flaunting of ostentatious wealth, he says.
“Sooner or later he’s going to pull them out of the woodwork,” Campbell adds with a mischievous smile, assuming they’re willing to be associated with a candidate known for Mexican-bashing and birtherism. Phillips, the fan from New Jersey, insists neither of these topics ever come up with the brothers at the barbershop he frequents. “It’s like they’re picking their spots. The other stuff, they don’t bring it up.”
“When I first met Trump, I met him in his mansion in Palm Beach,” Campbell says. “It was me, Mike Tyson, and Eddie Murphy. We all went to a party at his mansion. So that’s who he hung out with. He’s a very versatile guy. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts pulling those friends of his out of the woodwork.”
But Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, doubts Trump would get much love from those artists today.
“Trump's appearance in rap lyrics was mostly confined to his name’s usefulness as symbology and shorthand for success … in the same way that [mafioso John] Gotti’s name might be used to denote ruthlessness. If you asked most of those MCs how they actually feel about Trump’s politics, I’m sure you’d get a repudiation of the man.”
Indeed, Russell Simmons has slammed Trump’s presidential bid, despite acknowledging their past friendship, calling him divisive and “less influential than Kim Kardashian.” But the most notable Trump dis from the hip-hop world has come from 19-year-old Atlanta rapper Raury, who appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert wearing a Mexican soccer jersey with Trump’s name X-ed out.
Luke and the younger generation of rappers are more likely to agree on the rest of the Republican field. He calls Ben Carson “that guy that black people just don’t like,” and writes off fellow Miamians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as “two train wrecks,” out of touch, and “lovers who now are fighting.”
If he is unimpressed with the GOP candidates—and with Republicans in general, whom he faults for threatening to take away people’s health care by killing Obamacare—Campbell seems positively bored with his own party.
He calls Hillary Clinton just another politician, even saying she declined to take a photo with his then-newly wedded wife at an event in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood during the 2008 primary. (Campbell says this happened after an aide whispered to Clinton that the former Kristen Thompson, an attorney, was married to raunchy “Uncle Luke.”) And he doesn’t even mention Bernie Sanders, who has at least one hip-hop endorsement, from rapper Killer Mike.
Campbell faults the Democrats for failing to field more statewide black candidates. In fact, he hopes one day a third party, which he dubs the Hip Hop Party, will emerge.
“It’s hard for me,” he says, “because when I look at the Democratic Party, and that’s supposed to be the party that supports African Americans and young people in general, and I don’t see them putting up black senators. I don’t see them putting up black governors. The people getting elected to [the House] are getting elected from their own neighborhoods. It isn’t like the Democratic Party is doing that for them.”
“And then I look at what Trump is saying,” Campbell says, “and he’s said a lot of good things.”
Campbell reaches for another book, affixing an elaborate cursive signature to an inside page. “OK, a lot of it is crazy, too,” he concedes, getting a laugh from the remaining crowd.
Joy-Ann Reid is a national correspondent for MSNBC and the author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide (William Morrow/Harper Collins)