For over two decades, Luther Campbell has been having a conversation with America. Unfortunately, most of it can’t be repeated here. As the leader of the sexually explicit, obscenity-spewing rap group 2 Live Crew in the early nineties, he was targeted by everyone from Florida prosecutors to Tipper Gore for his lyrical content. Campbell, an accidental First Amendment hero (he’s fond of quoting his constitutional lawyer, and Bruce Spring-steen lent him “Born in the U.S.A.” so he could remake it as “Banned in the U.S.A.”), prevailed in his anti-obscenity case in the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Likewise, he prevailed in a copyright case in the Supreme Court, where 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Two timin’ woman that takes a load off my mind / Two timin’ woman now I know that baby ain’t mine) was ruled fair use. The High Court did not weigh in on the deleterious effects of self-parody.
As one of the first acts to earn a parental advisory sticker with 2 Live Crew’s double platinum-selling “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” album, and as the architect of the still-enduring Miami bass sound (or “booty music” as it’s called in the trade, with all the bumping, pumping, heaving-glutei-as-jiggling-Jell-O-mold videos it inspires), Campbell has done his part to make the F-word, the B-word, the P-word, and pretty much any other word you can imagine commonplace in our national discourse, such as it is.
Since his success with 2 Live Crew (now disbanded), Uncle Luke, as he is known, has been busy: making and losing millions, filing for bankruptcy in 1995, discovering new bestselling acts like H-Town and Pitbull, starring in a VH1 reality show (Luke’s Parental Advisory), and peddling his “urban adult entertainment” Freak Show videos on the Internet, in which Campbell, aspiring to be the “black Hugh Hefner,” narrates hair-raising groupie exploits.
But Campbell is now 50 years old. In hip-hop years, that makes him something akin to Methuselah. He has a new wife (his first) and a new baby (nowhere near his first). A half a century on, the hip-hop artist once responsible for our unofficial national anthem (“Me So Horny”) is looking to better himself, and in turn, to better the city in which he lives. As he told his hometown paper in a flare-up of civic consciousness, “I’m not degrading women any more, I’m leaving that up to the other guys.”
Sure, you can still buy the Freak Show DVDs on his website, along with his CDs and music downloads—a man has to eat and pay child support. But having recently disassociated from Uncle Luke’s VIP Gentleman’s Club—a strip club he licensed his name to in West Palm Beach—Campbell is going legit. That is, if you consider entering politics more noble work than twirling naked around a pole for strangers. For Uncle Luke has a plan: to become the next mayor of Miami-Dade County, the eighth-most populous county in the United States.
He is not alone. As of this writing, 10 other candidates have the same plan for a May 24 special election after two-term mayor Carlos Alvarez was driven from office in a March recall election by a whopping 88-12 percent margin—the most lopsided recall of a local politician in U.S. history. Alvarez blames his ouster on everything from a bad roll of the recession dice (unemployment in the area is now 12 percent) to the efforts of the hard-charging billionaire agitator Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, a renowned art collector, and a car dealership magnate.
After Alvarez addressed budget shortfalls by hiking property taxes on 40 percent of local homeowners, Braman, who has ranked as high as 281 on the Forbes 400, went to the mattresses, spending $1 million to engineer Alvarez’s demise. In the process, he has become the unofficial spokesperson for irate Miami-Dade residents, which these days seems to encompass pretty much everyone.
Braman has laid out a long list of grievances. For starters: Miami-Dade Transit got half its budget stripped by the feds for shoddy accounting; the city built an extravagant baseball park for the Florida Marlins, which will cost the average family of four $4,000 apiece when many can’t even afford tickets to a game; Alvarez hiked real estate taxes by $178 million, then gave $132 million in pay increases to county staffers, many of whom were already making six figures. And then there was the aneurysm-inducing matter of Alvarez tooling around in a taxpayer-funded BMW 500i Gran Turismo when he already had access to two chauffeured SUVs.
As the Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm recently detailed, South Florida is no stranger to exotic political scandals, from mayoral arrests, to a whore-mongering county commissioner absconding to Australia, to truly curious instances of public-servant plundering—such as the 4,200 trees that went missing from a county right of way. Even one of the purported frontrunners in the special election, Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina, has snagged headlines after being investigated in a loansharking/Ponzi scheme.
By contrast, Alvarez, who was pilloried for bad judgment, not corruption, was a choirboy. Still, voter sentiment against entrenched political arrogance has turned surly enough that an outsider like Uncle Luke, the man responsible for such timeless classics as “I Ain’t Bullshittin’, Pt. 4,” might be considered a viable alternative.
Or at least he’s not being openly laughed at. As one Herald columnist wrote upon Campbell’s announced candidacy: “In a country that has largely merged corporate celebrity and politics, Luke is as credible a -candidate as any.”
I first drop in on Campbell’s world by making a left out of my hotel in South Beach, where if you’re not a gay underwear model with 5 percent body fat it’s easy to feel like a giant pair of rumpled khakis, then taking a right to the wrong side of the tracks. Miami has lots of those sides. I’m meeting Campbell at a youth summit at a church in West Perrine, the kind of church where Jesus and John the Baptist are depicted as black men on the stained-glass windows, in the kind of neighborhood where the gas-station cashier scans the barcode of your soda through a bulletproof window. But I have difficulty locating the candidate when I arrive. Church ladies fussing over buffet trays are stumped when I ask if they’ve seen him.
In the men’s room, I ask a few 15-year-olds if they’ve seen Campbell, thinking surely they’d be aware of a star on their premises. “I don’t know no Luther Campbell,” says a kid who goes by Baby Razz, also a rapper. “Only Luther I know is Luther Vandross, and he deeeeaaad.” The march of time is cruel, even, and perhaps especially, for hip-hop legends.
I find Campbell already seated in the sanctuary, and we whisper introductions. He looks rather anonymous in dark jeans, topsider boots, and a short-sleeved flannel shirt. When he stands, he’s an imposing 6′3″, but for now he’s slumped inconspicuously in a back pew, taking in the youth summit, which is nearly devoid of youth but choked full of the concerned citizens, local do-goodniks, and community activists who all favor the P-word. Not the P-word in Uncle Luke’s songs but, rather, “programs.” They’re not happy with the ones that exist, and they want a lot of new ones.
They want more financial education. They want summer jobs. They want year-round jobs. They want, they want, they want. Then they want to hog the open-mike and talk about how the system is broken. (No fooling—at the rate everyone wants something, Alvarez would’ve had to hike property taxes on the other 60 percent of the electorate.)
This is what Luke calls part of his “listening tour,” shuttling around the community and listening to the concerns of the people, which he often does anyway as a de facto ambassador for those he calls “the have-nots” and as a weekly columnist for the Miami New Times. In columns, Campbell often takes up local causes when not playing a wildly unpredictable national troublemaker. He classifies himself as being part of the “Hip Hop Party,” which seems to entail saying whatever the hell he wants with no particular political allegiance. So the former First Amendment champion might, for instance, please liberals by suggesting the government shut down the Tea Party, whom he considers a hate group. Then he’ll throw a bone to libertarians, decrying the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, as “T’n’A” for their invasive frisking, while suggesting rappers be allowed to carry arms in the workplace, since they work in some pretty dangerous places. Then he might side with conservatives against the Ground Zero mosque as an insult to our dead soldiers. (“Muslims don’t need to explain their religion to Americans. We can go online to find out about Islam.”)
Part of the problem with being on a listening tour is that other people want to do all the talking, even when they have nothing to say. One gentleman suggests kids need yoga before stressful tests. Another offers, “I come from a father that beat you for everything. There was no ADHD in my family.” Campbell laughs, leans over, and whispers, “The kids just came in—scared the hell out of ’em.” Another man feels he has the cure for what’s ailing our shiftless youth: “Bring back the draft!”
Campbell, recognized by local functionaries, is himself drafted into taking the microphone. After graciously thanking all the speakers who preceded him, he sets adrift down a bizarre tributary, talking about how important it is to expunge the records of student athletes who are not convicted of crimes, but who have their mug shots shown on television, thus jeopardizing their scholarships. As an electoral fire-starter, it doesn’t exactly have the ignition potential of a property-tax revolt. But it seems to really be bugging him.
In the parking lot afterwards, I watch him get accosted by a groupie. At least I thought she was a groupie. She turns out to be a volcanic activist in a zebra-print micro-skirt, erupting about police goon squads and disparities in public housing funding and how “we need our money and resources to educate our black, African-American children RIGHT NOW!” Every elected official in spittle-range seems to roll under his car to find shelter.
But Uncle Luke just smiles in avuncular fashion, absorbing her rage, until she punches herself out, feels better, and departs. When I ask him why the bee in his bonnet about mug shots and scholarships, he cites a few recent cases and talks about how easy it is for kids who live in the roughneck neighborhoods he comes from to have inevitable encounters with trouble, even if they’re good kids.
He grew up in Liberty City but came from a solid two-parent family, his dad a custodian, his mom a beautician. They were poor, but he worked hard. Even before he started DJ’ing in local parks, building from one speaker to two, then many, until he eventually founded a hip-hop empire—creating many jobs, he reminds you with his politician’s hat firmly affixed—Luther swept floors, was a cook in a hospital, washed windows until his shoulders ached, did whatever he had to do to find a little extra. At one point as a kid, he even rented a Pac Man machine, put it in his mom’s utility room for the neighborhood children, and split the profits with the owner.
But trouble still found him, and he it. While he made it out of Liberty City, he didn’t leave unmarked. So while he’s never done time, his jurisprudence hit list in Miami-Dade alone shows nine entries going back to 1979, everything from loitering to inciting a riot to improperly exhibiting a weapon. All were misdemeanors or dismissed. But now that he’s a mentor to kids, both as the cofounder of a Liberty City Optimist Club football program (he started it with 75 grand of his own money as a young rapper, and it’s been going strong for over 20 years) and a defensive coordinator for the Miami Northwestern High football team, his past still comes back to bite him.
At this very moment, he’s in a battle to get recertified through the state because of his record. If he’s unsuccessful, he might not be allowed to continue coaching. His goal as a coach is to get kids through school and find an escape hatch from places like Liberty City. At Miami Central, where he coached linebackers last year, he says they placed 18 kids in college (“We won before we kicked the ball off”). So he’s not just talking about the kids he coaches getting the slate wiped clean. In a way, he’s talking about someone much closer to home. “I was that kid,” he says.
The next afternoon, I arrive to hang out with Campbell at his house. But as is his custom, he’s on Uncle Luke time—which seems to run an hour and a half slower than conventional clocks. Campbell now lives a world away from Liberty City, in a golf course community at the Country Club of Miami in Hialeah, a place where Jackie Gleason used to host Bing Crosby on the links, and where Jack Nicklaus played in his first professional tournament. (Campbell is an eight-handicap when playing regularly.)
His six-bedroom house is the only gated one in the development—the better to keep out interlopers trying to drop off demo CDs. Sitting curbside, I call him to complain that I’ve been waiting in the car for a spell, and he apologizes, cursing about crossed wires. Forgetting that I’d need to jump the fence, he hospitably asks, “Did you at least get in the pool?” His strikingly elegant lawyer wife Kristin, 20 years his junior, is just back from a social networking conference. She drives up and lets me in.
They’ve been married since 2008. But the house, which Luke has lived in since the ’90s and which they are trying to sell, still has the Cribs bachelor-pad touches—from the gold records to the framed football jerseys. The only décor in the cavernous double-spiral-staircased atrium is his Big Bertha golf clubs, propped against a door. His china cabinet contains the funeral program for his mother (whom he adored and called “my old gal”) as well as a Miami Dolphins helmet and Miami Hurricanes memorabilia. Campbell is such a Hurricanes fanatic that he was famously accused of paying bounties to players for everything from touchdowns to interceptions. He denied it for years, then admitted it, then denied it to me again, seemingly forgetting that he’d already admitted it.
There is also the evident domestic bliss, totally incongruent with the image cultivated over decades that inspired Campbell to record road-warrior tales in his audio “book,” My Life & Freaky Times, about the groupie scene. Nowadays, his house is filled with a barking cocker spaniel named Russie, Dora the Explorer videos, and parenting magazines. Kristin, who has served as Luke Entertainment’s lawyer, says they’re phasing out the old business and relaunching the music and a possible sports-bar franchise. But the Freak Show video days are over, she says hopefully. She takes to the kitchen, starting that night’s chili. “I just rediscovered the crockpot,” she chirps.
When Luke finally arrives, he plunks down for a chat at his granite kitchen bar, while the pandemonium starts swirling around him. His phone rarely stops ringing. A crew for Rolling Out, a national urban/hip-hop/lifestyle magazine, drops in to set up for a family photo shoot. A group of supplicants comes to see him about their plans to raise money to put a water park in Liberty City. When I ask why, since there’s still the formality of him getting elected mayor from a crowded field with many established local politicians, he laughs about his role, which often sees him troubleshooting for community types from Liberty City to Overtown: “I’m already the unofficial mayor. You didn’t know that?”
Amidst the chaos, we knock out the boring policy stuff. Campbell’s platform ranges from reducing the property tax to encouraging economic growth to providing affordable housing and more secure communities. But with Miami facing a budget crisis, his signature issue—the one that’s captured national headlines—is his proposed stripper tax, which is not a stunt. He means it.
As a man who has spent a fair amount of time in the presence of strippers (“I can’t go to strip clubs anymore—it don’t look cool for the mayor to be in a strip club”), it occurred to Luke that here was a major tax loophole. All those bills raining down on girls, none of it being reported as income. “A large amount of revenue is missing,” says Luke. He estimates that Atlanta, which licenses exotic dancers, has a good 15,000 of them, and Miami should outpace them, stripper-wise. Just look around. If Luke’s stripper estimate is right, there are more dancers working in recession-era Miami than construction workers.
I ask him if he’s worried about losing the stripper vote. Not at all, he says. He wants to use the revenue to help fund youth programs like the ones we heard people complaining about being defunded the night before—for constructive things, like girls’ softball leagues. “I’ve talked to many strippers,” Campbell says, “and they say, look, as long as the money is going to kids, they don’t have no problem with it. You have a lot of exotic dancers that put their kids in these programs, like youth football programs, because that’s where the father figure is at.” Plus, he adds, “If you tax the girls, now they have to do their own books. They’re legal. They’re taking control of their own finances and being much more responsible.”
The only voting bloc he sees a problem with “is the strippers who have pimps, because that would be tapping their money.” Also known as hookers, I helpfully suggest. “I wouldn’t say hookers,” he cautions. Then what shall we call them? “I would say dancers with a pimp,” he asserts. “Hookers are girls on the street.” I stand corrected, offering that as part of the shadow economy, pimps probably don’t vote. Luke shakes his head in disagreement. “I’m pretty sure pimps vote,” he says. “A pimp is a responsible individual. [If not], a girl won’t trust him with her finances.”
Just then, one of Luke’s affable messaging guru/fund-raisers, James Amps, who is sitting in the kitchen listening, clears his throat and asks to see Luke outside. As 10 minutes pass, I watch the chili cook. When they come back, and Luke has to dress out for a photo shoot, I ask Amps if that confab was about Luke’s stripper tax answer. In keeping with Campbell’s promise to have utmost transparency in his administration—he has vowed to practically make it a “reality show”—Amps admits indeed it was.
Amps was just being careful. He wants to make sure that taxes collected from strippers can be earmarked for such programs, and if not, how they can find alternative funding, which is what’s really important to Luke. Plus, when reporters hear the words “stripper tax”—not an everyday occurrence on any campaign trail—they tend to hear nothing else. “The platform is bigger than that,” says Amps.
Luke cleans up nicely in a four-button black suit with a pocket square fanning out like peacock plumage. He’s not big on taking directions from photographers, or anyone. When they tell him to tuck in his shirt tightly, he blouses it out, saying that’s the way he does it. He holds his untied tie in hand, grousing that that’s the hardest part of campaigning, “learning how to tie a tie.”
I ask if he knows how. “No,” he says, “my dad always tried to teach me.” He manages though, making a wan looking knot, then trying again. I suggest going with the P. Diddy-style full Windsor, befitting a hip-hop mogul. A fat knot connotes distinction. “If you go with the four-in-hand, you get the small knot,” I instruct him. He waves me off. “I’ll take the forearm,” he says, mishearing me.
Campbell speaks a lot about kids, whom he clearly loves. Not just about the ones he coaches, but about his and Kristin’s adorable 18-month-old Blake. He baby-talks to Blake, asking—in good football coach fashion—if he wants his “mouthpiece” (“girls have pacifiers, boys have mouthpieces”). So I ask Campbell how many kids he has. “Five,” he says. Having just read up on Campbell’s past, I had an unofficial count of six, by four different mothers. “What are you countin’, you addin’ some kids on me?” Luke snaps.
“Hold on,” he says, settling down. He starts ticking them off. There’s Shanitrus, Lutheria, Lucretia, Luther Jr., Brooklyn (he broke the news about Brooklyn to his other kids on-camera during the reality show—they didn’t seem terribly surprised), and Blake. “You were right,” he concedes. “Blake makes six. . . . But he’s like my homeboy, so he doesn’t seem like it.”
While Blake is the only child living in Campbell’s house, his cavalier forgetfulness opens up a can of worms. Two of his then-teenaged children—Lucretia and Luther—were costars on his 2008 VH1 reality show, Luke’s Parental Advisory, which largely recast Luke as a hip-hop Cliff Huxtable, albeit one who requests stripper poles on his wedding cake and who clowns on his son for having an ugly girlfriend (though he did, in fairness, severely reprimand him for dating a 13-year-old with a baby). In fact, Campbell says, the show only lasted one season because his family wasn’t dysfunctional enough for reality producers’ taste. If only they’d stuck around.
After the show, Lucretia made headlines by blasting her father in an Internet video that went viral. Seeming a wee bit eager to be on camera, she said, among many things: “He’s not a good father. . . . Luke used to beat my mom, . . . he even, like, shot her in the leg I think. . . . Nobody told him to have sex and have me and five other kids. . . . It’s time for Lucretia’s Parental Advisory, biaaaaaatch.” While Luke has spoken elsewhere about gold-digging travails with his kids’ mothers, how they lie to the court about how much child support he’s paid (an outlay he says is “in the milllions”), and how Lucretia’s mom in particular poisons the children against him, he shakes his head in befuddlement about that video.
“Right!” he says facetiously about shooting her mom in the leg. “And you as the great reporter would have to find that report. Where that s— at? I didn’t shoot nobody. . . . I love my kids. And I always love my kids. And kids are kids. If they decide they are upset because Dad did not take them to the Hip Hop Honor Awards, and he took Blake, it’s so easy for a kid to make a mistake these days by going on a website and doing something like that. When I was a kid and got mad, I ran away. We feared the belt when I was growing up. We live in a totally different time. They can go in a back room and tweet about their dad. And if you’re a celebrity dad, you’re all over the place.”
What bothered him most, he says, is how Lucretia was hurt from the episode. Friends related to him how she was getting torn up by commenters on the websites on which it ran. “That’s my daughter. I love her. So I was much more upset, not what she said about me. . . . I was upset her [mom and stepdad] allowed her to do that for her to get tore down like that.”
Does he have a checkered past? Absolutely, he says. And he’s responsible for relating most of it—it’s all out there already. While other candidates have to worry about skeletons in their closet, he has a unique situation: “Ain’t no skeletons. They out. They been out. They gotta go find some s— that nobody knows about. ‘Ohhhh, Luke did some mass murderin’ and s—.’ All my stuff is out there. Google it.”
“I ain’t afraid of anything,” he says. Not even kingmaker Norman Braman, who has seen most of the Miami frontrunners meekly sign on to his multipoint “Covenant With the People,” for fear of getting crosswise of the man who unseated Alvarez. Luke’s met with Braman, and likes him, but “I can’t say whether [his covenant] is good or bad. I gotta do some research.” Everyone else signs on, he says, “because they’re scared of Braman. I’m not scared of nobody! At the end of the day, I’m not just gonna sign onto anything so I can lie to the people again. That’s what politicians do.”
As for Luke’s historical promiscuity, he claims that’s a thing of the past now that he’s married. And that it’s overblown anyway, which is a little hard to swallow, if you’re even casually familiar with his work. He started wild, he admits. He did crazy things. But after a while, sex was a business, one he didn’t take home. He tired of the groupies, especially when realizing that they’d been with the last artist who came through. “I ain’t no piece of meat,” Luke says. “I take pride in going to a club and saying, ‘Have I ever had sex with anybody here?’ And nobody can say ‘yeah.’ I take pride in that.”
Perhaps, I suggest, he has stumbled onto the most memorable of campaign slogans: “Vote for Luther Campbell—he has not had sex with you, surprisingly.”
Smack in the heart of Liberty City, on a football field with a tilted, rusty goalpost, I’m brought deeper into Uncle Luke’s world. He arrives late, as usual. The players are already out on the field, running pad-less spring conditioning drills. He waves me off when I ask him a question—no time to talk, as the newly appointed defensive coordinator for the Miami Northwestern High Bulls has to take command.
Football here is serious business. In the ESPN documentary “The U,” about the Miami Hurricanes in their glory years, Luke compared football in Miami to gymnastics in China. They start young, and they finish strong. While Northwestern High is an F-rated school once labeled a “dropout factory” by a Johns Hopkins University study, it has been a breeding ground for blue-chip college football programs and future NFL players. Many of its players were reared in the fiercely competitive local Pop Warner leagues, which mandate keeping grades up (hence the league’s formal name: “Pop Warner Little Scholars”). Coach Luke has taken his own Pop Warner team, the Liberty City Warriors, to the national championships twice (winning in 2005).
On the field, it sounds a bit like a 2 Live Crew concert, profanity-wise, as Luke speeds from drill to drill, letting the sword swing to motivate his defensive backs, keeping the kids battle-tested for smashmouth Miami-style football with a long string of smack talk: Get yo’ ass out of there big boy, before I send you over to the big boy’s club. . . . Turn the muthaf— quick, you just got yo’ ass whupped. . . . I learn no names until you knock the s— out of somebody. If I see you in a grocery store and don’t use your name, that means you ain’t nobody out here.
The team is 99 percent African-American, except for one Latino player, whose name Coach Luke uses as a foil. First, he calls him “Julio Robaina” (one of his many Cuban mayoral competitors) but then switches to “Chico,” as in: “Hey Chico, I only lost three games in six years—master technician!” Or, “Chico—these black people, you gotta go slow for ’em. You, I only gotta tell one time. I gotta tell them a few times.”
The kids, of course, love it. Players he’s coached tell me Luke rides them on the field and off, picking them up to come work out, hassling them about their grades, badgering their colleges of choice to give them scholarships. Coaches tell me he is a Talmudic game-film watcher, a details-obsessed X’s-and-O’s man who leaves no advantage unexplored. While it’s an unresolvable contradiction for a man whose daughter blasts him as a deadbeat dad on the Internet, a Pop Warner coach tells me Luke represents something many of his players don’t get in the maelstrom that is often their home lives: order and discipline.
“It’s why youth programs are so important in our community,” confides Luke. “We have a lot of single parent household situations. If you in Bal Harbour, you’ve got mom and dad sittin’ there with income over a hundred thousand dollars, so they can afford a nanny and a good school. In this community, to a lot of these kids out here—I’m Dad.”
After practice, I follow Luke in my rental car, as he gives two players a lift, then a few bucks out of his wallet for train fare as they depart. He says he views his meager $1,500-a-year coaching salary as a relief fund, helping kids who might be hungry, as many come from broken homes, some floating from house to house, wherever they can find a place to crash.
While he came from a good home, he knows how heavily the odds are stacked against his charges. As a star linebacker in high school, Luke fantasized about growing up to be Bob Lilly, the ferocious Dallas Cowboys’ defensive tackle. Thanks to his skills, he was bused to a white school in Miami Beach so he could play football, where he was passed without scrutiny, failing to learn how to read until eleventh grade. “To this day, I despise that,” he says. He doesn’t want to see that happen to his players. In fact, he’s quit coaching Optimist Club/Pop Warner for the time being, moving up to high school, because he realized he was losing too many of his little guys to prison when they grew up, and he wanted to come closer to seeing them through.
Luke offers a tour of Liberty City and Overtown, inviting me to jump into his Range Rover, where the Baron of Booty Music keeps the dial tuned to Lite FM (he loves Peter Frampton and Cyndi Lauper). He takes me to Hadley Park, where the Pop Warner coaches hang out at the fields as if at a barber shop, reaming each other mercilessly, as Luke announces to his comrades, while pointing to me, “I’m driving with the white man, and he ain’t the police.”
He takes me by his childhood home and the nearby “Pork’n’Beans Projects.” “Right there,” Luke points. “Lotta crime, lotta people getting killed. If I dropped you off in there, you might not make it to the corner.” Every corner, it seems, elicits a memory: of Uncle Ricky teaching him how to read a newspaper, of the park where his original crew, the Ghetto Style DJs, played and were shooed off by a cop who said, “Y’all niggers get the f— out of here.” It’s where he was charged for starting a riot, when the cop’s admonition didn’t go down so smoothly.
As we drive, Luke rants—about lost hope and broken promises, about “how if you live in Beirut, you gonna act like you in Beirut.” About missed investment opportunities, and how a community needs pride and beauty. He rants about white “entrepreneurs” who always seem to make millions in empowerment zone funds evaporate in a cloud of scandal without anything decent ever getting built besides chicken shacks and check-cashing places. I tell him he sounds less like a stereotypical bleeding heart than a James Q. Wilson “broken windows theory” conservative. “You tryin’ to make me a Republican,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Though to be honest with you, [African Americans] are naturally conservative people. Since rap music came, we kind of liberalized the situation.”
He rails against the black race hustlers for hire—the Sharptons and Jacksons and local versions of the same, who are bought and paid for by politicians to either sit on the sidelines (he says he had to hire help from Palm Beach since all the black Miami consultants were already rented) or cry racism, scaring needed white capitalists off. Mostly though, he interrupts every anecdote to marvel at the decay, saying “Look here” or “Look there”—at the mattresses on the sidewalk, the downed trees, the squatter abodes, the empty storefronts, the crackhead knocking on our car window—of the scenery that never changes. “Look at what these kids have to ride through,” he says with genuine rage. “They need places to go. . . . This has been like this all my life. I have to clean all this up!” he says, as though he were already mayor. “That’s why I’m runnin’, man. I can’t lose!”
Later that night, we go to a film shoot in a Miami warehouse. Luke is the star of The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, an independent short film being shot for the local Borscht Film Festival by Jillian Mayer, whose work has shown at the Guggenheim. The sets are deliberately crude painted plywood backdrops with face holes out of which Luke pops his mug, and from which he delivers cartoonish lines, such as in a murder scene, in which he cries, “Dammnnn! Mothaf— just got cut—to the white meat!”
Luke turns down music videos all the time, but he decided to do this film because it has “artistic value.” “I got my brain picked last night,” he tells me by way of plot synopsis. I don’t really follow the narrative thread from what I witness, such as the scene where Uncle Luke rubs a prodigious black booty as someone rains dollar bills over his head. But the young, white film student types on the set eat it up, appreciatively shaking his hand and thanking him while laughing and laughing, maybe with him, maybe at him, maybe both. Between shots, one hot, young, scantily clad actress walks by him, coquettishly shaking her tailfeathers. She turns and looks Luke’s way. “I just wiggled my butt for you!” she coos. “No,” he says, pointing to me. “That was for him. When you get married, you don’t see things like that no more.”
After the shoot ends, around 3 a.m., we adjourn to an IHOP to eat dinner or breakfast or whatever it’s called at that hour. With no pretense or inhibitions, Luke starts to spill, the way people sometimes do in bad lighting over bad food in the middle of the night. He tells me about his belief in God—how he TiVo’s Joel Osteen every Sunday, because he needs spiritual uplift. He details all his baby momma intrigues, the gold-digging, the court-wrangling, the child support wars, the birth control lies that saw him sire a few bonus children along the way. He relates how he’s had to disentangle himself from the destructive women at the expense of his children, who he is often kept from seeing. As with most lives you drill deep enough into, his turns out to be messy.
He blames everyone else for his problems, which in many ways are some of the same problems plaguing the have-not communities that Luke wants to save. When I point that out to him, he blames himself, too. “I hold myself responsible for everything,” he says. “Because I have to make the choice. It takes two people to bring kids into this world.”
He shows me promising text messages from his 18-year-old son Luther. They’ve been estranged for some time, knocking heads over Luther Jr.’s pot use and disrespect of Luke’s new wife, but have started talking again. This makes Luke very happy. He confesses that his reality show was a sham, in that Luther and Lucretia didn’t really live with him. Due to constant acrimony with their mother, the only time the kids would come over was “if there was a problem at their house, or their mother heard that I had a girlfriend.” Until the show, he hadn’t even seen them for a couple years. So when filming began, “They would come over, shoot, and go back home—I tell the truth, I don’t lie,” he says, visibly sagging. “But it was great! I got to spend time with them. And got to let them know how if I’d have been in their life, how I would have been a father to them. I wasn’t playing Dad. It was real. I was being Dad.”
Over dinner one night in South Beach, I have the mayoral race handicapped for me by an old Miami political hand with ties to the Cuban exile community who calls himself Cousin Eduardo. Eduardo is practiced in and completely unapologetic about the racial knife-fighting that often ensues in South Florida elections, where detonations go off under the radar on Spanish-language radio.
Cubans, Eduardo says, “are emotional, easy to whip up, insular, organized, and motivated” and will have a disproportionate influence in this election. “Cubans love the last-minute hit. The robo-call in the middle of the night calling your opponent a faggot, a pájaro, as we say in Spanish—a little bird. They love the negative—it goes with the territory. Luther’s got to motivate blacks to show up.”
His advantage, says Cousin Eduardo, is that there are so many Cuban candidates, mostly local officials of one sort or another, that they can easily cannibalize each -other’s support. “Everybody will run to the right,” says Eduardo. “So the race has a big fat vacuum. It could be filled by an Anglo woman with liberal credentials. It could be an as yet unannounced candidate recruited by Braman. Or it could be the former head of 2 Live Crew—if he can figure out how to get in the runoff [since it’s highly unlikely that any candidate will win a plurality on May 24]. Luke’s managed to stay in the news for 20 years, one way or another, and all the things you think are transgressions are merit badges among his voters. They don’t care if his family is dysfunctional. Dysfunctionality in the black family situation is the norm. They want a champion who is sticking it to whitey—that’s all they really care about.”
Luke’s advantage disappears, says Eduardo, if former mayor Alex Penelas—a popular Cuban Democrat who polls way ahead of the field—jumps in. The void is then filled. “But drop back to the mathematics,” Eduardo tells me. “Luther has zero chance of getting 51 percent of the vote in a Miami election. But he doesn’t need 51 to score here. Galvanize the base and get them there for the first round, then see where you are. It’s not inconceivable—it’s all about race. It’s an ethnic election—all Miami elections are.”
Cousin Eduardo sounds what should be Luke’s themes. “Those people [in Liberty City] are used to being promised everything. Promise them a tax reduction. Promise them jobs. Promise them economic opportunity. But he’s gotta communicate it. Right now, the only thing that’s coming through is ‘stripper tax.’ He’s a novelty act. The name ID gets him a seat at the table. Now he has to decide whether he wants to be Pat Paulsen, in which case you get no votes but entertain everybody, or to be a serious candidate.”
Uncle Luke can be forgiven for thinking his base is a bit broader than Cousin Eduardo diagnoses. White voters are his voters too, he says counterintuitively. One Sunday, at Finnegan’s River, a beachy party bar in Little Havana that sits on the waterfront overlooking downtown Miami, Luke is putting in a paid personal appearance—largely his bread and butter these days. The three-day Ultra Music Fest is in town, and every electronic music DJ from here to London seems to be on the ground.
Luke shows up with a small entourage decked in crisp summer whites and peaches, looking as though he should be manning a cabana at a Sandals resort. He is ushered to a small VIP section, where he’s immediately plied with his usual—Bacardi Limon and Sprite, which he protests over, because he just wants a Sprite. “I don’t drink liquor in the day,” he says. There are no Liberty City types here. The club is lousy with white people—the only blacks being security.
Over ear-numbing music, they form a line to pay their respects to Uncle Luke. An inebriated college-age steakhead in a golf shirt and swim trunks yells, “Tax them strippers! Do you know how much money I spend on them?” A gaggle of DJs, many of British descent, thank Luke for his influence, relating how his Miami bass sound is to their music what Howlin’ Wolf was to the Rolling Stones. A promoter named Eric Johnson hands him a “Dat Azz” hat and T-shirt—the insignia of which is a girl on all fours, her posterior angled up like a ski jump. “My shirt is a representation of the influence Luke had in my life,” Johnson says. “He is an innovator, a pioneer, and the godfather of all free speech in music.”
Watching all this fealty, I remark to Luke how much the world has caught up to him since record store owners were arrested for selling his music. He could hardly be considered dangerous now. If he still wanted to be dangerous, he’d have to become a pro-abstinence rapper. “That would be dangerous,” Luke agrees. “And you wouldn’t sell a record.”
“I need to do a bikini contest to get everybody revved up to vote for me,” Luke decides. As I wait for him to arrive onstage, I survey the crowd in front of it: an undulating sea of white men’s overbites and sunburnt cleavage. There are neck tats, shoulder tats, back tats, face tats. Some of the guys have tattoos as well.
Luke takes the stage, and before announcing that he needs their vote for mayor, he asks, “Where the booty shakers at? I need y’all to come down.” Three women come to the stage, some more reluctant than others, such as a heavy-set girl in mom jeans. “C’mon, baby,” encourages Luke. “Big girls need love too.”
Once the bassline booms, inhibitions melt. Skirts are hiked, muscle and cellulite compress and expand like waves of flesh pounding a beach. As Luke chants over the music, “Go to the floor! Go to the floor!” contestant booties hit the deck as though they’re trying to crush walnuts. The crowd favorite, the winner of a bottle of champagne and Luke’s admiration, is a middle-aged lass in good yoga-shape who flipped off the crowd, hiked her denim mini, and had “Techno Slut” inscribed on her panties. She clearly planned ahead.
After she is crowned Queen of the Booty Pageant, Luke says she needs a male volunteer to help her out in a victory dance. “Not me,” he quickly adds. He has a political career to think about. “But if you ain’t got no batteries, you can’t work with her.” There are no takers. She seems to have scared everyone. So she retakes the stage solo, advertising her Techno-Sluttery anew to whoops and howls and Miami bass reverberations as Uncle Luke, on the mike, chants over the beat, “Luke for Mayor! Luke for Mayor! Luke for Mayor!”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.