Uncle Luke's Next Chapter is Here
After a long and controversial journey, Luther Campbell is producing a documentary series about the football program he founded in his hometown that counts Antonio Brown, Devonta Freeman, and many other NFL stars as alums.
Photo courtesy of STARZ
Now 57 years old, over a generation removed from life as a household name, Uncle Luke—AKA Luther Campbell, AKA Luke Skyywalker, AKA one of the most divisive, overlooked, and pivotal figures in hip-hop history—is sipping 7 Up in a bright corner of Greenwich Village’s White Oak Tavern.
It’s an oppressive 92-degree day in early September, and Luke is here to discuss the latest chapter of his surreal occupational evolution, from hospital busboy to music mogul to football coach to mayoral candidate, all while concealed as his own community’s knight in shining armor. Warriors of Liberty City is a six-episode documentary series that premiered on STARZ last night, and Luke is an executive producer. The series centers around the Liberty City Optimist Club, a non-profit children’s foundation Luke co-founded in the early 90s; at its core is a roof-shattering youth football program that has changed and guided countless lives. Chad Johnson, Duke Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Lavonte David, and Antonio Brown had their fortunes redirected beneath the foundation’s umbrella, and approximately 400 children are helped every year.
The series tracks the daily perseverance and struggle that parents, coaches, and students endure on a daily basis. Think Friday Night Lights meets Moonlight—Barry Jenkins grew up in Liberty City and appears in the series—except the characters, setting, and energy are real. “I look at these stories like Blindside, and you never see documentaries or movies where a black man is taking care of his own kids,” Luke says. “You never hear the story of the community helping a family that needs help.”
Liberty City—a balmy pocket of America that’s most synonymous with gun violence and NFL prospects—is full of them, as the series delicately explores different angles without judgement. Warriors goes deep on both the power and limitations of philanthropy inside a subjugated society by peeling through the layers of several different family dynamics, all while somehow making the viewer feel the need to visit. There’s the jovial full-time sanitation worker who carves out enough time to coach his son’s team. The one-bedroom house with five children getting raised by parents who met while one was incarcerated and the other worked at a prison. The dance team that’s desperate to make a run at nationals. All rolled together, it’s a heartwarming tragedy.
“We tried to paint a more complex portrait of the community than anyone else has done,” Evan Rosenfeld, the series’s director, says. “We wanted to be in reality more, and provide a more natural portrait of what was happening... There’s not a lot of schools or police forces or city commissioners who want these types of shows made in their neighborhood because normally they’re being done the wrong way and telling a negative story.”
That’s where Luke comes in. Not only did he call school board members, superintendents, and principals, along with the mayor and chair of the city commission, to spread awareness about the project, but his mere presence unlocked doors that would otherwise stay closed. “It’s his reputation that allowed people to open themselves up in a way that, whenever they have in the past, they were burned,” Rosenfeld says. “With Luke and all the time he’s put in, he gave people the confidence that we would treat the stories respectfully.”
Prized as a fighter who spent decades confronting one controversy after another—Luke famously won a Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of the right to parody, and was found not guilty in a groundbreaking obscenity case that drew nationwide attention—Warriors doesn’t exist without his selflessness and hometown pride. None of it comes to life without his pseudo-messianic cachet, or the countless risks he took trying to reach the summit of a culture that repeatedly tried to knock him back down.
How he got here is both fascinating and instructive. Born the youngest of five brothers on December 22, 1960, at Miami Beach’s Mount Sinai Medical Center—he was named after Martin Luther King—Luke’s mother was a beautician who he used to call his “old gal.” His father, a Jamaican immigrant, worked as a custodian at a nearby elementary school and taught him never to apologize for something he didn’t do, just for the sake of appeasing others—something Luke never forgot. Today he’s a stubborn relic. An unbending, necessary symbol of authenticity. His beliefs are his beliefs. His truth is his truth. And the journey both have led him on, as contentious as it’s been, is nothing short of remarkable.
With his plate of pan-seared salmon nearly clear, Luke points at his publicist and chuckles. A mischievous gap-toothed smile breaks across his face. “I tell her I’m needing Soul Food,” he nods for me to sit in an empty chair across the table. “I end up here.”
Hours removed from a vacation in the Dominican Republic, wearing a tipped polo, black jeans, and matching adidas gazelles—with a flat-brim “Luke Records” hat resting on the table right next to a dark pair of sunglasses—Campbell burns through any signs of exhaustion in the first two minutes of our conversation, and from then on is politely restless. He squirms in his seat, talks with his arms, raises and drops his eyebrows, and fiddles with the spoon that accompanies his bowl of apple crumble that our waiter brought over a few minutes in. (It’s no problem,” he says. “I can talk while eating.”)
At one time he was Dionysus incarnate, but Luke has aged out of that life. He’s physically larger than the man who used to receive on-stage blowjobs all over the world, or entertain NBA players at nightclubs he owned. With a resilient voice that was made to shout over the richter-scale-shaking bass he helped make famous 35 years ago, Campbell speaks in raspy, crooked monologues that are broken up every few minutes by a soft cough. Beads of sweat dribble from the tip of his nose, through his silver-streaked beard, down his neck.
To some, he’s a shoot-from-the-hip visionary, deserving of recognition. For others, he is a cartoonish blowhard who accentuates his own importance by splashing through hyperbole. Over the years, Luke has taken credit as the inventor/primary propagator of several trends that have since manifested into cultural phenomenons.
Exhibit A: As someone who hosted the country’s most popular hip-hop acts down in Miami during the early 80s, before Atlanta or New Orleans had any skin in the game, Luke views himself as the architect of all southern rap.
Exhibit B: According to Luke, hip-hop and sports wouldn’t be fused as tightly as they are today had it not been for the mutual fandom he shared with the University of Miami football program back when they were college football’s own Golden State Warriors. Their decision to wear Luke Records scarves on the sideline was the beginning of it all. “I had successfully blended sports with hip-hop,” he writes in his autobiography: The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City.
“I see the entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of these young guys. Even though Kanye crazy as hell, I look at him as a very smart, intelligent businessman."
He was an executive who sat front and center to craft his label’s public image. Puff Daddy before Puff Daddy. In the book, Luke brings up Jay Z’s since-lionized line “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” then asks the reader to “guess who he learned that from?” Luke elaborates when I ask him about all this during lunch. He leans in.
“I see the entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of these young guys. Even though Kanye crazy as hell, I look at him as a very smart, intelligent businessman. He does his own sneakers, he does a lot of things.” Luke says, before veering off into a cursory humblebrag.
“I look at Jay-Z. I remember Jay-Z like it was yesterday, hanging out with Biggie. Just one of the guys. You know? And I look at me and Biggie hanging out, we’re sitting there talking. And Jay-Z is sitting over with the rest of the dudes because ‘you ain’t no big boy. You can’t sit in the big boy meeting.’ You know what I’m saying? The big boy conversation. So when I look at them kind of guys like that and see what they took from some of the things that I was doing, and speak about it in articles ‘Look, I was influenced by Luke and wanted to own my own.’ And I always preach that to all of them. I look at it as a great thing.”
There’s something deeply insecure about this, but it’s understandable. Luke feels the need to prove doubters wrong; to overstep in the face of those who disregard his ostensible accomplishments. It’s both a survival tactic and the best way to stick his head above the fray. There was nobody to follow on the path Luke took, no role model or mentor. And even with all the generous causes he’s given birth to along the way, there’s always been a need to look out for himself, under the firm belief that if he doesn’t, nobody else will.
When he received the “I Am Hip-Hop” lifetime achievement award at the 2017 BET Awards, Luke strode to the stage in a tan jacket, matching vest, and coral bow tie. He calmly berated the audience with a speech compelled by frustration, bitterness, and, like the world’s most satisfying cherry on top, relief. “If you saw the whole entire tape,” he laughs now. “I was motherfuckin’ everybody.”
As we talk, Luke nudges up against the largest window in the room. A titanium Tag Heuer rides up his wrist. It was an anniversary gift from his wife, Kristin, who Luke married in 2008. (She’s also Freeman’s agent, and last year negotiated a $41.25 million contract on behalf of the Pro Bowl running back.) The two have an eight-year-old son named Blake and live in Miramar, a half-hour drive north of Liberty City. “I know nothing about my area,” Luke says. “It’s Broward County. I hate it. My wife got me to do that.”
He’s been a high-school football coach for ten years, starting at Miami Central before going to Miami Northwestern and then his current stint at Miami Edison. “Coaching is like, for me, it’s another way of giving back,” he says. Luke has been approached by schools outside Florida, including a few colleges, but uprooting a centuries-old oak tree with a bearhug feels more likely than any program convincing him to leave southern Florida. I ask if he can say which schools have tried to lure him away. There’s a short pause followed by half of a laugh. “I don’t want to put them on blast.”
His current schedule is filled by his son’s baseball games, business meetings, and drives between his home, Liberty City office, and Miami Edison High School. He’s given up golf. “That’s a sacrifice,” he says. “I look at my clubs and say I’m doing it for the greater good.” When I ask how hands on he is with the optimist club today, he balances his elbow on the table and starts counting off three fingers.
“Family. Business. Liberty City Optimist Club. In that order,” he smiles. “Every year is a building process. You have to get funding for the program because you can’t really do it out of pocket. So I’ll go talk to commissioners on a regular basis about getting grants, funding. When that’s not enough, you have to go to the county, the city. It’s somewhat of lobbying, having conversations with different people who’ve got the funds. You can’t charge the kids $300 to play. It’s like running a full-fledged company.”
But beyond the hours of phone calls and meetings he devotes to this project, Luke still yearns for publicity, and shares whatever’s on his mind, whenever he pleases. It’s forever his way of being, especially when the subject is something that bothers him. That morning, flying from Florida to New York, a woman at the airport mocked Luke for supporting Phil Levine over eventual upset winner Andrew Gillum in his home state’s gubernatorial race. Gillum is black. Levine is white.
“I endorsed a jewish candidate who’s my friend, and there was a black guy running for office. So my friends don’t know how the fuck that happened. They know I’m...I’m a black man. I’m hardcore. So it’s just mind baffling,” Luke says. “But Levine is my friend. We’ve worked on different race issues on Miami Beach when he was the mayor. We established a relationship. We’re friends. I know his family. So for you to be able to tell me I need to turn on my friend for a black guy, that still tells me we got a little way to go.”
As is the case for most, if not all, African-Americans who were raised in the south 50 years ago, racial injustice has been an inescapable subplot throughout Luke’s life. It’s also an unsubtle backdrop in Warriors. Back in 1947, 35 black homeowners were evicted so the city could construct Charles Hadley Park, which is where the Warriors play football. As Luke explains in his book, once white families withdrew from Liberty City “the park turned black and the facilities were left to fall apart.” In one scene from the series, a father asks his son if he understands what Colin Kaepernick is fighting for, and why the decision to kneel upset so many people. The confused boy doesn’t have an answer. I ask Luke, someone who once helped broker talks between the Miami Dolphins, local law enforcement, children, and other community organizers, about it.
"Robert Kraft going up to Meek Mill to see him in jail? No, don’t do that shit. Talk about the fucking issues."
“When you start telling a person that they can’t…” Luke’s voice trails off for a moment. “How many times do you see the school teachers go outside and protest. City hall, school board. You see union workers. Garbage workers. That’s what we do in this country. They’re politicizing something that’s totally different from what the intent is...That shit just got so totally lost in the conversation. So owners not acknowledging it now, and not standing behind him and letting the narrative change is just a tragedy. And at the same time they didn’t understand the severity of it all...Robert Kraft going up to Meek Mill to see him in jail? No, don’t do that shit. Talk about the fucking issues. You know what I’m saying?”
Beginning in the sixth grade, Luke was bussed from Liberty City to Miami Beach for schooling. Football was his passion until one of his coaches explained how unlikely it was for him to crack the NFL, let alone sustain the type of lifestyle he wanted with a lengthy career. He quit in the 11th grade. It was right around this time that, using the money she won gambling on jai alai, Luke’s mother bought a new stereo system, turntable, cassette deck, and speakers. His music career had unofficially begun.
Luke threw house parties after school and joined a neighborhood DJ group, but selling weed was his primary income. That led his mother to ship Luke up to Washington D.C., where he spent the next six months under his older brother’s thumb. For someone who lived in Liberty City and still spent most of his time on the corner, this experience was a revelation.
It was the first time he ever saw black people wear suits and carry briefcases; the first time he realized that his skin color didn’t have to be a limiting precept. Suddenly, nothing could stop him from transforming park jams into a business opportunity. Fast forward a few years, and Luke had established himself, at the dawn of hip-hop, as having the critical ability to identify a hit song before it was a hit song. He flipped that skill into becoming the most resourceful concert promoter in his region, hosting artists from New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles down in Miami. “M.C. Hammer slept on my couch,” Luke writes.
The culture-shifting moment came when Luke heard a song called “2 Live (Beat Box)” by three airmen in California who went by the name 2 Live Crew. Mesmerized by their sound and how crowds reacted whenever they blasted over a speaker system, Luke invited the group down to play a few shows and, after a couple trips back and forth, convinced them to make a permanent move. The bait was a promised record deal. But rap had yet to catch on in the south, and after a few labels turned them down, Luke decided to start his own: Luke Records.
He describes that by-the-seat-of-your-pants process in his book: “I had no idea how the record industry worked. None. It was all on-the-job learning. I jumped in with both feet and told myself I was smart enough to figure it out as I went along.” From there he found a distributor, pressed his own records, figured out how to market 2 Live Crew throughout the country, and, because he didn’t have to pay executives overhead, started pocketing thousands of dollars. The group’s formal strut into the mainstream came in 1986 with The 2 Live Crew is What We Are. Provocative lyrics (“You know what to do, cause I won’t say please/Just nibble on my dick like a rat does cheese!”) on songs called “We Want Some Pussy” and “Throw the D” were virtually unprecedented on this scale.
Luke was barely 25 years old. The album went gold, and what followed was a stretch of excess and misogyny.
One particular section of his autobiography is utterly callous. Luke writes: “I was doing whatever I could with pussy just to see what was possible. I’d do this with the pussy, I’d do that with the pussy. If I could have put some pussy in a skillet and fried it up, I would have tried that, too.
“We had what we called Sacrifice Weekends, where we’d push things to the absolute limit...If we wanted you to fuck five guys, that’s what you had to do. If we wanted you to lie on a table and let guys piss on you, that’s what you had to do.”
Luke Records signed other acts, including MC Shy D, widely recognized as the first rapper from Atlanta—“That’s how the whole Atlanta scene started: I started it,” he writes—and soon became the biggest independent black-owned record label in the United States. 2 Live Crew remained his breadwinner; to avoid a sophomore slump, Luke strategically reinforced the group’s most explicit tendencies. They doubled down on graphic subject matter by welding an 808 drum machine, synth-heavy bass, and amusing samples to sexual lyrics that, well, to this day are just a tad offensive. They’re also, in the right setting, a carousel ride, especially when sprinkled into contemporary party starters, like “Pop That” or “Sicko Mode.”
By the time “Me So Horny” was released from their third album—the appropriately titled As Nasty As They Wanna Be (the first in the United States to have a Parental Advisory sticker) —the New York Times had described them as “adolescents who have just discovered the idea of sex.” Luke was a millionaire. As he battled the aforementioned obscenity charge and an onslaught from politicians who called for 2 Live Crew to be banned, the album went double platinum. Luke’s stamp on American popular culture was irrefutable.
While all this was going on, Rosenfeld was a young kid growing up in Miami, and, like most children in America, had parents who didn’t want Luke’s voice echoing throughout the halls of their home. One weekend, when his parents were on a cruise, Rosenfeld and his brother convinced their babysitter that 2 Live Crew’s new album, Banned in America, was something they were totally allowed to purchase. “You fold out the booklet and it’s him giving the middle finger,” he says. “We pasted that up on the wall.”
Years later, Rosenfeld met Luke while working on a 30 for 30 called “The U” for ESPN. But after they filmed his interview, Luke forgot to sign a release form, forcing Rosenfeld to secure the signature later on at Charles Hadley Park.
“It was was 7 o’clock at night which is not the time you really want to be driving around and I saw a totally opposite Liberty City. It was fun vibes and music and people and hundreds of kids and all the parents around having a good time, eating, laughing,” Rosenfeld remembers. “He takes me around and starts to tell me about this program. I had no idea Luke was involved in football. And he tells me not just some of the NFL players that came from the program, but the city commissioner came from the program and an ex-number of firefighters and lawyers and all these things.”
When Rosenfeld came to VICE World of Sports, the idea germinated into a Emmy-nominated episode about a six-year-old named King Carter who was gunned down in Liberty City. From there, more angles of the neighborhood were ripe for examination, so after Rosenfeld left VICE he approached Luke about filming something longer and deeper. LeBron James’s production company, SpringHill Entertainment, got involved and STARZ picked it up. Warriors of Liberty City was born.
Even though Luke is the single biggest reason for this documentary series’s existence, he’s barely in front of the camera. For years, he preferred to stay behind the scenes and distance his name from the program; he’s long wanted to avoid making it about himself, and, as controversial as certain aspects of his own story are, that’s understandable.
Luke has spent about six months of his life in a courtroom and, by his own count, burned through about a million dollars on lawyer fees. After one of his best friends was slain, the alleged killers showed up at his office wanting to forge a truce; Luke shot up their car with a fully-loaded AR-15. In 2003, he was accused of rape in South Carolina (the charge was reduced to a lewd act). He’s been sued many times by many people—Van Halen, George Lucas, other members of 2 Live Crew, business partners, etc.—and admits to violating NCAA rules by paying University of Miami football players when that program was on top of college football (which, at the end of the day, actually isn’t that problematic). These details don’t chip away at his foundation’s impact, but they do turn his identity into a third rail. They also make him one of the most complicated and resilient figures in music history.
It’s impossible to wrap your arms around such a sprawling legacy. But as a separate movie deal eventually rolls through the pipeline, one based on his book and partially spawned by Straight Outta Compton’s commercial success, Luke’s mainstream relevance may soon rise to its highest point in years. In turn, it may finally end his perpetual fight for credit and admiration as a black entrepreneurial pioneer. But the struggle to keep the Liberty City Optimist Club up and running as an annual resource for a community that needs it is constant. Neither battle appears to be one Luke plans to lose.
“When you’re from Miami and you’re not in the inner circle of New York or LA, you’re on the outside looking in,” he says. “But I made that decision [to stay] for my community. I could’ve easily been running one of these major record labels. But that was not my choice.”