The Stories Behind Controversial Album Covers

Today, in 1990, a defiant Fort Lauderdale record store owner was arrested, convicted, and fined after selling 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The explicit album was embroiled in a massive obscenity trial. It was deemed illegal and unfit for store shelves by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The ruling was later overturned, but the case became a landmark for artists fighting for the freedom of speech. But it wasn’t just the sexual lyrics that caused a controversy. It was the album’s fleshy cover, too. We tracked down the stories behind some of music’s most controversial album covers — those artworks that were banned and misunderstood in their time. Here are just a few albums that have been put through the wringer.


2 Live Crew, As Nasty As They Wanna Be

Two young fashion photographers documenting the upcoming Miami beach scene were hired for a gig shooting an up-and-coming group of rap artists. The musicians showed up at their home studio, but photogs Mac Hartshorn and Andy Thurman had no idea who the group was or what to expect. The resulting photo from that meeting set off an obscenity controversy that would propel an ongoing movement for artists to gain freedom of speech. The group was 2 Live Crew, and the album was the bare-bottomed As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

“Super nice guys, first of all. Very open to everything. We were out on the beach, we’d done some pretty casual shots, stereotypical what me and Mac were used to, and then we thought ‘let’s get a little goofy with this,’ Thurman recalled in an interview earlier this year. “Those guys were showing a little bit of, considering the lyrics, they were kind of moved with the part. Played with the part,” Hartshorn said. “And the girls were there, and Andy I thought that they were probably just pros pretty much hired right on the spot just to be there. Take the word ‘pro’ however you want [laughs]. But they were just hired, I guess, and they seemed to be very encouraged to do whatever you asked them to.”

Hartshorn and Thurman’s images from the shoot went on to grace the covers of three 2 Live Crew Albums. “One of the things I am proud of though, is that kind of picture led to a real rewriting of the rights of censorship and freedom of speech. I’m proud to have been a part of that,” Hartshorn stated.