rap fan in Tennessee sent me a letter last month, before a U.S. district judge in Florida declared the 2 Live Crew's latest album obscene, and before the Crew's leader, Luther Campbell, was arrested and manacled because of words uttered during a nightclub performance, words uttered to an audience of paying adults.

"I do not think that 2 Live Crew is actually on trial," the young man wrote. "I believe that black expression as a whole is on trial. ... And if 2 Live Crew are found to be obscene, other forms of black expression will be targeted. This could act as the catalyst for anti-black censorship of a much greater scale."

Paranoia? Or does the banning of "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" in southern Florida indeed represent an immediate threat to free speech, especially the speech of African American young men?

Consider the experience of other popular -- and foulmouthed -- rappers. Before a 1988 concert in Columbus, Ga., police officers warned Ice-T that he'd be arrested if he uttered certain profane words onstage, he says. Ice-T performed one song and canceled the rest of his show. Last summer, members of N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitudes) were chased out of Detroit's Joe Louis Arena by the police after the rappers, egged on by a chanting crowd, began performing their masterpiece of vituperation, "{Expletive} tha Police." And in Cincinnati, the town that so dutifully tried to protect its citizens from the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, a judge fined members of N.W.A. $100 apiece for "offensively coarse utterances" between songs during a Riverfront Coliseum show.

The criminalization of a challenging form of black expressiveness raises some urgent questions. Should federal courts be determining the artistic worth of products of the African American culture? Just what artistic worth can there be in a collection of songs as violently raunchy and mean-spirited as 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be"?

Where are the black scholars and intellectuals who should be able to place the 2 Live Crew in its cultural context and who, regardless of whatever distaste they may have for the album, must act as the first line of defense when black artists come under attack? And where are the 1.7 million people who have bought "As Nasty as They Wanna Be"? Where is their outrage? It is now a crime in Florida's Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties to own this album. Anyone -- young or old, black or white -- who has "Nasty" lying around the house or in the automobile tape deck, is breaking the law. In Florida, possession of obscene material is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University's Afro-American Resource Center, says the masses of black people tend to get alarmed only over the issue of racism, and tend to sit out public debates on such "abstract" matters as artistic freedom. He doesn't think that officials who attack "Nasty" are necessarily "singling out African American art. It's a whole climate out there ... the right-wing social agenda. And this is where I respect the right wing -- they're organized."

Miller hasn't heard the 2 Live Crew's album, nor is he much of a rap fan. But as a poet and an opponent of censorship, he defends the group. "At this particular point, because people are politicizing art, what you have to always be protecting is the ability to create. That's the struggle."

"Neither the 'rap' or 'hip-hop' musical genres are on trial," writes U.S. District Judge Jose A. Gonzales Jr. of Fort Lauderdale in the opinion he rendered 11 days ago. "The narrow issue before this court is whether the recording entitled 'As Nasty as They Wanna Be' is legally obscene," and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment. "This court's role is not to serve as a censor or an art and music critic."

Despite this declamation, the judge displays a crucial lack of understanding of rap music and its cultural context when he applies the Supreme Court's three tests for obscenity to "As Nasty as They Wanna Be."

Let us accept Gonzales's conclusion that the album meets the first two tests -- that it "appeals to the prurient interest" and that, "measured by contemporary community standards, the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct" as defined by state law.

Gonzales writes that the 2 Live Crew's lyrics "are replete with references to female and male genitalia, human sexual excretion, oral-anal contact, fellatio, group sex, specific sexual positions, sado-masochism, the turgid state of the male sexual organ, masturbation, cunnilingus, sexual intercourse, and the sounds of moaning."

Indeed they are. Luther Campbell has purposefully explored the farthest fringes of comic vulgarity and overblown phallicism. Thus has the 2 Live Crew carved out a niche in the highly competitive rap market.

Yet all those lascivious lyrics are perfectly permissible under the First Amendment, unless the album, "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." That is the Supreme Court's third test for obscenity. And it gets to the heart of things: What qualifies U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzales to assess the artistic value of a rap album?

In the words of Henry Louis Gates, a Duke University English professor and an expert on African American "vernacular culture": "I don't see how people can jump into somebody else's culture, with completely no knowledge of that culture, and then decide what's obscene and what's not."

The Supreme Court says a work must be judged "as a whole." But Gonzales goes to great lengths to justify focusing almost exclusively on the dirty words. The judge, citing "expert testimony," writes that "a central characteristic of 'rap' music is its emphasis on the verbal message." He goes on to conclude that "it does not significantly alter the message of the 'Nasty' recording to reduce it to a written transcription."

He is absolutely wrong. Apart from the fact that rap is an outgrowth of funk -- that it is fundamentally a dance music -- rap is not about the words per se. It's about the rendition of the words. The emphasis is not verbal, it is oral. The rappers call it "flow." To misunderstand this is to miss the essence of rap as a vibrant manifestation of the black oral tradition.

Only by listening to the 2 Live Crew, not by reading its lyrics on a sheet of paper, do you realize that their sexual rants aren't to be taken literally. (Just as that bawdy old limerick about a guy named Dave, "who kept a dead whore in his cave," shouldn't be interpreted as a celebration of necrophilia.) Anyone who thinks the song "Put Her in the Buck" is intended as a sex manual -- or that rap fans perceive it as such -- hasn't heard the goofy way one of the Crew barks out the title.

The 2 Live Crew engages in a style of African American ribaldry that is rooted in the inner-city BS heard on street corners and in schoolyards. It's the kind of humor found throughout the '70s on the adults-only "party records" of comedians such as Richard Pryor, Richard and Willie and Rudy Ray Moore. (Snippets of their material, not coincidentally, can be found on "As Nasty as They Wanna Be"). The "adults-only" designation didn't keep those records out of the hands of teenage fellas back then, who, after all, enjoyed a dirty joke as much as anyone.

In court, the group's main argument was that "Nasty" has artistic value as comedy and satire. Gonzales did not agree: "It cannot be reasonably argued that the violence, perversion, abuse of women, graphic depictions of all forms of sexual conduct, and microscopic descriptions of human genitalia contained on this recording are comedic art."

This again demonstrates the danger of a cultural outsider passing judgment on something he doesn't understand. Just as you cannot appreciate a rap song by merely reading its lyrics -- disregarding its rhythm tracks, disregarding the nuances of its vocalization -- you cannot fully understand this profane style of rapping if you disregard the larger folklore of the streets.

There are fascinating echoes in today's hard-edged rap music not only of black comedy, but of the low-budget "black exploitation" action movies of the early '70s and the stylized folk performance-poems, called "toasts," that emanated from the world of pimps and hustlers. "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" has real cultural underpinnings.

Comedian Rudy Ray Moore, the spiritual godfather of the 2 Live Crew, made a career of recording versions of vulgar, sometimes violent, often sexually exaggerated toasts such as "Dolemite" and "Pimpin' Sam." A member of 2 Live Crew drops a nasty couplet about lesbians rubbing belly to belly in "{Expletive} Almighty"; the same couplet can be found in Moore's version of the ultra-scatological toast "Dance of the Freaks," recorded more than 15 years earlier; and in one written collection of toasts, you can find a version of "Dance of the Freaks" recited by a Sing Sing inmate in 1954.

Perhaps the most famous of toasts, the metaphorical jungle tale "The Signifying Monkey," was adapted by tough-guy rapper Schoolly D in 1988. During the '70s, Moore recorded a couple of versions, one in his blaxploitation movie debut, "Dolemite." And Henry Louis Gates, in his scholarly study "The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism," traces the monkey tale to a trickster figure in West African mythology.

Toasts can be so compelling that one of the legendary, radical Last Poets adopted the style (and the name Lightnin' Rod) for his LP "Hustler's Convention" in 1973. Over funky background music from the likes of Kool and the Gang, a criminal flamboyantly spins his underworld tale. "I was a down stud's dream, a hustler supreme. There wasn't no game that I couldn't play. And if I caught a dude cheatin', I would give him a beatin', and I might even blow him away!" By the end of the record, after being beaten and shot by the cops and spending years on death row, this "nickel-and-dime" hustler has become politicized. Some 15 years later, Ice-T released his first album, "Rhyme Pays," a virtual homage to "Hustler's Convention."

Between 1972 and 1976, independent film producers and distributors churned out countless action movies with titles such as "Black Gunn," "Black Caesar," "Black Samson," "Black Fist," "The Black Godfather," "Black Samurai" and "Boss Nigger." Designed to appeal, obviously, to the fantasies of young black males, these films were often set in the criminal world.

"In the black community of past decades, the old-style pimp had sometimes been viewed as a folk hero of sorts: a smooth-talking, sexy, hip, moneyed man in control of his destiny," writes film historian Donald Bogle in "Blacks in American Films and Television." Describing the 1973 pimp's saga "The Mack," he continues: "By the 1970s, one might have assumed the pimp would be seen for other things he represented, primarily as an exploiter of women. Instead, young black moviegoers seemed to delight in {the hero's} pretty looks, his firm control over his women, his striking array of material comforts ... and his tenacious grip on survival."

Although whites usually held financial and creative control over these films, it was the performances of black actors that often resonated.

Rappers in their late 20s, such as Luther Campbell, probably have fond memories of watching movies like "The Mack" and "Super Fly" on the big screen. At the end of Public Enemy's "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" -- an indictment of the movie industry's depiction of African Americans, from Stepin Fetchit to "Driving Miss Daisy" -- guest rapper Big Daddy Kane says, "Yo, check it out, man, I got 'Black Caesar' at the crib. Y'all want to go check that out?"

Indeed, with many of those old blaxploitation films now on videocassette, younger rappers have a smorgasbord of macho fantasies to build upon. Take Poison Clan, two 19-year-olds billed as "The Baby 2 Live Crew" and signed to Campbell's Miami-based label, Luke Records (formerly Luke Skyywalker Records, until "Star Wars" producer George Lucas sued Campbell). On the upcoming album "2 Low Life Muthas," the Clan's JT boasts that being a pimp is how he can afford "eatin' shrimp."

To understand the 2 Live Crew is to realize the difference between being a lowlife and pretending to be a lowlife, the difference between sick, mean humor and true sickness and meanness. "A lot of people fail to see that music is acting," says Debbie Bennett, spokeswoman for Luke Records. Of 2 Live Crew, she says, "You won't find four nicer guys."

But it's their pretense, in all its outrageous sexual explicitness, that fits squarely into the tradition of comedy albums and films that draw upon the rich black folklore of the streets. That is the "artistic value" of "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," which entitles it to protection under the First Amendment. That is the context in which the 2 Live Crew must be judged. And that is why U.S. District Judge Jose Gonzales was wrong to declare the album "utterly without any redeeming social value," and why anyone who is serious about the African American popular culture should be disturbed by his ruling.

Of course, "just because something comes out of the black culture, just because it has black cultural authenticity, doesn't make it good," says Stanley Crouch, noted jazz critic and essayist. Rap in general is "an expression of a lower aspect of the culture," in his view. The members of 2 Live Crew specifically are "some vulgar street-corner-type clowns," "spiritual cretins," "slime."

"We're so defensive about ourselves that we feel that we always have to come forward and defend anything that says it represents black authenticity," Crouch says. "We do not have to celebrate the lowest elements in our society. ... I look at those people -- pimps and hustlers -- as parasites. We cannot make a powerful Afro-American culture if we're going to base it on what hustlers and pimps think about the world."

No doubt. But "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" is a piece of entertainment, not a blueprint for living. Personally, I don't find the album very entertaining. I am bothered by the meanness of the humor regarding women, just as I am bothered by the jokes of Andrew Dice Clay. But the 2 Live Crew has sold 1.7 million copies of this album, and Clay is packing arenas. Are they driving the culture, or simply reflecting it?

Janine McAdams, the black-music columnist for Billboard magazine, says, "I am tired of seeing Luke kicked around the way he has been, in a purely political game to quash freedom of expression." On the other hand, after listening to "Nasty" once last year, she says, "I will never pick it up again. I hate it. It disgusts me."

"I wish Luther Campbell could demonstrate more respect for women," McAdams says. "I think he thinks it's humorous, and in certain respects I guess it is. ... I have mixed feelings about it. If people had derogatory thoughts about women, if they had perverted sexual fantasies, they had those thoughts, I'm sure, before Luther came along."

Stanley Crouch, by the way, confesses to owning "three or four" raunchy Rudy Ray Moore LPs. "I've had those records for 15 years. I bought 'em because they reminded me of stuff guys said on the street corners when I was growing up. I haven't listened to them in a while." Does Crouch recall finding those records funny? "Yeah, I thought they were kind of comical," he says. But "I have evolved far beyond that."