Within a brief span of time, MC Hammer went from dancing outside the Oakland Coliseum to working for Bay Area baseball team the Oakland A’s to selling singles financed by A’s players from the trunk of his car to dominating the pop world. He had his own doll and a superhero cartoon, won several Grammys, and sold millions upon millions of albums. Unfortunately, all that wild success disappeared, and Stanley Burrell’s rap career burned out just as quickly as it came, leaving Hammer known to many merely as the rapper with the big pants who went broke. But that version of the story ignores a far more interesting legacy.
Today is the 25th anniversary of Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, so we spoke with Chicago indie rapper and last year’s CoSign ShowYouSuck about Hammer’s place in the rap world.
I’d never listened to this album in its entirety until a few weeks ago. I was obsessed with “U Can’t Touch This” as a kid, and loved a few other tracks, but never listened straight through. He’s treated as a joke so often, I never remember the good aspects of his music.
No, it’s not bad at all. As a kid, I was not a fan of Hammer. When that album came out, I was five years old, and I didn’t really … I saw Hammer on the cartoon. I knew Hammer as a cartoon character.
He was a cartoon?
Yeah, he had a cartoon called Hammerman, and his shoes talked, and when he would put them on, he would become Hammerman and fight crime. For me, he was more so the dude on the cartoon and the Addams Family dude. I remember that song vividly.
I’d always been kind of “eh” about MC Hammer until about five years ago. I was watching MTV Jams, and a clip of him performing at like one of the early VMAs [came on]. It was amazing. It was insane. It was like 100 dancers and him running around, but he didn’t need it. It was entertainment just looking at him dance for five minutes and actually rap, not lip sync. Dancing hard for five minutes straight, running around the whole arena. I was blown away. I was like, “Yo, this dude is crazy!” And then I went to a Disc Replay and bought a “best of” compilation, and it was like, “Yo, these are awesome songs!” It’s got crazy bass. Everything I like in songs are in these songs, and I just didn’t pay any attention to it.
And then I got his first album. But then, you know, Please Don’t Hurt ‘Em, I got that too, and yeah man, it’s got jams on it, dude. And I was coming from it from a like … I don’t hold any emotional bias with MC Hammer because I didn’t listen to it coming up.
All I remember was the “U Can’t Touch This” video. I was four or five when that came out. That was important to me for some reason.
I remember seeing it, but I remember more it being parodied on In Living Color. That’s where my enjoyment came from. I didn’t really get anything out of that video, but the video for “Here Comes the Hammer”, that video’s insane.
Yeah, I watched that again this morning. The eight-minute cut.
It’s way too long. There’s not a clear point where the song actually starts. But up until when they go into the house and then they go into the first door, it’s kind of cool. The acting is kind of well done. Then the premise gets really muddled all throughout. But like, if they would have kept it within that time frame and that light storyline of just that one room, like, yo, this could’ve been a really rad video.
I like how they were constantly talking. Just every step, four guys talking over each other without stopping.
Yeah, you can’t hear the song. [Laughs.]
There was a movie, a biopic. Have you seen it?
Oh, that movie’s awful. That movie’s horrendous. It came on VH1, surprise surprise. But the black dude that was in The 40-Year-Old Virgin [Romany Malco] plays MC Hammer. The problem with this movie is that it takes small events and makes them bigger than what you’re pretty sure they were. There’s a moment in the movie where, when Hammer went over to Death Row, they show him and 2Pac’s relationship like they were best friends. And when 2Pac got shot, they showed Hammer being the only person at the hospital.
Probably not the case.
Yeah, not at all. It’s not the worst movie in the world, but it’s definitely a pretty bad biopic.
There was also a movie that came out at the time of the album, just structured around the music videos.
I didn’t know that.
He plays a character called Reverend Pressure. And he moves back to his hometown to fight drug pushers who are using kids to deal. So, the gun-down scene probably is pivotal in that.
I didn’t know about that. Yeah, OK. It’s so odd to me that him and then like Vanilla Ice have the exact same career. I’m just seeing how much of a blueprint they used from MC Hammer for him. That’s crazy!
Then they both wound up on reality TV. Hammer definitely had a show about his family.
I remember his show. It had his kids. I remember his kids on the show. The show wasn’t bad. I wonder if it’s on Hulu.
One of the things I wanted to talk about was the fact that there was the big controversy of who backed him and who thought he was terrible. He dissed a lot of people early in his career. And then, apparently, LL Cool J hated him and Ice-T defended him. In my mind, he was outside of the entirety of the genre and just sort of joked about. But if you’re going to have one guy on your side, I’d take Ice before LL.
Oh yeah, and even from that aspect, people forget that Hammer’s from Oakland. Oakland’s always had a more crazy reputation than, say, New York. So, from that standpoint, I think people see him in a Taco Bell commercial, and people forget that this dude’s from the hood. So, you know, of course Ice-T’s going to back him. It isn’t much more hood than Ice-T, you know?
I think a big part of Ice-T coming to his defense was that he never started off posturing as tough, necessarily.
He’s always the same thing. It was almost just like new jack swing. Yeah, it was crazy, that erotic edge that it had. But if you go to his first album, a lot of that stuff is kind of like that too. It’s weird, man. People never look at the whole picture.
Even as he got big, he didn’t really change, just kind of accentuated different parts of what he was already doing, pushed things bigger and bigger. And I think that’s interesting in terms of talking about what qualifies as pop, and what made him pop rap and not other guys. He obviously became very popular, but it wasn’t like he changed everything he was doing to become pop.
I feel like pop shouldn’t be described as a genre, and it is described as a genre. Pop is just whatever’s popular at that time, you know?
Don’t you think it has something to do with the way somebody’s music is designed to fit into what already is popular that could make something pop, rather than changing how you present the music?
Oh yeah, for sure. I feel like there’s definitely some altering, and a lot of that definitely comes from an advertising standpoint and marketing. So, I guess essentially you can make whatever you want pop. I don’t know if something is pop on its own. It’s weird, man. He definitely didn’t change his sound, just more people gravitated towards it.
Maybe it’s just about changing marketing styles.
I feel like he didn’t really change anything; he was just given a bigger platform to do the same thing he’s been doing. And in that right, you can’t fault someone. Even sometimes when people are changing things, it’s still even debatable whether or not you can fault them, because essentially someone can do whatever they want as an artist. To me, there is a difference between going pop and selling out. Some people sell out and don’t even get any more popular. I don’t fault the guy. When I was a child, he just didn’t do things that appealed to me. You know, I drew zombies and read comic books. I was into alternative and stuff, whatever. But yeah, what he did was rad. Some of these things can be seen as cornball. Does that mean it’s pop? I don’t know. [Laughs.]
It seems to me like it can be corny, it can be pop, or it can be both. Doesn’t have to be. It’s that concentric circle thing where parts get blurred, and you can’t tell where one or the other ends or started.
And I feel like if it’s that muddled, then that should just go ahead and count to him as a win.
At this point, I don’t know anyone who’s listening to Hammer seriously. It’s all covered in ironic detachment, the “Let’s put this on at the party” kind of thing.
That’s what I feel like. I don’t feel like drifting off the topic too much, but that’s what I feel has kind of happened to R. Kelly. Especially in the past year, or the year before last year, he had that festival run, and he had new music out, but the new music wasn’t popular. I just feel like it was a bunch of people who just Tumblr’ed pictures of him.
And I wonder if that’s how Hammer would be treated now if their timelines were the same. Irony changed a lot between then and now. I don’t mean to say that people were listening to it ironically then; people seemed to really genuinely like it. But now his legacy has become irony, in a way. Do you think that could be what happens to R. Kelly?
Yeah, honestly that’s what I think. That’s definitely what would have happened. I feel like that’s what happens when things that they do outside of the music kind of become bigger than the music. Hammer wasn’t funny until he went broke, and then people kind of made fun of the pants and all of the dance moves. Before that it was cool. Like, no one said anything. For so long, I only knew Hammer as the dude who went broke. I still know who he is, but he’s the guy that went broke and not the talented dude. So, now people pick at that, and it kind of makes him a caricature now.
People five, 10 years older must have always seen it as serious, listening to him thinking, “This is crazy!” That’s hard to remember 20 years later. I took it seriously as a kid, but just about how much fun it was.
Oh absolutely. Like I said, my first memories of him are kind of on the Taco Bell commercial, The Addams Family … ’cause even at that age, I don’t think I was watching music videos at that time. That came a little later.
Neither was I, and I don’t know why that “U Can’t Touch This” video hit me so hard. I don’t remember seeing any other music videos at that time. Not one.
I really think at that point I remember seeing a video of his … they premiered a video of his on In Living Color … or maybe it was Arsenio Hall. I could be wrong. Either way, it wasn’t on a video channel. The only other person I remember who did that was Michael Jackson.
He has to be one of the relatively few people of that era to be as massively popular as Michael Jackson, but then Hammer has no credibility whatsoever. Even Michael Jackson, as much as some of the non-music things he did are maligned, he has massive credibility.
Man, yeah, that’s true.
The Vanilla Ice thing is a comparison. That moment for rap there, just two guys who become entirely encapsulated as a joke.
Man, I don’t know. I think I just equate it to the broke thing. I feel like it makes everything you were doing before look stupid now. He flipped to being a pastor, but I don’t think a lot of people make fun of him for going and doing that. A lot of times you can’t calculate these things. We’ve got to think about especially the way the rap that came in after Hammer, gangster rap came up after that, and especially in that time he was a corporate brand by then.
And at the moment, there wasn’t much of an alternative. If you wanted to get rap out there, you had to be a brand.
It was the exact opposite of what’s cracking right now, especially in the hip-hop community. So, I’m sure that has a lot to do with it too. Like, “You’re corny and you’re broke?” Like, that’s just…
Yeah. If there had been another 10 years of similar rap, he wouldn’t be thought of the same way. Maybe he wouldn’t be a joke.
It was weird, even back then, though. The door was so small you only had like three rappers at a time that were doing anything, so it wasn’t an over-saturation of people sounding like Hammer. There might have been an over-saturation of Hammer, though. [Laughs.] That’s so weird to think about that, like, now someone can have 15 favorite rappers.
And he was sort of a sore thumb, for better and for worse. For better at the time, and for worse afterwards.
In the early ’90s, you only had a handful [of rappers]. Man, it’s crazy.
The same circumstances that made him so rich and famous are what make the story of his going broke so much bigger.
I mean, there’s got to be something to the criticisms that he was just relying so much on sampling and covering other artists. There was the lawsuit he settled saying he took “Here Comes the Hammer” from this Texas artist named Kevin Christian. And then he settled with Rick James for infringing copyright.
Really? I didn’t know they didn’t have approval for “U Can’t Touch This”.
He wasn’t without controversy at the time. From that angle, it’d seem that the argument that he was just covering songs by The Chi-Lites or Jackson 5 and not really doing much himself … maybe it wasn’t the most original stuff.
I like to call those easy wins. A lot of those are easy wins because it’s already something you’re familiar with, and then you add something. But you know what, his records aren’t any different from the Puff Daddy era, the Bad Boy era. That’s literally exactly what they did. There’s like sampling where you take it and chop it up, and then there’s just like, “I’m just going to sing over the song.” Well, at least to his credit, the raps were simple, but they weren’t that simple. I want to give the guy some type of credit, I guess. [Laughs.]
He definitely deserves credit. If nothing else, he took the opportunity and made the most of it. And I don’t mean to boil him down to a business where he had no artistic merit, because things like “Help the Children” have a very sincere and passionate message. He really cares a lot. But, in retrospect, maybe it just looks lazy considering where rap is.
It seems lazy now, but I will say for him, as an artist, like, especially in the performance aspect of it, he’s one of the best. One of the best. I get that from watching, sitting on YouTube and watching performances, I’m still moved by how crazy they were. To be able to get to the point where he had 100 dancers, 100 people not classically or school-trained in dancing, and they were all from his hood, and they were all on the same page. And to direct that? Like, that’s crazy.
And the “Here Comes the Hammer” video, those guys just seemed like his friends who happened to be around. He didn’t go hire A-list actors to get attention. He kept it close. At least for that one. And they didn’t seem like actors, but it had some real charm to it.
No, it wasn’t bad acting. That surprised me so much. After like four minutes into it, I was like, “Yo, this acting, they’re pretty natural.” Yeah, there’s something to be said about that. He was using homies, but that essentially ended him. Did you catch wind of when he had that beef with Jay Z? Jay Z put out a song where he had a line about not going broke like Hammer did. Hammer got mad and made a music video about Jay Z being in the Illuminati. Why am I talking about this right now? (Laughs) Yeah, he calls Jay Z the devil, and there’s a Jay Z lookalike being baptized.
I was surprised to learn he’s still putting out albums and tracks.
Yeah, he just had some stuff. He’s still at it. You’ve also got to look up the Hammerman cartoon. Talking dancing shoes. He’d put them on, and he was a superhero. That’s a little corny. [Laughs.]
Yeah, but he’s doing that for kids. He’s covering The Chi-Lites for adults. He’s marketing himself to everybody. He’s not pandering, but he’s smart to court audiences of every age group.
Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely, and that’s not a bad song at all. I got a shit load of respect for Hammer, and it took me being an adult to get it. It took me looking back, like, “Yo, this dude’s fucking awesome.” I was trippin’ when I was young. A bit too hip-hop.
So, he apparently has sold 22 million copies of the album to date.
Just that album? That’s insane. That’s ridiculous. He’s not totally broke now, but how do you lose that? I wonder what other albums came out that year to capture that many people with fewer resources than now. You only had radio and TV. That was it then. There’s more resources that people can use now, and the more resources that came out, the less people sell. How does that work?
Well, it’s also less resources and availability for recording. At that time, if they’re going to record somebody, the resources they’ve got to put into it, it kind of has to sell a ton of copies.
Yeah, yeah. Wow. I even think he had his own doll that year. That was the year the doll came out, I think. It had a single, a tape, it came with a tape. Even though I wasn’t an MC Hammer fan, that was a Christmas gift to me, because of course every kid wanted it, you know. The choices were so much less than now. You just know what a kid wants cause there were only fucking two things that are hot right now. What a weird concept, the more ways you have to sell something the less you sell of it.
Do you hear any influence of Hammer, of that music now?
I mean, maybe in his flow, the sort of cloud rap thing, just repeating a phrase, then dropping a quick verse, then repeating…
Yeah, maybe that’s why I do it? Huh, yeah, I don’t know. I always kind of use it as a cheat code. Yo, inadvertently, this is where I got it from, no bullshit: Mike Jones. He was a big repeater. But maybe he got it from Hammer.
Yeah? I think Mike Jones does it a bit tighter. Hammer would do the exact phrase five times in a row where you’d expect a verse to be. That’s more like Lil B kind of stuff.
You’re right. Yeah, man, that’s crazy. It is.
Do you think Lil B would say Hammer was an influence?
I think he would. There’s a clip of Big Boi talking about Hammer, and that’s pretty amazing. He quote unquote says Hammer would whoop your ass.
I don’t think I would have thought to put Hammer and Big Boi together in a sentence. That’s really interesting.
No? I think it kind of makes sense when it comes to, like, a Southern hip-hop artist from that time period. Because around Big Boi’s time period, he would have been like a teenager when Hammer was out. He saw Hammer with like the clothes … those are the kids that dressed like Hammer. And in the South, there’s more an emphasis on the experience and the fun of hip-hop rather than just the hardness that maybe the East Coast focuses on. So, I guess I would more expect a Southern artist to show admiration for Hammer rather than one of the East Coast people that we put on a pedestal.
Yeah, I guess the whole party rap thing is big in the Bay Area and in the South.
Yeah, and I even think there’s a hard work ethic. People understand what his work ethic was, especially Southern hip-hop artists. Midwest artists too, because we don’t have big record labels that are just in our neck of the woods. There’s just more of a blue-collar aspect to it. I definitely think that people hold Hammer to that blue-collar esteem of it. He was 360. He was a 360 artist, man. Like, live show, the music was respected, and all the videos were key.