U Still Can't Touch This

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Local radio stations KDON 102.5 and K-OCEAN 105 are sponsoring the fourth annual Freestyle Explosion this Saturday, featuring performances by over a dozen artists from the world of hip-hop, rap, R&B and Old School music.  The event kicks off at 1pm, and all ages are welcome. 

Of particular interest in the line-up, especially to those old enough to remember him from first time around, is MC Hammer.  Under-21s might know his name from VH-1 and MTV’s “Whatever Happened To…” specials, but to those who were around in the early 1990s, Hammer was the man who started it all.

MC Hammer was born Stanley Kirk Burrell in Oakland, and originally harbored dreams of becoming a professional baseball player (he got his name from his likeness to Oakland A’s player Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron).  He worked as a ball boy for the A’s, but never caught on as a player and eventually opted to join the Navy.

Hammer spent three years in the Navy, and when he left he began performing music in local clubs.  Helped by his friends from baseball days, he formed his own record label, Bustin’ Records, and in 1987 released an album with his religious rap band The Holy Ghost Boys.  The album was called “Feel My Power” and sold 60,000 copies, enough to attract the attention of Capitol Records.  Initially, Hammer refused to sign to the large label, but eventually he did (with a reported advance of $750,000, then unheard of for a rap artist) and “Feel My power” was re-released as “Let’s Get It Started.”  The album went triple-platinum and spawned several hit singles including the title track.

Even this success was overshadowed by 1990’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em,” which spent 21 weeks at the top of the US charts and won numerous industry awards.  The single “U Can’t Touch This” was a Top 5 hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  Hammer gained a reputation as the best ever live entertainer in the rap industry.  His performances, which often included as many as 50 backup singers and dancers, were sellouts wherever he played.  Hammer was touted as a role model for black youth and was honored by “MC Hammer Days” in Los Angeles and Fremont.  Hammer merchandise abounded, including dolls and even a cartoon series.  Much of the profits from these ventures went to youth programs and charities, yet Hammer was still able to maintain a huge mansion in Fremont and 250 employees.

Hammer’s third album “Too Legit to Quit,” with a more R&B based sound and lyrics and sleeve notes that exhorted youth to reject drugs and violence and turn to God, failed to match his second’s commercial and critical success.  Poor sales and a tour with disastrously low concert attendance prompted rumors that Hammer was facing financial ruin.  His response was to undergo a radical image change and release “The Funky Headhunter” (1994), a harder edged album in the gangsta rap style which was a platinum seller.  The follow-up, 1995’s “Inside Out,” had disappointing sales, and in 1997 Hammer’s financial troubles caught up with him and he filed bankruptcy.

Hammer spent several years concentrating on his role as a husband and father before returning to show business in 2001 with “Active Duty” which, while not a strong seller, was well-received by both critics and fans.  In 2003, he appeared as a judge on ABC Family’s show “Dance Fever” and starred in “The Surreal Life.”  A new album “Full Blast” is scheduled for release and Hammer is currently working on a sitcom for Warner Bros.  Judging by all this, it would seem that “Hammer Time” has far from run out.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, October 14, 2004

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