Hammer, M. C.
M. C. Hammer
Hailed by Entertainment Weekly as “rap’s most pervasive, persuasive ambassador,” M. C. Hammer has a reputation for pursuing his goals with remarkable energy and tenacity. His first dream in life eluded his grasp, however; if he had achieved it, he would be a professional baseball player today. Instead, Hammer has had to settle for being the world’s most successful rap artist.
Hammer was born Stanley Kirk Burrell in Oakland, California. He was the youngest of his parents’ seven children. “We were definitely poor,” he stated in describing his youth to Rolling Stone writer Jeffrey Ressner. “Welfare. Government-aided apartment building. Three bedrooms and six children living together at one time.” Despite the rough neighborhood he grew up in, Hammer stayed out of trouble by immersing himself in his twin passions, baseball and music.
As a boy he’d be at the Oakland Coliseum to watch the Athletics play as often as possible. If he couldn’t see the game, he’d hang around the parking lot hoping for a glimpse of one of his heroes, among them superstar pitcher Vida Blue. When the team was idle Hammer amused himself by copying the dance moves of James Brown, the O’Jays, and others. He showed the first glimmerings of his interest in business when he began writing commercial jingles for his favorite products.
One day his two interests collided in a way that would profoundly influence his life. He was dancing in the Coliseum’s parking lot when the Athletics’ owner, Charlie Finley, passed by. A comment by Finley on the young dancer’s style led to a conversation, and eventually to a job working in the team clubhouse and going on the road as bat boy. Hammer quickly became a sort of mascot for the team. Finley even gave him the honorary title of executive vice-president, while the ballplayers began calling the former Stanley Burrell “Hammer” because of his striking resemblance to batting great Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron.
After graduating from high school, Hammer tried to break into the world of professional baseball as a player, but to no avail. He briefly pursued a communications degree, but was unsuccessful in that field too. Dejected and at loose ends, Hammer considered getting involved in the lucrative drug trade thriving in his old neighborhood. “I was a sharp businessman and could have joined up with a top dealer,” he told Ressner. “I had friends making $5000 to $6000 a week, easy…. I thought about that just like any other entrepreneur would.” Hammer turned away from the fast money, however—making a moral choice that reverberates in his current image as a deeply religious, socially conscious performer—and joined the Navy for a three-year hitch, serving in Japan and California.
Real name, Stanley Kirk Burrell; born in Oakland, Calif.; youngest of seven children; married; wife’s name, Stephanie; children: Akeiba Monique. Education: High school graduate; took undergraduate classes in communications.
Worked for the Oakland Athletics baseball team as a bat boy during high school years; served for three years in the U.S. Navy upon graduation from high school; formed first rap group, the Holy Ghost Boys, and founded music production company, Bust It Records; first debut single, “Ring ’Em,” released in the mid-1980s; signed with Capitol Records, 1988. Performs in concerts worldwide.
Awards: Grammy Award (with co-composers Rick James and Alonzo Miller) for best rhythm and blues song, 1990, for “U Can’t Touch This”; Grammy Award for best rap solo, 1990, for “U Can’t Touch This”; Grammy Award for best music video (long form), 1990, for Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em the Movie.
Addresses: Home— Fremont Hills, CA.
When his stint with the military ended, Hammer applied the discipline he’d acquired in the service to launching a career in music. His first musical venture was a rap duo he dubbed the Holy Ghost Boys. Religious rap might seem to have limited commercial appeal, but Hammer talked two record companies into taking a chance on producing a Holy Ghost Boys album. He and his partner went their separate ways before the project could be completed, however.
Two of Hammer’s friends from the Oakland A’s helped him make his next move. Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy each invested $20, 000 in Bust It Records, Hammer’s own company. He hawked his debut single, “Ring ’Em,” on the streets. At the same time, he was auditioning and working with musicians, dancers, and his female backup trio, known as Oaktown’s 3-5-7. Striving to put together a more sophisticated act, Hammer held rehearsals seven days a week, sometimes for fourteen hours at a time.
Shortly after the release of his second single, “Let’s Get Started,” Hammer teamed with Felton Pilate, a producer and musician from the group Con Funk Shun. The two worked long hours in Pilate’s basement studio to bring out Hammer’s first full-length album, Feel My Power. Produced on a shoestring budget and marketed without the tremendous resources of a major record company, Feel My Power nevertheless sold a remarkable 60, 000 copies.
Early in 1988 Hammer was catching an act at an Oakland music club when he was spotted by Joy Bailey, an executive at Capitol Records. She didn’t know who he was, but his presence and attitude impressed her. She introduced herself and later arranged for him to meet with some of the company’s top people at Capitol’s Los Angeles headquarters. With his music, dancing, and keen business sense, Hammer convinced Capitol that he was the man who could lead the company successfully into the booming rap music market. He walked away from the meeting with a multi-album contract and a $750, 000 advance. The record company didn’t have to wait long for proof that they’d made the right decision; a reworked version of Feel My Power, titled Let’s Get It Started climbed to sales of more than 1.5 million records.
Touring and appearing at hip hop shows around the nation in the company of well-established rap performers
Tone-Loc, N.W.A., and Heavy D and the Boyz didn’t keep Hammer from working on his next album—he simply outfitted the back of his tour bus with recording equipment. Such methods enabled him to turn out the single “U Can’t Touch This” for about $10, 000, roughly the same cost of Feel My Power. He predicted to Capitol that the album would break all rap music sales records, and his boast was no idle one. Backed by a unique marketing campaign (which included sending cassettes to 100, 000 children, along with personalized letters urging them to request Hammer’s music on MTV), “U Can’t Touch This” had already sold more than five million copies in late 1990, easily surpassing the record formerly held by the Beastie Boys’Licensed to III. The song also became the theme song for the Detroit Pistons basketball team during and after their second NBA championship campaign in 1990.
After the release of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em, whose immensely popular “U Can’t Touch This” was described by Entertainment Weekly as “shamelessly copp[ing] its propulsive riff from Rick James’ ‘Super Freak,’” James himself took legal action against Hammer. The two entertainers reached an out-of-court settlement, with Hammer paying James for “borrowing” James’s early 1980s hit song. As reported in Jet, Hammer told James, “I felt good using music from a person I idolized. Ya’ll used to come out and do a show. Then I’d do my thing at the club to Super Freak.” According to Jet, the performers reconciled, with James telling Hammer, “Keep doing it.”
Before each performance on his tour, Hammer leads his fifteen dancers, twelve backup singers, seven musicians, and two deejays in prayer, then puts on the most energetic show possible. His future ventures include an action-comedy film tentatively titled Pressure, an album to be produced by Prince, and a longform video for which 100, 000 advance orders have already been placed. Furthermore, he has signed a contract uniting Bust It Records with Capitol in a $10 million joint-venture agreement. The rapper also makes commercial endorsements for Pepsi and British Knights athletic wear and a Saturday morning cartoon series focusing on the pre-Hammer childhood of Stanley Kirk Burrell. He hopes to someday break into a film career, telling Rolling Stone’s Steve Hochman: “I’m not a singer-want-to-turn movie star. I’ve always been an actor.”
For now, however, it looks like M. C. Hammer will endure in his present field. “I’m on a mission,” Hammer told Ressner. “The music is in me, and I have to get it out.” As Entertainment Weekly phrased it, “Hammer is cultural evolution in fast action, the rapper as wheeler-dealer and sleek entertainer—and the next logical step for a form of music that is quickly becoming part of the fabric of American life.”
“Ring ’Em,” Bust It Records.
“Let’s Get Started,” Bust It Records.
Feel My Power, Bust It Records (revised version released as Let’s Get It Started), Capitol, 1989.
Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em, Capitol, 1990.
Ebony, January 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, December 28, 1990.
Jet, November 5, 1990.
New York Times, April 15, 1990.
Rolling Stone, May 17, 1990; July 12, 1990; September 6, 1990.
Hammer, M. C. 1963–
M. C. Hammer 1963–
M.C. Hammer was one of rap music’s biggest stars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He did much to bring the music to a general American audience, and roosted atop Billboard magazine’s sales charts for an impressive 21 weeks with his 1989 album, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em Hammer’s career later went into decline, and the financial and legal problems that dogged him testified to how fleeting fame could be in the fast-moving world of hip-hop. By the late 1990s, though, Hammer seemed to have stabilized himself and made himself ready to undertake new projects.
Hammer was born Stanley Kirk Burrell on March 30, 1963 in Oakland, California. His family was poor; the rapper recalled that six children were crammed into a three-bedroom housing project apartment. As a boy he often went to the nearby Oakland Coliseum to watch baseball’s Oakland Athletics play, and an interest in music manifested itself in attempts to copy the dance styles of such flamboyant acts of the day as James Brown and the O’Jays. The youngster’s energy and flair caught the attention of Athletics owner Charles Finley, who eventually hired the future rapper as a clubhouse helper and bat boy. Athletics players detected a resemblance to the home-run king “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron and bestowed on their new assistant the nickname “Hammer.”
Graduating from high school in Oakland, Hammer tried but failed to win a place in a professional baseball organization. Discouraged by his studies in communications at a local college, he resisted the lure of Oakland’s drug trade and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving for three years and learning lessons that he would later apply to the musical organization he would head. Back in Oakland, he took notice of the rap music that was gaining popularity in the city’s clubs and on the streets. He began rapping in small venues, and, with bigger plans on his mind, borrowed $20,000 from Athletics players Mike David and Dwayne Murphy to start his own label, Bust It Records, in the middle 1980s.
Hammer released a single, “Ring ‘Em,” and largely on the strength of tireless street marketing by Hammer and his wife Stephanie—whom Hammer met at a church revival meeting—it achieved considerable popularity at
At a Glance…
Born Stanley Kirk Burrell March 30, 1963, in Oak land, California; son of aclub manager and a police department assistant; married Stephanie; children: Akeiba, Sarah, Stanley Kirk. Education: Graduated from high school in Oakland; took undergraduate classes in communications.
Career: Worked for Oakland Athletics baseball team as bat boy as a young man; Rapper; formed record label, Bust It Records, mid-1980s; released debut single, “Ring ‘Em,” mid-1980s; signed with Capitol Records, 1988; released Feel My Power, retitled Let’s Get It Started, 1989; Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, 1990; Too Legit to Quit, 1991; The Funky Headhunters, 1994; Military service: Three years in U.S. Navy.
Awards: Grammy award (with Rick James and Alonzo Miller), Best Rhythm and Blues Song, 1990 (“U Can’t Touch This”); Grammy award for Best Rap Solo, 1990 (“U Can’t Touch This”); Grammy for Best Music Video (Long Form), 1990 (Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em: The Movie ).
dance clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. After another single, “Let’s Get It Started,” Hammer joined with an experienced producer, Felton Pilate, who had worked with the successful vocal group Con Funk Shun. The album that resulted, Feel My Power, likewise had notable success; its sales of 60,000 copies were more than respectable for a release by an unknown independent label. Heartened by his rising prospects, Hammer launched into seven-day-a-week rehearsals with the growing troupe of dancers, musicians, and backup vocalists he had hired.
It was Hammer’s stage show, and his infectious stage presence, that led to his big break in 1988—performing in an Oakland club, he impressed a Capitol Records executive who “didn’t know who he was, but knew he was somebody,” as she was quoted as saying in the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll “M. C. Hammer,” as he was billing himself, took home a $750,000 advance and a multi-album contract, and it did not take long for Capitol to recoup its investment. Let’s Get It Started, a revised version of Feel My Power, sold over two million copies.
Hammer used some of the proceeds from the album to install a rolling recording studio in the back of his tour bus, where he recorded much of his sophomore effort, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em Released in 1990, this album catapulted M.C. Hammer to the top ranks of the American entertainment business. It sold over ten million copies, took up seemingly permanent residence at the top of the charts, and spawned the hit single “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer became a fixture of the television airwaves, appearing in a Pepsi commercial and starring in his new children’s animated series, Hammerman. There was even a Hammer doll. Flush with cash, he opened his own music management firm, established a children’s foundation, and purchased a top-quality race horse, Lite Light. Early in 1992, Jet estimated that Hammer employed 200 people, with an annual payroll of $6.8 million. He purchased a $20 million mansion in the hills above San Francisco Bay.
Although some critics and hard-core rap aficionados deplored the album, the success of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em was easy to understand. Hammer’s showmanship and elaborate stage choreography, involving fifteen dancers, twelve backup singers, seven live musicians, and two disc jockeys, gave him a powerful visual appeal. Hammer was the first rap artist to put together a choreographed show of this type, and his visual flair attracted heavy airplay for his videos on MTV, a music-video network with a predominantly white viewership that before Hammer had aired little rap music.
On the musical side, Hammer understood the virtues of appealing to something familiar in a genre as new and fast-changing as rap: “U Can’t Touch This” was closely based on the Rick James hit “Super Freak” of a decade before. In fact, James sued Hammer for infringement of copyright, but the suit was settled out of court when Hammer agreed to credit James as co-composer, effectively cutting James in on the millions of dollars the record was earning. Some critics complained of a lack of originality in Hammer’s practices—Entertainment Weekly described “U Can’t Touch This” as “shamelessly copp[ing] its propulsive riff from Rick James’ ‘Super Freak.’” But Hammer set the pattern, both musically and financially, for practices that became common in hip-hop music later in the 1990s in the hands of such platinum-selling performers as Puff Daddy and Will Smith.
Hammer’s young empire began to collapse when his next album, 1991’s Too Legit to Quit, failed to match the sales of its predecessor. Although three million copies were sold, the album could not sustain the massive world tour that Hammer had launched, and it was canceled midway through. Sales declined further with The Funky Headhunter, released in 1994, which unsuccessfully attempted to recast Hammer in the streetwise “gangsta rap” mold of the day. Hammer was sued by Pilate and by several of his former backers, and faced charges that performance troupe members endured an abusive, militaristic atmosphere. Also during this time, he signed with the infamous Death Row Records, but has since moved to another record label.
In April of 1996 Hammer hit bottom, filing for bankruptcy in a California court. His mansion was sold for a fraction of its former price. “My priorities were out of order,” he told Ebony “My priorities should have always been God, family, community, and then business,” he continued. Instead, he went on, they had been “business, business, and business.” Hammer spoke of his renewed commitment to God, and even appeared on gospel music’s Stellar Music Awards show in 1997. In the same interview Hammer promised to unveil the “second leg” of his career, and by 1998 there were signs that he was making progress. He had appeared in two cable television movies, had completed a new album, Family Affair, and was said to be writing a book addressing the situation of African American men. Wherever the “second leg” of his career takes him, fans will enjoy the high-powered entertainment M. C. Hammer loves to provide.
Let’s Get It Started, Capitol (revised version of Feel My Power), 1989.
Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Capitol, 1990.
Too Legit to Quit, Capitol, 1991.
The Funky Headhunter, Giant, 1994.
V Inside Out, Giant, 1995.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Billboard, February 19, 1994, p. 20; January 28, 1995, p. 29.
Ebony, April 1994, p. 22; August 1997, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, December 28, 1990; March 18, 1994, p. 102.
Jet, April 6, 1992, p. 60; August 28, 1995, p. 38; June 24, 1996, p. 38; September 8, 1997, p. 64.
—James M. Manheim
born: stanley kirk burrell; oakland, california, 30 march 1962
best-selling album since 1990: please hammer, don't hurt 'em (1990)
hit songs since 1990: "u can't touch this," "pray," "2 legit 2 quit"
M.C. Hammer is one of the most divisive figures in the history of hip-hop. The quantum leap the Oakland, California, native took from regional sensation to global superstar was a reflection of mainstream pop music's embrace of hip-hop. His major label debut, Let's Get It Started (1988), went double platinum thanks to his club-friendly funk samples, amicable raps, and sing-along choruses, but it was only the beginning of his career. Released two years later, the crossover hit Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em (1990) sold 10 million copies, earned the singer two Grammy Awards (Best R&B Song, Best Solo Rap Performance), and charted three Top 10 singles. Unfortunately, it also won him the ire of his fellow rappers, many of whom accused Hammer of diluting hip-hop's hardcore aesthetic in favor of a softer, clownish style. Within two years, pop's changing winds—as well as the singer's financial mismanagement—had dethroned the once-ubiquitous rapper. Far from celebrated, Hammer's stint in the spotlight was as brief as his signature parachute pants were wide.
Stanley Kirk Burrell owes both his nickname and sense of enterprise to an after-school job as batboy for the Oakland Athletics. The team nicknamed the teen "Hammer" after his resemblance to all-time home-run leader "Hammerin'" Hank Aaron. More importantly, he won the affections of the team's flamboyant owner, Charles Finley, who taught the young Burrell the value of showmanship and hard work. Dedicating himself to hip-hop, the diligent Hammer recorded his debut, Feel My Power (Bust It) (1987), and spent the year driving throughout California promoting it himself. Hammer's diligence paid off. He signed with Capitol Records and his first release with the label, Let's Get It Started, went double platinum, thanks largely to its polished funk vibe and Parliament-sampling dance hit, "Turn This Mutha Out."
Hammer's second album for Capitol exceeded all possible expectations. Its lead single, "U Can't Touch This," may have borrowed wholesale from Rick James's funk hit "Super Freak" (1981), but its catchy chorus and a flashy video featuring Hammer's soon-famous parachute pants made him a national sensation. It would have been the first hip-hop single to top the charts but it was only released as a 12-inch single. His next two singles, "Pray" and "Have You Seen Her," also charted well and pushed his sales to heights previously unthinkable for a hip-hop album. Hammer capitalized on his icon status with endless commercial endorsements, a line of dolls, and a cartoon. Hip-hop purists like 3rd Bass attacked Hammer for his biteless raps, flashy costumes, and glossy excess.
Though Hammer's next album, Too Legit to Quit (1991), sold 3 million copies, his moment was over and the album's tour was cancelled halfway through when it failed to recoup the costs of its extravagant stage show. He had by this time dropped the "M.C." from his name, referring to himself as Hammer; he would reattach the "M.C." to his name with the release of V Inside Out (1995). His last notable hit was "Addams Groove" (1991) off the The Addams Family soundtrack, but poor accounting, lavish living, and Hammer's good-hearted attempt to hire many of his neighborhood friends as dancers had done him in. Financially struggling, Hammer retired for three years before reemerging with the harder-edged and surprisingly aggressive The Funky Headhunter (1994). The hardcore act was unsuccessful, though Hammer was courted out of novelty by gangsta rap label Death Row. In 1996 Hammer declared bankruptcy and renounced luxury in favor of the hyper-positive, spiritually driven approach found on later albums Family Affair (1998) and the patriotic Active Duty (2001).
Feel My Power (Bust It) (Bustin', 1987); Let's Get It Started (Capitol, 1988); Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em (Capitol, 1990); Too Legit to Quit (Capitol/EMI, 1991); The Funky Headhunter (Giant, 1994); V Inside Out (Giant, 1995); Family Affair (Oaktown 3.5.7., 1998); Active Duty (World Hit, 2001). Soundtrack: The Addams Family (Capitol, 1991).