In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em, which went to No. 1 on June 9, 1990, where it stayed for three weeks, and July 7, where it stayed for 18 more weeks.
The enormous white house stands in the eastern hills of Fremont, California, just outside of Oakland. It is outfitted with two pools (indoor and outdoor), three waterfalls, and a sea of black marble that cost $2 million. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle once described the house’s amenities—the mirrored bathrooms, the Jacuzzi and pop-up television set in the master bedroom—as having a “razzmatazz quality,” reflecting the sensibilities of a decorator who had a spent a lot of time in luxury hotels. That was certainly true in the early ’90s, when the house’s owner put a personal stamp on the black gate guarding the property in bold, golden letters: HAMMER TIME.
Like Citizen Kane’s Xanadu or the Tommy Lee episode of MTV Cribs, the “HAMMER TIME” house is a symbol of the silly, outrageous, and ultimately destructive aspects of extreme wealth and power in America. Thanks to Behind The Music and numerous late-night talk-show monologues, the broad strokes of MC Hammer’s humiliating financial downfall in the mid-’90s—when he went from earning tens of millions of dollars during his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em heyday in 1990 to declaring bankruptcy in 1996—are as integrated into the fabric of pop culture as the once-inescapable “U Can’t Touch This.” The house Hammer bought for $12 million and lost only a few years later has become shorthand for the scarcely read fine print of the American Dream: Yes, you can succeed if you work hard. But success is finite; at some point, you lose it all. Loss is infinite.
The house’s iconic status was cinched when it was referenced in a popular Simpsons episode, a Behind The Music spoof called “Behind The Laughter” where the family moves in to Hammer’s house (changing the sign out front to “HO MERTIME”) only to be thrown out later by the IRS when their career hits the skids. In many ways the story of the “HAMMER TIME” house is the modern entertainment cautionary tale—it’s not about drugs or sexual deviance, but mere money mismanagement on a colossal scale. Most of us will never get addicted to heroin or cheat on our spouses with movie stars, but “don’t buy a house that’s beyond your long-term means” are words we all should live by.
Lots of famous people have made and lost fortunes, but few are as defined by it as MC Hammer. Earlier this year, during an appearance on Oprah, Hammer talked about his life after stardom, and it appears to be very full: He’s been married to the same woman for more than 25 years, and has five children; he’s involved in Internet, tech, and social media ventures; he also manages 22 mixed martial artists for some reason. But Oprah also asked Hammer to rehash his Chapter 11 filing from 15 years earlier. “I didn’t just take the money and say, ‘I want to be a blessing to myself.’ I took my money and employed 200 people in my community,” he recounted, again, to millions of viewers. “I had a payroll of a million dollars a month at times."
What’s often forgotten about MC Hammer is that his fame was once so considerable that it pushed even 1994’s hapless The Funky Headhunter to platinum status. (Considering the album was accompanied by the schlong-iest video ever made, this is a pretty incredible feat.) With the success of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em—which sold 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and topped the Billboard album charts for 21 non-consecutive weeks in 1990—Hammer routinely was mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jackson and Prince, who was rumored to be in the running to produce Please Hammer’s follow-up, Too Legit To Quit. At the zenith of his success, Forbes valued Hammer’s net worth at $33 million.
In the recent oral history I Want My MTV, Hammer shares an anecdote about how Jackson sent spies to videotape the Cleopatra-sized production of his “Too Legit To Quit” video. “Michael Jackson was staying one floor beneath me at the Universal Sheraton while I was filming,” he said. “Every day when I came home, I would yell to him through the floor: ‘I’m back, Mike! I’m telling you, you’re gonna love this video!’”
Listening to Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em today, it’s hard to fathom how it became popular enough to make the King Of Pop resort to espionage. As a rapper, Hammer had very little to say, and an unimaginative way of saying it. His rhymes don’t exactly sink to “My name is MC Hammer and I’m here to say…”-level wackness, but it’s not far off. Many songs, most egregiously the title track, grab the chorus by the lapels and pound it out over and over like it’s Joe Pesci at the end of Casino. Then there’s the clumsy and clunky production, which provides backing tracks that sound like Z-grade exercise-video soundtracks on blatantly shitty filler like “On Your Face” and “Work This.” Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em filled many banks full of money at a time when some of the most mind-blowingly great and timeless rap music was being made, which makes the record’s junkiness all the more mystifying. Even “Ice Ice Baby” is better wedding-reception cheese than “U Can’t Touch This.”
To understand MC Hammer’s success, you have to look beyond Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em to the inexhaustible drive that fueled its creation. After a three-year tour of duty in the Navy and a stint in a religious rap duo called the Holy Ghost Boys, Hammer started his own label and sold his first single, “Ring ’Em,” anywhere he could in the Bay Area, including the trunk of his car. Jeff Chang, a Berkeley resident and author of the definitive hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, said via e-mail that he remembers Hammer hawking his records on consignment in local record shops.
“From the start he had a desire to reach mass audiences—something immediately evident when singles like ‘Ring ’Em’ began crossing over from hip-hop clubs to high school dances and white clubs in the East Contra Costa County,” Chang told me. “He had none of the ambivalence with big-time success that those like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and others would have later. And it is important to note, he had none of the musical sense of those artists either, even if he did and still does have universes more show sense than all of them put together.”
Hammer eventually hustled his way to a deal with Capitol, and toured tirelessly in support of 1988’s million-selling Let’s Get It Started, often sharing bills with groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em was recorded during this period, on the road, whenever Hammer had a few moments to spare to lay down tracks in the back of his tour bus. (The overall cost of recording the album was only $10,000.) To promote the record, Capitol sent out letters personally signed by Hammer to 100,000 kids (mostly blacks and Hispanics) asking them to call MTV and request his video. Then Hammer went back on the road.
For Hammer, success was 10 percent musical talent, and 90 percent showing up with a 70-person entourage and the most extravagant rap show of its time. On the Please Hammer tour, there were 15 backing dancers, 12 backing singers, eight security men, seven musicians, three valets, two DJs, and several larger-than-life illuminated hammers that swung around during the show. It was a traveling kingdom that Hammer skillfully managed with unrivaled authority. While Hammer’s music wasn’t all that great, there’s no question that he was a self-made man. He took a firm hand in the creation of his music videos, including closely overseeing the editing. “I introduced a new style of cutting videos, which video directors, after this, called ‘The Hammer Cut,’” he says in I Want My MTV. “I wanted to keep up the energy of the record: a dance move, then cut to the story, then cut to some color, more energy, then jump back. I had to come up with a faster cut.”
The level of control Hammer had over his career and the community of people around him took on a sinister edge in a Rolling Stone cover story that came out during Please Hammer’s reign at No. 1. A “demanding taskmaster” who was dubbed “Jim Jones” by an unnamed, disgruntled former employee, Hammer was depicted as a borderline cult leader who seemed to have a hand in every aspect of his underlings’ lives. Included in the story were excepts from an anonymous four-page screed from another ex-employee ominously claiming that the writer “risked my life to get this letter to you … Hammer once told us if anyone ever told the news or anyone about everything going on they would be sorry.” But in spite of the innuendo, the Rolling Stone reporter wasn’t able to dig up any actual dirt beyond fines for missed curfews, describing Hammer’s crew as a “chipper bunch of young people who behave as if they’re at summer camp.”
In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Chang writes about how hip-hop’s takeover of pop music coincided with a “once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift” in how media and entertainment companies catered to audiences. Instead of a broadcast or “general audience” model, the focus shifted to niches in the early ’90s. The year after Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em spent nearly half of 1990 on the top of the Billboard chart, Soundscan was implemented to count actual record sales via barcode, instead of an imprecise and mysterious survey of retailers. Within weeks, N.W.A.’s indie-rap record Efil4zaggin debuted at No. 2 on the chart.
MC Hammer was a pop success, but now you could be a pop success while appealing to a core rap audience. In retrospect, Hammer’s lack of that core support has helped to keep him out of the history books. There’s nobody left to advocate for him. Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em still ranks among the best-selling hip-hop records ever, but MC Hammer is mentioned just twice in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and both are cursory mentions. I asked Chang how someone as big as Hammer was in the early ’90s and seemingly crucial to popularizing the genre could be written out of its history. His answer was surprisingly affectionate:
As someone who made it big from the East Bay, Hammer has my undying loyalty. But 20 years later, I think his story really remains more compelling than his videos, and his videos remain more compelling than his music. Perhaps that is why Please Hammer Don't Hurt ’Em elicits difficult reactions from many of us hip-hop aesthetes of a certain age. He made us and our part of the world less invisible, but his work was too sugary to make us as proud as his triumphant success did.
Hammer was one of the world’s most famous entertainers for a time. He belonged to everyone, but now nobody wants to claim him—nobody writing the music-history books, anyway. It hardly seems fair: No matter its artistic shortcomings as music, the phenomenon of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em was pivotal in the mainstreaming of hip-hop. Hammer might have lost a lot in the ’90s, but only because he had so much to lose.
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