In my last essay on dancing, you may have noticed one glaring omission: MC Hammer. I did not exclude MC Hammer because I think he’s unimportant. Instead, I wanted to devote an entire essay to him. Hammer was unarguably a great dancer and entertainer. But his story is about much more than that. We didn’t fully recognize it in the 90s, but the backlash against him was a canary in the coal mine. It was a foretelling of the massive shift in code and values my community was about to experience, the consequences of which linger to this day.
‘Do you think for one minute that this is it?
Your party is bogus; it ain’t legit
You better put on the Hammer, and you will be rewarded,
My beat is ever boomin’, and you know I get it started….’
I first discovered MC Hammer in 1988, when I lived in Southern California. “Let’s Get it Started” was bubbling on the radio stations and booming from cars. My stepfather deejayed in his off time by the moniker D.J. Disco. A Philly native, he had the elitist hip-hop attitude typical of people from the Northeast. But even he couldn’t front on Hammer and deny the magnetism of his songs. He integrated “Turn This Mutha Out” and Let’s Get it Started” into his sets. A dance floor couldn’t stay empty when a Hammer song came on. He was guaranteed to get people moving and having fun.
In 1989, “U Can’t Touch This,” the lead single of Hammer’s third album, “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em,” dropped. I still remember watching the video for the first time at 9 years old, amazed by Hammer’s footwork-and unsuccessfully mimicking it. I knew I lacked the rhythm and coordination of a good dancer, but I was still going to try. The song was just that infectious! Driven by a funky sample of Rick James’ “Superfreak,” its popularity put MC Hammer on a new path. His career was launched to stratospheric levels. Mainstream appeal and massive record sales followed.
“Please Hammer Don’t Hurt” became the first hip-hop album to reach coveted diamond status.
Hammer would reap the rewards that came with commercial success. He became a household name, did movie soundtracks, and even had a cartoon series. But Hammer had his share of detractors as well. As early as 1990, other rappers aimed him, labeling MC Hammer inauthentic and a “sellout.” Ice Cube and 3rd Bass launched particularly harsh critiques. This kind of resentment would continue to simmer.
By the time MC Hammer released his fifth album, “The Funky Headhunter,” in 1994, you could see the criticism was wearing on him. His style and image received a makeover. Looking like a clean-cut good guy wasn’t hot in the streets. Hammer is less of a showman on the album cover and in promos. The gaudy chains, unique Hammer pants, and colorful spandex shorts were out. Baggy dark clothes, a black beanie, and impenetrable black shades were now in. Hammer looked less pop and less friendly. And while he still had his moves, the music had a darker edge. He would immediately address the sellout accusations on “It’s All Good.” “The Funky Headhunter would sell, but its success didn’t come close to the “U Can’t Touch This” days. The cultural climate of music, and hip hop especially, had changed drastically from 1988 to 1994. When I was nine years old, Hammer was the man to my peers. But by the time I was fourteen, you couldn’t publicly state you were a Hammer fan in my hood. Public appreciation of Hammer would get you judged and mocked, just as Hammer himself was judged and mocked for not being real or “hard” enough.
The West Coast was now defined by the likes of N.W.A, Ice Cube, Snoop, and Dre. They cast a large shadow on hip-hop. There would be no more room for rappers with a different message, rappers whose music promoted dancing, fun, and light-heartedness. Everyone had to be hard, had to be a gangsta. Young black men adopted the dress code and persona even if it didn’t reflect who they were. They weren’t going to get respect and be recognized as real otherwise. One only needed to look at how black males like MC Hammer and Will Smith were viewed.
Everything changed by the mid-1990s, and not for the better, in my opinion. The fun, diverse genre of music that my stepfather introduced me to changed. The code and standards of my ethnic group were about to change along with it.
As a child, I didn’t see what Hammer that warranted such derision and being called a sellout. Thirty years have elapsed, and I still don’t see it.
Hammer represented Oakland to the fullest! Hammer didn’t pretend to be anything other than a Black man and stood in that identity with pride. There were no statements or behavior from Hammer that showed him committing the cardinal sin of forgetting where you come from.
On the contrary, he showed unflinching loyalty to his hood, putting his day ones and people in need on his payroll. Hammer’s massive entourage and dedication to helping them support their families was a factor in his later financial ruin. He held them down even to his detriment. But THIS man was a sellout, according to the hip-hop purists.
Hammer also didn’t deny the massive crime wave and violence engulfing urban communities at the time. He addressed it in his songs. The difference is that Hammer didn’t glorify it.
Hammer didn’t get on stage and tell the world Black women were inferior. You won’t hear a song or interview of him calling them bitches, hoes, tricks, or sluts, good for nothing but sexual gratification.
Hammer did nothing wrong, as far as I’m concerned. If anyone was a sellout at the time, it wasn’t him. It seems backward to me that artists who spewed such vile commentary about Black women were given accolades and deemed worthy of respect while Hammer was attacked. It bothers me that a rap group gleefully described murdering other young black men and committing statutory rape against black girls was celebrated. Looking back on those days, how MC Hammer was maligned compared to his peers disturbs me even more as an adult. All Hammer wanted to do was keep us dancing. He did not deserve the scorn he received. Hammer being deemed a sellout and not authentically black, while those who perpetuated anti-Black tropes that degraded were amplified, is a badge of shame we have yet to remove.