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Hammer Time

America's most popular rapper is also a demanding taskmaster

September 6, 1990
MC Hammer on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 586.
MC Hammer on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 586.
Frank W. Ockenfels

Flanked by a squad of tall, beefy bodyguards, M.C. Hammer struts out of an elevator into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Columbus, Georgia, a majestic red-brick building that was built as a gristmill before the Civil War. Several women line up near the hotel's registration desk, hoping for autographs, but they're kept in check by the security men. Only a black teenage girl who suffers from muscular dystrophy is granted an audience. Hammer leans over her wheelchair and speaks for a few moments, then gives her a little peck on the cheek. She swoons, tapping her chest to show how fast her heart is beating. "One more time!" she exclaims, struggling to say each word. Hammer favors her with another kiss before turning away to sign a sheaf of legal documents and banking statements.Columbus is a brief stopover on Hammer's sixty-city concert tour in support of his second album, Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. The record has held the Number One position on the pop charts for two months, but without the bodyguards, Hammer would probably pass unnoticed in the Hilton lobby. Out of the spotlight, he appears more like a homeboy from a Spike Lee movie than the most successful rapper in the world. Gone are the Neostyle eyeglasses that he uses merely as an image-enhancing accessory. The natty designer suits and baggy genie pants are also tucked away in his costume case, as Hammer prefers to dress casually in a one-piece bicycle outfit and cap with the flap turned up.

But it's more than clothes and glasses that make the man. Hammer has carefully nurtured an image as a deeply religious, socially conscious performer. His life story is a colorful, rags-to-riches tale that has been glorified by the media over the past few months: growing up on the drug-infested streets of Oakland, California, becoming a batboy for the city's baseball team, starting an independent record label and achieving superstardom with "U Can't Touch This," a song that freely samples Rick James's 1981 hit "Super Freak."

But behind Hammer's rise to fame lurks a more complex story of the performer as a demanding taskmaster. Several dancers and backup singers on Hammer's current concert tour say they've been subjected to strict disciplinary measures. For example, almost all of the members of the seventy-person entourage must return directly to their hotel rooms after each show and remain there for the rest of the evening or they will be slapped with a $100 fine. Penalties have also been meted out for missing dance steps onstage and for failing to have luggage ready on travel days.

Some disgruntled former employees are also starting to speak out, alleging the rapper broke his word on financial promises and kept them on a short leash. "It was like modern-day slavery," says Kent Wilson (Lone Mixer), Hammer's former turntable wizard, who left the group with his brother Kevin (2 Bigg) in February. "He wanted to have total control over everybody at all times," adds Dontay Newman, a bodyguard who departed last year after a pay dispute. "He wanted you to breathe his life. He wanted to control your thoughts." Phyllis Charles, Newman's wife and an original member of Hammer's female backup group Oaktown's 3-5-7, offers a more chilling description: "We used to call him Jim Jones."

The analogy may be extreme, but Hammer does appear to exert an unusual, powerful hold over group members. Before each concert, he leads his flock in a short prayer, asking God to "bless us with energy that we'll be able to do above what we may ask or what we may think." When not touring, the members of his entourage are encouraged to live clustered together in the Bay Area city of Fremont, and Hammer covers some of their household expenses.

In June an anonymous, four-page letter arrived at Rolling Stone's Los Angeles office, alleging numerous abuses by Hammer and his staff. The letter, written by a person claiming to be a member of the touring group, ends on an ominous note: "Hammer once told us if anyone ever told the news or anyone about everything going on they would be sorry. I have risked my life to get this letter to you . . . . I must go now. Please help us." (Rolling Stone was unable to verify the information in the letter.)

On the road, the entourage appears a chipper bunch of young people who behave as if they're at summer camp. Many express joy for the "exposure" the tour affords them, as well as the excitement of traveling around the world. They don't gripe about their salaries or the restrictions – at least not to reporters – and several describe their new jobs in show business as "a dream come true."

Hammer doesn't like to discuss former employees or their financial grievances; he will only say that they wanted to hog the spotlight and that he wishes them well in future endeavors. Asked about his influence over his current entourage, Hammer credits his church background, his position with a professional sports club and a stint in the military with teaching him how to run a tight ship.

"We have a very clean organization, very disciplined," he says. "We try to keep our organization disciplined because we have goals, and in order to achieve those goals we must be disciplined." None of his restrictions are "abusive or oppressive," claims Hammer. "We don't put curfews on you to control your life – just curfews that kind of help save your life. Everybody is not twenty-five or thirty years old here. We've got eighteen-year-olds, nineteen-year-olds, who we feel very responsible for. We allow them to grow up, but we try to maintain a very positive organization and keep everybody out of trouble."

Hammer knows about the kind of trouble young people can get into. Born Stanley Kirk Burrell, the youngest son of seven siblings, he spent most of his early years in Oakland, a city ravaged by crime and poverty.

"We were definitely poor," Hammer says. "Welfare. Government-aided apartment building. Three bedrooms and six children living together at one time." Hammer's father managed a poker club, while his mother held down a variety of low-paying jobs. Times were tough, and the youngster found his greatest pleasure dancing in neighborhood streets and parks, copping critical moves from his early soul idols.

"I saw James Brown's appearance at the Apollo on TV when I was three or four years old and sort of emulated it," Hammer says. "I did the whole routine of 'Please, Please, Please,' falling to the ground and crawling while my brother took a sheet and put it over my back as a cape."

When he wasn't dancing or studying, young Hammer would write original poems and his own commercial jingles for Coca-Cola, Honda and other products. But dancing and writing were merely hobbies. His consuming passion was baseball. Whenever he got the chance, he'd head to the Oakland Coliseum to watch his hometown team, the Athletics.

One day, the crusty A's owner Charlie Finley saw the eleven-year-old doing James Brown splits in the Coliseum parking lot and was so amused he hired the kid to work in the clubhouse. Later, Finley even jokingly awarded Hammer the lofty – and somewhat meaningless – title of executive vice-president. His salary: seven and a half bucks per game.

When the team went on the road, Hammer went along as batboy. And when Finley flew home to Chicago, Hammer would telephone him from the ballpark and give him play-by-play rundowns of the action. Many A's superstars, like slugger Joe Rudi and pitcher Vida Blue, became Hammer's pals, and he earned the nickname Little Hammer after one player noticed his uncanny resemblance to Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron.

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