Hammer Time

America's most popular rapper is also a demanding taskmaster

MC Hammer on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 586.
Frank W. Ockenfels
MC Hammer on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 586.
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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.

Following high school, Hammer pursued a college degree in communications and a career as a professional baseball player. He was unsuccessful at both. Out of school, out of work and out of luck, he felt as if he'd reached a crossroads. For a while he seriously thought about hooking up with the most flourishing trade in his old neighborhood.

"I had a chance to join the rest of the fellows in the drug scene, making fast money," Hammer says. "I was a sharp businessman and could have joined up with a top dealer, calling the shots, showing him how to invest in real estate. I came very close to doing it. I had friends making $5000 to $6000 a week, easy, in their sleep. I thought about that just like any other entrepreneur would."

Instead, Hammer joined the navy. He was stationed in California for most of his three-year hitch, though he did spend six months in Japan. After leaving the service, he found a different type of discipline through the church, studying the Bible intensely six days a week and forming a religious rap duo called the Holy Ghost Boys. Hammer persuaded two record companies to release a solo album under his Holy Ghost Boy guise but eventually abandoned the concept.

Backed by a pair of $20,000 investments from Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy, two Oakland A's players, he formed his own label, Bustin' Records, and sold a debut single called "Ring 'Em" out of his car trunk. Next, he started assembling a posse of sidemen, picking up old neighborhood cronies and dancers from Bay Area clubs. Besides a bodyguard and two DJs, Hammer surrounded himself with a trio of sexy females dubbed Oaktown's 3-5-7, including Tabatha "Terrible T." King, Djuana "Sweet L.D." Johnican and Phyllis "Little P" Charles.

Rehearsal sessions were rough: Hammer drilled his underlings with boot-camp intensity. Dancers practiced long hours in a building that also housed his brother's real-estate business. "We danced thirteen to fourteen hours a day, the same routine over and over again, from Sunday to Sunday," says Sweet L.D.

"If you were injured, you still had to come in to watch," adds Terrible T. "And if you were sick, you'd just have to sweat the cold out. We worked days, nights, holidays, the Fourth of July, Christmas Eve. . . ."

Hammer began preparing a full album of songs that incorporated "Ring 'Em" and another independently pro duced single, "Let's Get It Started." Working with producer-musician Felton Pilate, a former member of the Seventies R&B group Con Funk Shun, Hammer recorded a collection of tracks at Pilate's sixteen-track demo studio, located in the bottom floor of an apartment building.

"All of our vocals were done in a clothes closet we called the 'incentive room,' the incentive being to hurry up and get done or else burn up in there," says Pilate. "We didn't need a talk-back [intercom] system – after the tape stopped I hollered through the door. But the worst part was that after 10:00 p.m. the old woman upstairs would pound on my ceiling with a broom any time she heard anything."

The resulting album, Feel My Power, sold 60,000 copies, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of Hammer's wife, Stephanie, who sent promotional copies to DJs and radio stations. Today, Hammer declines to discuss his personal life. "As far as family goes, I don't make that public," he says. "I have a two-year-old daughter named Akeiba Monique, and that's all I talk about. It is very hard for me to have a private life. Once you lose your privacy you know what it is to have it. So I'm going to let them maintain their privacy and say that the only love life I have is for me and my music and my love of God. That's it."

Another woman, named Joy Bailey, also changed Hammer's life. An executive in the A&R department of Capitol Records, she attended a showcase at Oakland's Oak Tree Cabaret in May 1988, when Hammer and his posse walked in. "I didn't know who he was," Bailey says, "but you knew he was somebody."

The buzz led to a meeting at Capitol's headquarters in Los Angeles, where Hammer floored executives with both his dancing and marketing savvy. At the time, the label was struggling to enter the lucrative rap market but was uncertain about how to break in. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out rap was coming on strong," says Step Johnson, senior vice-president and general manager of Capitol's black-music division. "Hammer was an entertainer as well as an extremely astute businessman."

Hammer came back to Oakland with a multi-album deal and a $750,000 advance. According to Dontay Newman, the money changed Hammer. "He never allowed anybody to curse around him," says the former bodyguard. "But as soon as he got that check from Capitol, everybody was a bitch and a ho."

Capitol released the album Feel My Power with the new title Let's Get It Started, revamping one tune and adding four new songs. Boosted by cuts like "Turn This Mutha Out" and "Pump It Up (Here's the News)," the album went on to sell more than a million and a half copies. Meanwhile, Hammer and his posse were out grinding away at hip-hop shows across the country with Tone-Loc, Kool Moe Dee, N.W.A., Heavy D. and the Boyz and other rappers.

According to his former employees, the nonstop touring schedule led to unrest and disharmony within the group. "He found something we all enjoyed doing, and he choked us with it," says Little P. "We love to dance, and we loved it for him. It was fun, until he started making it not so fun."

Much of the discord concerned salaries. Hammer's former employees say he would promise money that never came, stringing them along with cash handouts rather than regular paychecks. Even today, Hammer's pay seems low by industry standards. One security man on the current tour says his cash per diem fee, which covers meals, laundry and other incidentals, comes to $100 a week; most large rock and pop tours pay their employees at least double that amount.

On the road last year, Hammer recorded his second album in the back of a touring bus equipped with about $50,000 in new gear he bought with his Capitol advance. "It was intended to be the crew bus," says Pilate, who coproduced the album with James Early. "We took out most of the beds and threw together a bunch of equipment in the rear lounge area with no real plan where everything was supposed to go."

Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em was recorded for less than $10,000 – roughly the same budget as his independent debut. It has already sold more than 5 million copies, making it the biggest-selling rap album of all time, easily surpassing the previous record holder, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, by nearly a million copies. Capitol launched the album with an innovative marketing strategy, mailing out free cassette singles and a personalized letter to 100,000 kids, most of whom were black or Hispanic. The letter, signed by Hammer, asked the youths to phone MTV and request his video. Hammer predicts the album still has a long shelf life ahead; he plans to release six more singles and hopes to sell 10 million albums worldwide.

Hammer is promoting the album aggressively on his current world tour, which began in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 15th and will eventually reach Europe, Japan, Australia and the Caribbean. Traveling by private Boeing 727 jet, the touring group includes fifteen dancers, a dozen background singers, eight security men, seven musicians, three valets and two DJs. It isn't an entourage, it's a small army.

It is also clearly the most elaborate live show ever mounted by a rap entertainer. The set looks like an inner-city rooftop. Giant lighting rigs form illuminated hammers that swing down during songs. Blinding pyrotechnic explosions open the show and punctuate several numbers. But most astounding is the sight of more than thirty people crammed onstage together, with a drummer and bass player pounding out live rhythms and a chorus line of dancers leaping, crawling, twirling and shimmying in syncopated time. Hammer time.

The stage show is downright exhausting, for both the audience and the crew. On the plane rides between cities, Hammer, his brothers and a few select friends relax in the first-class section of the plane by going over music-trade charts, international record-sales figures and – perhaps even more important – the daily sports results. There's constant discussion about Oakland A's games, with boxing news a second priority. Another popular topic of conversation is cars. Besides Billboard and USA Today's sports pages, the most passed-around publication on the flight between a Huntsville, Alabama, show and the next gig, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a copy of the Du Pont Registry, featuring photos and price tags of the most elegant high-performance vehicles available.

"Look at the motherfucker! Look, look, look!" Hammer yells to an aide while pointing to a picture of a 1988 Ferrari Koenig Twin Turbo Testarossa Cabriolet. "Look at that son of a bitch!" The assistant's eyes widen as he examines the photo, and Hammer starts to rib him. "I already had you shit in my Porsche going zero to sixty in 3.9 seconds," the rapper says. "My Porsche made you stain your pants. This Testarossa does it in 3.3 – you'll cry, shit and pee at the same time!"

Hammer loves to talk about wheels, and he's sure he'll be driving a classic Ferrari in the future. "In the beginning, I predicted to Capitol that my second album would break the all-time record for rap-album sales," he says. "They kind of snickered, and I said that if that happened I wanted them to buy me a Ferrari Testerossa as a gift. I broke the record. They are looking for my Testerossa."

The expensive bet took place between Hammer and Capitol's new president, Hale Milgrim. "I told him I'll help Capitol gross more than $30 million this year, so the least they could do was buy me a $300,000 car," Hammer says. "I could buy it myself, but it's the principle of the thing."

Capitol may show its gratitude for Hammer with a $300,000 toy, but other rappers are still not impressed. Over the past year, many hip-hop stars have openly shown disrespect for – or "dissed" – Hammer's musical style, his lyrics and his new-found pop success. Hammer counts 2 Live Crew, Chuck D., Ice-T and Heavy D. among his allies, while Run-D.M.C., MC Lyte and other rappers have continually criticized him in songs and interviews. L.L. Cool J, for example, hit Hammer's image in his song "To da Break of Dawn," while Audio Two slammed Hammer's rapping ability on its "Start It Up Y'All." "I respect Hammer a lot, and I like his dancing," says Audio Two's Milk Dee. "But a lot of people think he can't rhyme, and they're just scared to say it."

"You'll hear a lot of negative feedback," Hammer says. "There's jealousy and envy because my records have not only sold to the black market but also to the pop market. My competitors are dumbfounded and my success has confused them, especially those who thought their style and images were superior. It's not the fact that anybody hates Hammer or hates his music – they hate the change."

Hammer believes the dissing wars are merely a symptom of a bigger problem. "I hear a lot of negative things said about Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Jesse Jackson from our people," he says. "Why? We worked so hard and we complain we don't have any heroes, and then we get some and we pull them down. It's a shame, and rap music is a strong perpetrator of that. Rap is the only musical art form where artists try to tell other artists how their record should sell. I don't hear Bruce Springsteen talking about Aerosmith." His rap peers may mock him and his former employees may knock him, but pop audiences are snapping up his albums by the ton. In mid-July, an estimated half-million albums were being sold in a single week. Hammer isn't just thinking about next week's sales, however. He's aiming for a long-term career as a major superstar, and with 5 million albums already sold, he's obviously on his way. There's been talk about Prince producing his next album, and Hammer's brother, Louis Burell, says he heard from a good source that Michael Jackson is afraid his dance steps have become outdated.

Hammer is hankering for what he calls "the next level" of success, and he knows it will take a lot of hustling and discipline to get there. "As far as I'm concerned I'm still working as hard to make it as I did when I sold 60,000 albums," he says. "I'm still the same person. I went from riding fourteen guys in a van to a hundred people on a plane, but it's still the same thing – work, work, work."

There are other grand plans – a long-form video that has already racked up over 100,000 in advance orders, a fall tour possibly sponsored by MTV, a stadium show next summer with outrageous special effects, an action-comedy film called Pressure and sponsorship deals with suitors ranging from Pepsi to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In addition, Hammer's Bustin' Records recently entered into a $10 million joint-venture deal with Capitol, in which Hammer is expected to provide new albums by various acts, including Oaktown's 3-5-7, the rap group One Cause One Effect and the vocal quintet Special Generation. Recently he guested on Earth, Wind and Fire's latest album, and he wants to work with another of his childhood idols, the O'Jays.

Could Hammer be spreading himself too thin? "No," he says with firm resolve. "I'm a go-getter, a workaholic man. I can sometimes go three days straight in the studio with no sleep. The music is in me, and I have to get it out. I'm on a mission. But it's an organized mission. I know what I'm doing. I have got a plan."

This story is from the September 6th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 586: September 6, 1990