At 3:30 A.M. on a cavernous soundstage near Minneapolis, surrounded by 20 dancers decked out in spandex and neoprene, rap’s premier mover and shaker, M.C. Hammer, is doing what lots of people are doing these days—staring intently at his feet. Suddenly, the video clip of his frenetic dancing, part of a commercial being filmed for a sneaker company, ends, and the director calls the session back to business with a line familiar to anyone with a radio: “It’s Hammer time!”
It would take a trip to the sun to get any hotter than the 27-year-old rapper from Oakland is right now. His second album, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, has sold more than 4 million copies and is only the third rap LP in history to land at the top of the pop charts. It has also headed the R&B charts for three months. The album’s second single, “U Can’t Touch This,” entered the charts higher than any single since “We Are the World,” and the latest release, a cover of the Chi-lites “Have You Seen Her?” is climbing.
For Hammer (whose real name is Stanley Kirk Burrell), it’s all part of the master plan, which dismisses rap’s usual minimalism in favor of extravagant live shows that feature familiar melodic hooks, 32 performers, cutting-edge costumes and some of the flashiest footwork being done today. “Hammer is an entertainer, a pure entertainer,” says Step Johnson, general manager of black music at Capitol Records. And with his clean image and non-political lyrics, “he has done a lot to deliver his music to a segment of the population that otherwise never would have heard of rap.”
Offstage, however, M.C. switches to his M.B.A. mode and is all business. The business is Bust It Productions, the record label and music factory that Hammer started in 1987. At its studio headquarters in Fremont, Calif., 30 miles from “Oak-town,” Hammer (currently on tour) grooms and produces 10 Bust It groups, fields acting offers and oversees his career from an office outfitted with a hot tub.
There was a time when Hammer’s notion of a hit had more to do with box scores than Billboard charts. Raised in Oakland, he was one of eight children born to a secretary and the manager of a legalized gambling club who divorced when he was 5. The nickname came six years later, when Oakland A’s owner Charley Finley saw Burrell dancing in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum and tagged the 11-year-old as a batboy and gofer. Named by the players after “Hammerin” Hank Aaron, he spent seven years traveling the country with the team during school breaks (the M.C., rapese for master of ceremonies, came later).
He played ball himself in high school, but when a pro tryout for the San Francisco Giants failed to end in a contract, Hammer headed to East Los Angeles College to study communications. However, a year later financial troubles drove him back to Oakland. “Everyone who had any pocket change had it because they were dealing a little drugs,” he says. “I was thinking about doing that, though I never touched the stuff. My father woke me up one day so disappointed I knew he wanted to cry. ‘Son, I hear you’re dealing drugs now.’ I said, ‘Daddy, I ain’t dealing no drugs, you know I wouldn’t do that.’ But I sat up in bed and thought about how I had lived a clean life, a positive life, and suddenly there I was, considering being reduced to no more than the average drug dealer. I went to the nearest recruiting office, got all 50 questions on the test right and joined the Navy.”
Back home after a two-year tour, Hammer borrowed money from Oakland A’s outfielders Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy to form Bust It and try to make some money from music. He was neither a schooled singer nor could he play an instrument, but his first LP, Let’s Get It Started, spawned three Top 10 singles, and his one-man company grew to nearly 100 people. Some employees have been hanging with Hammer since grade school, others “are people I know who are fresh out of prison, and I say that proudly. I want an established business that can employ people from my community, where they can come and get a fair shot.”
When he’s around Oakland, Hammer frequently ventures into the city’s schools from the five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house he shares with his 2-year-old daughter, Akeiba Monique. “I make an active effort to remain a positive role model to kids,” says Hammer. “They need people to show them there’s another way.”
His compassion doesn’t extend to competitors, however. “Rappers are like boxers—everyone’s a rival,” he says. “They’re the most egocentric people in the music business. With the new guys, it’s automatic attitude. They’ll come up and say, ‘What’s up, Hammer?’ but as soon as I walk away they say, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ ”
Hammer knows. “I’m the man,” he says. “The man. There isn’t one of them who sells as many records as I have, who makes as much money as I do, or who has a future that is going to be bigger.”