MC Hammer is perhaps the top icon of the pop-rap subgenre of music in the early 1990s, perhaps best known for his huge hits U Can't Touch This and 2 Legit 2 Quit. Along with other acts such as Vanilla Ice, Hammer brought a strong pop mentality to the previously urban sound of rap music, and with this fusion came a short period of huge mainstream popularity.
MC Hammer was born as Stanley Burrell. He arrived in the world in 1962 in Oakland, California, a child of a poor religious family in the Oakland ghetto. His big break came in 1974, when he landed a job as a ball boy for the Oakland Atlhetics baseball team. He often took to making up and executing elaborate dance routines on the sidelines between plays, which the team and the fans quite enjoyed. Young Stanley was a regular at the ballpark in the 1970s and early 1980s, catching and retrieving balls and doing his dances, and this job encouraged him to get involved in the entertainment industry.
By the mid-1980s, he earned enough while working for the Athletics that he could afford to give one real shot to his dreams of being a rap star. He recorded a dance-oriented rap album called Feel My Power mostly with his own money, buying cheap studio time in the Oakland area in 1986 and 1987 to record it. A local label did a limited distribution of it, but most of the copies Hammer himself sold out of the trunk of his car just to make ends meet. He wound up selling over ten thousand copies of it and one of them made its way into the hands of Capitol, who signed him in 1988.
Hammer's 1988 debut album for Capitol, Let's Get It Started, sold quite well, better than Capitol expected, in fact. It was quite popular in urban dance clubs, earning MC Hammer a name in the growing urban pop-dance movement that was growing at the time. Given this success, the label put their marketing machine to work to support Hammer's third album, 1990's Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em, which blew the doors off of the barn.
The album to date has sold in excess of ten million copies, and it features the top ten single U Can't Touch This (mostly based on an extended sample from Rick James' Superfreak) and the top forty single Pray. MC Hammer adopted a look featuring oversized sunglasses and sequined, baggy clothes, a visual look that would dominate the subgenre and would later be adopted by Vanilla Ice. The marketing was in full force as well, putting all of his videos into heavy rotation on MTV and essentially turning the MTV rap program into a program where Hammer was always the main focus.
Hammer's impressive dance skills were perhaps his biggest asset, and he capitalized on that. His concert and television performances always featured elaborate and athletic dance numbers that were quite impressive. However, many music critics and other rappers claimed that his musical and lyrical talents were subpar.
Many people thought that as 1991 rolled around and Vanilla Ice went cold that Hammer's day was over. Amazingly, his 1991 album 2 Legit 2 Quit (in which Hammer dropped the MC from his name, becoming merely "Hammer") was a huge hit, spawning another top ten hit with the title track. But the backlash against the artist was growing, especially due to the rise of gangster rap at the time. Sensing that his popularity was waning, Hammer recorded a final song for the Addams Family Values soundtrack, Addams Family Groove (which became a top ten hit) and disappeared for a while.
His image stayed around, however. From 1991 to 1993, he was the star of a cartoon show, Hammerman, which aired on Saturday mornings on ABC. He also promoted boxing matches. Mostly, though, until 1994, Hammer laid low, planning on revamping his image a bit.
In 1994, Hammer returned with The Funky Headhunter, which was a gangster rap album. Along with this, he adopted a harder "gangsta" image. In light of his earlier work, this new image drew great criticism from legitimate gansta rappers and urban music critics. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts and has sold over a million copies.
Disappointed with the album and backlash, though, Hammer quickly abandoned his look and returned to pop-rap with 1995's Inside Out, which failed to catch anything on fire; it sounded like a pale imitation of his earlier work. Feeling the pinch of failure, Hammer declared bankruptcy in 1997. After that public embarrassment, Hammer announced in late 1997 that he was going to become a Christian artist and use his talents to spread the word of God. In this vein, he released a Christian-themed hip-hop album in 1998, Family Affair, which was a moderate success.
He also released a greatest hits compilation in 1996. In November 2001, he is set to release a patriotic/gospel album called Active Duty.
Hammer will probably best be remembered for the pop-rap crossover of the early 1990s and for his dance talents.