COVER STORY : WAR OF THE RAP EGOS : M. C. HAMMER : Well, the Hammer’ll Be Glad to Clue You In

<i> Chris Willman writes about pop music, television and movies for The Times</i>

Hammer seems distracted.

He’s conducting an interview and market research simultaneously. On the far wall of his office, situated in an unassuming business park near the Oakland airport, there is a mammoth TV, an eternal flame with which a visiting succession of moths must vie for his complete attention. His gaze alternates between you and the silent big-screen behemoth over your shoulder. At first it’s a little disconcerting.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 24, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 24, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographer’s name--Lori Stoll’s name was misspelled in the credit for her cover photograph of M.C. Hammer last Sunday.

Soon, though, the darting eyes notwithstanding, you realize you do have his complete attention. A classic workaholic, Hammer is merely processing two things at once, consuming the imagery of a string of MTV videos even while he stays focused on the questions at hand--well aware of which queries from his visitor are designed to incite provocative answers, playfully pointing out lines of questioning he finds redundant, always sharp, always on.

And it does follow that this driven 27-year-old former Navy man didn’t go from selling copies of his first record out ofthe back of his car to selling 10 million copies of his second album (“Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em”) . . . didn’t build his own record label and production company . . . didn’t set up lucrative commercial deals and movie contracts . . . didn’t become the biggest-selling figure in rap music history, mind you, by being distracted .

Nonetheless, pitted against the lure of MTV a few yards behind you, you strive to think of a subject that will command his full attention, arouse his competitive spirit, maybe even get him a little ticked off.

So you go for the inevitable grabber: his would-be arch-rival, Vanilla Ice.

After all, like the ungrateful young boxing protege in “Rocky V,” Vanilla Ice seemingly went from being under Hammer’s wing to nipping at Hammer’s wings. They’ve known each other three years, and Vanilla Ice was the opening act on Hammer’s national tour last year until, having suddenly pushed Hammer out of the long-held top spot on the pop album charts, Ice deserted the tour and took off on his own, sometimes merrily dissing Hammer in the press along the way. The disaffection appeared mutual.


And since Hammer’s stage show is a true spectacle of mass hoofing that is never quite fully captured on television, Vanilla Ice’s choreography on stage, without help from the video editor, is minimalist by comparison. So, you suggest to Hammer, it must be a thorn in his side when Ice has the gall to publicly boast he’s a better dancer.

Hammer gamely takes up the challenge. But his barbs are tempered with a dismissive semi-politeness that suggests he considers Ice a talented but passing fad, a lucky boy who’s not worthy of the full range of his competitive arsenal.

“Vanilla Ice is not really a thorn in my side,” he responds. “I mean, how can a guy be a thorn in your side who wears your clothes, who tries to imitate your stage show? We just did the American Music Awards. He had on a Hammer suit, baggy pants, the sequins thing, the shiny look--but I tricked him, I didn’t wear that. I figured he would.”

He chuckles at Ice’s folly, sounding less derisive than patronizing.

“He should just do like I do. I do things that imitate James Brown, and I say so. Hey, James is an idol of mine. You can’t cover it up. But actually Ice’s all right with me because I knew him before he got started.

“I think he’s influenced a lot by his management to say some things that might not be too smart. . . . But I think lately he’s backed off because they’ve come to realize the public wasn’t too keen on the things that he began to say about himself in regard to M. C. Hammer--even to go as far as to say, ‘I can dance better than M. C. Hammer.’ ”

Quoting Ice seems to leave a chilly distaste in his mouth. He can’t resist one last little salvo of his own. “If I had one leg, I could still outdance him. But he’s all right.”

Hammer’s claims of being widely imitated--and flattered--aren’t just pure vanity.

As you look over his shoulder at the row of gold and platinum record awards on his wall, you can see the reflection from the big-screen TV behind you. And what do you know if the video now playing on MTV, as reflected dimly in the glass, isn’t bearing the image of some young, new hotshot wearing . . . baggy pants.

As the chief of his own small record label as well as an artist, Hammer is clearly a student of pop, cramming, as he is now, to study these upstarts on his screen. But he seems less concerned about Vanilla Ice--or virtually any other rap or R&B; artist that might grace his MTV--than he does with much bigger game.

In the last year, he’s transcended mere rap market appeal to become an icon of the mainstream, and he’s cocky enough--and, goodness knows, tenacious enough--to seek out his real competition now among established pop superstars, not just the rap subculture.

Ask him what mountains are left when he’s already gone beyond his wildest dreams at the age of 27, and Hammer cuts to the chase:

“Michael Jackson sold 20 million in America and 40 million worldwide with ‘Thriller.’ My sports background and my environment make me a competitor. So my next level is to come up with something that can entertain the people even more than I entertained them this time, and hopefully that will result in bigger numbers. The next level is still there. Michael Jackson’s success is still the ultimate.”

Does he suspect that Jackson himself--absent from the pop arena for several years--might be a little nervous about re-entering it, now that Hammer’s style of choreography has become all the rage?

“You tell me! This is certainly what’s happening in the streets, in the music industry, in the pop world, in the urban world. You look at the American Music Awards--you saw New Kids on the Block, they presented you with an M. C. Hammer-ish presentation in the form of about 25 dancers doing hip-hop street dance. Vanilla Ice . . . Bell Biv DeVoe . . . we all are doing a certain style of dance that’s very hip and happening.

“So that’s a good question, and I really do want to see--Michael Jackson, what is he gonna do? What is he gonna do? Because I’m sure there is a certain amount of pressure.”

Not long ago it might have seemed ludicrous for any rap artist to publicly dream of touching Jackson’s sales records, but that was before the punishingly physical video for “U Can’t Touch This” dominated MTV for months and the album “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” spent 21 weeks at the top of the Billboard sales charts.

Five American Music Awards and three Grammys this year--not to mention three Soul Train Awards won just last week--haven’t hurt his chances for topping himself next round. He plans to start shooting his first starring role in a film this summer, though he says it’s too early to reveal details.

Though widely congratulated by most of his peers for busting rap into the mainstream, there is a contingent of hard-core hip-hoppers who despise M. C. Hammer’s rap very nearly as much as they do Vanilla Ice’s white-bread rhythms. (A few, including L.L. Cool J, have even dissed him on record.)

Viewed from either vantage point, he indisputably changed the face of the genre.

Rap was once to black music what punk was to rock ‘n’ roll--a raw form that anyone with an attitude, the barest sense of poetry and a few hundred dollars for gear could fully realize, blessedly free of production values and slick chops, from the heart (or loins, or fists) and onto the streets faster than an afternoon newspaper.

It wasn’t that many years back that the state of the art for rap stage shows was the tour by then-bestsellers the Beastie Boys, whose elaborate set was a backdrop for three seedy ragamuffins coming little closer to choreography than when they might accidentally have poured beer over themselves in something close to unison.

And Hammer’s rise to the top came on the heels of a lot of bad raps for rap, with the ill publicity including a Newsweek cover story that focused on the genre’s rampant misogyny (2 Live Crew), alleged glorification of gang life (N.W.A.) and sometimes militant black nationalism (Public Enemy).

Hammer, for his part, can be a little saucy in concert too, with some of the usual stage-humping moves. But when he appeared recently as the premiere guest on MTV’s new “Rockline” call-in show, the callers were mostly preteens, along with one grateful mom, citing encouragement for his “positive values” raps--anti-drug, pro-God. He’s the first rapper to make the transition to honest-to-gosh role model, complete with an M. C. Hammer doll due in stores from Mattel this spring.

Hammer’s brand of show-biz rap is, of course, de-amateurized and depoliticized. Fans do like the songs--the most famous of which, like “U Can’t Touch This,” brazenly sample well-known riffs for their hooks--but the visual aspect, boldly presented in a series of galvanizing videos and an even more brilliant concert tour, is the crucial key to his success.

With movie prospects arriving on his desk weekly after an acting role on the TV series “Amen” last month, and plenty of hamming in his long-form video projects, Hammer may finally be of less significance as a rapper than as an all-around entertainer who happens to rap.

“I think it’s good for the whole genre,” Hammer says of his expanding influence on the form. “Because if we intend to continue to be taken seriously as an art form, then we have to be on the same level of any other art form. And that includes doing away with any type of lip-syncing. We want our performances to be pure.

“There are times where rap artists may play a record and rap along, and that by no means is a real concert. There basically needs to be a whole stepping up of the entire art form. Certainly I intend to continue to try to be a trailblazer.”

And his detractors?

“Mainly my peers. They never say anything (negative) to me, of course; they would say it to magazines and newspapers. Sure, there were naysayers, but that was because they knew in their hearts that once this was presented, theirs would be a lost art form, as far as their presentation. I mean, if you can see Hammer and his production, why would you want to see one guy walking back and forth, side to side?”

Hammer’s desire to take possession of the hardest-working-man-in-show-business belt developed from modeling himself in large part on the man who owned the title--soul legend James Brown, who was “relentless in his entertaining, giving you everything he had. That’s what I like to do. James put on the big shows, the well-thought out shows, the big productions, and I do the same. I would have to say that there are a lot of parallels between the two of us.”

As a preschooler, young Stanley Kirk Burrell used to watch Brown on TV and mirror him, draping himself in a sheet as the nearest possible replica of Brown’s exit cape.

The Burrell family--both parents and seven children including the youngest, Stanley Kirk--lived on welfare, so commerciality as well as art necessarily figured into any musical plans. Recalls brother Louis Burrell, Hammer’s manager and the president of his record company, “Hammer has always worked with me, ‘me’ being one of his older brothers, we were always trying to find things to do together to try to earn money. The determination has always been there.”

The “Hammer” tag was bestowed during his tenure as batboy with the Oakland A’s, one of whom likened his looks to those of legendary ballplayer Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. Many years later, in starting up Bust It Records, the budding entrepreneur leaned on these connections to borrow $20,000 each from A’s outfielders Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy--an investment that, after Hammer’s rapid rise and allegedly slow repayment, led to bitter accusations, a lawsuit and finally an out-of-court settlement this year.

After dropping out of college, Hammer spent three years in the Navy, where his instincts for self-discipline--the carefully controlled tight ship of his massive touring company is well known--became cemented.

Once out of the service, Hammer took up both Bible study and rap with dual fervor, and with a friend formed a short-lived gospel-rap duo, the Holy Ghost Boys. Isolated Christian anthems--such as the catchy, devout “Pray,” a surprise Top 5 hit last year--still show up in his repertoire, which is otherwise chock full of typical rap boastfulness and a smattering of sex and pro-community social concern.

“I’m one to know without a doubt, the music business is fine and a 9-to-5 job is fine and watching the news is fine and dandy. But when it all comes down to bottom-line factors, I know that God is the answer, and I believe that prayer can change things,” he declares.

Through prayer, perseverance, talent or just plain hustling, things did change for Hammer and in rapid succession.

Hammer sold his first single, “Ring ‘Em,” on the barely existent Bust It Records label, out of his car. A debut album, “Feel My Power,” sold more than 50,000 copies out of the box, spectacular for a homegrown effort. Capitol Records picked it up and, with a few new tracks, re-released it as “Let’s Get It Started.” Remarkably, it went platinum--selling more than a million units.

Touring incessantly, Hammer recorded most of the follow-up, “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em,” on the cheap and on the road--on a tour bus equipped with a studio. A third album is nearly done, recorded the same way, 13 tracks put down in the midst of the whirlwind “Don’t Hurt ‘Em” tour. It’ll be out late this year or early in 1992, complete with an accompanying all-new image to confound the wanna-bes, he promises.

In the meantime, there’s the day-to-day business of Bust It, which is now “in partnership” with Capitol. Two acts, Special Generation and Joey B. Ellis, have already achieved a measure of success, and Louis Burrell--the president of the label, to brother Hammer’s chairman--promises that in less than a year, Bust It will be established as a “full-scope” label replete with heavy-metal and mainstream pop signings, not just hip-hop.

Bust It has offices in Los Angeles and New York, but the “corporate headquarters” remains in Oakland, where Hammer’s black leather-filled office has a view of the Oakland Coliseum.

“Bust It/Capitol Records"--it’s always referred to here as Bust It/Capitol, not just Bust It, the association with a corporation being of apparent great pride--"being in Oakland is an inspiration to the youth here,” Burrell says. “Here’s Kirk Burrell, here’s Louis Burrell, they are from the streets of Oakland, they evolved into something. Being here enables us to build a legacy, something that someone down the road can be inspired by, and that’s why it’s very important for us to remain here in Oakland, to be an inspiration.

“That’s not saying I won’t increase the staff in L.A. and New York, but my headquarters will be known to the world for being in Oakland. I don’t know if geographical location is as meaningful today maybe as it was 10, 20 years ago.” Burrell points to other R&B; producer/artist figures who’ve built successful dynasties in out-of-the-way climes--Flyte Tyme in Minneapolis, L.A. Reid & Babyface in Atlanta.

As for the claims of disgruntled ex-employees--and the cancelled lawsuit by those ballplayer buddies--Hammer insists his rapid accumulation of millions has not affected him, but rather those around him.

Doesn’t it make him uncomfortable, though, being estranged from old friends and associates, all the way down to a feud with two members of his old cohorts, the Oakland A’s?

“Actually, we’re still friends,” he says. “Just wanted to settle our differences on what one wants and what one wants to give and that’s all. No, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, not at all.” He chuckles. “Everybody wants the money.”

‘You didn’t ask me about Sinead O’Connor.”

The conversation seemed to be winding down, but now it seems Hammer is cocked and ready. His gaze is strong and severe, no longer tempted by the lure of MTV.

He’s leaning over his desk toward the visitor who will relay his message, his black leather chair creaking as he strains forward, passionate to deliver his response to the maverick Irish singer who made the mistake of picking on the wrong multiplatinum seller.

It seems that on “Entertainment Tonight” O’Connor named Hammer as one of the artists whose massive sales and industry awards represent everything that’s corrupt about the music business, thus spurring her boycott of the Grammy Awards. And then--far worse to Hammer’s sensibilities--she topped off the insult with a dash of anti-patriotism.

“She said, ‘I don’t care if this hurts my career, I hate the music business, it makes me sick, I can’t even sleep at night.’ That was her business if she wanted to manipulate the press with that and then the Andrew Dice Clay thing and the national anthem thing and the Grammys, but when she put me in it, she picked the wrong guy. She probably thought I was just some dumb rapper she could outwit or something, but I will expooooose her.”

Hammer is starting to sound like Rev. Pressure, the preacher character in his long-form video, railing against the devil.

“Then she went on to say that too many people at the AMAs (American Music Awards) were pro-war. Again, that’s an innuendo (directed at) me, because I dedicated my second award to the troops. I want to make this very clear: We are not pro-war. We are pro- troops . I think when they cut her hair, she lost part of her mind. . . .”

Hammer visited his old Navy base the previous day, which no doubt is now helping turn his rap cockiness into righteous indignation.

“War is serious business. It is no game. We all are anti-war. But she’s doing it again for that publicity bull, using the press and the public to market herself. How would you like to have your husband or daddy over there in the desert, you don’t know if he’s coming back tomorrow, and you turn on the TV and hear this person not even from this country talking against ‘em?

“Hey, get out of here. Please go home. Please. I’ll buy the ticket. One way is what? Fifteen hundred dollars? I got the money waiting--any time you want to leave, be my guest.”

Hammer seems pleased to have had a worthy opponent to rail against--not like Vanilla Ice, a harmless, overconfident kid. He instinctively recognizes that, however repugnant her views might seem, O’Connor is a more provocative figure, worthier of his attention. And now that the world wants to know what Stanley Kirk Burrell thinks of her, or which cola he drinks, for that matter, in the service of patriotism or his own pride, any time is Hammer time.