Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (2,898 words)
In 1990, rapper Stanley “MC Hammer” Burrell stood at the pinnacle of popular culture. His stage show featured 32 musicians and dancers, all of whom attended a rigorous boot camp. According to an Ebony magazine article from that year, the boot camp consisted of “four miles of jogging, weight training, and at least six hours of dancing daily.” “Hammer Time” cultural saturation included demonstrations of his athletic “Hammer Dance” on Oprah and appearances in commercials for British Knights athletic shoes and Pepsi. Hammer owned 2,000 pairs of baggy “Arabian pants,” which, along with gold lamé vests, made up his distinctive stage image.
Hammer’s 1990 single “U Can’t Touch This,” an infectious romp featuring a prominent Rick James sample, became a runaway hit. It would go on to earn two Grammys (Best R&B Song and the inaugural Best Rap Solo Performance), in addition to becoming the first rap song nominated for Record of the Year. The album it appeared on, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, sold 10 million copies and achieved diamond-level record sales status.
“I like his moves,” one fan told Ebony in 1990. Another was impressed with what he called his “clean-cut” image and “happy music.” Hammer used some of his new wealth to create the Save the Children Foundation for underprivileged kids, funding it with proceeds from his single “Help the Children.” That song’s video begins with a terrifying shoot-out and gangland execution of a little girl. While posing for a foundation publicity photograph, Hammer advised a group of kids wearing “Help the Children” T-shirts to resist “the gang thing and the drug thing.”
Growing up in Oakland, California, Hammer was no stranger to either of those afflictions. He briefly considered dealing drugs before turning to music. “I didn’t need to fantasize about living in a gangsta life or living in a gangsta environment. It was real, so man I don’t want to rap about that,” he once said. “Some may have to call the persona of MC Hammer bubble gum. … And what was bubble gum? It meant his songs were fun. He wasn’t talking about trying to kill somebody and all that. Well if that’s bubble gum, then give me a pack. Because I’m not trying to kill anybody on records and whatnot. I’m not trying to kill anything at all. I’m trying to encourage you to be set free and alive.”
It was a time of intense transition. Musically, Hammer was no longer an influence.
By 1994, Hammer was facing questions of insolvency. “A lot of people out there had seen negative stuff in the press,” he told Ebony that year, in an article primarily focused on detailing the contents of his $20 million mansion. “They felt Hammer wasn’t going to make any more records ― thought I was somewhere living in a shack dead broke. They basically thought I had quit the music business. They thought I was down, so they kicked dirt on me.”
It was a time of intense transition. Musically, Hammer was no longer an influence. “Today there is a more aggressive Hammer,” he said, “because the ’90s require you to be more aggressive. There is a harder edge, but I’m no gangsta. Hammer in the ’90s is on the offense, on the move, on the attack. And it’s all good.” Hammer’s 1995 album Inside Out failed to break the Billboard Hot 100, and consequently Giant Records dropped Hammer from their label.
“Determined not to go the way of erstwhile nemesis Vanilla Ice, a newly humble Hammer attempts another comeback,” Entertainment Weekly said of Inside Out. “This time out, he renounces gangsta hood, thanks God, pays homage to Al Green and Sly Stone, and writes a song for the late Eazy-E.”
Then, in an apparently unusual career move, MC Hammer signed with Death Row Records in 1995. The Death Row album that he was going to release, Too Tight, was shelved. It would have been largely a collaboration with rapper and actor Tupac Shakur, who wrote and produced several songs for the project.
In spite of cultural expectations that would have kept them separate, the squeaky-clean Hammer and streetwise Shakur became friends and productive collaborators. By sharing influences, they helped give each other a voice: Hammer learned a new way to rap from Shakur and in turn performed material Shakur wrote but felt unable to perform. The story of Too Tight is strange and poignant, and is fleshed out by existing recordings.
Shakur ― who also signed to Death Row in 1995 ― was ascendant to even greater career heights than Hammer: Apart from being a multiplatinum artist, Shakur proved to be a talented actor, composer, and producer.
Hammer knew Death Row cofounder Marion “Suge” Knight from the late 1980s in Oakland. Back then, Hammer was promoting his second album, Let’s Get It Started, while Knight was working as a bodyguard for Bobby Brown. Soon after, Knight would form his own publishing company and convince Vanilla Ice to sign over song royalties by allegedly dangling him over a 15th floor balcony by his ankles. (Both Ice and Knight have denied the dangling story.)
By 1994, Knight’s label Death Row was redefining hip-hop musically and attitudinally, bringing a harder sound that became known as gangsta rap. Hammer followed suit: His 1994 single “Sleepin’ on the Master Plan” was produced by, and featured, Death Row artists Tha Dogg Pound.
In spite of cultural expectations that would have kept them separate, the squeaky-clean Hammer and streetwise Shakur became friends and productive collaborators.
“Suge called me asked me would I like to join the family,” Hammer told an interviewer in 1997. “Of course, with the marketing machine that Death Row has, and the way that Suge knew how to get behind an artist and push his music and also the fact that Suge Knight was and still is CEO of what the so-called insiders would call a gangsta rap label wanted to put MC Hammer on his label. … Well, what do they say? It said what I had always said: that music is music.”
It seemed, and continues to seem, like an odd pairing. Hammer, described in the Ebony piece as a “clean cut” rapper who made “happy music,” and Knight ― an actual gangster heading a roster of pretend gangsters, who largely dressed the part. Before Death Row, Knight had almost single-handedly ruined Ruthless Records. His modus operandi was intimidation and outright violence. He drew guns on rappers and forced a black record executive to strip naked and walk through his office. In 2018, Knight was sentenced to 28 years for a charge of voluntary manslaughter after he struck two men with a pickup truck, killing one and leaving the other badly injured, in a 2015 hit-and-run.
Death Row was as notorious as its founder. A guard with a metal detector was stationed at its studio door. “I have not been to one other studio to this day where you have to be searched before you get in,” a Los Angeles–based music business veteran told The New Yorker in 1997. “They have a checklist of people who can go in with guns.” By the time Hammer and Shakur signed with the label in 1995, a man had been stomped to death at a Death Row party.
Hammer was more circumspect when describing Knight. “What I’ll say about Suge is this: Everybody who grew up in a neighborhood had an individual that was like the big man of the neighborhood,” he said in his 1997 interview. “While many in another neighborhood would fear him, he would be your partner. So while over around the lake they were scared to death of him, but you came onto High Street, he’s buying everybody ice cream. That’s Suge Knight.”
“I know a different Suge Knight,” Hammer continued. “I know the other side when he called me. He didn’t call me while I was selling 25 million records, he called me while everyone was saying ‘I don’t know about Hammer.’”
Shakur also benefited from Death Row, though his affiliation brought a mixed blessing. Knight orchestrated Shakur’s release from prison, where he was held after being convicted on two counts of sexual abuse, making Death Row the guarantor for the entirety of his $3 million bail. In return, Shakur would produce and compose for his label mates, as well as releasing solo masterpieces, including All Eyez on Me, the first rap double album. The problem was that Death Row’s credibility was partly based on adherence to the gangsta image. Shakur embraced the machismo and violence, even though he told friends he was signing a deal with the devil. His relationship with Knight proved to be an accelerant.
Shakur’s new role was a departure from his past. Born Lesane Parish Crooks, in Harlem, to parents involved with the Black Panthers, his name was soon changed to Tupac Amaru Shakur. In 1986, his family moved to Baltimore, and there the 14 year-old Tupac enrolled in art school. “For a kid from the ghetto, the Baltimore School for the Arts is heaven,” he once said. “I learned ballet, poetry, jazz, music, everything, Shakespeare, acting, everything as well as academics.” A former teacher called him a “truly gifted actor, with a wonderful mimetic instinct.” A schoolmate described Shakur as a “dear, sweet person. There were inner-city kids at the school who were tough, who stole ― but he was not that, not one bit.”
By the early ’90s, Shakur was immersed in gang culture. His manager Watani Tyehimba, also a former Black Panther, confronted him after he got a prominent “thug life” tattoo. “I said, ‘What have you done?’” she told The New Yorker. “We talked about it, and it became clear that he did it to make sure he never forgot the dispossessed, never forgot where he came from. He was straddling two worlds, and he saw that we never make it as black people unless we sell out. He was saying he never would.”
While these may have been comforting words for his manager, Shakur was selling out in a different way: He knew that songs with aggressive lyrics sold better. He knew that shooting two cops gave him street cred, as he did in Atlanta in 1993. In an interview, rapper and Shakur’s stepbrother Mopreme claimed the two off-duty officers were drunk and harassing a black man, and attacked after Shakur confronted them. The New York Times claimed the men and their wives were almost struck by cars carrying Shakur and his entourage.
Hammer understood the music industry to be a game of dress-up. “There was someone who wanted to label me because I didn’t wear the same clothes that I wore in 1988 or 1989,” he said when asked about baggy pants. “No one is wearing what they wore in ’88 or ’89. People wanted to say, ‘Oh well, Hammer got on the clothes that people are wearing today, he must be a hard core gangsta,’ but the music remained the same.”
Hammer then extended the metaphor. “People have different fantasies in life,” he continued. “The suburban culture always dream of being gangstas. If you ever knew little kids when they were little, they always wanted to be cowboys and indians. Somebody wanted to be the good and somebody wanted to be the bad guy. Every kid in the ghetto dream of being rich, and rich kid wants to be a gangsta.”
As new labelmates, Hammer and Shakur recognized each other’s ability and hit it off immediately. “I really had genuinely brotherly love for Pac when I became part of the Death Row family,” Hammer said. “I had told him about a song I wanted to do. It was off the Ohio Players’ Skin Tight. I wanted to call it ‘Too Tight.’ Before I could get to the studio, Tupac had gotten up early that morning, went to the studio, called in the background singers, laid down the background, [and] wrote a rap. He wanted me to rap and it was done. He immediately embraced his partner from the town.”
There is a video of the session Hammer mentions. Coproducers Shakur and Jose Fuentes are at the board, recording Nanci Fletcher’s vocal. The hook she sings describes Hammer’s comeback.
Everybody talking ‘bout how they down to ride
Now that Hammer’s bustin’ too tight
But I don’t think they know what we got tonight
Show ’em Hammer cause you’re too tight
A CD-quality version of “Too Tight” surfaced in 2016. It’s clear that Shakur asked Hammer to copy his guide vocal, as the delivery is unmistakably in Tupac’s cadence. Hammer must have his own “mimetic instinct”: He makes the transition from tastemaker to student easily. His delivery is confident, even though “Too Tight” is miles away from Hammer’s late-’80s sing-song flow. The Ohio Players’ 1975 riff makes the song groove in a way consistent with the West Coast G-funk style pioneered by Death Row cofounder Dr. Dre. It’s not hard to imagine that the funky old school groove of “U Can’t Touch This” served as a G-funk inspiration.
In the coming months, more work was done on the Too Tight album. “Too Late Playa,” ― recorded in 1996, featuring Shakur, Nutt-So, Danny Boy, and Big Daddy Kane ― would have also made the cut. But Shakur had something even more special to contribute to Hammer’s project.
“Unconditional Love”: “That’s what Tupac gave me,” Hammer told an interviewer. That’s what he gave to me that he wanted to give to the world, because his thing was, ‘These are things that need to be said, and I don’t get to say ’em ― I need somebody to say ’em ― so I want you to say ’em.’”
Shakur recorded his own version, but by 1996 it was clear that his gangsta persona was silencing aspects of himself that Hammer could give voice to.
Come listen to my truest thoughts, my truest feelings
All my peers doing years beyond all these killings
How many bodies must we witness?
Ask momma why I got an urge to die?
Shakur was also planning to leave Death Row, but his contract would prove to be a life sentence. Dr. Dre, uncomfortable with Knight’s “business practices,” left the label in 1996. To do so, he traded his interest in the company for a one-time financial settlement. Shakur’s lawyer, Charles Ogletree, believed Shakur’s three-page Death Row record deal could be successfully challenged, “but you have to live after that,” Ogletree said. “It was a question of how to walk away with your limbs attached and bodily functions operating.”
Hammer and Shakur talked about making movies and “touring the West Coast, high schools only,” Hammer remembered. “The only students that could attend the concert had to have at least a C average.” Plans were in the works for a Death Row East, to put an end to the rap coast wars. Shakur seemed to believe that Hammer could help give him mainstream access. It would not come to pass.
As new labelmates, Hammer and Shakur recognized each other’s ability and hit it off immediately.
In Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, Shakur, Knight, and a Death Row entourage attacked an alleged member of the Crips gang. Afterward, Shakur described the incident to Hammer, also in Las Vegas, and assured him he did not need to worry. Later that night, Shakur was shot four times from another vehicle while riding in Knight’s car.
“It was a sad situation for me as his friend [and one] who stood over his bed in the hospital to see him there in that condition,” Hammer said. “It brought everything to a head for me to say, ‘Hammer, what could you have done as a friend and as an artist and as a man to have prevented this?’ I really said to myself on a few occasions that I might could’ve help stop this thing.”
Shakur died on September 13, 1996. He was 25. Hammer left Death Row soon after, declared bankruptcy, and refocused his career on gospel music. Knight was sent to prison for violating his probation. Death Row, leaderless and beleaguered by lawsuits, functionally ceased to exist. Too Tight was never completed.
“Life is always more important that just music,” Hammer said years later. “Music reflects life, but life is the actuality. Music was insignificant at the moment [Tupac died]. … I wasn’t concerned with the music going forward.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.