Hammered

When Kevin Abdullah wrote a rap song for his idol MC Hammer, he thought he was getting his big break. Instead, he got screwed.

When Athletics owner Charlie Finley noticed the skinny youngster practicing his dance moves in the parking lot after a game, he was so taken with the determined young hoofer that he offered him a job, first in the team clubhouse and then on the road as a bat boy. Burrell--who acquired the "Hammer" nickname because of his admiration for baseballer "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron--soon became something of a team mascot.

After he graduated from high school in the early '80s, as he later told Rolling Stone, "I was a sharp businessman and could have joined up with a top [drug] dealer. I had friends making $5,000 to $6,000 a week easy...I thought about that just like any other entrepreneur would." Instead, he enlisted in the Navy. Upon his discharge, he gathered up seed money--primarily in the form of a loan from Athletics players Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy--and launched his career in music, first as a gospel singer and then as a rapper. In 1988 he signed with Capitol Records and released Let's Get It Started, which went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies.

Hammer was helped by the mutation of rap from urban party music for break-dancers into an edgy, angry vehicle for hard-core jeremiads delivered by the scary likes of Ice T and Too Short. Hammer--hard working, smiling, every inch a capitalist--offered mainstream America a refuge from the ferocity of hard-core rap.

Hammer's stage style--elaborate shows full of sophisticated choreography, costumes that were frequently changed, and dancing--also appealed to the big, soft-spoken Arts Magnet student from South Dallas who loved theater and had appeared in many Arts Magnet productions such as The Wiz. Hammer's personal style was attractive also--the way he avoided the ho-songs, gun-waving, and dope-dealing cliches, and stressed community and social consciousness. Kevin, who had been raised Muslim (albeit in a very relaxed way) but converted to Christianity in 1987, also liked the deep strain of religious faith that ran through both Hammer's music and his public persona: Hammer kept his lyrics positive, visited schools, dissed drugs, and never appeared to forget his gospel roots.

His tours were the cream of the "shed circuit"--those money-making earthen bowls half covered with a tin roof, and his shows were mammoth--14 backup singers, 16 to 18 dancers, four percussionists, three keyboard players, three horn players--and featured Hammer to a degree that saturated the audience with his presence.

Although critically reviled and regarded as something of a clown in rap and hip-hop circles, Hammer was a master of marketing synergy. Almost a cartoon already, he not only dared to appear as an animated character in Hammerman, a crapulent Saturday morning TV show, but also lent his likeness to a Mattel doll. He was on Saturday Night Live and Arsenio, and MTV announced the mind-bending concept of an all-Hammer weekend. Somewhere along the way he dropped the MC and achieved--for a brief, terrifying period--almost total market penetration: Classical music fans, Deadheads, and hard bop enthusiasts all stood by appalled, as their children--jamboxes blaring--aped the precision dancing that was a Hammer hallmark. "He was Mr. Excitement at a time when most rap acts just had a turntable with a DJ and a rapper with a mike," J.R. Reynolds, R&B editor for Billboard told the San Jose Mercury News. "He brought out the concept of having a full-blown show with dancers, skits, just a larger-than-life presentation."

During that time--say, 1990 to 1993--Forbes estimates that Hammer earned $49 million. He also took possession of his dream mansion--nine-car garage, indoor and outdoor pools, stables, a gold toilet--the whole shebang. There was $2 million worth of Italian marble, hand-picked out of the mine by Mrs. Hammer. He had 17 cars--including a Bentley, a Ferrari, an $80,000 Hummer, and five Mercedes.

When Capitol released Too Legit to Quit at the end of '91, the album shipped 2.5 million copies; Capitol spent $1.5 million on TV ads and another million on store displays. There were tie-ins with The Addams Family movie; his genie-pimp baggy-pants look was inexplicably tolerated and even duplicated. He appeared in commercials for Pepsi, British Knights, and Taco Bell--often singing Kevin's song.

But Kevin would soon learn that sometimes it's better if you don't get too close to your idols. Particularly if one of them is MC Hammer.

Although it pained Kevin each time he heard his music being performed under another man's name, he clung to the comments of Hammer's brother Louis, who had told him after the audition that Kevin could depend on Hammer. "His brother told me, 'He likes you,'" Kevin recalls. "'If he said he likes you, then he's gonna get you, 'cause he's a man of his word.'"

Kevin didn't know how to proceed, getting contradictory advice from family and friends. His cousin Wendell, a jazz drummer who helped Kevin with his demo tape, told Kevin, "They stole your song. You should sue." His mother, Freida Sadbury, who recognized the tune immediately, gave different counsel. "Don't worry about it. God will bring it back to Hammer's remembrance."

Kevin struggled to keep that in mind, but still felt he deserved an explanation. He tried to call Hammer many times, but could never get through, accomplishing little besides appreciably raising his mother's phone bill.

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