By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It seemed unusual for anyone who had done business with Hammer to be left with any emotions save rage, disappointment, and disgust. In 1992, Hammer's former manager James Earley sued him, claiming Hammer had shorted him millions in royalties. That same year, a former Hammer employee sued, alleging she was gang-raped by members of his entourage after the 1990 Grammys.
Hammer's brief, shining moment of pop cachet was fading fast. His "U Can't Touch This," with its shameless Rick James "Superfreak" lift--a lift that prompted James to threaten suit until he was cut in on the songwriting credits and money--was the No. 1 single for 11 excruciating weeks. Hammer was considered one of the worst offenders of sampling--the taking of snippets of other songs and either weaving them together or imbedding them in a new tune. Many artists have used sampling in creative and ethical ways, but Hammer was the guy who could be counted on to take things too far. Often, he borrowed so much of a song that he had to give the original writers like James credit and money: In addition to "U Can't Touch This," there was "Pray," which takes from Prince's "When Doves Cry"; "It's All Good," cribbed from Brick's "Dusic"; "Oak Town," which hit Prince again, this time from "Get It Up"; "Don't Stop," which Xeroxed the Gap Band's "Shake"; and "Pumps and a Bump," which borrowed liberally from George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." Other creative loans came from the Chi-Lites, the Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye.
His habit of plundering other songs to build the foundations of his own cost him most of his creative credibility, and what little remained was erased by the Mattel doll, the endorsements, the cartoon show, and his straight-arrow message.
His community angle--visiting schools, giving speeches--dissipated in the face of his extravagant lifestyle. As Hammer hobnobbed with fast-trackers, made single $200,000 bets with Carl Icahn, cavorted on the sidelines of NFL games, and took batting practice with major-league teams, he seemed more and more another rich jerk rather than a man of the streets done good. Mattel's Hammer doll--which once was part of the Barbie's Celebrity Friends line--was dropped from the guest list at the Dream House.
In 1994, Hammer released The Funky Headhunter, in which he tried to cop a meaner, more streetwise style. Unfortunately, his earlier PR efforts had been too effective; his puffy-legged, rappin' Aladdin image just made his new attempts to play hardball look silly. Hammer's sales had been falling off since 1992, but with Headhunter, they plunged. Amazingly, the money stream was drying up.
In April 1996, Hammer declared bankruptcy, citing assets of $9.6 million and debts of $13.7 million. He blamed his fall on many things, most ludicrously on his own personal urban-renewal plan, in which he tried to get money flowing back to the 'hood by hiring homeboys for $50 grand a year--paying pals to do nothing while the folks who actually delivered goods and services went begging. Among Hammer's creditors were his former lawyers (almost half a mil), Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders, who had personally loaned Hammer $500,000 (at the time, Hammer explained that he didn't want to go through "all the red tape" of a bank loan), and the IRS ($100,000). All in all, creditors had 20 lawsuits pending against Hammer.
Counted among them was one brought by a naive singer who was still trying to find himself: Kevin Abdullah.
By early 1992, Kevin felt he had little choice but to start talking to lawyers. But the prospect of going up against what would undoubtedly be the best attorneys money could buy must have been daunting to the ones he spoke with, and Kevin had few takers. "I couldn't get a lawyer to listen to me," he says. "Let alone take my case."
Meanwhile, Hammer came back to North Texas in June 1992. A friend of Kevin's had won a pair of tickets to see the show. Perversely, he asked Kevin to go with him. "I thought it was criminal of him to even ask me," Kevin says. "He just kept after me and after me, so finally I just went."
But he remained torn about going. "I told him to go ahead," his mother recalls. "I told him that God would see to it that Hammer would remember him."
At the show, Kevin again heard Hammer do his song, and again found himself waiting behind the arena after the show. "I was mad that I even went," Kevin says. "I definitely was not nearly as calm as I would have liked to be."
One of Hammer's stooges spied Kevin and pulled him aside. "Hammer wants to see you," the man said.
His mother's words suddenly seemed prophetic as Kevin went backstage. This time there was no standing around, no show of force, and no bull from Louis. "I go back there, and Hammer comes up to me, saying, 'I need you, man, I need you.'" Kevin recalls.
Hammer told Kevin that an East Coast band, the Legend, was suing him for ripping off their material for "Here Comes the Hammer," claiming it was the first to come up with Kevin's same "uh-oh" chant. Hammer--after two years of blowing off Kevin's claim--was now in the kind of predicament that would have made O. Henry sharpen his pencil: He needed Kevin for his defense, to prove that it was impossible for the Legend to have provided the basis for "Here Comes the Hammer," because it had come from his "Dallas partner," Kevin Abdullah. Essentially, Hammer had been put in the untenable legal position of saying, how could I steal it from you when I already stole it from him?