By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They were just a bunch of buddies, cruising Red Bird Mall, trying to stay out of trouble while killing time. On that summer day in 1989, Kevin Abdullah, who had just graduated from Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, didn't even notice the approaching group; his friends were the ones who recognized the Lone Mixer and Too Big MC, part of rapper MC Hammer's entourage, in town for the big concert that evening.
Hammer's brother Louis was in the group too, and he asked each of the boys what they did. Kevin, a formidable presence with the height and shoulders of a linebacker, said he sang--musical theater mostly--and he belted out a few bars. Then came the invitation, a chance to sing for MC Hammer himself; the man, who was on the cusp of making it big, happened to be staying at a nearby Holiday Inn.
The visit that same night went better than Kevin could have dared dream. Hammer was obviously impressed by Kevin's raw talent and his rich, silky voice. "We wound up talking until around 5 in the morning," says Kevin, now 26. "We talked about our hopes and dreams...he wanted me to put together a routine and audition for him." Hammer said he would be back in town in August, see what Kevin had come up with, and decide if he wanted to sign him then. "I felt pretty sure I had a shot."
That was the beginning of an intensely dedicated summer. Kevin wrote a song specifically for Hammer titled "Oh Oh, You Got the Shing." It was full of praise for the entertainer's skills and rapping braggadocio, and was propelled by a basic drum machine pattern and catchy "uh-oh" chorus. Every day, from 11 in the morning until midnight, Kevin practiced it with his friend Geoff. "I had no time for hanging out," recalls Kevin, who also, during that time, did 1,000 sit-ups a day to keep in shape. "I was rehearsing."
Finally, the big day arrived. Kevin and Geoff were instructed to meet Hammer at the Hyatt Regency following the concert, but when the pair showed up, they learned that Hammer had just checked out. They raced to the parking lot, where members of his touring company were boarding their bus. Kevin positioned himself in front of the vehicle. "I am not moving until I get my audition!" he shouted. Just then, Hammer, who had been eating, emerged and gave the two youths the go-ahead. They launched into their routine, right there in front of the bus. A crowd of about 50 people gathered around, as they sang and danced their way through Kevin's song.
"Hammer got into it," Kevin recalls. "He was dancing with us and everything." According to Kevin, Hammer took his name and number, said he wanted to use his song--even wanted to sign him to a recording contract.
Kevin seized the opportunity, made a demo tape of "Oh Oh, You Got the Shing"--as well as some other songs he had written--and put them in the mail to Hammer, hopeful that his music career was about to be launched.
The only problem was, Kevin had no idea who he was dealing with.
In 1989, Hammer had not yet gained a reputation as an exploiter of talent who sucked the creativity out of those around him for his own commercial success. He had not yet been sued in more than a dozen lawsuits that raised allegations of everything from copyright infringement to breach of contract to a gang rape that allegedly involved members of his entourage. He had not yet been branded as a musical whore by the press, a sellout by his brother rappers, a deadbeat by his creditors. He had not yet involved Kevin in a tangled web of litigation that would align Kevin, both for and against Hammer, in the rapper's enfeebled attempt to stave off yet another angry musician.
In 1989, young Kevin Abdullah, starstruck and blinded by his own dreams, was a natural to admire, even idolize this pop-rapper who had escaped the ghetto of his youth and brazenly held himself out as an example--an icon--for other African-American males to follow. But when Kevin didn't hear back from Hammer as promised, he grew disappointed in his hero--so disappointed he didn't buy his 1990 album, Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em after it was released in January.
That same month, Kevin and his girlfriend, Monica, were in a record store, and they heard a cut off the album; Kevin couldn't resist buying it. Eagerly, they went to his car, put in the tape, and listened to the first song, "Here Comes the Hammer." Kevin's jaw dropped open and his body went numb as he recognized his hook, his chorus. His girlfriend sat next to him, but he remained speechless.
All he could think about was one thing: "The guy stole my song."
The same things that appealed to Kevin appealed to all of America in the early '90s. MC Hammer had soared above his circumstances; born Stanley Kirk Burrell and poor, he was the youngest of seven children living in a government-subsidized three-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California. Hammer kept himself out of trouble by concentrating on his two favorite things, music and baseball. He'd often hang out in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum, hoping to either get into the game or--afterward--see some members of the Oakland Athletics, naturally his favorite team.
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.
Finally, Kevin wrote a letter to Hammer, detailing his impression of what had occurred between them. "My song is on your tape," Kevin recalls writing. "I don't want to sue you...I want to talk to you and work this out." But Kevin never heard back. (Hammer would also not respond to repeated requests for interviews.)
Thus began Kevin's almost masochistic pursuit of Hammer. In August 1990, Hammer came to town. Kevin and Monica went to his show and heard his song done, without so much as a nod or mention from the stage. They waited outside the stage door in the futile hope of getting an audience with Hammer. "Looking back on it, I think I was trying to force him [Hammer] to give me some sort of definite answer," reflects Kevin--who was by then working as an usher at the Fair Park Music Hall. All Kevin got for his efforts were a few photographs--Hammer posing with him, then Monica. Otherwise, he remained evasive.
When Hammer came to Texas in November 1990 to play at the Tarrant County Convention Center, Kevin learned that he was staying at the Fort Worth Hyatt Regency. As before, he ran into Louis, who acted surprised when Kevin revealed that Hammer had never paid him for the song. "Hammer's brother was there with some guy, and he was telling him, 'Yeah, this is Hammer's partner in Dallas, he's the guy who wrote the uh-oh song,'" Kevin remembers. Louis told Kevin to wait while he brought Hammer down to speak with him.
By now he knew this drill. Hammer was a no-show, so Kevin followed Hammer's entourage to their suite of rooms upstairs. Eventually, he ran into Hammer and his security guards coming down the hall.
"Uh-oh man, how you doin'?" Kevin recalls Hammer saying.
"I'm doin' all right. We need to talk about my song."
The beefy guy with Hammer began weighing in on Kevin, telling him to stop distracting him before his show.
Kevin had just about had it with diplomacy and followed Hammer onto the elevator. "I told him that he stole my song, he didn't call me, he used my song without my permission." Hammer, says Kevin, then told him that he could do more with the song than Kevin could, and that he should be thankful he had.
Suddenly, Kevin found himself with a face full of bodyguard. "He told me to hush," Kevin recalls. "He had me pinned in one corner, and Hammer was over in the other one. He [Hammer] was looking at the ground. He wouldn't look at me."
When the elevator stopped, Hammer was the first one out. "Take care of yourself," he said as he scuttled away.
Finally, Kevin had his answer.
He still kept after his music career. "Kevin's always been very laid-back, even as a child," his mother says. "But when he finds something he believes in, he goes after it with his whole heart and won't put it down until it's finished. He was like that about theater at the Arts Magnet, and he was like that about Hammer."
Kevin continued to pursue other avenues, checking out hotels when there was a group in town, looking for another magic moment with another artist or act. "I always think that lightning could strike twice," he explains, "and I was determined to do what I could to make sure it did." Although he eventually got to the point at which he could accurately predict the place where almost every soul, R&B, or rap act through town would stay, he never made that golden connection again.
Eventually, Kevin quit canvassing hotels and withdrew from music, falling into what he calls "a deep slumber." His social life was a mess. His near miss inspired a lot of jealousy and sarcasm from his peers. All he had was his family, and he felt adrift. "I wanted to believe," he says, "not only was this my shot, but this was my song--which to me was a success, everywhere, and I wanted recognition of that."
Unfortunately, the early '90s were not very good years for people who were pained by MC Hammer's success. If Kevin wanted some kind of satisfaction from Hammer, he would have to stand in line.
By 1993, holes were beginning to appear in Hammer's well-thought-out pop facade. Stories of disgruntled partners, unpaid loans, and even worse began to surface, and lawsuits began to circle the megalomaniacal rapper. In 1991, fans in New York and Mississippi claimed that they'd been beaten by his security guards and filed suit. Not long afterward, his two buddies from the Athletics--Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy--sued him for failing to honor the contract he had signed when they advanced him his seed money; eventually, they settled out of court. "I just never understood it," Murphy told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The time he asked for the money, he called us, talked to us all the time. After he got out there in public, it was like, 'Forget you guys.'" In the first part of 1992, another investor, this one an old Navy buddy, sued, claiming that he had also advanced Hammer money--$5,000 in this case--to get the rapper started; he had also received nothing.
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?
"I just listened to him," recalls Kevin. "Then I asked him how come I should do anything for him." Hammer--nothing if not determined--launched into his spiel about taking care of Kevin, about "setting him phat." This time Kevin wasn't buying. Although he had nearly given up on music in general and Hammer in particular, he saw in Hammer's face something he had never seen before. "I saw that he was scared," Kevin remembers. "And that was when I knew I had a case."
Once again, Kevin went looking for a lawyer, his lawsuit made all the more appealing because of the tight squeeze Hammer found himself in. After a series of referrals, Gerald Conley agreed to take the case. With Conley at the wheel, things started to happen.
In January 1993, Kevin filed suit in a Dallas federal court against Stanley Burrell a.k.a. MC Hammer, Bust It Publishing, and Capitol Records for the willful infringement of his copyright. At first Hammer claimed that he had never met Kevin, but photographs of the two together after his 1990 Dallas concert proved otherwise. Then Hammer took the position that the song wasn't a song at all, but a dance, but that didn't fly either. After two years of legal wrangling, Hammer agreed to settle for $250,000. Of course, with Hammer's pending bankruptcy, Kevin has yet to receive a dime. And Kevin has had to go back to court and ask that his judgment be declared a non-dischargeable debt, which would remove it from the soothing relief that Chapter 11 provides.
"If we can prove that Hammer was willful and malicious--that he intended to commit the wrongful act--the judgment can survive the discharge [of the debt through Chapter 11]." Conley says. "I certainly like our side of the case better than his."
Interestingly enough, the Legend's federal case against Hammer--for appropriating the same song--is also going to trial, in the Southern District of New York. Members of the Legend's camp are reluctant to speak on the record, but do admit that they've been following Kevin's case with interest. They claim that they can prove the "uh-oh" riff is theirs and that their claim predates Kevin's, but they politely decline speculation as to how two artists can come up with nearly identical riffs. Kevin has already been deposed in that case.
There's more than a desiccated corpse to fight over, should it come to that. Hammer has reinvented himself, announcing the onset of his gospel career. "I had an up-close and personal conversation with God, and he spanked me," Hammer said. "I deserved it." He seems to be once more making money: Last year he formed Hit Tyme, Inc., a multimedia entertainment company, and released A Family Affair on the Bay Area-based Oaktown Records, of which he owns a portion. Slick and smooth, A Family Affair is typical of modern MOR gospel--precise without passion and made to sell. Hammer should do well. He's appearing on TV again; just last year, he turned Sally Jesse Raphael down when she wouldn't give him her show's full hour--same ol' Hammer. He has his own Web site, where he touts his new direction and tiptoes around his past. The site is a bit odd for a gospel enterprise, full of the flash and glitter of the old days. Hammer shows off his glistening, pumped-up pectorals to good effect throughout, and the religious angle is low-key. The effect is a disconcerting mix of church and nightclub, kind of like Jesus in jerry curls.
Ironically enough, gospel is also the arena that has attracted Kevin. Now a deacon for Pentecostal preacher T.D. Jakes, Kevin is working as a home health aide during the day and preparing for a gospel career; for now, however, he's content to study under Jakes so that he can "learn the things you're supposed to know before you go out there and sing the Gospel." He credits Jakes with bringing him a measure of peace when it comes to MC Hammer. "Through the power of the Bishop, I learned that God wants me to be content on the one hand, but He also wants me to have faith and be patient too.
"Before, I didn't have that, but now I'm content, because I know that He's working it out. I don't need to dwell on something that He's in charge of."
Of course, if it was up to MC Hammer, a man who now puts God in his melodies and Jesus in his dance steps, Kevin would be waiting "to work things out" well into his next life.