Cover Story

The Man Who Would Be King

It's M.C. Hammer's time -- The young rapper aims to outsell Michael Jackson with his new album ''Too Legit to Quit''

Under a smog-shrouded L.A. harvest moon, a few minutes before midnight, the 30-foot white Lincoln stretch limo waiting for me near the illuminated fountain of the Sheraton in Universal City looks like a great white loitering in waist-high water. The words Hammer Time, gracing the neat black trim on its rear fender, leave no doubt whom the car belongs to. Ensconced in its small living room of an interior a few minutes later, I'm gliding down an empty freeway toward a Hollywood postproduction facility where I'll spend the first of many sleepless nights watching Hammer and his posse at work cutting his new video. The bass line of ''Here Comes the Hammer'' begins to thump on the LOUDEST CAR STEREO IMAGINABLE, informing my heart, spinal cord, and immune system that I have entered Hammer Time — which, as Chuck D, his friend from the hard-core rap group Public Enemy, puts it, ''is some real time.'' It quickly begins to feel like Dream Time.

In three short years, Hammer (formerly M.C. Hammer, formerly Stanley Kirk Burrell) has transformed himself from a 25-year-old Oakland Navy vet with little more than a hard-core rap demo into the largest-selling rap artist in history, with a good shot at becoming, as Capitol Records' promo hype runs, ''the most valuable music franchise today.'' He's already a midsize corporate entity unto himself. He has 170 full-time employees, offices in three cities, production and management companies, and huge plans to diversify into other media. He is receiving daily overtures from people wanting to join him in such ventures. He also has 15 cars; 18 racehorses, including Lite Light, one of the nation's top 3-year-old fillies; and a new 12-acre estate in the hills above Fremont, Calif., 20 miles from the public-housing project in which he grew up. He is currently building film and recording studios at the Fremont estate, as well as two indoor/outdoor pools, basketball and tennis courts, a three-lane bowling alley, and a baseball diamond with a 300-foot center field.

To help pay the bills, Hammer oversees the multimillion-dollar, multimedia promotion blitz behind last week's release of Too Legit to Quit, the follow-up to last year's 10 million-selling Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. He shepherded the creation of both his Saturday-morning cartoon show, Hammerman, which premiered in September, and a pair of Hammer dolls in Barbie's Celebrity Friend line. Next month, he will host an episode of Saturday Night Live, appear in a new Pepsi commercial, and star in the trailer and the TV and radio ad campaigns for the movie The Addams Family, which features three of his songs. A dozen of the 17 songs on the cassette version of the new album (the CD version has 14) will eventually be released as videos, a process few artists understand, control, and profit from as much as Hammer.

I find him holding court on purple couches in an editing studio, legislating the degree of color correction still needed on a special-effects scene from the video of the title track from Too Legit. His eyes are darting between images on three monitors, whereon a glowing sphere holding Hammer and 10 dancers is emerging through a manhole cover from an underworld where the sound of his new album has been forged, irradiating an alley filled with pimps and winos. Hammer wants the eyes and teeth of a bag lady on a fire escape to glow with hope and health as the sphere passes, and he's not impressed with several technicians' litanies of how difficult and time-consuming that feat will be.

He seems a little bug-eyed himself after commuting 20,000 air miles between work and various sports events in the past week, but otherwise he looks regal. He is surrounded by T.C., his ex-Green Beret executive secretary; two video directors; technicians; his bodyguards; his hairstylist; a race-car driver he sponsors; and half a dozen other posse members whose roles I'm never able to discern. He wears a black-and-white pin-striped suit with no shirt, white loafers, and a pound of gold on his fingers, neck, and wrists, and he holds an intricately wrought walking stick of Jamaican mahogany. When he reaches over a sweet-faced, 250-pound bodyguard named House to shake my hand and say, ''Whassup,'' a muscle group worthy of Michelangelo ripples across his chest. ''This is House,'' he says, his voice almost identical to his rap voice on ''U Can't Touch This'' — thick with irony, humor, and lowwwng vowels. ''He used to be Neighborhood, but he lost weight.''

Feeling a bit like a commoner granted audience, I use a word too many in returning the greeting, and Hammer's gaze drifts back to the monitors, on which Jim Belushi, Danny Glover, Eazy-E, Isiah Thomas, Ronnie Lott, David Robinson, and some 20 other entertainers, athletes, and cultural icons are testifying, in exhortations and a specially designed hand signal, that Hammer is, in fact, too legit to quit. He is clearly in love with the video, snorting laughter at Belushi's manic performance, and opening endless bags of Skittles as he gazes, a bit awestruck, at the athletes — particularly baseball stars like the Minnesota Twins' Kirby Puckett and Oakland's Jose Canseco. When a snag occurs, a thick frown in the shape of the Greek letter omega forms on his forehead — a half-circle beginning at his eyebrows and ranging halfway up. Whenever he watches the moment in the video when Joe Smith, CEO of Capitol-EMI (the parent company of Hammer's label), insists, ''Hammer can't quit, he is , the franchise,'' a huge smile wipes the frown from Hammer's brow, no matter how many times he hears Smith's tribute.

Running a full 14 minutes in its long form (the version in MTV's current rotation lasts just six), the video looks and sounds like a cross between Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung and an ESPN highlights show, and it is easily the most ambitious one made since Michael Jackson's 1984 ''Thriller.'' That's no coincidence: Hammer has trained his sights on the Gloved One, and outselling Jackson's upcoming album, Dangerous (tentatively scheduled for a November release) has become the key rung on the ladder of his ascent. In an epilogue to both versions of the video, even a confounded Jackson lookalike has to learn the special ''2 Legit'' hand signal; in the long version, there's a mythic prologue in which James Brown, anointing Hammer his ''godson,'' fuses him with firebolts of soul and instructs him to ''bring back [Jackson's] glove.'' During a news conference to publicize the Hammerman cartoon, Hammer challenged Jackson to a ''dance-off'' concert tour. He doesn't flinch when I ask if he'd like to amplify.

''Michael,'' he says, sounding like Barry White announcing some amorous design, ''I'd like for us to tour around the world, stadium to stadium in the biggest concert the world has ever seen. Hammer versus Michael, and the title of the tour would be 'Who's Bad?'''

Apparently half serious and half public relations-minded (to ensure, as he puts it, that ''Michael can't just moonwalk in here and take an audience from me''), Hammer is issuing this challenge in ornate style. Orlando, his other sweet-faced, 250-pound bodyguard, has the words Get the Glove and a hammer shaved into the back of his crew cut. When Jackson's white, rhinestone- encrusted glove was stolen last month, Hammer offered a $50,000 reward for its return: ''I am the one,'' he explains to me, ''who's going to take the thing from him.'' When he compares his and Jackson's prospective album release dates, marketing strategies, and tour schedules for their new albums, he sounds remarkably like a Lincoln executive speculating about the lines of next fall's Caddies.

The cutting of the all-important video, however, is lagging a bit behind schedule. By 3 a.m., the room seems divided into four camps: those worried about the deadline and the aesthetics; those looking for a way out of there; Hammer (who has been getting up every 15 minutes to dance a hybrid of his Crab step and a Fred Astaire soft-shoe he executes with his walking stick); and me, now mesmerized by him. Probably one of the few people in the world equally at home with record execs and street-gang leaders, he is a fascinating study in contrasts. Though he's fiercely competitive about everything, you leave conversations with him feeling your dignity will never be violated so long as you honor the cardinal rule: Always cut to the chase. Emphatic as he is about indulging himself as an artist, as the nights drag on into what union members refer to as ''golden time,'' I come to realize he's conscious of every dollar spent in the studio and more on top of such things than the executives whose jobs that is.

By 4 a.m., at a loss for how to deal with Hammer's rampant Will to Play, I give up all writerly decorum and find myself in an adjoining studio, reaching deep to hit the high notes of Aretha Franklin's ''Respect'' while Hammer, Orlando, and T.C. pound their chests to gain vibrato as they barbershop the harmonies. Having run that gauntlet, I put him through one of my own.

Finding a James Brown CD in the studio, I put on ''Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine'' — loud — when Hammer leaves the studio. He hears it from down the hall and reenters, shimmying sideways on one leg, then proceeds to Bicycle, Camel Walk, and Mash Potatoes into the next song on the album. I'm about to embark on a critique of his Slide when it dawns on me that he's not dancing on a smooth wood floor but across a pile carpet with no more glide than Velcro.

We leave for the hotel in separate stretch limos, half an hour before sunrise. I clock my driver at 65 mph off the S-curve exit ramp to Universal City, yet Hammer is already waiting in the parking lot of the Sheraton (where he has a wing of the 20th floor booked), his walking stick in one hand and the day's trade papers in the other. He's flanked by some outrageously dressed and famous people — fellow Oakland R&B singers Tony! Toni! Tone! and current R&B smash Jodeci — who've come to preview Too Legit up in his suite. Desperate for sleep, I sneak past them through the front door. Only to be greeted by the Real Seduction — Hammer's sometime backup singers — who won't let me board the elevator until I hear the entirety of their upcoming release, the aptly named ''30-Minute Love Caper.'' As I'm drifting off in my room 10 minutes after they're finished, a small sonic boom of bass echoes down the 100 yards of hallway from Hammer's suite. When I awaken three hours later, the sun is glaring and they're still at it.

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