Ah, the ever-elusive MC Hammer. It's no surprise he remains the most enduring folk hero in East Bay hip-hop, with so many stories circulating about the artist's rise from humble beginnings -- coming up as the dorky Christian rapper, Holy Ghost Boy -- to stardom, followed by the most sudden plunge that has ever been documented in Oaktown hip-hop. To this day, there are jokes making the rounds about the extravagant rap celebrity with his gypsy pants, his velour suits, his matching Beamers, his supposed penchant for rolling cigars with high-figure banknotes, and his unflagging generosity. Some hip-hop gadflies -- Local 1200's DJ Sake 1 among them -- suggest that the rapper bought a helicopter for the Oakland Police Department at the peak of his success (it is in fact an urban legend). Everyone claims ties to him, including the West Oakland-raised gangsta diva Goldee the Murderess, who says he's her cousin, although "We're not tight, and he never done nothing for me."
A mere few days before headlining the Old School Funk Fest at Chronicle Pavilion, with a lineup that includes such other royalty as Morris Day, the SOS Band, and the Ohio Players, Hammer is still evading the press, unable or unwilling to confirm whether he actually has a murderess in his genetic pedigree. Thus, we can only decipher the enigmatic rise and fall of MC Hammer from the few stories we know for sure. Sorta.
The first thing any archivist should know is that there was definitely a time when he was just that guy -- yeah, that guy -- who'd come up to a cute girl and get the hand. Hip-hop author Adisa Banjoko first saw Hammer and the MC's right-hand man, "a big, yoked dude with an S-curl," at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos: "EPMD and 2 Live Crew were performing, and these two guys were standing in the front row, making noise and trying to act like they were large, even though nobody knew who they were. Me and my boy were like, 'Who are these fools, anyway?'" Local hip-hop journalist Davey D says he first met the Hammer in 1986 at radio station KALX, when UC Berkeley DJs started playing the rapper's first record on air. "This guy showed up at the station in shoes with no socks, and did all the dance moves that were on the back of the album," including, D says, a perfectly executed double cabbage patch: "He was infectious."
Stories about MC Hammer changing suits in the middle of business meetings, or, in Davey D's recollection, hounding a prospective investor for fifty Gs and fourteen first-class tickets to Sweden before he even got signed, were part of the reason that Hammer personified both the hustle allegory of Bay Area hip-hop and the cult of decadence to which so many rappers succumb. He was a really good dancer who quickly devolved into bling-bling caricature. By the time Tupac started to rise in popularity, Hammer's claims of being "too legit to quit" had long seemed dubious.
Yet, Banjoko says, people who fault Hammer for not living up to his rap credos are missing the point: "Back in the day, it wasn't only the soft guys who danced -- dancing was a huge part of the show. And Hammer cornered the market on the entertainment side." Moreover, many people who've met Hammer concede that beneath the superfly exterior he was a really nice guy who, as Banjoko explains, "was just trying to get with God and do his thing. And if he puts as much effort into that side as he put into his dancing, he's gonna be okay."
MC Hammer performs this Saturday with Morris Day & the Time, the Ohio Players, and the SOS Band at the Chronicle Pavilion, 2000 Kirker Pass Rd., Concord. The show starts at 2 p.m. $39. Call 925-685-8497 or visit ChroniclePavilion.com for details.