The following essay was originally published in slightly different form in One More Robot no. 9 (Winter/Spring 2012).
In the summer of 1990, Please, Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em became the first hip-hop record ever to hit the top of the Billboard album chart. It was a prescient omen: the story of music in the 1990s is by and large the story of how hip-hop came to dominate popular music in America and around the globe. By my count, of the 23 #1 albums on the Billboard chart in 1999, only six owed nothing to hip-hop as a production method or a genre of music; the odd country or Céline Dion album aside, the domination was complete. And it began with Hammer.
Of course hip-hop didn’t begin with Hammer, as even the most novice head knows; the legendary crews of the 70s, the DJs and MCs who brought the form to maturity in the 80s, are the giants upon whose shoulders everyone else stands. But hip-hop’s cultural dominance, the creation of the modern world in which everything runs to a breakbeat of some kind, begins with the rapper, dancer, producer, showman, and entrepreneur from San Francisco whose meteoric rise was echoed by an equally meteoric fall, and whose legacy leaves a lot of troubling questions about the nature of hip-hop stardom and longevity.
Late in 2011, Chicago music critic Steven Hyden wrote an 1800-word piece on Please, Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em for the A.V. Club in which he detailed Hammer’s rise and fall, the evanescent nature of his fame, and the odd limbo-like post-celebrity life he’s carved out for himself. But Hyden breezes airily and dismissively past the actual music, letting non-descriptives like “blatantly shitty,” “clumsy and clunky production,” and “junkiness” stand in for any deeper engagement.
This has more or less been true of any attempts to wrestle with the Hammer phenomenon, or the brief period which allowed his flourishing in the first place. I’ve called it pop-rap, in the hopes that the name will explain itself, but I should perhaps clarify that I don’t mean all hip-hop music that found pop success. Pop-rap is a particular style that flourished in the late 80s and early 90s, and can be distinguished by thin, brittle production with beats that sound preset (and often heavily influenced by the new jack swing sounds that came out of late 80s R&B) rather than sampled or built electronically; lyrics concerned primarily with partying, girls (or boys), and music itself, mostly free of explicit references to drugs, sex, or violence; and rapping styles that could charitably be described as “basic” – and sometimes much worse than that.
In the world of pop-rap, Hammer was a golden god, with ambitious productions — the sample of the rubbery hook from Rick James’ “Super Freak” which underpins “U Can’t Touch This” is one of the sharpest, and most memorable, production tricks in the field — and the confidence (or possibly the hubris) to film a video for 1992’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” in which a white-gloved hand makes the hand signs of the title (a V, an L, another V, and a wiping-the-table-clean motion), implying that Michael Jackson was passing the King-of-Pop torch to him. Hammer would later claim that Jackson had let him know that he liked the video, and approved of its implications; if Michael Jackson represented the pop establishment, there could be no greater legitimization of hip-hop’s credentials as a mainstream, million-selling, public-affecting music than this.
But it was that very legitimacy that was threatened by two other strains of hip-hop that were coming into their own at the same time: the ill-defined but commercially preeminent “gangsta,” and the even-less-well-defined but critically adored “conscious.” When the Soundscan method of recording sales figures accurately came online in March 1991, it revealed huge previously-unrecorded sales figures for gangsta rap (N.W.A.’s Niggaz4Life went to #1 in the second week of the Soundscan era, where their 1988 record Straight Outta Compton had supposedly stalled at #37), which made the lavish success of Hammer’s milquetoast rhymes all the more suspect. A Tribe Called Quest, the flagship conscious group, even called out Hammer directly on their 1990 single “Check the Rhime” — “What you say, Hammer? Proper rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.”
It’s a familiar struggle in twentieth century music, between the Real and True and the Fake and Pop. Jazz heads in the 1940s sneered at players who “went pop,” from Charlie Parker’s experiments with string ensembles to Nat “King” Cole’s move from caffeinated jive to velvet-voiced balladry, and rock fans have long had a contentious relationship with the pop charts, from the days when Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” charted higher than Little Richard’s, to Rod Stewart’s “sellout” moves into soul and disco, to Kurt Cobain’s self-loathing conflictedness about making it bigger than any of his idols ever had. It’s hardly surprising that hip-hop would adopt the same derogatory attitudes about pop just as it was becoming the global language of pop; that’s part of the eternal tension, the see-saw back and forth in popular music between commerce and art.
But if we want to understand hip-hop in a historical perspective, rather than simply a mythological, tribalistic one, in which we automatically side with the winners of critical history (in this case N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest), we have to listen as critically, and as deeply, to the music that did actually pull hip-hop onto the national stage.
Pop-rap existed long before 1990, of course; in fact one could say that until about 1986 there was never any other kind of rap on record. From “Rapper’s Delight” to the crowd-pleasing block-rocking of Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop was party music, made to soundtrack good times, communal happiness, and sexual pursuit. This is, not incidentally, precisely what early jazz and early rock & roll were about; this stage could be considered, roughly, the pre-pop stage; or the stage before distinctions were made between “pop” and “artistic” versions of the music. Once those distinctions are made, once Pat Boone is being compared to Little Richard, or MC Hammer with N.W.A., is when the pop form of the music takes on its own characteristics. They may be largely negative characteristics, defined by a lack of (for example) swearing or sexual innuendo, live samples, bass-heavy production, and so on; but critically, they’re what a certain part of the audience wants from the music.
In the version of Steven Hyden’s article that was published online, it was notable how many commenters remarked that Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em had been their first hip-hop album. They had gone on, of course, to N.W.A. and the Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, Jay-Z and Kanye West, Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj — but they had had to begin somewhere. Other people of a similar age have similar stories to tell. It might not be Hammer that introduced them to hip-hop; it might have been DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, or Vanilla Ice, or Kid ’N Play, or Kriss Kross, or even MC Skat Kat; but at that time (the turn of the 80s into the 90s) and in that place (a middle-class America which was constantly told to be afraid of the angry music coming out of the black and brown ghettos, where crack cocaine, gang violence, and probably AIDS too ran rampant), it was a stepping-stone into a world of secondhand cool, in which the existence of breakbeats and attitude (any attitude) signified at least as much as the specific qualities of the DJ or the MC.
When Hammer said (or rather chanted) that he was “Too Legit to Quit,” he meant that he was too authentic, too street, too real, to be ignored. But just a year prior, the hip-hop consensus was that he was too legitimate, too invested in the top-down chicanery of the music industry, too much a part of the Man, to be trusted. He wouldn’t actually quit for a number of years; but hip-hop moved so quickly in the 1990s that by the time of his 1996 bankruptcy, his King-of-Pop moment was already so far in the past as to be a “remember when?” punchline.
And if Hammer’s critical reputation has aged poorly, that of his pop-rap cohort has, with a handful of exceptions, done even worse. Here, then, in the interest of distributing history a bit more equally, are fifteen pop-rap songs released between 1990 and 1995 that I think make a genuine case for the validity, the excitement, the uniqueness, and the long-term influence of the form.
MC Hammer “U Can’t Touch This” (1990) The pinnacle of pop-rap’s brief day in the sun, an easily loveable dance hit that owes as much to Rick James as it does to Hammer; but not even Rick James turned as sharply on a dime as Hammer does here; while parachute pants would become a fashion punchline for decades later, there’s still something oddly thrilling about his moves in that ridiculous silhouette. Watch The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for proof: middle-class black fashions were all over the place in the 80s and 90s. And if it seems like there have been no successors to “U Can’t Touch This,” you can’t have looked very hard; the 2000s are littered with Hammer’s dance-happy descendents, from Sisqó to the New Boyz to a certain young Bieber.
Vanilla Ice “Ice Ice Baby” (1990) If there is a canon of “so bad it’s good” pop songs similar to the films of Ed Wood or the novels of Harry Keeler, “Ice Ice Baby” surely deserves pride of place at the top of the list. Incompetent as hip-hop in nearly every way, from the stringy approximation of the “Under Pressure” hook to Matthew Van Winkle’s behind-the-beat flow, it’s almost certainly better in your memory than it is on the stereo. But it’s the memory that makes it click: tell any gathering of thirtysomethings to stop, collaborate and listen, and they’ll probably race each other to finish the first verse from memory; that half of them will have better flow than the original only makes it belong more completely to the ages.
Snow “Informer” (1992) While genre nitpickers may claim this is a reggae song rather than a hip-hop one, MC Shan’s guest verse and Snow’s own triple-speed toasting owe as much to hip-hop as to dancehall. If you never believe the song’s tales of hardscrabble running from the cops, it’s not clear you were ever meant to: it’s just a cool pose to strike. But it’s also another reminder of how clearly it seemed in the early 90s that white guys were starting to take over modern black music commercially, the way they had with rock in the 50s and jazz in the 20s. The fact that they ultimately failed to do so, and that the occasional Eminem or Yelawolf aside hip-hop would remain a thoroughly black-identified music, has a lot to do with what narratives white audiences wanted from hip-hop. It’s notable that later reggae/dancehall stars who crossed over to the US mainstream (Shaggy, Sean Paul, Sean Kingston) remained solidly R&B, with relatively little hip-hop posing.
Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch “Good Vibrations” (1991) Again, this is not strictly a hip-hop song; it’s a Eurohouse song in which, as was customary at the time, a not-particularly-street rapper filled up the time between the belting diva choruses (here provided by the legendary Loleatta Holloway). Mark Wahlberg’s flow is poor even by Eurohouse standards; the fact that the only memorable lines he gets off are the ones where he brags about not doing drugs shows exactly how squarely the Funky Bunch was aimed at Mom and Pop America, rather than at their more squirrely teenagers. Of course, in 2012 terms, the house synths and simple rhymes sound practically prescient; reverse the not-doing drugs lines, and it could be a Rihanna ft. Pitbull #1 all summer long.
House of Pain “Jump Around” (1992) The finely-graded politics of early-90s hip-hop could be tricky to navigate. House of Pain, a white hip-hop group of Irish and Latvian heritage, were associated with Cypress Hill, a mestizo hip-hop group of Cuban, Mexican, and Italian heritage, and were therefore more acceptable to hip-hop orthodoxy than Marky Mark, who shared House of Pain’s Irish roots. But where Cypress Hill have fared pretty well in hip-hop’s memory — they were never hardcore rappers, but regularly big-upping cannabis covers a lot — House of Pain has gone from being laughably irrelevant (as frontman Everlast had bluesy alt-rock solo hits) to almost forgotten today. But the hyper ditzoid rock of “Jump Around” remains popular as a template for the fratty turn nu-metal would take with Limp Bizkit, and even the glorious obnoxiousness of crunk.
Kriss Kross “Jump” (1992) Of course the first thing that would happen after hip-hop had proven itself to be a blockbuster commodity would be the arrival of child hip-hop stars. Kriss Kross was far from the first of these (arguably, the first was New Edition back in 1983, but their rapping was incidental to their music), but they were by far the most successful, juggernauting rivals like Another Bad Creation out of the pop charts with their past-ridiculous fashions (backwards everything!) and earworm raps. But where ABC could boast Michael Bivins production and Motownphilly harmonies, Kriss Kross’ productions were minimum-work-required stuff, and their rapping was more notable for its energy than its quality. Still, pop listeners under a certain age in 1992 will smile fondly at the words “wiggity wack” and “miggity mack.”
Kid ’N Play “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody” (1991) Quite possibly the original pop-rap crew, in the sense that they never even tried to pretend to street credibility — they were entertainers first and foremost, with feature films, an animated series, and even a comic book all springing up as natural permutations of their already cartoonish personas. Their music was perhaps the least notable thing about them; while “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody” was their last big hit, it’s not notably any better-produced or more smartly crafted than their 1988 debut. But its relentless positivity, especially as contrasted with the cartoonish misanthropy of gangsta rappers like Ice Cube, was its own selling point.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince “Summertime” (1991) If Kid ’N Play weren’t the original pop-rappers, the Fresh Prince might have been. 1988’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is perhaps the key text of the form, though just a bit too early for this overview. Like Kid ’N Play, he translated his family-friendly persona into a TV show; unlike them, he had enough natural charisma and, eventually, acting ability to become a bona fide movie star, one of the few black leading men in major studio films for the last twenty years. Nothing forgives former corniness like success, of course — a strong argument could be made that Hammer’s music isn’t as fondly remembered as the Fresh Prince’s simply because Hammer fell out of the public eye — and “Summertime” has become a perennial, not just for its renewed relevance every year that May slides into June, but because it’s where Will Smith’s mature persona first came to light: no longer playing the gawky teen, he’s a man now, and future hits like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” and “Miami,” however family-friendly (as Eminem memorably noted), are simply part of hip-hop’s populist fabric, like P. Diddy or Kanye West, the one-time unease with pop-rap a forgotten memory.
Digital Underground “The Humpty Dance” (1990) The anarchic well of George Clinton’s P-Funk, with its blend of righteous grooves and lowbrow comedy, was tailor-made for the hip-hop of the 1980s, which aimed at relatable comedy as frequently as it did at stark documentation of the streets’ hard struggle. By the 90s, though, overt comedy was increasingly left to pop-rap goofsters like Kid ’N Play and the Fresh Prince (and, in a less radio-friendly fashion, Slick Rick) while hardcore rap outfits like Public Enemy and N.W.A. provoked more bitterly ironic smiles than laughter. Digital Underground worked in the P-Funk tradition, and managed to coincide with pop-rap’s momentary florescence at just the right time; within a few years, the door would be closed to hip-hop novelty dances, at least until the Black Eyed Peas threw them open again.
Salt-N-Pepa “Let’s Talk About Sex” (1991) Shock G (a.k.a. Humpty Hump) may have been able to get away with slightly ribald humor on “The Humpty Dance,” but it took pop-rap’s premier female crew to get serious about sex. In many ways, “Let’s Talk About Sex” is a time capsule from the early 90s, when the coinciding topics of safe sex, feminism, and black consciousness-raising (Arrested Development’s “Mr. Wendal” was right around the corner) could be broached in a way that was neither scolding nor overtly erotic, just commonsense. Salt, Pepa and Spinderella cracked wise — “come on, how many guys you know ‘make love’?” — but they were serious about opening lines of communication and demystifying sex; and even with later allowances for explicitness, Missy Elliott or Nicki Minaj would struggle to be so honest.
Sir Mix-A-Lot “Baby Got Back” (1992) Of course, for every proto-feminist anthem, there’s a Neanderthal hit waiting to trounce it in both airplay and sales. If it’s hard to hate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s best-known song, that may simply be because everyone of a certain age knows every word by heart. But his convivial, half-comic air helps the objectification go down easier too, as do the unexpected notes of positivity — when he says “I won’t cuss or hit ya,” it feels less like a sop to sensitivity than that he’s making sure no one’s lost track of what his real interest is: big butts. Mix-A-Lot was far more than a one-trick pony, of course, but even if this single’s beat slams a bit harder than the pop-rap standard, it’s one of the highest pinnacles the genre reached. Twenty years’ worth of booty anthems begin here.
Tag Team “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (1993) One of the most important and influential albums of the 1990s will probably never get its full due; but while ESPN Presents Jock Jams, Volume 1 is far from being a hip-hop-centric record, its gleeful mashup of European techno, Miami bass, cheerleading chants, acid house, and leftover crowd-pleasers from the 70s had a sizable impact on the hip-hop, especially Southern hip-hop, that would develop in the late 90s and 2000s. “Whoomp! (There It Is),” “Tootsee Roll,” and “Hip Hop Hooray” would all have done for inclusion in this survey, but it’s Tag Team’s relentless focus on the party that makes it godfather to half the hip-hop and related music on the chart today. The nonsense chant, the movement through several different crowd-pleasing shout-along breakdowns, the dumb-as-dirt-so-you-can-rap-along lyrics: it’s like Tag Team were predicting Lil Jon, the Black Eyed Peas, and Pitbull all at once.
Positive K “I Got a Man” (1992) 1992 was awfully late for a rapper calling himself Positive K to be having a hit; perhaps the only thing that saved him was that the song, a relentless mack on another guy’s girl, wasn’t a terribly positive example to be setting. Except, of course, that he played both parts, electronically pitch-shifting his voice for the female parts (even affecting a Jamaican accent for a bar). And the “woman” gets in as many good lines as he does, calling his bluff repeatedly; the song even ends on the repeated argument, with Positive K neither a successful Casanova nor Virtue Avenged. This is a return to the tales of unsuccessful hook-ups that made the bulk of the pop-rap repertoire in the 1980s (Fresh Prince, Young MC, Biz Markie, even all the way back to the Sugarhill Gang), but as Salt-N-Pepa insist, the woman also has a voice.
Skee-Lo “I Wish” (1995) If 1992 is late, 1995 is practically Methuselean for pop-rap. Hip-hop was changing so quickly that Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were the new faces of pop’s intersection with rap, and their tales of inland empires and literate nostalgia were an entirely different game from the pop-rap game covered here. So “I Wish” is a throwback not just to the early 90s but to the late 80s, when the Fresh Prince and Young MC identified as teenagers: rather than boasting about all that he has, Skee-Lo dreams about what he wishes he did. His dreams are appropriately absurd for teenage slackerdom — a rabbit in a hat and a baseball bat seem thrown in just to make up the rhyme scheme — but there’s a sweet nostalgia to the song, as even the beat seems sympathetically old-school, or at least older-school than 1995. It might be just a stray vocal similarity, but I hear B.o.B in both Skee-Lo and Positive K; a new pop-rapper for a new rap world.
West Coast Rap All-Stars “We’re All in the Same Gang” (1990) To close, a song which scrambles all the distinctions I’ve been making throughout, between corny positive pop-rap, intelligent feminist conscious rap, and nihilist theatrical gangsta rap: a seven-minute posse cut to speak up against violence, produced by Dr. Dre and featuring pop-rappers Tone Loc, Young MC, Digital Underground, and MC Hammer in addition to hardcore rappers like Above the Law, King Tee, and N.W.A. members past and present (Ice-T and Eazy-E have amazing turns), and four female hip-hop acts. If it’s not as famous as collaborations like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World,” it’s musically more successful than either, with several killer verses and even a stellar contribution from Hammer. Even given the heavy subject matter — the song opens with a sample of a talk-radio host sneering at “gangbangers” for killing a baby in an overnight shooting — Dre keeps the beat meticulously light, and the very title, repeated by almost every contributor, makes mockery of the idea that there’s any difference between pop and hardcore, gangsta and conscious: they’re all entertainers in sound, doing their best to create worlds with their voices and move bodies with their beats. Which is what hip-hop has been doing since 1979, and will continue to do far into the future. I can’t wait to hear what’s next.