MC Hammer won't slander anyone.
His Twitter followers wanted him to gloat. It was Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and the Golden State Warriors were crushing the Houston Rockets in Houston. Hammer has a lot of followers: he was an early adopter of Twitter, where he feeds his 3.5 million subscribers a couple dozen updates a day.
Golden State was cruising that night, on the verge of returning to the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years—and the Warriors were dominant, triumphant; the kind of likeable, confident, talented team fans dream of. The narrative had already been written, the parade already planned. Steph Curry arced another improbable, inevitable three-pointer at the basket: it all seemed so obvious. Won't Hammer bask?
"Nah .. Not like this," he wrote. "115–80. Let's change the dialogue. No slander. I'm disappointed for #Rockets fan."
In the midst of the Warriors' playoff run, Hammer has become a kind of self-appointed celebrity spokesman for the franchise. His avatar on Twitter is a cyborg Steph. His Warriors beanie is omnipresent: during a visit to Colgate University, to Stanford, to the gym, to the Castel Sant'Angelo. He trades tweets with Draymond Green and 2015 patron saint Lil B. Last year, he celebrated his 52nd birthday sitting courtside with his wife of 29 years, Stephanie, and Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
He grew up in Oakland, not so far from here, and he's been waiting a long time for the Warriors to return to the Finals. He was only 13 years old the last time they won the championship.
MC Hammer was nicknamed for his resemblance to a Hall of Famer—Hammerin' Hank Aaron—when he was a 9-year-old batboy for the Oakland Athletics. As a teenager, he became the A's executive vice president, and Vida Blue gave him his first boombox. After high school, he tried out for the San Francisco Giants. At 25, he put out his first album, funded by a loan from two A's outfielders. At 26, his follow-up album went platinum, and at 28, his third hit diamond.
Hammer loves sports and the city of Oakland: he grew up with them; grew up in them. And now he wants to see the Warriors win it all again.
At the height of his early-'90s success, MC Hammer built a palace for his family in the foothills of Fremont overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It had Italian marble floors, waterfalls, a recording studio, a bowling alley, $68,000 of mirrors. It had a baseball diamond. The gates welcomed visitors with gold letters: "Hammer Time."
These days, he lives in Tracy, 60 miles away from Oakland, where things are more modest. The family moved here in 1997 after Hammer, $14 million in debt, declared bankruptcy; they sold the mansion at a steep loss and settled into a new home in the suburbs, one-fifth the size of the hilltop Xanadu, where Hammer and his wife raised their five children and several nieces and nephews.
On a recent afternoon, Hammer launched a Periscope broadcast. He does this periodically, popping up in April while waiting on the Portland International tarmac after a visit to the state penitentiary in Sheridan. "Visiting my loved ones," he explained.
This time, Hammer was in his large, sunny backyard in Tracy, the Warriors beanie snug on his head despite the May heat. He went through his usual round of shoutouts as his followers poured in and announced their hometowns, Hammer nodding along, blue and gold pixels shooting through the California air and skittering across the screens of Hammer faithful around the world. There was no game that night, but a couple days later he'd tell his followers that he had to sign off early to go advance scout the Cavs. Got to help the Dubs prepare.
Hammer has been busy. In recent years, he's served as a minister and as a motivational speaker for, among others, the San Francisco 49ers. He had an A&E reality show, Hammertime. He launched a show with the Cooking Channel and is set to appear again in a series highlighting Oakland restaurants.
He's refashioned himself as a tech investor and social media guru, backing companies including Square and Bump Technologies and serving as a social media advisor to Flipboard. He's launched business after business of his own, many of which have kicked off with great fanfare and then quietly receded: a media production company called the Hammer Channel, a social journalism startup, an MMA management firm, and a search engine, which shut down after a year when, in the words of CrunchBase, it "fell short of rivaling Google." Some of Hammer's other innovations have been more successful: he was the co-creator of a platform for sharing dance videos, DanceJam.com, that he sold in 2009. He's given lectures on social media and entrepreneurship at Harvard and Stanford's respective business schools. In 2011, Oprah dubbed him "MC Hammer, the Super-Geek."
Those around him openly debate his next move: politics, maybe.
"I have suggested to him that he could very well be the Schwarzenegger of Oakland," former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle.
It wouldn't be the strangest thing. Hammer has shown an alacrity like few others—like perhaps no one else at all—for dominating the passions that stir this town.
Although he once ruled music, it's a connection to Oakland sports which Hammer holds most dear.
In 1971, A's owner Charlie O. Finley discovered Hammer outside the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum. Accounts vary of what the 9-year-old Hammer—then going by his earthly name, Stanley Kirk Burrell—was doing that day to catch Finley's eye. He was scalping tickets. Unless he was selling baseballs. Or maybe he was beatboxing, dancing, and doing the splits. Could be he was doing all of the above, and demanding tips.
Whatever it was, it got Finley's attention. By then, the A's owner had made a name for himself with his unorthodox ideas: he brought out pitchers on muleback and hosted Bald Man's Day, when the hairless masses got in for free. He employed the game's first, and to date only, designated runner, a former track star named Herb Washington. He petitioned for balls to be made neon orange and so irritated Kansas City authorities with his literal and figurative fireworks that when he moved the team to the Bay Area in 1968, a Missouri senator declared that Oakland was the luckiest city since Hiroshima.
The year after Hammer's arrival, the A's would win the first of what would be three consecutive World Series titles. But it was the beginning of the end for the bombastic Charlie O. Players would soon demand sky-high salaries through free agency and Finley, pathologically thrifty and increasingly at odds with Major League Baseball executives, wasn't interested in paying for stars. In just a few years, the team was dismantled and attendance plummeted.
Little Stanley Burrell, though, was cheap: he was paid $7.50 a game, a decent haul for a local kid when upstairs in the stands, $4.30 could get you two hot dogs and a soda.
The press took notice. "I mean, what other owner hired someone who was under 18, and someone who wasn't Caucasian?" asked Nancy Finley, who was then in high school, in a recent conversation with VICE Sports. Her father, Carl A. Finley, was Charlie's cousin, a minority owner of the A's, and the team's de facto GM in a shrinking front office where titles were fluid. It was Carl Finley's recommendation, she says, that got Hammer the job. "It didn't matter to Dad or Charlie as long as the person was sincere and could be trusted—and was a hard worker. Dad used to say that's very difficult to find."
Nancy Finley remembers arriving at the A's office one day to find Hammer, a couple years her junior, slouched in her usual seat beside her father. "I remember being taken aback, you know, a couple of times," she said. "But I sat on the other side and got used to it."
Over the next nine years, Hammer rose through the ranks: batboy, then errand-runner for VIP guests. He delivered the play-by-play long distance from the phone in the owner's box to Finley, who was often in Chicago, where his insurance business was based.
"He was so good at being a gofer," Finley told the Chicago Tribune, "I did the logical thing. I made him a vice president."
And so it was that a teenage MC Hammer was named executive vice president of the Oakland A's, the letters "VP" stitched into his green and gold cap. "Make way for the vee pee," he called out in the club offices.
Hammer would stay with the A's front office even as the team's staff withered to just half a dozen souls. The rest were fired by Finley, who, as the '70s went on and the team's losing seasons piled up, made no secret of his desire to get out of baseball. In return, Hammer was loyal.
"I want all you people to know that Charlie Finley is the greatest general manager in the game," a 16-year-old Hammer told People in 1978—a year the A's would go 69–93. "I'm a Charlie Finley man. He treats me good and he pays me good."
Charlie Finley sold the A's in 1980, and Hammer, a talented shortstop who had long dreamt of becoming a professional ballplayer, graduated from high school. He was scouted and tried out for the San Francisco Giants, making it to the last 25 in a 500-player tryout camp. He didn't make the cut.
Back in Oakland after three years in the Navy, his baseball future a bust, Hammer set his sights on the music industry. He had begun to perform while he was in the Navy, part of a gospel-slash-rap group called the Holy Ghost Boys. Now, he tried to sell two A's outfielders, Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy, on a bigger dream.
"He'd play tapes, do some dancing," Davis told People. Hammer followed him to Spring Training.
"I went to his house in Arizona, moved the table back and showed him a dance that went with a record I created," Hammer said. "And he and his wife really enjoyed it and they wrote the check."
Davis and Murphy gave Hammer $20,000 each to found his label, Bustin' Records, in exchange for a portion of Hammer's royalties. They followed up with an additional $125,000 a few months later. (This arrangement grew complicated, perhaps unsurprisingly, as Hammer's career exploded; the three settled for an undisclosed amount a couple years later.)
"He said he needed someone to believe in him," said Davis.
It's difficult to overstate the mania that swept the world at MC Hammer's peak. In 1990, "U Can't Touch This" spent almost six months at the top of the charts. The accompanying album, Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, sold 15 million copies that year and spent 21 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200.
Hammer was a genius of self-promotion, starring in ads for Taco Bell (in which he jumped off a building and used his pants to parachute to safety) and signing a Pepsi endorsement so massive and so of-the-moment that the PepsiCo CEO joined him on tour in 1991. He launched a Saturday morning cartoon, Hammerman, in which an animated Stanley Burrell donned magical, talking shoes—Hammer had a line of branded sneakers, after all—and fought crime. He had a 1-900 hotline, two dollars a minute, which he advertised in magazines: "Leave your own personal message for MC."
On stage, Hammer was electric, dazzling with outlandish outfits and elaborate dance routines with dozens of performers, many of them also from Oakland.
As the head of a traveling entertainment troupe, Hammer began to resemble his old boss, Charlie Finley, a notorious micromanager and, at times, a bully. Hammer, too, could be vindictive. A 1990 Rolling Stone article described a relentless, order-obsessed MC quick to punish those who failed to obey his draconian policies, fining dancers for missing steps or failing to have their luggage ready on time. Rolling Stone received an anonymous letter that summer, allegedly from a member of Hammer's dance crew, listing his abuses: "I have risked my life to get this letter to you…. I must go now. Please help us."
"We used to call him Jim Jones," a former backup singer said.
But Hammer, like Finley, also had a more magnanimous side. For all Finley's unsentimental wheeling and dealing—"Well shit, you didn't know if you were gonna be there when the ballpark opened or not," former A's pitcher Dave Heaverlo told VICE Sports of the likelihood of last-minute trades—he was also known to extend generous loans and bonuses to players in need.
Hammer, meanwhile, was generous to a fault. He saw his newly minted fame and fortune as a chance to enrich the people around him.
"From the day Hammer had money, his friends had money," the comedian Arsenio Hall told VH1 in a 1997 special; Hammer had premiered "U Can't Touch This" on Hall's late night show eight years earlier. "This brother, he would put people to work just standing on the stage while he performed. You know, it's: 'What you do, man?' 'Uh, I stand in the corner of the stage like this.'" Hall crossed his arms. "'Why?' 'Uh, 'cause Hammer found out I didn't have no job.'"
This was, of course, the infamously large, infamously payrolled entourage that would hasten Hammer's financial demise. "Hammer," the San Francisco Chronicle noted recently, "had two-thirds of Oakland on his payroll in 1990."
One senses that Hammer has something of a sense of humor about his fall from the pop stratosphere. In 2005, he starred in a Nationwide ad that featured him performing "U Can't Touch This" in front of a massive estate and a bouncing dance crew. A not-inconsequential "Fifteen Minutes Later," a crestfallen, backup-dancer-less Hammer sits on the curb as art and cars are carried off from the estate, a foreclosure sign now in front of it: "Life comes at you fast. Be ready with Nationwide." In 2009, he appeared during Super Bowl XLIII's halftime—in a Cash4Gold ad.
Late in 1989, the Los Angeles Times asked Hammer about his old baseball dreams. "U Can't Touch This" hadn't been released yet; he had yet to kick off a world tour. "Every kid wants to grow up to be a star athlete," Hammer said. He wanted that, of course, growing up in a dugout amongst Oakland's Hall of Famers, nicknamed at 9 years old after another. "But you can have a lot longer career, with a lot less wear and tear on your body, as a musician."
Hammer added: "You're also a lot more recognizable."
And here he is, back at Oracle, where some—mostly those not from the Bay—have been surprised to see him sitting courtside game after game. He's become a patriarch of Oakland sports, an early model, perhaps, of fellow Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, who recently began selling BeastMode baseball jerseys in the A's green and gold. The former batboy can do him one better: in 2011, the A's handed out MC Hammer bobbleheads on the day he tossed the first pitch.
Hammer recorded a Raiders anthem with a crew of other Bay Area rappers in 2013, its accompanying video shot along the sidelines as the Silver and Black faced the Pittsburgh Steelers, Black Hole members leering in the background. "[A]s a kid at the Coliseum daily, I'm forever grateful to Mr. Davis for the #Oakland Pride and culture he instilled in the #Raiders," he wrote on what would have been Al Davis's 84th birthday. "A 'Commitment to Excellence' is an evolving lifelong Journey. Al Davis personified it and we all aspire to it. Happy Birthday AL !!! RAIDERS."
But for now, Hammer is all about the Warriors. After Steph Curry fired off a game-tying three-pointer in the last seconds of a first-round playoff game against the Pelicans in April, Hammer took to Twitter: "This is the beautiful theater of a Championship run," he wrote. "We will tell our grandchildren about this one."
Golden State fans, meanwhile, are protective of Hammer's legacy. Last month, Memphis's Tony Allen inadvertently walked through the Warriors' youth dance squad's MC Hammer routine at Oracle, barely missing a miniature, kick-stepping faux Hammer. ("They were killing the MC Hammer rendition," said Steph Curry later.) As Allen cut across the court, the Junior Jammers' little faces swiveled up, puzzled, at the navy blue giant suddenly in their midst. The boos were instantaneous and continued for the rest of Allen's time at Oracle, one thinks not only because of the Grizzlies swingman's unintended disrespect to Oakland's kids.
He's been there all along, after all, sitting courtside as a younger Hammer, a Hammer from half a lifetime ago, tells visitors that they can't touch Golden State.
And yet Hammer still won't gloat. "I'm not doing any slander. It's no fun this way," he wrote as the Warriors roared past the Rockets. "I ain't no bully & I got luv for H-Town."
When the Warriors ended the series a few nights later, Hammer was courtside again. He congratulated a defeated James Harden on his playing. "I told #BlackSanta he's one of the Best to ever do it," he told his followers.
After all, Hammer knows a thing or two about being on top of the world.