'U Can't Touch This' at 25: Remembering MC Hammer's Breakthrough Single

Mick Hutson/Redferns
M.C. Hammer performing in 1991.

One thing hip-hop doesn't do is pause. The mantra of this music has always been "can't stop, won't stop," and there's no guarantee the flavor of any given week will make it past Wednesday. That's one reason MC Hammer's breakthrough single is so remarkable.

"Stop!" the Oakland rapper born Stanley Kirk Burrell proclaims on "U Can't Touch This," released 25 years ago today, on January 13, 1990. "Hammer time!" For a couple of years in the early '90s, Hammer held the fickle public's imagination, taking hip-hop places it had never been before. He became a Saturday morning cartoon, a movie and TV star, and a pitchman for countless products, among them Mattel dolls created in his likeness. None of it would've happened without his signature song.

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Of course, "U Can't Touch This" never would have happened without Rick James, whose "Super Freak" Hammer sampled liberally in producing the track. While the wholesale recycling of James' 1981 hit rubbed some critics the wrong way (and lead to a copyright lawsuit settled out of court), Hammer's strategy was ingenious. By piggybacking on a well-known hit, he was already halfway toward getting folks' attention. Once he threw in those trademark genie pants, some aerobic dance moves, and a memorable catchphrase, he, like fellow 1990 hero Parker Lewis, couldn't lose.

When "U Can't Touch This" began its climb to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart and No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- a placement it surely would have surpassed had Capitol released the tune as a cassingle and not simply a 12-inch vinyl record -- Hammer was already an underground phenom. He'd sold more than 60,000 copies of his self-released debut--later repackaged as his first proper album, Let's Get It Started--and scored three top-five rap singles.

He was legit, in other words, and despite that clean-cut, non-thuggish image that served him so well, he was no major-label construct. This was an Oaktown mover and shaker who'd grown up in the projects, started his own label, and hung out with Suge Knight back in the '80s, before Knight founded Death Row Records.

Hammer was no softie, and yet he didn't feel the need to prove himself with gangsta posturing. On "U Can't Touch This," as he spends five verses talking about how dope a rhymer and dancer he is, he's smiling all the while, pushing a natural confidence that neither wavers nor reads as arrogant. It's like he's bragging with you, not at you. 

"It feels good, when you know you're down," Hammer raps in the first verse, secure in the fame he's earned by honing his dance moves and putting together a Vegas-worthy live show he'd continue to expand on as his notoriety grew. Here was a guy who'd gone from selling records out of his trunk to grinding up on Barbie in toy aisles across America. He wasn't about to phone anything in.

Unfortunately, hip-hop's law of perpetual motion is immutable, and Hammer's moment couldn't last forever. While "U Can't Touch This" propelled the album Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em to the top of the Billboard 200, the rapper saw decreased sales with his follow-up, 1991's Too Legit to Quit, which bowed at No. 2. His next LP, the gangsta reboot The Funky Headhunter, fell shy of the top 10, and while the controversial "Pumps and a Bump" video proved he could fill a pair of speedos, his days filling arenas were over.

Still, Hammer has remained in the public eye, serving first as a cautionary tale following his public declaration of bankruptcy and then branching out into preaching, reality TV, and managing MMA fighters. Ever the entrepreneur, he's long been active in online ventures and social media, and he's continued making music. At the tail end of 2014, he released the single "Don't Go" via a Twitter scheme requiring fans to share "a passing Twitter conversation with the artist himself," as Billboard reported.

The years have also brought vindication, as Hammer's once-derided willingness to turn himself into a product has become standard procedure in the rap game. Artistically, his combo of shiny clothes and jacked '80s hooks has proved lucrative for plenty of artist-producer disciples, most notably Puff Daddy.

Being ahead of your time doesn't guarantee a lasting career, but if nothing else, Hammer's luck, talent, timing, and sweet pants resulted in a hip-hop anthem time can't touch.