The life of MC Hammer is a fascinating pop-culture saga, and the twists just keep on coming. His meteoric rise up the charts in the early 90s and the financial troubles resulting from his subsequent drop-off in sales are sometimes cited as a cautionary tale of the vicissitudes of fame.
Hammer has released a new music video, “Don’t Go”, through a canny private-access Twitter campaign. The stone-serious social messages and soulful warmth of the song may surprise people who haven’t been keeping up with the man. It’s a six-minute jam with allusions to the socially-conscious soul of the early ‘70s, with rapped verses tackling head-on stories of struggle, pain and injustice.
On the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), Hammer (née Stanley Kirk Burrell) tweeted that he would give pre-release access to the video to any of his 3.4 million Twitter followers who requested it through a tweet of their own. Hammer then followed those requestors, retweeted many of the thousands of responses. Getting the video necessarily entails sharing a passing Twitter conversation with the artist himself. Hammer tells Billboard that, despite the modern sophistication of the campaign, the release is really aimed at getting back to the primacy of human reactions to artistic output.
“‘Don’t Go’ is an onion of many layers,” Hammer says. ”It’s what you would call an ‘album’ — but throw that word out. Opus. It’s that many layers. A complete work. its not just the music and the film, but [there is] an art component that will blow your mind. It has the romantic feelings of the ’70s delivered with passion that is appropriate for the moment.”
Hammer’s new album/uber-album will get a full release before the year is out, including two other songs that he said deal with “a system that is pain and hurt.” He will reveal the next layer of the opus onion with — what else? — an app he’s calling “the best app for consuming video you’ve ever seen. Period.”
The release is a reminder that artistic lives can have second acts, and suggests that social media hypesmanship can not only be put in the service of art, but at times can be a part of that art itself. There’s nothing here to brook ironic glee in memory of Hammer pants, jungle-print speedos, Vanilla Ice beefs and the rest of the man’s pop legacy. It’s solemn, dignified and unabashedly spiritual. Hammer rhymes:
“Our children in the streets catching hell / they lock ‘em up for profit in those privatised jails / on our blocks, they bustin’ off shots / another child dead at the hands of a killer cop / In the ‘Lou’, solidarity with you / rest in peace Mike Brown, you ignited a movement.”
Judging from the thousands of #DontGo tweets in the past two weeks, the song is touching a nerve. In a Twitter direct message, Hammer says: “This model is continuing to bear fruit. From VH1’s morning buzz to the world biggest DJ pool demanding ‘Don’t Go.’”
Whether or not the song becomes a hit, it’s a powerful document of who MC Hammer is and what he believes. It’s emotionally deep and personal, and it’s currently being distributed personally by MC Hammer, with social media nijitsu that has been years in the honing.
In the two decades that have passed since the mildly notorious (and proto-viral) “Pumps and Bump” video, Hammer’s many ventures have continued to peg timestamps along the cultural moment, particularly in the realms of software, Bay Area civics and Silicon Valley power politics. Other plays have included a reality TV show, a clothing line, a mixed martial arts athlete management company and musical endeavors, often behind the scenes. He may have strayed far from the Billboard charts, but he got to work early on the whole creative-artist-cum-entrepreneur-cum-at-large-personal-brand thing.
In 2007, when Google’s purchase of Youtube was causing waves of portentous profit in Silicon Valley boardrooms, Hammer lauched DanceJam.com, a dance videos site intended as a social network for dance-related community. In 2011, two years after Microsoft launched Bing, Hammer co-founded WireDoo, a “deep relationship” search engine aimed to compete with Google and Microsoft.
Both DanceJam and WireDoo met with early demise (DanceJam was purchased inauspiciously by Grind Networks in 2009, WireDoo simply vanished before shipping a product). In true entrepreneurial fashion, MC Hammer has kept on.
The 300 guests on hand for his 50th birthday celebration at San Francisco’s Tonga Room in 2012 included Mayor Ed Lee, former mayor Willie Brown, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and representatives from the executive leadership of internet heavyweights like Youtube, Apple, Airbnb and Twitch. It featured the emcee abilities of renowned capitalist and civic organizer Ron Conway. Hammer performed “Pumps and a Hump” to a crowd that included his mother. In a column for the San Francisco Chronicle, Brown wrote, “[he] has turned himself into quite a voice on the Internet, with hundreds of thousands of people following his blog and tweets about culture and dance… and the Google folks are treating it like a gold mine.”
“I’ve been a part of social media since its inception,” Hammer says, “and in understanding the behavior of social media, the distribution, and the desired behaviors you want to get from content. There are more competing [music distribution] platforms every day but at the end of the day, they’re still not the best use-case for the artists. [Artists are] not getting the analytics, data, relationships with their fanbase for the art that he or she created. There’s some other intermediary that’s the overall beneficiary of the content created through the gifts and talent of the artists,” he said.
With “Don’t Go”, Hammer has showcased a DIY distribution model, leveraging his position as the world’s 585th most followed Twitter account to do so.
“God bless the labels. They do what they do and they have made adjustments, and are fighting the good fight in the new landscape. But from this side of the table, after [years of] experience with the music industry, and being at the birth of Youtube and social media, I know what a label means. You don’t need a label, you need a partner,” he said, adding, “I have a ton of partners personally, I have a plethora of strategic partners, and each one does their own thing.”
All this ready talk of strategic partnerships, use-cases, analytics and content would be discouraging if Hammer were using his cyber-megaphone simply for digital clout and brand expansion. Luckily, “Don’t Go” has a message that gets beyond the medium. It manages to be extremely personal, making the Twitter release tactic seem natural when it may otherwise smack of the often-contrived craft of ‘user engagement.’
“Behind it all, yours truly understands how to utilize these platforms as well as anyone on the planet.”
Which may be true, regardless of his reputation for bravado. He said the analytics reveal that the video is getting traction across many demographics and geographies, and that he has spent 3-4 hours a day since the release interacting with fans. It’s not just about managing his social media brand, though Hammer can clearly talk that talk for days. It’s an entry in a much more difficult conversation.
“It’s about people dealing with the broken promise of America.”