In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.
MC Hammer- “U Can’t Touch This”
PEAK: #8 on June 16, 1990
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love”
I wasn’t alive in 1990 but from all accounts, “U Can’t Touch This,” the breakout hit from MC Hammer, was inescapable that year. According to the great critic Tom Breihan, “As someone who was 10 years old in the summer of 1990, I can tell you that MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” was absolutely the biggest song in the world—the track that seemed to play so often, on so many radio stations and car stereos, that it seemed to become a part of the air.” Going by how prominent the song still is, I fully believe this account. But if you’re looking at the song’s Hot 100 performance, you’ll get a misleading look at just how big it was.
In Hot 100 history, “U Can’t Touch This” exists as a #8 hit. A #8 Hot 100 peaking song is certainly not bad particularly for MC Hammer’s breakthrough hit and at a time when rap was just starting to make its mainstream breakthrough. But for a song so ubiquitous, you’d think it would have peaked higher even #1 and yet it’s far from being MC Hammer’s highest-charting song. Ultimately, the chart performance of “U Can’t Touch This” has less to do with how popular it was and more to do with changing industry tactics that were just starting to materialize at the turn of the ‘90s. This tactic would bring ridiculous levels of success to MC Hammer while preventing “U Can’t Touch This” from becoming the first rap song to top the Hot 100.
Before becoming known for baggy pants and filing for bankruptcy, MC Hammer was a kid growing up around Oakland as Stanley Kirk Burrell with dreams of being a baseball player. (The #1 song in America on the day of Burrell’s birth was Connie Francis’ “Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You.”) During childhood, Burrell found a gig as the batboy for the Oakland Athletics where in a foreshadowing move, he would dance for the attendees during breaks at Athletics games. It’s where he got his Hammer nickname from Athletics legend Reggie Jackson in a nod to his resemblance to baseball legend Hank Aaron whose nickname was “Hammerin’.” A baseball player in high school, Hammer tried out for the San Francisco Giants after graduating but didn’t get in. After that, Hammer would abandon his baseball ambitions to serve in the Navy for a few years before returning home to make his name as a rapper.
After returning to Oakland, Hammer joined a Christian rap group called Holy Ghost Boys. When that group broke up, Hammer started charting his own path starting up an indie label called Bustin’ Records established with $40,000 he borrowed from two Athletics players. It eventually resulted in his first album Feel My Power in 1986. The album and its singles didn’t make much national impact but an exec from Capitol Records saw MC Hammer perform and impressed by his performance skills offered him a label deal. Now signed to a major label, Capitol re-released Feel My Power in 1988 as Let’s Get It Started. The singles from Let’s Get It Started still didn’t chart on the Hot 100 though did chart on the club and R&B charts but the album broke on the charts peaking at #30 and going double platinum.
For his next album, Hammer used the success of Let’s Get It Started to forge a new path in hip-hop. He wanted to be a full-on pop star rather than just a rap star. In the late-‘80s, rap records were starting to make more and more of an impact on the Hot 100 but you didn’t have many rappers who crossed over to a wide mainstream pop audience, the kinds of people who wouldn’t normally be invested in rap music. With 1990’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Hammer went all-in on his pop star ambitions. A big part of crossing over was sampling as the hits from the album were anchored by hugely obvious samples of older songs from bigger-known artists. For the album’s lead-off single, Hammer’s sample came from a song that wasn’t even a decade old when “U Can’t Touch This” came out.
In 1981, funk legend Rick James had recorded almost all of the songs for his new album Street Songs but wanted one more song on it. In his words, “Super Freak” was written very quickly intended as a silly song about an adventurous groupie that combined new wave with his usual funk style. “Super Freak” is Rick James’ signature song today but in 1981 peaked at #16 on the Hot 100 in the era just after the disco backlash when dance music and in turn many Black artists weren’t crossing over to the pop charts though it was a #1 club and #3 R&B hit. (Rick James’ highest-charting single, 1978’s “You And I,” peaked at #13.) The song also came with a goofy music video that the nascent MTV network refused to play citing it not fitting into its rock format which James used to call out the network for racism in its programming.
For “U Can’t Touch This,” MC Hammer basically copy and pasted the main riff from “Super Freak” to drive his song. Hammer doesn’t try to build on “Super Freak” but instead plays the riff over and over as it was on the original. The sample was enough to piss off Rick James who sued Hammer for copyright infringement wanting songwriting credit. Eventually, Hammer and James’ team settled their case out of court where James and fellow “Super Freak” writer Alonzo Miller wound up with songwriting credits on “U Can’t Touch This” meaning both of them would receive lots of money in songwriting royalties. It adds a lot of irony to the line “And this is a beat, uh, you can’t touch.”
Even with the straight-up jacking of “Super Freak,” that riff still goes hard on “U Can’t Touch This.” It’s catchy and makes the song sound very energetic and irresistible. The same description goes for MC Hammer. The lyrics in “U Can’t Touch This” don’t really matter all that much. It’s just MC Hammer bragging about how hot and on top of the world he is. There’s no real hook to the song aside from Hammer saying the title over and over at the beginning but it doesn’t matter. The whole song is a hook in a way filled with many quotable lines such as the famous “hammertime” catchphrase and it helps that MC Hammer raps with a ton of presence and energy keeping the song going and never slowing down. Overall, “U Can’t Touch This” is a very silly song but it’s silly in all the best ways.
Adding to the energetic feel is the music video directed by British filmmaker Rupert Wainwright, who at that point had directed videos for N.W.A. including “Straight Outta Compton.” MC Hammer saw himself as a full-on entertainer and dancer in the vein of Michael Jackson and that’s basically what he shows off in the video. It’s mostly him doing Running Man dance moves in his signature baggy pants alongside shots of other dancers in very 1990 looking attire. Like the song, MC Hammer in the video has lots of presence and energy. MC Hammer isn’t shy of showing himself off to the camera and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him when he’s dancing.
With “U Can’t Touch This” looking like an undeniable hit, Capitol did something different in its promotion. Up to this point, singles would get a full commercial release to the public in the popular format of the moment. For the longest time, the popular format was vinyl but by 1990 it was cassette or cassingle as it’s better known. Technically, Capitol did release “U Can’t Touch This” commercially as a single but only in the 12’’ vinyl format which was used by DJs to play in clubs. For everyone else, they had to buy the full Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em album to get “U Can’t Touch This” which was Capitol’s intention with this strategy. As an official commercial single, “U Can’t Touch This” was allowed to chart on the Hot 100 per Billboard’s policy at the time requiring it but without a wide cassingle release it could only get up so high.
I don’t know if the music industry was influenced directly by Capitol’s promotion of “U Can’t Touch This” but it does serve as the launching pad for how the industry would try to make the most money off of hit songs during the ‘90s. For much of the ‘80s, it was all about releasing as many singles as possible from one album milking it dry for hits. After “U Can’t Touch This,” labels began withholding surefire hits from a commercial single release to encourage people to spend more money buying the song on the album even for one-hit wonder acts.
While this move made the industry lots of money, it also fucked up the Hot 100 for much of the ‘90s as major hits weren’t able to chart due to not being released as a commercial single until Billboard finally allowed non-commercial singles to chart in December 1998. Other times, songs would get released commercially and charted but not until after their peak popularity meaning they didn’t chart as well as you’d expect them to. You can easily trace this practice to the rise of Napster and other file-sharing sites by the end of the decade as young consumers revolted against having to spend lots of money on an album with one good song on it causing the music industry to collapse in the process.
At the time, this method of withholding “U Can’t Touch This” from a wide single release worked very well in regards to the album’s performance. The week before “U Can’t Touch This” hit its #8 peak, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em got to #1 on the album charts and stayed there for 21 weeks with only New Kids on the Block’s Step By Step interrupting that run for a week. Billboard named Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em as the #5 album of 1990 and it would eventually be certified diamond making it one of the best-selling rap albums ever, a feat that it still holds.
Two more hits followed “U Can’t Touch This” from Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em first with “Have You Seen Her” which is essentially a remake of the Chi-Lites’ ‘70s soul classic of the same name and a pretty bad one at that. (The Chi-Lites’ 1971 original “Have You Seen Her” peaked at #3. It’s a 7. MC Hammer’s “Have You Seen Her” got close to equaling the original chart peak as it got up to #4. It’s a 2.) Following “Have You Seen Her” was the biggest hit from the album “Pray,” a song about how we got to pray just to make it today all over a beat that samples Prince’s 1984 #1 smash “When Doves Cry.” At the time, “Pray” was the biggest hit peaking all the way up at #2 behind Mariah Carey meaning it’s MC Hammer’s highest-charting song. (“Pray” is a 3.) Despite “Have You Seen Her” and “Pray” out charting “U Can’t Touch This,” you don’t hear those songs anymore.
For someone who’s grown up well after the song’s success, “U Can’t Touch This” feels less like a song and more of a major part of pop culture with how often it’s used. Just hearing MC Hammer say “U can’t touch this” followed by the “Super Freak” riff is enough to set my brain off. MC Hammer himself has leaned into the song’s continuing prevalence by appearing in lots of commercials that use the song including a Nationwide ad poking fun at his well documented financial troubles where he’s dancing in baggy pants outfit from the “U Can’t Touch This” video in front of a mansion before it shifts to the mansion being foreclosed. When you’ve reached that point in your career, that tells you a lot about just how big your song has become.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “U Can’t Touch This” parody that In Living Color did on a 1990 episode which pokes fun at MC Hammer’s entire persona and look:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 1991 “U Can’t Touch This” parody “I Can’t Watch This” where Yankovic raps about how there’s nothing good to watch on TV:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 2011 episode of Dexter and what might just be the funniest moment of the show to me, there’s a scene where Michael C. Hall’s Dexter awkwardly dances to “U Can’t Touch This” at his high school reunion while on the hunt for one of his former classmates. Here’s that video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Big Sean and two-time #1 artist Nicki Minaj sampling the “U Can’t Touch This” breakdown on their 2011 collaboration “Dance (A$$) Remix:”
(“Dance (A$$) Remix” peaked at #10. It’s a 3. As a lead artist, Big Sean’s highest-charting single, 2016’s “Bounce Back,” peaked at #6. It’s a 5. He also peaked at #6 as a guest on Justin Bieber’s 2012 hit “As Long As You Love Me.” It’s a 2.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “U Can’t Touch This” showing up in the Cheetos commercial that aired during the 2020 Super Bowl and where MC Hammer pops up throughout: