In the year 1990, I was nine years old and in the 4th grade. I was oblivious to much of the world and rife for another musical misstep. In the vernacular of the time, one might say I was “going down in a blaze of glory,” but someone who would say that would be a big, cheesy dick.
I would end up with this perception that everyone else was shiny happy people, but by looking now at the 1989-1991 Billboard Top 100, I can tell that everyone’s life had to have been pretty awful then.
Allow me now to regale you with this deeply personal tale of how MC Hammer once delivered me from the angst of youth and forever made me wonder why it is I’ve listened to some of the terrible music I listen to. You will quickly tire of my old song references.
My father worked hard to provide for my mother and I. As a firefighter he was gone from home for at least 24 hours at a time and worked tirelessly at other jobs too.
My mother, left to her own devices, became hopelessly bored and bitter about having a child and becoming a housewife at such a young age.
By 1990, when she was 26 or 27 years-old, she found the novelty of playing house to be thoroughly worn off. Maybe she’d run into an old chum at the store who hadn’t become pregnant by the time of high school graduation (also known as “rocking the cradle of love”) or maybe the endless flow of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” spilling into our living room from the cable box had changed her. All at once, my mom was pretty dunzo with being a mom and a wife.
First she tried to satiate the boredom with shopping. We were living in a material world after all. But then my dad would come home to find that the money budgeted for bills was gone. My mom would be waiting, challenging him to confront her about it so she could dramatically shout soap-opera cliches through the house. Their love was a battlefield.
The mall shopping gave way to doctor shopping and soon my mom was using powerful “headache” medicines and sleeping through entire days. I played weird, only-child games in the back yard or watched tv and ate all the food in the house and often I walked like an Egyptian. I can straight up now tell you that all the music on the radio at this point sucked. But I was taking in an endless stream of MTV videos (there used to be music on MTV all the time in those days) as if I knew the next phase of my personal evolution would be revealed there at any moment.
Mom came out of her haze just enough to cry or fight with my dad or occasionally go on cleaning rampages while “She’s Like the Wind,” blared from the stereo speakers. And sometimes she really did try her best with me. She’d cherish me and spoil me and hope desperately that I thought she was cool and that I loved her. And I genuinely did. But she was torn between the world she had and the things she imagined she’d missed out on.
Richard Marx was on the radio constantly crooning, “No more goodbyes.” This message was lost on my mother though. She was like, “Whatevs. Bye Felicia.” and in this case, I suppose Felicia was me and the fam.
Soon, she took to boyfriend shopping too. (I don’t know where she found these guys but they were a real cavalcade of turds, including one fat bastard who went from joking around to hulking out on me within minutes of meeting me. He slapped me as hard as he could in the face….I saw stars. My mom was so cowed by this new love interest that she just shot me one quick, “don’t ruin this for me,” look and then obediently fell into step behind him. Yeah, I’m still bitter.)
Our house became like a hazy shade of winter and we could all feel it spiraling but we could also tell there was nothing we could do to stop it. I remember feeling that doom at nine years old.
Within the year, whilst having one of her boyfriends by for a sleepover while my dad was at work, my mom ate all of her pills and tried to end her life. I woke up to the rotating red lights of the fire engine being cast through my bedroom window. My dad, and the men he worked with, had been dispatched to our own address when my mom’s boyfriend called 911. I slept at the fire station that night and the next. I went from there to school in the morning.
Suicide attempt patients were required to remain at the hospital for some span, I don’t remember how long, but I think it was weeks. My dad took me to visit her there a few times, she called it the “psych ward,” I guess that could have been the reality. There was this new sensation; the sensation that their marriage was completely over and that it would never be able to be patched up between them.
While I know now that so many kids were caught in their own chaotic situations outside of school, everyone then seemed so happy and so much alike. I began to perceive a difference between myself and my peers, (many of which lived across the highway in more affluent neighborhoods with older parents who were just too legit to quit one another). For the first time in my life, I suddenly wanted more than anything to just fit in; to be liked and to be normal.
That was probably the dumbest thought process I’d ever had and I’d never make that same mistake again.
It was at this turbulent time, that white-America’s first real introduction to hip-hop arrived via the most ridiculous collection of sights and sounds available; MC fucking Hammer. But we just called it all “rap” back then.
Sure, Ton-Loc and Young MC broke the seal, but it was MC Hammer that brought white people their first new dance music since disco and fascinated all the children of the suburbs at once. His music hit me so hard it made me scream, “oh my lord.”
From the first moment that I saw the music video, I knew that this man… (in his crazy pants that were like a dramatic improvement on the most beloved pants of the time; Zubas and with his silly song and “two hype feet” with which to do the most insane dance)…was going to be my ticket to normalcy. And when for Christmas that year, some hip and all-knowing relative gifted me Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, the very first CD I was ever to own, I became instantly obsessed.
Knowing every lyric on that album actually bought me widespread acceptance with the rest of my class. This is how stupid kids are. Then, being a dude that enjoyed dancing, finally got me just enough attention from girls to make me think there could really be something behind all this.
I wore the CD out and when the next one came soon after, I wore that one out too. I watched the videos and all the videos around it incessantly, trying to learn every word and copy every move. I was about to learn about the pitfalls of over-doing things.
Chubby, 9 year old me was determined to be a fly homeboy. I remember for a while that I was really into wearing vests. I would blare my music and dance outside so that people could see me. More and more hip-hop and R&B erupted into the suburbs in this fashion and I credit myself for the short-lived popularity of the show Yo! MTV Raps. If I was wearing a shirt beneath my vest, it was always an MC Hammer shirt. And this totally worked for me for a while….or I imagine that it did.
I abused this power instantly though. I turned everything into an MC Hammer reference and tried to steer every conversation toward Hammer. People seemed to really like this at first. But soon enough I tried to stretch this act too far. Really, by hammertime-thirty or even just quarter past hammertime, everyone was already fucking sick of me.
I didn’t get a lot of new shirts in those days either. So I wore that Hammer shirt until it was stained, tight and misshapen. When the other kids mocked me for it I claimed that I wore it because I knew Hammer personally. I don’t know why I did this and I don’t know why I kept up the ruse but I insisted this was true well into the days when nobody cared about MC Hammer. The delights of hammertime had waned even for me by this point but I was clutching desperately to the first and last thing that ever had me fitting in. I look back on these days with immense embarrassment.
Then came a day that some kid jokingly started rapping You Can’t Touch This and it was the final blow to my overall acceptance among my peers. I realized only later that it had been a joke at all. Attempting to look “cool,” I began seriously rapping the rest of the song and when I got to the “can’t touch this,” part, I bent down to begin my hammer dance and loudly, accidentally farted. There was much pointing and laughing from the kids around me. All at once I realized that Hammer and I had become a joke and we’d been a joke for quite some time. Finally I understood, the message had been for me all along. When it said, “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em,” it wasn’t meant for Hammer. That message had been a warning….for me.
I’d come close to greatness but I got burned. Hammer had hurt em and I was responsible. At last I realize, the “em” had been me all along.
I was never officially cool again. (Hammer didn’t really do to well after that either.)