“U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer
Some of the most-iconic rappers in history never resorted to offensive language, threats of violence or the espousement of mammonism to secure their fame. This was most notable true for a brief time during the 20th century, before gangsterism came to dominate the rap-music landscape.
In fact MC Hammer, himself being from Oakland, blew up around the same time as his Golden State counterparts, gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., did. And this particular track, “U Can’t Touch This”, being his signature tune, is about as far from gangsta rap as one can get.
Admittedly MC Hammer is not the most impressive lyricist or rapper. And he actually blew up, Saturday morning cartoon and all, largely based on his image and most notably his dancing skills. Or phrased differently, the listening audience may not have been overly concerned with what he was rapping about in the first place. What impressed them most about this song is its funky beat, largely courtesy of Rick James, as well as the visuals, i.e. the music video associated with it. So with that established, we’re going to delve into what’s actually being said beyond the chorus.
The first verse commences with Hammer alluding to the impact of his music. He does so in relation to how it affects him personally. But generally speaking, it was quite common for rappers from that era to tout their own musical skills.
In fact the vocalist proceeds to thank God for his rapping and dancing talent. Even though such an acknowledgement may have gone virtually unnoticed at the time, it is actually quite revelatory of MC Hammer’s character, as he got seriously immersed in Christian ministry later down the line.
But overall the purpose of this passage is for the MC to present himself as a “super-dope homeboy from the Oaktown”, which is fundamentally another way of saying that he’s a cool n*g*a from Oakland.
And as far as what it is “you can’t touch” or match up to, in the case of the verses that would be the “beat”, i.e. instrumental, of the song. So basically, the notion the title is meant to allude to is the beat being funky. And relatedly in the chorus it is also meant to point to the idea of Hammer being someone, particularly in terms of his dancing skills, whom others can’t match up to.
And even though Hammer doesn’t engage in any hard boasting, the lyrics are braggadocious to a very-mild extent. For instance, the rapper sets off the second verse by noting that he has “fresh new kicks and pants”, i.e. nice clothes. But the rest of the passage serves the purpose of encouraging the listening audience to dance. And so do the two verses which follow.
A song about dancing
Hammer only refers to himself once directly between the two stanzas, in regards to his ability to put on a show. But outside of that, it’s like “wave your hands in the air” and “bust a few moves”.
In fact the emcee is under the impression that if this song doesn’t move you, ‘then you’re probably dead’. So even if you don’t know the words of this track, it isn’t like some other popular dance songs where the lyrics of the verses differ from what’s being put forth in the chorus.
Instead the sentiment is pretty much about dancing throughout. Thus even when Hammer does turn the focus back on himself, like he does in the fifth verse, it’s once again in reference to his dancing skills. It’s like he knows he can dance, and he is using that fact to his marketing advantage.
Indeed there have been few rappers, if any, who could dance as well as MC Hammer in his prime. So when he says you can’t touch this, all lyrics considered that would also be his way of challenging you to prove that you can get down as well as he can. However, this isn’t in a literal sense but rather more like an encouragement to boogie. And overall, we can conclude by saying that this is one of the more fun-filled mega hits which the rap industry has ever produced.
Rupert Wainwright directed the music video to this song. he label behind the track is Capitol Records. And they had the genius idea of sending out 100,000 free copies of the track, along with a personal request from Hammer for the children recipients to request the visual on MTV. And that effort (as well as we presume the likability of the clip itself) resulted in “U Can’t Touch This” being the most-spun video on MTV for 1990.
Some of the dance moves MC Hammers busts on the clip have been referred to as the Hammer Dance, the Running Man and of course the Chinese Typewriter.
Who wrote “U Can’t Touch This”?
As originally credited, “U Can’t Touch This” was written exclusively by MC Hammer. However, as referenced earlier, it relies on a sample of “Super Freak” (1981) by Rick James (1948-2004). So after taking Hammer to court, James was duly credited as a co-writer of “U Can’t Touch This” also, along with Alonzo Miller, the other author of “Super Freak”.
And just to note, it isn’t like Hammer tried to jack him. Rather James’s lawyers originally authorized the rapper to sample the aforementioned song without the King of Punk Funk’s consent. And whereas Rick was totally not cool with rappers sampling his work, he ultimately allowed Hammer to do so since the song proved to be so popular (i.e. income-generating).
Doing so did two fantastic things for Rick James. Firstly, he secured royalties from this mega hit. Secondly, it also resulted in the only Grammy he won during his lifetime, when “U Can’t Touch This” took home the Best R&B Song trophy in 1991.
That same year it also won another Grammy for Hammer in particular, in the category of Best Rap Solo Performance. And this track also held the distinction of being the first rap song ever to be nominated for the most-notable Grammy Award of all, Record of the Year. It however, lost that one to “Another Day in Paradise” by the one and only Phil Collins.
“U Can’t Touch This” reached number 1 in almost 10 nations overall, including besting Billboard’s Hot Black Singles (aka Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) list. Overall it managed to chart in nearly two dozen countries around the globe. And certification-wise, it performed most impressively in Australia, where it went double-platinum.
As far as its pop media usage, this track has been featured on a few movies you may have heard of, such as White Chicks (2004), Shark Tale (2004), Furious 7 (2015) and a couple of Transformers flicks.
It has also been utilized by the likes of The Simpsons (1995), South Park (2015) and, as expected, Glee (2020), in addition to making an appearance on a Cheetos commercial which aired during the 2020 Super Bowl.
To note, the first time MC Hammer ever performed this song was during a 1989 Arsenio Hall Show appearance.
“Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em”
This track is from Hammer’s third album, “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” (1990). At that point he was actually a tenured musician, having dropped his first full-length, “Feel My Power”, in 1987. He also had a mild hit prior with 1989’s “Turn This Mutha Out”, which came from his second album, “Let’s Get It Started” (1988) – a project that actually topped Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Meanwhile “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” did the same, as well reaching the pinnacle of the Billboard 200 itself. And in addition to “U Can’t Touch This”, that album also produced other Hammer hits such as 1990’s “Have You Seen Her” and “Pray”.
In fact those just-mentioned songs actually reached higher on the Billboard Hot 100 (number 4 and 2 respectively) than “U Can’t Touch This”, which peaked at number 8, despite not being nearly as ubiquitous.
Indeed you would think that a track of this magnitude, which led “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” to being the first diamond-certified rap album ever, would have at least topped the Billboard Hot 100. But it has been argued that the reason it didn’t was at least partially attributable to lack of fair play on the part of certain powers in the music industry.
Also, it took a while for this track to come out as a single. As such fans of the tune were compelled to purchase the album itself. And that factor also contributed to “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” selling nearly 20,000,000 copies, as well as, logically, the song itself not achieving higher certification.
The Aftermath of the Success of “U Can’t Touch Me”
MC Hammer scored a notable hit or two afterwards, such as 1991’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”. But overall his musical heyday only lasted a couple of years. And considering that he was a well-known big spender, those two factors combined resulted in the rapper eventually filing for bankruptcy in 1996, despite at one point boasting of a net worth well in excess of $30,000,000 (with some reports even claiming over twice as much). As such he has served as one of the most widely-publicized examples of a rich entertainer who wasted all of his money, even though, as at the writing of this post in 2021, he is still a millionaire.