Songs We Wish We Could Forget: MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This"

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To understand MC Hammer is to understand parachute pants. They are showy, they are silly, they were briefly popular, but that was fleeting and now they’ve more or less disappeared, only to reappear on VH1 to be lampooned by people. Of course, parachute pants are just a oddly baggy and shiny garment, whereas Hammer is a human being, making his descent into the world of bankruptcy and television’s The Surreal Life (where he officiated Corey Feldman’s wedding) much more resonant. MC Hammer - U Can't Touch This - Worst Song Ever - Songs We Wish We Could Forget - One Hit WondersBriefly, thanks to “U Can’t Touch This,” and perhaps a bit of “Too Legit to Quit,” MC Hammer was on top of the world. Now, he’s a pop music footnote and “U Can’t Touch This” is considered one of the worst songs of all time.

Of course, the modern day Hammer is an easy target and it is entirely possible that’s part of the reason he gets a bad wrap now. After all, it is guys like Hammer and Vanilla Ice that always end up on lists like these and on those skuzzy reality shows such as The Surreal Life. They are fallen pop culture celebrities and for some reason there are people looking to wallow in their misery. Maybe it’s a slightly disconcerting form of nostalgia. Maybe it’s repulsive schaudenfreude. Maybe it is just straight up voyeurism, the kind that keeps shows like The Real World in business. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I know is that there are sans ethics douchebags willing to make a quick buck off of it. Of course, maybe the reason people like Hammer end up following the trajectory they do is because their music isn’t good and thus their success isn’t sustainable, and that’s what leads to frequently ending up on worst song lists and slumming it in reality shows.

“U Can’t Touch This” gets off to a bad start because he didn’t even bother to spell out the word “you.” It may be good enough for teen aged people but to my discerning eye it’s just stupid. There is literally no good reason for him to do that in this forum. He’s not at risk of running out of space. He isn’t in a hurry. He purely does it for the sake of it, and it is thoroughly pointless and annoying. Just spell out the word, Hammer.  You don’t need to try and prove you’re hip. Your pants speak for themselves!

There is one thing that anybody who listens to this song will know by the end, and that’s that they can’t touch this. The words “You can’t touch this” are repeated 23 times in this song. It isn’t just that the words are repeated, it’s that they are said the exact same way, leading me to believe it is a recording, no different than the music he is rapping over. There are other instances where he says “You can’t touch” at the end of verses as well, bringing home his point even further. Incidentally, the hook to this song borrows heavily (and samples, for that matter) “Superfreak” by noted friend of Charlie Murphy and repulsive scumbag Rick James. As funny as it was, somehow the Rick James sketch from Chappelle’s Show sort of turned James into a, I won’t say cult hero, but cult figure to be sure. Granted, it was more the caricature of James that Dave Chappelle created with the dreads and the “I’m Rick James, bitch!” that became revered, but I still feel like it really overshadowed what a massive asshole the actual Rick James was. Nevertheless, the music to this song sounds fine, if unspectacular. However, on a couple of occasions at Hammer’s request they, “Break it down!” and what follows sounds pretty poor and pulls off the impressive feat of somehow kind of sounding dated even though music is in and of itself impossible to place inherently in a time.

Additionally, MC Hammer has a strange delivery, though that probably owes more to the lyrics and how they fit into the pacing of the song. He often pauses in the middle of sentences and delivers it all in a sort of raspy tone that certainly does not strive for anything resembling singing. He’s determined to talk rap at us about how we simply can’t touch this. I will give him credit for the occasional aside he has in the song where he yells things like, “I told you homeboy!” that manage to bring some definite energy to the song and makes it a more dynamic experience.

As for the lyrics, they leave a bit to be desired. As you can presume from the title, this is mostly a song about how great MC Hammer is and how we, his fellow human beings, simply cannot reach the same levels of rapping excellence he has attained. This is, of course, not true since his rhymes and his rapping are both mediocre at best in even this his most celebrated song. Things begin decently enough with the famous intro, “My, my, my music hits me so hard/Make me say ‘Oh my Lord/Thank you for blessing me/with a mind to rhyme and two hype feet.’” Somehow, despite thanking his Lord, Hammer still manages to sound kind of narcissistic here, which is just shocking for a rap song. Also, the fact that he mentions his two hype feet reminds me that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hammer’s dancing. Quite frankly, his fame was as much for his dance moves as this song. Clearly he thought very highly of it, even though he looked absolutely ridiculous most of the time. To be fair, most people do, even good dancers. Unless you are Fred Astaire and/or Ginger Rogers, it’s hard to not look at least kind of goofy when pulling shapes.

He then tells us he’s a, “Super dope homeboy from Oaktown/And I’m known as such” and that this song has a beat that we can’t touch. Well, I’ll concede that’s he’s from Oakland, but I can’t speak to the veracity of the rest of this. There isn’t really a chorus to this song per say, but just different moments of the phrase, “You can’t touch this” being said intermingling with those hype lines such as, “I told you homeboy” I mentioned earlier. In this section, he tells us to, “Look at my eyes, man” which is, you know, kind of hard to do vis a vis a song. Then, he is gracious enough to ask us to let him bust these funky lyrics. For you, Hammer, the world.

The next verse informs us, “Fresh new kicks and pants/You got it like that now you know you wanna dance/So move out your seat and get a fly girl and catch this beat/While it’s rolling hold on, pump a little bit and let ‘em know what’s going on.” Of course, these lyrics are sung in that halting MC Hammer style that leaves you wondering how he is going to finish his sentences for that oh so brief moment. Clearly, he usually finishes them in an uninspiring way. The man is clearly interested in clothing and style, as his line about shoes and pants not only new but fresh. I guess me and Hammer have a very different idea of what qualifies for “fresh” in the world of pants. Beyond that, Hammer takes some time away from boasting to ask people to find a lovely lady and, I think, pump them a tinge to give them the gist of the situation. Now, I don’t pretend to be in the know when it comes to mid-90s rap lingo, which is why I’m so qualified to write this essay, but it sounds like he’s asking them to hump these fly ladies. That’s a bit forward, if you ask me.

In the next pseudo chorus Hammer asks a very interesting question. Namely, “Why you standing there man?” This query intrigues me for a variety of reasons. Is he talking to a specific person? It doesn’t really sound like that’s what is going on in this song. Granted, he frequently talks about how “you” can’t touch this, but I had presumed that was going out to all of us. Is he really just talking to one guy? Could the rest of us, possibly, touch this? He clearly isn’t talking to everybody, because he singles out males. Perhaps Hammer is just a sexist who only wants men to listen to his songs? Yet, that is only to tell them they can’t rap and aren’t as dope and/or funky as he is. Or, conversely, maybe he doesn’t care if women listen to his music but he doesn’t feel the need to address them here or he doesn’t have the same aggression toward them. Sure, they might not be able to touch this either, but he’s going to be chivalrous about it.

Of course, as important as the “man” part is the, “Why you standing there” part. Why has Hammer created this imaginary scenario where we, the listener, are standing somewhere? Could it be anywhere? Or just around him? Some people have an answer, but many of us literally can’t answer it. I can’t answer it right now, because I am sitting down. As such, I’m excluded from Hammer’s incredulity. However, that also makes me less engaged in the song. Fortunately, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel, as before the next verse Hammer asks somebody to sound the bell because “school is in, sucker.” Ah, maybe now we’ll get some answers.

The next verse we are back to Hammer’s boasting. Amongst other things, he tells us that if you are talking about Hammer, “You are talking about a show/That’s hype and tight.” Also, he’s willing to pass along advice to the singers that be sweatin’ (presumably flop sweat or worry sweat, not running a marathon sweat) on how to burn up the charts in the nineties. You know, I don’t think Hammer can claim to have that information. Even with his Grammys (and those are often ridiculous) and his couple of hits, did he really burn up the charts in the 90s? By the end of the decade he was a walking punchline. Why, if I didn’t know any better I would think that a rapper might have been being arrogant and hyperbolic about their own abilities. Oh, also I think this is what Hammer’s advice would have been: 1. Steal a hook from Rick James. 2. Wear goofy pants. 3. Break it down!

Speaking of breaking it down, we get our first “Break it down” after that verse, which is only ended by those immortal words “Stop! Hammer time.” Of course, what Hammer time is we will never know. I am familiar with the concept of Hammer Space, which is where cartoons pull hammers and other objects from where they seemingly wouldn’t fit. Bender from Futurama uses Hammer Space frequently. You know, the phrase “Stop! Hammer time” might just be the cheesiest phrase ever uttered in a song. Here’s this braggart trying to be cool and yet he comes across so goofy. It is a failure at every level of song writing, save for recognition. People do remember that line, but not with fondness. It is a joke. It is a statement so silly that it in and of itself is the joke.

In retrospect, Hammer might regret breaking it down, or stopping the breakdown because it was Hammer time. The next verse (or verses if you prefer, it is the next chunk before the next pseudo-chorus) is comically awful at times. How Hammer thought these lyrics were good is mindboggling to me. Here we go! “Go with the funk, it is said/If you can’t groove to this then you probably are dead.” The fact he remarked “it is said” is quite amusing to me. Is it said, Hammer? That makes it sound like it is some well worn saw or legendary quote. In fact, I believe it was Aristotle who told us to go with the funk. Additionally, his line about only the dead being unable to groove to his song is quite callous toward invalids. Also, there are many of us who, while able, are certainly unwilling to groove to this song. Not because it doesn’t have a beat you can dance to, as they say, because the music isn’t the problem here. It’s merely on principle.

Then, Hammer tells us how we should groove, “So wave your hands in the air/Bust a few moves, run your fingers through your hair.” Run your fingers through your hair? Are we suddenly in a shampoo commercial? When has that ever been a part of getting down and/or funky? Am I just out of the loop? Regardless, these lyrics seem uninspired. Then again, maybe that’s because the words “hands in the air” have become clichéd at this point. However, the next portion of this song is where things get particularly lousy, “This is it, for a winner/Dance to this and you’re gonna get thinner/Move, slide your rump/Just for a minute let’s all do the bump. Bump, bump.”

Hammer has made a lot of bravado statements in this song, but stating, not declaratively but imperatively, that if you dance to this song you WILL get thinner takes the proverbial cake. I mean, I know this song isn’t selling itself as a weight loss program or anything. I know that technically isn’t false advertising. However, there is still something so ludicrous about making such a statement in a song. You have Hammer’s guarantee on something that is completely and utterly not a guarantee. Then, of course, he asks us all to do the bump. I don’t know what the bump is, though I imagine it is a dance, but I really don’t care. It still sounds goofy and that lyric feels like it was stolen from a B-52’s song. Also, I didn’t realize this line was actually part of the song when Family Guy parodied “U Can’t Touch This” that one time. That’s probably the greatest indictment of this lyric right there; it sounded like a Family Guy joke. Oh, how I loathe that show. I know I’m beating a dead horse, and a tangential horse at that, but the laziness of that comedy almost manages to be aggressive, like they are trying to actively irritate people. I know for the most part they aren’t, they are trying to entertain people with terrible taste in comedy, but I still despise it. So mean spirited too. They’ll denigrate celebrities simply for the easy joke. This, of course, works on some people because some folks just like to see celebrities get made fun of and torn down. These people are called pathetic assholes. Hey, remember when this was about MC Hammer?

We are treated to another pseudo-chorus in which Hammer implores the bell to be rung yet again because school is back in. However, the bell was never rung to let school out during the song, so really another ringing of the bell would be a sign for folks to leave. Hammer has lost control of this ship he’s steering. We are then treated to two breakdowns, two Hammer time’s, and another chorus. This song is starting to get repetitive and dull. One breakdown was enough. I’ve heard “You can’t touch this” enough at this point as well. When will it all end? How is this song only 4:17? It feels like a lifetime.

In the final verse, Hammer asks the following question, “Now why would I ever stop this/With others making records that just don’t hit?” Well, Hammer, because eventually you’d be one of those other musicians that “just don’t hit” and you’d also piss all your money away like a moron making it harder to get work and all that. If you listen to rap music, you get used to boasting. If it is clever, it can be quite enjoyable. I don’t mind listening to somebody rapping about how great they are if they do it well. Hammer, however, wasn’t a good rapper and he wasn’t clever so this song is just annoying. I mean, the next lyrics in this song state, “I’ve toured around the world/From London to the Bay/It’s Hammer, go Hammer, MC Hammer, yo Hammer/And the rest can go and play.” I see nothing for this man to boast about.

We get several more instances of “You can’t touch this” and then the song, mercifully, ends. Although, to be fair to Hammer this isn’t the worst song I’ve heard in my endeavors, and it doesn’t even have the worst lyrics. Still, it isn’t a good song. It is boastful yet boring at the same time. I tire of being told that I can’t touch this after a while. The only things worth a damn in this song are the music, and that is only at times, and Hammer’s enthusiasm. MC Hammer would have made a great hype man, I reckon. He has the energy, he likes to dance and make a scene, he delivered those lines such as, “Sound the bell, school’s in” with vigor. Unfortunately, Hammer didn’t want to be a hype man. He wanted to be the star of the show. As such, Hammer might be the musical equivalent of actors they say are supporting actors in leading men’s bodies. There was a solid career awaiting MC Hammer as a hype man, but he chose another road, and ended up the punchline he is. Then again, Flava Flav is considered one of the best hype men of all time and he ended up in the same place MC Hammer did; on VH1 reality shows. Maybe all roads lead to obscurity, and certainly sometimes fading from people’s minds is better. Otherwise, you end up officiating Corey Feldman’s wedding.