Twenty years have passed since he became a diamond-record seller — when everything he touched seemed to turn as gold as those pants he wore sometimes. His dance moves and rapid-fire rap music built a multimillion dollar empire, which stretched to television shows, a record label and mansions — all the trappings you’d expect from a hip-hop superstar. But times change, and Hammer lost his money so fast, it was almost as if he took it out and set it on fire for a backdrop for one of his music videos.
It costs money to keep up a lifestyle that includes rolling with a 40-person entourage. When you’re paying out $500,000 a month for people to follow you around, it doesn’t take long to burn through a fortune of more than $30 million — especially when your kind of rap is suddenly considered “old-school,” your albums are on the clearance rack, and people are donating their suddenly not-cool Hammer pants to Goodwill.
The changing times, though, also meant a new life for Hammer, who hasn’t spent much time out of the public eye since he was a child. While many people laughingly use “Hammertime” to describe the singer’s famous rise and fall, Hammer’s busy once again, and laughing all the way to the bank. Now, he has a reputation as a social media mogul among the emerging royalty of Internet professionals and entrepreneurs, and the one-time hip-hop star is working as hard to reinvent his image as he once worked to create his old identity.
The Making of a Superstar
Once up on a time, there was a boy with a beatbox dancing in the Oakland Coliseum and the CEO of the Oakland A’s baseball team spotted him and asked him to come work as a bat boy. That boy, whose real name was Stanley Burrell, used a different name: Baseball legend Reggie Jackson nicknamed him “Hammer” because he said he looked just like batting champ Hank Aaron, and the name stuck. But before he became famous, he floated through several careers. After his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, he floated over to gospel music, and had some successes until he hit the big time with Suge Knight’s Death Row label. His rise to fame from that point was meteoric — one hit record after another, television shows, clothing lines — you name it, he had it.
What he didn’t have, though, were financial advisers to tell him he was burning through money faster than earning it. And when he started spending, the money flowed like water. His lavish lifestyle included a $12 million California mansion, 19 thoroughbred racehorses, and the huge entourage. When he declared bankruptcy in 1996, he was $13 million in debt. If it’d only been the lavish spending, he would have recovered. But he was also piled with lawsuits, which bled even more money away. For example, Rick James sued him for copyright infringement for his biggest hit “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer named James a co-creator and had to pay him a huge cut of the song’s proceeds.
In addition, another artist sued him for $16 million, and publisher Simon and Schuster even hit the courtroom claiming he took an advance for a book he never wrote. But unlike many other entertainers who fall from fame, he’s always had one talent above all — his ability to communicate with the masses. At the time he lost his fortune, the Internet was on the rise, giving him yet another chance to prove himself.
A Super Geek Is Born
Hammer, one of the first celebrities to join Twitter, had nowhere to go but up after his crash and burn of the 1990s. Twitter provided him the perfect platform to say what he wanted and rebuild his image. In fact, Hammer is one of the first celebrities to really push the power of Twitter. Ron Conway, a famed Silicon Valley angel investor and early investor in the social network, said Hammer called him one day and said, “We have to go visit Twitter.” Conway replied he was already an investor, but Hammer still wanted to see for himself.
He sat across from Twitter founders Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, Conway said, and asked, “Do you know what you have here?” Hammer explained that within five years, artists would use Twitter to build audiences, advertise concerts and even sell tickets. The fans could vote on playlists, he said, and then the musicians could collaborate with them before and after the shows.
“It’s basically the greatest tool for live music promotion that’s ever been invented,” Conway said Hammer told them.
That’s a model record labels have started to follow. For example, Belgian record label SonicAngel scans sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for artists, and then asks fans to buy “shares” in bands it selects. The shares pay out once the recording artists start to make money. Musicians can also upload tracks in a separate system, where fans vote on them and SonicAngel collects and tracks the results via social media. Hammer didn’t just put money into Twitter, he threw himself in wholeheartedly. And as he predicted, fans have responded. He has more than two million followers on his account, @MCHammer, where he told Oprah Winfrey he tweets about 30 to 40 times a day.
It’s hard to believe an entertainer who hasn’t had a hit song in more than 20 years would have so many followers, but he’s learned how to optimize the social media for his own purposes. His enthusiasm, along with his massive online success, has led to a consulting business that focuses on building media brands. Hammer calls himself a “super geek,” but the name isn’t self-derogatory. He consults for around 10 tech companies and spends 10 to 12 hours each day working on his own tech projects.
It’s not just Twitter that’s drawn his attention. Last year, he released a song through Flipboard, allowing fans to listen, view a photo gallery of pictures and watch an exclusive interview with him, all without a record label. He even found a way to combine social media with dance and music through DanceJam, a Web community where entertainers can watch and highlight their talents with others in the industry.
“It was the culmination of some particular thoughts I had over the years in watching the social Web start to develop, in particular video-on-demand on sites such as YouTube,” he said. “I had an idea of a concept of how I’d like to see that on the Web, and that’s how DanceJam was created.”
In 2010, he also founded a mixed martial arts company, called “Alchemist Management,” continuing his love of the sports that began back when he worked for the Oakland A’s.
“I’ve always seen the energy around sports, and sports fans are a tremendous opportunity from a business standpoint,” he said. Alchemist allows him to manage, market, promote, and brand-build for fighters, and of course, make money while he’s doing it.
Hammer calls social media a “tool of empowerment” so people can immediately mold and control the message that goes out the world, whether its political, personal, business related or even artistic.
“People are able to mobilize, communicate and get the message out — and local governments can no longer control the messaging,” he said. “As long as you can control the messaging, you can create a perception of what life is, or even of who a person is, with social media.”
Social media allows him to use his “true understanding” of business, he said, adding that the experience he got from his past bankruptcy, tax problems and career slowdown.
“Faith first, and then a true understanding of business second,” he said. “There was never a stopping point. The creation of ideas and businesses was a continuous process.”
The secret behind his Twitter success is to stay in constant contact with followers. He does with his own tweets, and he tries to respond to every comment made on his page — a huge draw for fans who want to get up close and personal. He also uses Twitter to help launch his business interests, music videos and more. And the great part about social media? “It’s all free,” he said.
A New Kind of Star
Hammer once filled arenas with fans wanting to hear his music and watch him dance, but now he has a new kind of audience. He’s in high demand with entrepreneurs and business leaders, who crowd in to listen to advice and guidance about how they can build their own social following. The rapper, who once won Grammys, is now winning awards for his tech expertise. He regularly speaks at places like Harvard and Stanford, and has a great deal to share about building a business empire. He also spends time with young CEOs to help them start businesses.
Some of his projects take time to get off the ground. Last fall, he announced a new search engine, called “WireDoo,” which focuses on “deep search” and relational topics. The project is still in the early beta stage, and established sites like Google and Bing have little to worry about, for now. Hammer, explaining WireDoo at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco to a crowd that included Google founder Sergey Brin, said Google and others don’t connect keywords to topics as well, but his search engine will add what’s related to the keyword.
Just Thursday, “Visit Oakland,” the official marketing organization for the city, announced its spokesperson: MC Hammer, its native son. Hammer said what inspires him most about his beloved hometown — because he has the same qualities — is “its ability to change.”
“I’ve been here for 50 years. I relax by driving through and reliving great memories of being a kid in Oakland, We are who we are: we’re political, we’re artsy, we’re musicians,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, Oakland is a fantastic place to be your base. After traveling the world, Oakland is still the place to be.”
He knows full well the meaning of great publicity, and already released his recommendations for a great day in Oakland. There’s no doubt he’ll promote his city through his Twitter feed as well.
His future is wide open, given the ever-changing nature of the Internet and mobile technology. And he describes the iPad as being “just like a little TV.”
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of good stories not being told. A lot of those stories are being told right here online by the Twitterverse, by Facebook users, by different communities,” he said, highlighting his interest in citizen journalism. “The opportunity to aggregate or create a destination where stories get told and indexed locally is a great opportunity.”
A fan of all social media websites, Hammer said he may one day even develop one himself.
“You adapt them to your character, to your content, to your likes and dislikes,” he said. “The ones that you are less comfortable in, you can still update through your other platforms.”
But most of all, he’s a big advocate of using your skills and talents when it comes time to reinvent yourself — and he’s a man who’s had to do that more than once.
“Study and research where they want to go, so that they have all the information of the landscape,” he said of people or businesses that recreate their lives. “If they’re in one space and they’re going to another space and they’re reinventing themselves, they have to make sure they know what they want and all the factors in the new space, the new you, the new business.” ♦