30 Years Ago, ‘Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em’ Changed Everything

But what was it like for Gen X hip-hop fans in 1990? We convened an old heads’ summit to discuss.

LEVEL Editors
Published in
12 min readFeb 11, 2020


MC Hammer on the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago, Illinois, August 14, 1990.
MC Hammer on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ in Chicago, Illinois, August 14, 1990. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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Everything looks more momentous in hindsight, but there’s no denying that February 11, 1990, contributed more than its share to the zeitgeist. Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson. And a rapper and dancer from Oakland, California, dropped a rap album called Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em. It wasn’t MC Hammer’s first success — his major label debut, Let’s Get It Started, had gone double platinum — but it would most definitely change things. Powered by the earworm that was “U Can’t Touch This,” PHDHE went on to become hip-hop’s first diamond-certified album, and with 18 million sold worldwide, still stands as the genre’s bestselling album of all time.

That’s not to say that it was all love for Hammer. The artist, the art, and the way he capitalized on his success all received blowback — from both hip-hop and the world at large. Thirty years is a long time, though, and while it’s easy to look back and dismiss the album as a long-ago trivia answer, it felt a little different for those who were there. Given that a few LEVEL editors were in high school when the album dropped, it felt only right to convene an old heads’ summit to revisit it all. Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh…

Peter Rubin, executive editor: So let’s set the scene. February 1990: Where were we?

Aliya S. King, editor at large: I graduated from high school in June of 1990. So in February, I’m in East Orange, New Jersey, getting ready to finish up my last year — I just found out I’ll be going to Rutgers, so I’m pretty checked out of high school. I’m only 16, because I started school early, so I remember feeling really young and really old at the same time.

Peter: Finishing high school at 16 is crazy. Jermaine, were you on that prodigy tip too?

Jermaine Hall, editor in chief: I was not on that prodigy tip. I was a junior in high school at LaSalle Academy just trying to make it to track practice. Living in Queens…