The music is based on "Super Freak
" by Rick James. That song was a hit in 1981, so many younger listeners did not know the beat was sampled. In a strange irony, Hammer got a huge boost from MTV, who put the video in heavy rotation. In 1981, however, they refused to play "Super Freak," as they didn't play videos by black artists with any regularity. Maybe if Rick James wore parachute pants and pulled off the "Chinese Typewriter" dance move, he would have gotten some respect from the network.
Hammer was a bat boy for the Oakland A's baseball team, and got the name "Hammer" because he looked like baseball legend Hank Aaron, who was known as "Hammerin' Hank." Some members of The A's helped finance Hammer's rap career, and he emerged from the West Coast rap scene in the late '80s, representing Oakland.
His first album, Feel My Power, was released on his independent label in 1987 and got the attention of Capitol Records, which gave him a $750,000 advance to sign. His first Capitol album, Let's Get It Started, was released in 1988 and produced a minor hit with "Turn This Mutha Out."
"U Can't Touch This" was released in January 1990 a month ahead of his third album, Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em. The song took him in a new direction, incorporating many elements of dance music and costing him some credibility in the rap community. It was a massive pop hit, and Hammer appeared on MTV and a variety of talk shows performing in ridiculously baggy pants that became his trademark along with his distinctive dance moves. A 60-date tour followed with lots of backup dancers and hangers on, many of whom were old friends happy to share in his financial success (although some complained of underpayment and harsh working conditions - Hammer imposed a strict curfew and levied fines for mistakes). The tour was bloated and expensive, and when Hammer's star faded, there was no money left. He dropped the "MC" and tried to reinvent himself as more of a gangsta rapper, but he has lost credibility in the rap world and no longer appealed to that audience. He became a bit of a joke as listeners realized that it didn't take much talent to take a hit song from years ago and rap over the beat (think Vanilla Ice).
In 2005, Hammer made some appearances where he was willing to poke fun at himself, including a reality TV show and a commercial where he performs this song in front of a mansion that gets repossessed 15 minutes later when his luck runs out. He also performed on the MTV video music awards that year.
Rick James tried to keep rappers from sampling his music, turning down any requests. According to James, his lawyers authorized the "Super Freak" sample without his permission; he heard about it when a friend told him about "U Can't Touch This" and the song came on the radio they were listening to in the car. James said he was irate, but somewhat appeased when he found out how much money it was making for him. Still, he claimed he wouldn't have done the deal if he was asked.
James had another beef as well: he wanted to be listed as a songwriter on "U Can't Touch This," and sued MC Hammer for credit. The case was settled out of court, with James getting listed as a co-writer on the track along with Hammer and Alonzo Miller, a disc jockey who wrote some lyrics on "Super Freak."
This won 1990 Grammy Awards for Best Rap Solo Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Song for writers MC Hammer, Rick James and Alonzo Miller.
Capitol Records ran an innovative marketing campaign to promote this song. They mailed out free cassette singles of the track to 100,000 kids along with a letter from Hammer asking them to call MTV and request the video. The ploy worked, and the video became the most-played of 1990 on the network.
Despite constant airplay and huge sales, the song only reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It seems fishy that songs like "Romeo" by Dino and "Girls Nite Out" by Tyler Collins would outchart it, but this was 1990 and Billboard had yet to incorporate Soundscan technology to track sales and BDS to monitor airplay. Sales figures were gleaned from record store reports and airplay numbers from radio stations - it seems stores and stations didn't want to admit that the song was selling or that it was in hot rotation.
Oddly, it did go to #1 the R&B chart, giving MC Hammer his only #1 on that tally. His next single, a cover of "Have You Seen Her
," made #4 on the Hot 100, followed by "Pray," which made #2.
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this song called "I Can't Watch This," which is about bad TV programs, which are "as much fun as watching paint dry."
MC Hammer recorded this song at the Capitol Records studios in Hollywood, the same place where Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole made many of their famous recordings.
"U Can't Touch This" is a popular choice for lowbrow blockbusters; it's been used in two Transformers movies, Grown Ups 2 (2013), Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002). Other films to use it include:
Furious 7 (2015)
The Proposal (2009)
The Game (2008)
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Into the Wild (2007)
Man of the House (2005)
Shark Tale (2004)
White Chicks (2004)
Bubble Boy (2001)
Hot Shots! (1991)
On the TV side, it hit the trifecta of The Simpsons ("A Star Is Burns" - 1995), Family Guy ("E. Peterbus Unum" - 2000) and South Park ("Naughty Ninjas" - 2015). It also shows up in episodes of Glee ("Bad Reputation" - 2010) and Supernatural ("Southern Comfort" - 2012).
This was used in a 2020 Super Bowl commercial for Cheetos Popcorn
. In the spot, a guy gets out of doing any work by eating the product, which leaves an orange residue on his hands - he can't touch anything in that condition. Hammer pops up throughout the spot.