Considering M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice and…Marxism?

Well, hello blog.

Having just gotten myself out from under the weight of a massive, almost-two-year-long volunteer commitment with the 2011 Canada Games, I’m almost overflowing with things that I want to write about here. Alas, this other commitment—school!—snuck in the way, and I’m about to venture off to Toronto for Canadian Music Week. So until I have more time to sit down and contemplate, here’s a copy-and-paste from the academic world.

The following essay is something I recently submitted for my Proseminar in Musicology class. The assignment was to consider some of the Marxist perspectives we were exploring in class and connect them with a piece of music of our choosing. Remembering a Idolator article I came across a while back, I figured that Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer presented a rather interesting entry point into the topic. The Marxist side of the assignment isn’t something I’m interested in revisiting again—hence, my willingness to post it here—but some of the ideas towards the conclusion of the paper about digital power structures and commercial formats are concepts that I certainly want to come back to at some point. There’s a mostly-untold story there just waiting for a narrator.

Here goes:


Hip hop and hegemony

M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice and the music industry’s co-option of emerging genres


In his 1987 article “How Autonomous Is Relative: Popular Music, the Social Formation and Cultural Struggle,” Reebee Garofalo lays out a post-Marxist model of cultural analysis that translates the work of classical theorists such as Marx, Gramsci and Althusser to the twentieth century music industry. Building heavily on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in particular, Garofalo presents the music industry as a place of cultural struggle, where the mechanisms of control—from production and distribution to marketing—are used to maintain a cohesive ideological structure, one regularly tested and challenged by ideas that are controversial, radical or minority. The rise of rap music in the 1980s fits all three criteria, making it a compelling lens through which to explore Garofalo’s theory in practice. In particular, the ascendence of M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice to the top of the pop charts in 1990 illustrates the music industry’s process of co-opting emerging challenges to its hegemonic ideologies, as well as its interest in leveraging new musical movements to reinforce or reconstruct existing power structures.

Hegemony theory supposes that the mechanisms of the state and those of civil society work in concert to create dominant ideologies, leveraging the capitalist superstructure that rests upon the fundamental relationship of people to their work. The theory developed from the work of scholars such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, adding nuance to Karl Marx’s simplistic interpretation of coercive power structures and accounting for the various compromises and complications within the capitalist system. Indeed, Garofalo points out that hegemony faces regular ideological challenges from the margins of society and evolves accordingly. “The goal,” he writes, “is to contain and/or incorporate such practices within the organization of hegemony or to exclude them as unacceptable.”

Rap music certainly fits this model: it emerged in urban, predominantly-black neighbourhoods in New York City, was led by new record labels such as Def Jam and took several years before being embraced by major labels as a commercially-viable genre. Though rap’s relationship with commerce has always been complicated, its early years reflect the sense of authentic culture laid out by Frederic Jameson:

The only authentic cultural production today has seemed to be that which can draw on the collective experience of marginal pockets of the social life of the world system…and this production is possible only to the degree to which the forms of collective life or collective solidarity have not yet been fully penetrated by the market and by the commodity system.

By late 1980s, that market penetration was well underway. The crossover appeal of the Beastie Boys and Run DMC demonstrated an appetite for hip hop culture among white listeners, but that increased attention highlighted some of rap’s harsher and more brutal elements: the west coast “gangster rap” of NWA, the profanity-laden lyrics of 2 Live Crew, and the aggressive socio-political sentiments of Public Enemy. Rap music’s threat to the industry’s dominant ideologies was becoming more pronounced as it increasingly expressed the angst of the black urban underclass of 1980s America.

Capitalist hegemonies rarely react idly to such sentiments; as Engels wrote, “the more civilisation advances, the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.” Garofalo’s assertion that the dominant hegemony reacts to challenges by either incorporating/containing their elements or by excluding them applies well to the music industry, as explained by New York Times journalist John Rockwell in 1990:

…co-optation, if that negative connotation applies, is the nature of pop-music success in a capitalist democracy; to pretend otherwise is just sentimentality. Unknown young artists, often on feisty new labels, introduce new ideas that are quickly imitated and absorbed by the large corporate entities that squat in the center of our cultural landscape, like dinosaurs.

That same year, one filled with news stories about hip hop’s more ‘unwelcome’ elements, M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice emerged. Hammer came first, with his Rick James-sampling track “U Can’t Touch This” becoming an MTV hit and pushing his album, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em to an astonishing 21-week reign at the top of the sales chart. It was deposed by Ice’s To The Extreme in November, led by “Ice Ice Baby,” a single that copied Hammer’s use of a simple-but-familiar sample (in this case, Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”). The albumbecame one of the fastest-selling records of all time, moving five million copies in three months. Together, the two albums represented the biggest sales that rap music had produced to that point.

Hammer and Ice represented the music industry’s co-option of hip hop in several ways. The first is the aggressive use of a multimedia ‘star culture’ to transform the performer into a product, even more so than the music itself. Reflecting Marx’s statement that in capitalism, “the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of communities,” licensing deals and cross-promotional linked Hammer and Ice so closely with known commodities that they, essentially, became commodities themselves. They each performed in soft-drink commercials—Hammer did Pepsi, Ice did Coke—and Ice not only had his own feature film, Cool as Ice, but appeared in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The popularity of MTV and the performers’ music videos was also central to this commodifying of the performer, as Newsweek observed:

Both Hammer and Vanilla are creatures of MTV: entertainers whose choreography and costumes loom as large in the total package as their musicianship. Hammer is black and Vanilla is white, but both have been denounced as “rap lite” acts without esthetic or political substance–and welcomed by parents scandalized by the porno picaresque of The 2 Live Crew.

The last part of this assessment is crucial: Hammer and Ice’s translations of rap motifs and hip hop codes to a mass audience excised socio-political sentiments, controversial themes and offensive language, making them more palatable to pop radio listeners. Hammer was a Navy veteran and born-again Christian who recommended that society “bust a prayer” to combat crack and crime. Observed Mark Anthony Neal: “Part and parcel of Hammer’s success was the mainstreaming of the iconography of black youth culture…and the distribution of narratives that were palatable to mainstream sensibilities.” Ice’s stories were even more palatable, as he actually re-edited several of his original, edgier recordings once “Ice Ice Baby” took off. “Where rap, at its core, reflects the anger or humor of young blacks,” wrote the New York Times, “Vanilla Ice’s lyrics are a thematic descendant of the Beach Boys rather than the Black Panthers or Richard Pryor.”

As one would expect, Ice’s race was a key topic of discussion in 1990, with countless writers referring to him as “the Elvis of rap.” Though the music industry has a long history of using white performers to make predominately black genres more palatable to mass audiences, Ice was the first major rapper to emerge and be accused of ‘white washing’ hip hop. That said, Hammer was also accused of not being ‘black’ enough: Carmen Ashurst-Watson, president of Def Jam in 1990, once referred to him as “the black guy who was like a white imitation of a black rapper.” And Ice famously invented a more “authentic” sounding personal biography, inventing stories about gang fights and street living. While this may seem at odds with the more palatable sentiments in his music, it reflects the tension inherent in the co-option process: Ice had to attempt to live in two words, navigating both the social codes of hip hop and the hegemonic norms of the mass culture.

Yet this attempt to incorporate elements of hip hop culture into music industry hegemony was subtle compared to how “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby” were leveraged to initiate an aggressive change to the commercial music marketplace. The rise of the compact disc in the 1980s had been a huge boom for the music industry: it was cheaper to produce and, ultimately, more profitable than vinyl records or cassettes, and listeners appreciated the increased control they gave to switch or shuffle between tracks. In light of this, the major labels grew to treat the commercial single—a long-time staple but less profitable—with scorn, even as listeners still found them attractive. “The industry was looking for excuses to get rid of it,” said Jim Carparoo of Def Jam. If the compact disc was an excuse, M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice’s breakthrough success was an opportunity for EMI records, who distributed both artists, to test a crucial question: if denied the ability to purchase a single track, would consumers purchase the full album instead?

In the case of Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” the song was never released on the major singles format of the time—the cassingle—and, as such, the song, a year-defining radio hit, only reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100. “Ice Ice Baby” was released as a cassingle, but it was pulled when the song hit number one on the chart. Said Ice’s manager at the time: “In a soft economy, you don’t want to give a kid a choice between spending three dollars or eight dollars. You want to build a career. And when we pulled the single, the album exploded.” The massive success of Hammer and Ice’s albums—sales chart dominance that dwarfed anything in rap music previously and the likes of which have rarely been seen since—gave the industry the initiative it needed to phase the commercial single out of the marketplace over the decade that followed and place the full album as the dominant model of both musical production and consumption. It suggests, to an extent, Marx’s connection between economics and ideas: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production.”

But though “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” provide plenty of evidence to support Garofalo’s model of music industry co-option, just how successful it was in the long run, in this case, is more questionable. While hip hop has become a dominant commercial genre in popular music today, many of its original social codes still remain, and one could argue that the industry has been better at leveraging their rebellious elements for profit rather than excising them as M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice tried to do. More significantly, the mechanisms of industry control that Garofalo cites—marketing, distribution, retail—have all been dramatically altered by the rise of the Internet; it’s notable that one of the major reasons often cited for the speed at which digital music exploded was listeners growing dissatisfied with purchasing full albums to acquire single tracks. In their time, “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” demonstrated the industry’s ability to co-opt hegemonic threats and leverage them for its own commercial gain, but today, with the mechanisms of power shifting dramatically, the practical applications of Garofalo’s model—if not even its underlying presumptions—seem more challenged and up for debate than they were twenty years previous.


Books and scholarly articles

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s  Press, 2005.

Easthope, Anthony and Kate McGowan. A Critical and Cultural Studies Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal. That’s The Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Garofalo, Reebee. “How Autonomous Is Relative: Popular Music, the Social Formation and Cultural Struggle.” Popular Music 6 (1987): 77-92.

Jameson, Frederic. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text 1 (1979): 130-48

Knopper, Steve. Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010.

Lemert, Charles, ed. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Whitburn, Joel. “Journey.” In Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles 1955-1996. 324.Menomonee Falls, Wisc: Record Research, 1997.

Magazine and newspaper articles



Bernard, James. “Why the World is After Vanilla Ice.” New York Times, February 3, 1991.

Gates, D. “Play that packaged music.” Newsweek, December 3, 1990.

Handelmann, David. “Sold on ice.”  Rolling Stone, January 10, 1991.

Light, Alan. “Public Enemy #1.” Rolling Stone, January 23, 1992.

Molanphy, Chris. “Once More, With Loathing: Are Major Labels Moving to Kill the Single Again?” Idolator, posted August 28, 2008. (accessed January 28, 2011).

Rockwell, John. “Hammer and Ice, Rappers Who Rule Pop.” Pop View. New York Times, November 18, 1990.


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