It's "Hammertime" at Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose, Calif. The man with the mike is legendary rap artist M.C. Hammer, who now leads Sunday night services at the independent charismatic church as its Sunday night pastor.
Hammer's "Hammertime"--taken from a term made famous in his 1990 megahit "U Can't Touch This"--is drawing in the unchurched and disenfranchised, including gang members, troubled youth and curious teens.
"This is not about Hammer," exhorts the 34-year-old recording artist and nearby Oakland native whose given name is Stanley Burrell. "My job is to make sure God gets all the glory!"
Hammer has committed himself to lead the hip-hop gospel service at Jubilee for one year, through August. Though he has a heavy mainstream concert schedule, he has told promoters he must be back in San Jose each Sunday evening.
"This is ... high-energy, a lot of music, testimonies and a strong altar call all geared toward urban kids and the [designer clothing] crowd," says Jubilee senior pastor Dick Bernal.
The trail that united Hammer and Jubilee in ministry goes back to a prophecy. In 1989, when Hammer was reaching the pinnacle of his mainstream music success, Bernal's wife, Carla, woke her husband one night to tell him, "I don't know when or how, but we are going to be partnering with M.C. Hammer to bring Jesus to the Bay Area."
Hammer and Jubilee did not connect until last July when the church hosted a prayer rally at the San Jose Arena. "There was an immediate connection," Bernal said. "And we have been traveling and ministering together since then."
Two months after they met, Hammer and Bernal formed a business partnership. Launching a new Christian music label, called Worldhit Jubilee Records, Bernal invested $500,000 (via a mortgage on his home).
With the company, they plan to produce and release music by new Christian hip-hop, R&B, rap and gospel artists. These musicians will be showcased and will minister at Sunday night Hammertime meetings, but they also look to reach the mainstream market.
"It is wide open," Bernal said. "Look at what Kirk Franklin has done."
While still negotiating the distribution contract, Worldhit Jubilee has purchased a recording studio near Seattle. The label's first release will be the debut of a gospel group called Common Unity. Gospel singer James Mitchell, a boyhood friend of Hammer's, has also been signed to a record deal.
With the Pray for the Bay rally and his Sunday night meetings, Hammer says he is following God's directions.
"Years ago, God said that it is fine that I am world-renowned; however, from a salvational standpoint I am responsible for brothers and sisters in the Bay Area," Hammer told Charisma.
Growing up in Oakland, Hammer heard about Jesus at the Pentecostal church his family attended. Even in his backsliding days he included one gospel song on each album.
In 1979, he started thinking of preaching. But it took a bankruptcy, a fall from favor in the music industry and what Hammer calls a bout of "official backsliding" to turn him back to church and a commitment to preach. He has since been ordained in the Church of God in Christ, preferring smaller pulpits "where they don't expect to see someone famous," he says.
At the September 1999 debut of Jubilee's Hammertime, an 18-year-old girl praises Jesus for keeping her away from sexual sin. A young man tells how God helped him kick a drug habit. A middle-aged woman cries as she recounts the way the Lord reunited her family.
Hammer hugs each one, accenting the stories of God's work with hallelujahs of his own. Moments later, the Grammy-award winner has his Bible open. He preaches from Ezekiel 37. His voice rises and finger wags: "This is a war! It is time for us to start utilizing the power within us."
With zeal, Hammer punches out each word, not looking at all like a rookie in the pulpit. He had planned to sing and perform his hit "Pray" after the sermon. Instead, he goes straight to prayer. One-hundred people stepped to the altar to accept Jesus as Savior.
"People will see me on MTV, then here on Sunday nights preaching," Hammer said. "I am honored that He has taken a wretch like me and said I got some work for you to do."