BALTIMORE -- So far, it's been a good summer for M.C. Hammer.

"Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em" rests atop the nation's album charts -- as it has for seven of the last eight weeks -- and this week passed the 5 million mark, making it the best-selling rap album of all time.

Hammer's theme song, "U Can't Touch This," was an instant macho motto, particularly for athletes, and the kinetic video accompanying the song has been inescapable, which may explain why it hit No. 1, the first chart-topper in 30 years whose lyrics are spoken, not sung.

A few weeks ago Rolling Stone devoted an inside page to the hyperkinetic dance-rapper; a few weeks from now, Hammer will move to that magazine's cover.

And now the loose-limbed Hammer has hit the road with what some critics have declared the most exciting and energetic stage show to come along in years, leading a 30-member troupe that includes a live band, 10 backup singers, 15 dancers and some of the flashiest fashions this side of Mardi Gras. The show, which comes to Capital Centre tonight, is a spirited meld of Broadway, Las Vegas, the Apollo Theatre and Oaktown (a k a Oakland, Hammer's hometown and one of today's major centers for black music).

While 2 Live Crew, N.W.A. and Ice Cube seem to monopolize media interest, Hammer's wholesome, high-energy rap -- absent explicit language and negative lyrics -- represents a mainstreaming of rap. Along the way, Hammer's dance-based showmanship has revolutionized rap performance even as it has provoked caustic attacks by some of his peers.

Hammer has been dubbed the Paula Abdul of rap -- light on more than his feet. His success has been equated with the John Travolta, "Saturday Night Fever" hype, and he's been "dissed" on record by rappers 3rd Bass and Digital Underground (whose "Humpty Dance" insult invokes someone who "looks like M.C. Hammer on crack"). The Source, a leading rap magazine, refuses even to list "Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em" on its album chart, chastising Hammer's "cheesy, pop-oriented production" and dismissing his rhymes for being "as creative as a glass of warm milk."

At the recent New Music Seminar's Rap Summit, Hammer was hammered by rap purists, despite a defense from fellow West Coast rapper Ice-T, who said, "Hammer is cool, but he's not hip-hop."

"If they had their way, they'd keep rap in a small box only for the hard-core inner-city people," says Hammer of the purists. "They think any time the public at large embraces rap, then it's no good. But I have never succumbed to peer pressure, and that's why I'm M.C. Hammer. I do it my way and the pure hard-core hip-hop artists who say that's not rap, that doesn't bother me."

One of Hammer's few fans in the hard-core rap community is Chuck D of Public Enemy, who calls Hammer "my favorite rapper. That brother's bad." As for those who criticize Hammer, or question his street credibility, Chuck D says, "They don't know enough. I know he's all there. When he says 'U Can't Touch This,' you can't touch it. To me it's not just about style, it's that he's built a whole environment around him that's real."

Sitting in his hotel room before a show, relaxed in a skin-tight black stretch outfit, the charismatic Hammer exudes a brash, muscular energy and a showman's centered confidence. He's not shy.

"One of the reasons I'm an easy target is {rapper critics} are smart and it's like a fighter knowing pretty soon he's going to have to fight Mike Tyson," says Hammer the fight analyst. "You know you're going up against a heavyweight, a polished champion, and you can't get in there and not to be in shape and expect to win. They look at M.C. Hammer and they know that what they do doesn't really measure up."

The 27-year-old Hammer, whose real name is Stanley Kirk Burrell, confesses some surprise at just how well his album has measured up, though there was never any doubt in Hammer's mind that it would do very well.

"I'm a very confident person," he says confidently. "My style is not like anyone else's, so I don't have a reason not to be overly confident ... I could care less if it's not traditional rap. Who cares? It's me, it's the feeling that I've got in me, it's my music, or someone else's music interpreted by me."

Confidence comes naturally to Hammer, whose mother works in the criminal division of the Oakland Police Department and whose father manages that city's Oaks Club. "Rap only started in '78," says Hammer. "I was born in the '60s and I been dancing ever since I was born. I used to perform for my family when I was 3 years old, doing imitations of James Brown from 'Live at the Apollo.' "

Little Kirk Burrell also performed at elementary school talent shows, but his break came at age 11 while doing James Brown routines in the Oakland A's players' parking lot. A's owner Charlie Finley, passing through, was quite taken with the young Burrell and invited him to watch the game from his private box. Finley soon gave him a job running office errands and eventually made him the A's official batboy and unofficial "executive assistant."

"That was just an excuse to give me an opportunity to travel with the club," says Hammer, pointing out that batboys were not really needed on road trips. "I got to see what life was like outside Oakland."

In the mid-'70s, Hammer recalls, the A's had only a few black players, and "many cities weren't in the most integrated of situations. I learned to adapt and get along, to understand how other people live and feel. Maybe that's what separates me from most of the {hard-core} rappers, who only understand one way of life. Their thinking is so narrow and they alienate other people because they don't understand.

"I like the mass of people," he adds. "I grew up in an integrated East Oakland neighborhood. Some of my best friends were Latin, white, Chinese, and we all got along just fine -- we were all poor together. The {negative} attitude displayed by some of my 'peers' is not representative of M.C. Hammer, and so I'm glad they alienate me from them because I'm not them. I love people."

It was early on in his A's career that Kirk Burrell picked up the Hammer moniker. After some of the players noticed his resemblance to the legendary Hammerin' Hank Aaron, they started calling Burrell "Little Hammer." Eventually, he wasn't little anymore.

Hammer's relationship with the A's lasted seven years, and at one point Finley taught him to do play-by-play over the phone to his office in Chicago. A star shortstop in high school and junior college, Hammer even tried out with the A's rivals, the San Francisco Giants, but didn't make the final cut. That was followed by a stint in the Navy, at which point he started pointing to a career in music, a career made possible, ironically, by a couple of former A's players.

In the mid-'80s, Hammer had become a fixture on the Oakland dance-club circuit, free-styling raps over prerecorded rhythm tracks and sharpening his dance skills on strobe-lit floors. Born again in 1982, Hammer acknowledges that "when I first started out I was a gospel rapper, the Holy Ghost Boy." His first recording, "Word," never made it out of the studio (though it reappeared on his debut as "You're Being Served"), but there have been gospel-rooted raps on each of his albums: "Son of the King," also on his platinum debut, "Let's Get It Started," and "Pray," the Prince collaboration from "Don't Hurt 'Em" that is the next single and video.

"I made a commitment years ago that I would dedicate one tune on each album to God, showing my appreciation in a small way for what He's doing and what He's done," Hammer says. "My next album will probably have two."

The first M.C. Hammer single was "Ring 'Em," recorded in his basement, privately pressed and distributed from the trunk of his car. The funding came in two parts, Hammer recalls. Former A's player Mike Davis was looking to make an investment and backed the initial pressing with a $20,000 loan; when Hammer experienced the cash-flow problems endemic to independent entrepreneurs, he got a $20,000 boost from Dwayne Murphy, who had already heard the song on Oakland radio. Hammer's self-produced "Feel My Power" album sold 50,000 copies before Capitol Records brought him into the majors and recycled seven of its songs on "Let's Get It Started."

The title cut of the Capitol album was a hybrid of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and Rick James's "Give It to Me Baby," while "It's Gone" was built on B.B. King's classic "The Thrill Is Gone." Some critics have charged that Hammer's recycling of familiar riffs, mostly from '70s R & B, is a blatant ploy to attract older audiences and profit from previously established hits. On the other hand, sampled artists have profited considerably from royalties off shared copyrights, including Rick James, whose "Superfreak" riff is appropriated wholesale on "U Can't Touch This" (and, it should be noted, is also fully licensed and credited).

"I'm 27 years old and I have a very good memory," Hammer says. "Those were big records and they had an impact on me. When I started making my album, I said, 'Man, I want to do songs like that great music of the '70s.' Like 'Help the Children': The melody is taken from Marvin Gaye's 'Mercy Mercy Me," and if you play the two songs side by side, they're similar, but they're also very different. Marvin's song inspired me."

Of course, those old songs were sung, and while some of Hammer's detractors question his rapping abilities, even his staunchest defenders have a hard time excusing his singing, as on the rerap of the Chi-Lites 1971 hit "Have You Seen Her."

"I'm always looking to improve -- musically, performance-wise, rapping-wise," Hammer says.

Hammer doesn't mention dancing-wise, but anybody who's seen him knows he doesn't need to improve in this area. Actually, Hammer may have forced many rappers' hands -- or feet, actually -- because of the aggressive dynamics of his high-stepping choreography. Hammer's is probably the first, certainly the foremost, dance-oriented hip-hop group, and his is quite likely the most choreographed show this side of the Rockettes.

While some rappers have had dancers behind them, they've seldom done any dancing themselves. Now, even some of the hard-core rappers try to pass for dancers, Hammer chuckles. "LL Cool J danced last year, and a year before he was like this {Hammer crosses his arms and assumes the classic B-Boy stance} ... 'I'm bad.' But pride and ego will never let them say M.C. Hammer influenced them."

"We have one rule," he says. "Everything must be executed with a lot of energy, must be crisp and hard. Most of the moves are executed so cleanly but yet so briskly that somebody could stand next to us and do the same dance and it wouldn't look the same. It locks. It's a style that came about because of the way I dance -- I go hard but yet I'm smooth. I'm going hard yet I'm floating. It's the way I've always been."

If this sounds like Muhammad Ali's "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" credo, it's one that Hammer could subscribe to. Ali certainly would understand the pretour regimen Hammer used with his posse: running four miles, dancing eight to 10 hours daily. "Whoever wasn't in shape, they are now," he gloats.

On the road, Hammer stays in shape by lifting weights and doing 300 sit-ups before each show. "Gets me ready to go out there and dance," he says. Hammer, who says he loses seven pounds a night, eats only once a day, mostly chicken and fresh fruit. "And I drink orange juice {10 quarts a day} and take every kind of vitamin under the sun."

Dance-wise, he points to obvious models, from James Brown and Michael Jackson to Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers. A few years from now, dancers are likely to point to Hammer. Brown, of course, also serves as a convenient example of a great dancer-showman-entertainer whose vocal skills didn't really compare with those of peers such as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson.

It's dancing that made Hammer a star, just as his loose, billowing silk pants and shirts gave him a fashion identity apart from his rap peers. "At the beginning there was a sense of trying to fit in, to belong to rap world," he recalls. "I dressed like them, though I never started to talk the way rappers traditionally talk. There came a time when I said this is not me and I started dancing, upgrading my clothes. As the money came in, the new M.C. Hammer began to unfold."

The new M.C. Hammer has moved from distributing records out of his car to a $10 million distribution and marketing deal with Capitol for his Bustin' label, with another production deal outside the label. Besides family support -- brother Louis is Hammer's personal manager, brother Charles, the road manager -- Hammer employs 65 people to operate an expanding empire that includes a 24-track recording and dance studio to groom Oakland artists. On the personal level, there's a new million-dollar house and a half-dozen cars of the expensive persuasion. The Hammer tour, 80 strong, is moving from city to city via personal jet, cosponsored by Black Entertainment Television and the sportswear company British Knights (look for a Hammer tennis shoe in the fall).

Further down the line, there will be a Hammer movie featuring Reverend Pressure, the quick-quipping Baptist minister brought to life in "Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em: The Video," an hour-long video released last week. Hammer, who conceived, scripted and choreographed the film (it was directed by Rupert Wainwright, who has done all of Hammer's videos) said the Reverend Pressure character "derived from my experiences in churches and some of the people I've met, the sort of person who wants to do the right thing and says a lot of the right things but still gets caught up in his own self a lot."

Hammer as Pressure makes quite an impact, 15 minutes' worth of high-style preaching that is moving, hilarious and improvised. "I said give me my makeup and my outfit and turn me loose," Hammer says with a laugh. The Reverend will join Fathers Brown and Dowling and Rabbi XXXXX, working as a detective six days a week, and as a man of the cloth on the seventh day.

Both the video and the album reflect a social consciousness not particularly evident on Hammer's debut. The video, for instance, has been described as a combination of "Do the Right Thing" and "West Side Story," with Hammer portraying a rap star who comes home to find an old pal hiring kids as lookouts and delivery boys in his drug trade. Eventually, two of them are killed in a cross-fire and Hammer ends up organizing a benefit concert to try to right neighborhood wrongs.

It's a messianic plot that will be familiar to Michael and Janet Jackson fans, but it's also very well done, and some of the songs are quite moving: "Crime Story" is a plea to drug dealers to stop hiring kids for their filthy business; "Pray" suggests the power and the necessity of the community's churches ("we need to pray just to make it today").

"I wanted to deal with some of the issues that saturate the type of community I grew up in, where a lot of our younger brothers and sisters are being killed in the streets every day," Hammer explains. "I wanted to make a statement that M.C. Hammer is not just a dance artist and entertainer but a person who has experienced life and has an opinion he would like known before the wrong picture is painted and I have to repaint the whole picture.

"I'm an intelligent, learned and experienced person, and my music should express all those characteristics, not just the party side. And that's what that's all about."