MC5 earned national attention with their first album, Kick Out the Jams, recorded live on October 30 and 31, 1968, at Detroit's Grande Ballroom. Elektra executive Jac Holzman and producer Bruce Botnick recognized that MC5 were at their best when playing for a receptive audience. Containing such songs as the proto-punk classics "Kick Out the Jams" and "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)", the spaced-out "Starship" (co-credited to Sun Ra because the lyrics were partly cribbed from one of Ra's poems), and an extended cover of John Lee Hooker's "Motor City Is Burning" wherein Tyner praises the role of the Black Panthers during the Detroit riots of 1967. Critic Mark Deming writes that Kick out the Jams "is one of the most powerfully energetic live albums ever made ... this is an album that refuses to be played quietly.
The album caused some controversy due to Sinclair's inflammatory liner notes and the title track's rallying cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" According to Kramer, the band recorded this as "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!" for the single released for radio play; Tyner claimed this was done without group consensus. The edited version also appeared in some LP copies, which also withdrew Sinclair's excitable comments. The album was released in January 1969; reviews were mixed, but the album was relatively successful, quickly selling over 100,000 copies and peaking at #30 on the Billboard album chart in May 1969 during a 23-week stay.
When Hudson's, a Detroit-based department store chain, refused to stock Kick Out the Jams due to the obscenity, MC5 responded with a full page advertisement in the local underground magazine Fifth Estate saying "Stick Alive with the MC5, and Fuck Hudson's!", prominently including the logo of MC5's label, Elektra Records, in the ad. Hudson's pulled all Elektra records from their stores, and in the ensuing controversy, Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra, dropped the band from their contract. MC5 then signed with Atlantic Records.