In the heyday of Knowingly Undersold circa 2010, I saved a number of draft titles for future posts I intended to write. In short order this blog largely dried up as life raced ahead, and these drafts sat unacknowledged and disregarded until three years ago, when I launched into the Set of 400. It was then I unearthed my long-forgotten plan to pen “The Case for Digital Underground to Make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” They hadn’t been eligible until 2014 – 25 years from their landmark platinum-selling debut – so I figured I had plenty of time to start banging the drums and getting the momentum rolling. Or, as befits the rest of the early Knowingly Undersold catalog, it could at least be fairly amusing, or fall flat in glorious immolation in the effort.
On Digital Underground’s Sons of the P in 1991, young Joe was introduced to the concept presented in the second song, “Heartbeat Props,” whereas you’ve “gotta start giving the props to the living…why wait until the heartbeat stops? Yo, go on and give my man his props!” Had this nudged toward the forefront of my mind over the past decade, I could’ve recognized that the clock was a-ticking, and maybe the time to put this post together was sooner rather than later. But come on, what was the hurry? The members of D.U. were still relatively young – there was plenty of time to gather up the laurels and shout from the rooftops. There was no rush.
But, there were signs along the way that this might’ve been a more pressing necessity. The band officially broke up in 2008, after the release of the sixth and final full length album ..Cuz a D.U. Party Don’t Stop!, which was itself a decade beyond their previous album, Who Got the Gravy?, with only a handful of greatest hits compilations rolling out in the intervening years. Greg Jacobs, a.k.a. Shock G, a.k.a. Humpty Hump, a.k.a. Edward Ellington Humphrey III, a.k.a. MC Blowfish, a.k.a. Piano Man, had expressed an interest in doing more non-funkadelic style music, and to continue to lean into his successful producing career. It doesn’t appear there were hard feelings from the other main, surviving members of the group – drummer/producer Chopmaster J and stalwart rap partner Money B – and even though full tours were halted, a number of Shock G/D.U. live shows still popped up in the following years. They weren’t super frequent, and there was little evidence that Shock was keeping busy producing either – after 2010’s final Digital Underground release, The Greenlight EP, and a number of singles from a SoundCloud rapper who has 40 followers. But still, everyone seemed relatively happy and fairly busy, and a career as a nostalgia act is one that can stretch for quite a while. Time, I felt, was still on my side.
The closest I came to actually putting this together would’ve been 2014, when our paths finally converged, in the city Places Rated Almanac ranked 354th out of 354 metropolitan areas in North America in 1999 – Kankakee, Illinois. This is well down the road from when I first discovered the band, obviously – back when I was a mere lad living in the 80th ranked metropolis in this same book – Scranton, Pennsylvania (seriously, what the hell was the criteria in this book??). Certainly too young to be buying something called Sex Packets, I somehow convinced mom and dad this was a good idea, or picked it up on the sly from the Woolworth’s, and the lifelong love affair began. I honestly don’t recall my parents ever objecting to anything in this direction – at least, after the whole renting Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors debacle a few years before – so maybe this wasn’t all that underhanded.
However, I will reiterate, Sex Packets was definitely not something I should’ve been listening to in 1990, at the ripe age of ten. While the band’s sound would evolve over the next few albums, the bedrock staple topics of their songs would more or less remain the same from day one – food and hoes. There isn’t nearly as much pimping on that first album as on, say, Sons of the P, and for pure hoes-per-minute you’ve gotta throw 1993’s The Body-Hat Syndrome in the ring with any album ever made (yes, including Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus’s Money Jungle from ’63!), but Sex Packets still holds its own as possibly the horniest release in the band’s hyper-sexual catalog. Put aside for a second the five songs related to the title concept (a concept so loose that no clear explanation is revealed, even across the fifteen-and-a-half minute suite to close the record) – you still have Gutfest ’89, a sort of Lollapalooza with dancing girls in cages and cheap hotel rooms and Chick Corea – “one big stupid butt nest.” You’ve got Freaks of the Industry, a song relentlessly underscored by moaning and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” during which you should forever be prepared to G. “Like Anita, I’m giving you the best that I’ve got.” And even on the milder, bouncier tunes, you still get busy in a Burger King bathroom, and “Just act a fool, it’s okay if you drool, everybody’s gonna strip and jump in the pool.”
Nonetheless! Sex Packets got worn out while I waited for the next Digital Underground album, and I was not even remotely cool about it. I distinctly remember in a music class (in my Catholic middle school, mind you) bringing in a favorite song, and shocking them nuns with a (radio edited) D.U. classic. Look, I probably didn’t belong there any more than the “Sex Packets/Packet Man” quintet should’ve bounded into my ears in ’90, but there we were nonetheless. Sex packets are…dream inducing fantasy pills? Sorta? And you buy them from the shadiest character you can imagine? And they range from “a dollar or two” to “these are forty, these are eighty,” depending apparently on the complexity of the fantasy? I don’t know, even now, thirty-plus years later. Whenever Humpty tries to guess what exactly these things are, he is rebuffed from actually learning the truth about these mind-altering non-hallucinogenics.
But okay, even outside some of the mysterious, virulently goof-erotic songs, Sex Packets is also riddled with potent jams. As this was the Underground’s only platinum selling album, odds are it’s the lasting memory people have from the band (which is a complete shame – and was the overall impetus of my ever wanting to write this). Still, if the lingering memories of this release only involve the opening track, you’ve done yourself a mighty disservice. ”Doowutchyalike” is an absolute, fourth-wall destroying masterpiece of pool-party swing, marking the band’s first giant foray into the main stream while also swerving hard into food rap – their bread and butter for the next decade. “Help yourself to a cracker with a spread of cheddar cheese/Have a neckbone, you don’t have to say please, Eatwutchyalike”
“The Way We Swing” is not “your average everyday rap song,” which introduces the band’s light-handed jabbing at fellow hip-hop acts, proclaiming that the Digital has it all over them “triple slippin’ MCs,” through the use of a ton of fun imagery. Sure, the put-downs are a bit much for a band’s second song on their first album, but “you can’t deny it though, the drums are good and sloppy.” Who are these MCs and DJs in question? Another mystery for the ages, but by the time Shock is running down the list of places infatuated with the Underground, you’re sold. “Even in Cleveland, they like the way we swing.”
The Cleveland metropolitan area? The 28th best on the previously mentioned list. What the holy hell.
“Rhymin’ on the Funk” is more of the same, though, which might blunt the edge of the other song’s slicing and dicing, replete as it is with a lot of dissing MCs and spelling things out, even as they are “spitting rhymes like a Tommy gun spraying things.” And the cassette only track – originally released as the “Doowutchyalike” B-side – “Hip Hop Doll” is a fun as hell, “Hello My Baby” sampling, off-kilter romp. But then, emerging from the middle of all these fat beats, is the complete left hook anti-drug anthem “The Danger Zone,” which ten-year-old Joe couldn’t make heads or tails of. I hadn’t seen Juice or New Jack City yet, so my encounters with the drug life were limited to episodes of Miami Vice and that live version of “Cocaine” on Eric Clapton’s Timepiece. But this song! Holy Jesus, Dopefield Carla is a major league addict – “Every night she has crack for dinner”! How is that part of the balanced diet? My young mind was at a loss, and even though I was also at least a year or two away from seeing JFK and starting to wholly question every aspect of American life, this song kicked the door down first, declaring that “the government gets drugs in bunches”! So I knew that not only would the muckety-mucks not step in to solve the situation, they probably wouldn’t snatch that pipe from Carla’s lips. Ya boy Shock? He’d “rather give a crippled crab a crutch.”
And it might be right there that I realized this Digital Underground thing was something to hook onto. Plenty of people were putting out fun songs, whether they included as many big bowls of cereal with icy cold milk or not. But would they also swerve into the hellscape of everyday life and slam you with the iron fist of reality? Screw you, Roxette! I’ll take the underwater hip hop extravaganza, where an octopus cuts nine records at a time.
Plus, you know, “The Humpty Dance.”
I’m not overly proud to admit that for the entirety of Digital Underground’s era of putting out phenomenal studio albums, I did not realize Gregory Jacobs was both Shock G and Humpty Hump. Somewhere in the very early years I got it into my head that they were separate people and then never questioned it again until I was well into the age of the Internet, and I stumbled across this mind-blasting fact. And once you know it (or if you always knew it, or if you never really thought about it) it’s stupidly obvious. So why the hell didn’t I pick up on this until they had basically stopped making music?
Well, great care was actually taken to conceal this fact, or at least muddy the water enough that it wouldn’t be in-your-face blatant. First (for me, anyway) was that the original cassette tape for Sex Packets listed, in parentheses, the authors of all the songs, and right there next to track one it shows (E. Humphrey-G. Jacobs). I assumed Edward Ellington Humphrey III was a pseudonym, obviously, I’m not an idiot, but the displaying of two names here led me to basically never question it from this point forward. And yet, both “The Way We Swing” and “Underwater Rhymes” both have an attribution for R. Blowfish, who was pretty clearly not an actual person. Also, ”The Danger Zone” and “Freaks of the Industry” both list Shock G for some reason. Also, Side A is labeled as Safe Side while B is Sex Side. Point is, none of this should’ve been taken as valid evidence. So what the hell, young-to-well-into-adulthood Joe?
The thing that might’ve dissuaded me from this oddball belief is the proliferation of video/TV/movie appearances the band had in the early ‘90s, right? The visual proof jammed straight into my dumb eyes! However, let me run this down for you: 1) The biggest, most accessible, and most seen thing they’d pop up in was the 1991 movie Nothing But Trouble. I’m going into this thinking they are different people to begin with, so watch it again – they are clearly filming around a Humpty double (a move often employed, and a role usually filled by Greg’s brother Kent, who bore a strong resemblance and similar voice). This was a move they’d use on talk shows, too, most notably their Arsenio Hall appearance. So that wouldn’t have cleared it up, and figure, those are situations less in the band’s control than most.
2) ”The Humpty Dance” video – almost certainly the most overall viewed thing Humpty and Shock appear in. So, watch it again, watch the subtle way they insinuate that these are separate people. Unlike nearly all other Digital Underground songs, this one is sung entirely by Humpty without Shock or Money B or any guests, so you wouldn’t necessarily think they’d bother putting other band members in the concert-looking segments of the video, but sure enough, in the group of back-up singers telling you it’s your turn to do the hump, there is Shock G, quite prominently. There is no other reason to even do this, and this was everyone’s introduction to the group.
3) ”Same Song” video – As an okay hit from a fairly unpopular movie, it’s hard to say what the shelf life would’ve been for “Same Song” if it hadn’t also signaled the wide arrival of Tupac, and almost for that reason alone (besides the fact that it’s an amazing song) it appeared on the video channels with some frequency for years to come. And how does this video start? Shock and Humpty getting out of a limo and rapping next to each other, looking straight into the camera. Seriously, why would I have doubted the reality right before my face??
Nearly every other significant appearance of the band only features Humpty without Shock, or Humpty without anyone, from the Dr. Dre/Ed Lover classic Who’s the Man? to the band’s bizarro dream sequence on the short-lived Dabney Coleman FOX sitcom Drexell’s Class (shoutout to my buddy Dave for bringing this to my attention!). So even though when I finally figured this out (man, I want to say it might’ve been like 2004? It might’ve been later) I felt like an idiot, but really, go back to ’90, ’91, ’92 – they were working hard to pull the Groucho glasses over our eyes. Well played, fellas!
There was no real way to know this at the time, but 1991 would be the peak for Digital Underground. That’s right, only like three years out from “Underwater Rhymes” and “Your Life’s a Cartoon,” two years after “Doowutchyalike” and the year after Sex Packets, this would be the zenith right here. They put out the solid This is an E.P. Release in January, reclaiming their songs from the Nothing But Trouble soundtrack, followed by arguably their best overall album in the form of Sons of the P in October. This was their Abbey Road, their Exile on Main Street – especially when compared through the lens of history with their bold, kaleidoscopic third record The Body-Hat Syndrome two years later. Plus, ’91 entirely encapsulated the brief period where Tupac was sort of a member of the group. But while the world had already begun to move on from D.U. at this point – relegating them forever to the bin of glorified rap one-hit wonders, alongside The Sugarhill Gang, Kris Kross, Lady of Rage, and Biz Markie – creatively, right here hit the peak. Still, the world’s general reaction at the time is somewhat justified. How much mileage could you really drag out of Humpty Hump as a character? It was the best and worst thing to happen to Digital Underground – the success of the “The Humpty Dance.”
Because again, Sons of the P is their legitimate top record, wall-to-wall, and it is largely overlooked to this day as anything even remotely special. Even as a super fan, I take issues with some songs on Sex Packets, and to a lesser degree Body-Hat Syndrome. I mean, I didn’t fast-forward past “Gutfest ‘89” and “Freaks of the Industry,” but they are just boner-through-the-roof horniness on magnetic tape. Body-Hat has similar problematic interludes in tone and subject. But Sons of the P doesn’t have a bad song. Hell, it doesn’t have a bad digression. Much like Sex Packets, it devolves into an extended concept finale, but goes about getting there through extensive world building, alter-egos, and band mythology.
Before spiraling into a ho-infested realm of pimping delights, it manages to produce a fun, forgettable single with “Kiss You Back,” that was almost certainly the easiest track to put out for an audience, but coming off “Humpty Dance” and “Same Song” it wasn’t totally embraced. I mean, it’s technically their second biggest U.S. hit – going gold and being their only other Top 100 charting song – but the studio’s purported reaction on hearing the first version and the decision to make it the Sons of the P single – “Humpty’s not even in it!” – makes sense, from a financial point of view. While “Kiss You Back” is fun and bouncy, it doesn’t viscerally connect to their other hits in any measurable way. It almost feels like the band’s one genuine effort at a love song, and so sticks out awkwardly, on this album and in the catalog. This was a band that largely put out banging party songs, heavy-ish message songs, and threw a bunch of chicken nuggets into the lyrics. Where did “Kiss You Back” come from? It actually feels like it belongs on one of the later albums, like Future Rhythm, when the concepts were more geared toward individual song success than here in the era of “The DFLO Shuttle,” “Sons of the P,” and “Tales of the Funky.”
Because, as TotF opens, “Funk is my mother, George is my father,” and Parliament’s influence is all over this album, and not just because Clinton appears on “Sons of the P.” This one grooves along for six full songs – from that jazzy, swinging opening beat where “people it’s time to take the train” to the leftover erotic Sex Packets glimmers of “Flowin’ on the D-Line” – before “Kiss You Back” crams its way into the proceedings, bringing the heavy funk interspersed with the plaintively aggressive “Heartbeat Props” and possibly their most readily disregarded truly great song – the Humpty showcase that is “No Nose Job.” While an obvious vehicle for Big Nosed Rapper jokes, the song also manages to slip in a bunch of positive-body-image, anti-plastic-surgery messaging, and tries to course correct what could be interpreted as a lot of misogynist leaning in the near-omnipresent ho-bashing (and the contradictory pro-nose-job lines in “Your Life’s a Cartoon”).
But yes, this consciousness-building is relatively temporary across the record’s middle, because it still goes out in a wild, “PG time is over,” quoting from The Mack, eleven-and-a-half minute ode to money-maker-hoes, “Good Thing We’re Rappin’.” For whatever reason, this song has probably the most memorable run of rhymes on any Underground release – ones that seem to constantly be just on the fringe of my thoughts, and will burst in (“The royal blue Brougham was a drop top rag/You could tell we was pimps from the Las Vegas tags on the Caddy”) with no real warning (“Coppin’ blow means you’re goin’ up and down/I went from Cadillacs in Vegas to the back of Greyhound”) at any conceivable moment in the day (“Count my monies while I read the funnies/Give my propas while I watch the soap operas”). It’s so long I’ve never really thought of it as a song in itself. Like, I wouldn’t put “Good Thing We’re Rappin’” on an old school mix CD, it would take up too much room. Plus, there are a bunch of dialogue sequences as the tune wears on, including extended shout-outs to…other pimps? Humpty’s alter-ego (if that isn’t too head-spinning) goes by Smooth Eddie, with the various characters of Icey Mike, Leakin’ Tony, Cookie, and Fresh Wes (Las Vegas best!) cameoing throughout. It’s a brash, ballsy ending to a great album, and it’s something they’d never try to replicate going forward.
I’ve been largely unsuccessful in convincing literally anyone to listen to Digital Underground over the years. In the ‘90s when they were at least putting out new music, someone might catch “Kiss You Back” on the radio, or see the blatant madness of the cover art for Who Got the Gravy? and I’d hit that opening like LaDainian Tomlinson. “Right? How great is this? Have you listen to Future Rhythm? Did you ever pick up any Raw Fusion CDs? Tupac got his start here, you know that, right?” And friends and acquaintances and strangers would bolt outta the goddamn room. I think people largely recollect Digital Underground as being a novelty act along the lines of The Archies or Aqua or The Monkees or something. When your big hit is a goofy dance track with some passing similarities to things like “The Monster Mash,” people are going to tend to disregard you. But why didn’t folks discover Sons of the P? And hell, even that went gold – why weren’t people sticking around for album #3?
After a while, I stopped bringing it up. Sometimes people did it for me – close friends and such know that I’m a fan, so if conversation wandered near D.U. somehow, it might get throw my way. That and of course “The Humpty Dance” has been my go-to karaoke song for over two decades now. So once in a while the door still opens for me to be like “Hey, you should really check out The Body-Hat Syndrome.” But it’s increasingly rare.
All of this rabid fandom led to a legitimate potential crisis in 2014, in Chicago and in Kankakee. As mentioned before, after the group broke up, there was still limited touring taking place. Not much, and not anything near the full group, but sometimes Shock would convince folks to tag along on one-off gigs here and there, and I did my best to follow when these were taking place. They were mostly in Oakland (the home of the band’s formation) or Florida (Shock’s boyhood home after his Brooklyn birth) and I wasn’t about to make that trek just to go a club or radio station parking lot. But who knows, if the events of 2014 hadn’t lined up, I might’ve pulled the trigger. The shows were becoming less and less frequent.
What the hell were the odds, though, that when I finally discover Shock G from Digital Underground making a live appearance anywhere near me (and only an hour away, too) at the Merchant Street Music Festival in Kankakee, we happened to have plans. And not just some dinner-with-friends plan either – another concert, and (here’s the key thing) the wife picked this concert. Folks, that’s a tough ask. This is something we paid money for that we’d have to scramble to try and offload in order to drive to godforsaken Kankakee to go to a free street fair, and then we’d probably have to stay over. In Kankakee. The only thing in my favor really was that the concert was Aerosmith, who a) are always touring, so seeing them at some point in the future wouldn’t be impossible and b) suck pretty hard by my long-established estimation, so we wouldn’t really be missing much, right?
Realizing what this meant to me, and my repeated emphasis on the fact that this was the only time this opportunity might ever present itself, the wife was cool with changing the plan, thank God. Even though I’d never managed to get her hooked on Digital Underground in the decade we knew each other, she was still willing to make the sacrifice and go along with what could’ve been a complete shitshow. I was endlessly grateful, and Kankakee was a go.
For all the praise I throw at Sons of the P, you’d think it was my slam-dunk choice as favorite D.U. release. I mean, it’s tight, it has wall-to-wall solid songs, and goddamn if that finale isn’t a bravura masterpiece of rappin’ and pimpin’ and pseudonyms for car features (“for sunroof we say it had the brains blown”). But despite all this, it’s a virtual toss up in my mind between that and their third bizarro album. If Sons of the P is Abbey Road and Exile on Main Street, The Body-Hat Syndrome is Sgt. Pepper’s and Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. It makes such leaps, takes such wild swings compared to everything else the band put out that you have to sit back in awe, even if it doesn’t land at the same rate of success as SotP. It’s also the group’s last bona fide masterpiece album – things were never quite the same going forward, either from being so jaded by the experience working with Tommy Boy Records, weary of the Humpty-centric expectations, or that this was the last release with any bit of Tupac’s involvement.
And sure, here there be hoes in a great plethora yet again (even if the Underground just don’t stop for hoes), from the banner song of the band’s catalog “Holly Wantstaho” to the heavily mixed messaging of “Bran Nu Swetta” to the “Freaks of the Industry”-esque moaning-and-groaning of “Digital Lover.” But I feel like a lot of this is meant to set up the album’s main…concept? Thesis? The three-part “Body-Hats” song is strung throughout the record, actually landing as songs #7, #13, and #18 (on the CD; the cassette order was slightly different), and probably was intended to book-end the entire release before the label got involved and forced “Return of the Crazy One” to the front slot. So body-hats – a sort of obvious pro-protection message, but protection against what exactly? Safe sex is part of it, thus the ho-slamming appearing as it does. There are also a number of references to F.A.D.E.S. – Falsely Acquired Diluted Education Syndrome, plus a very urgent crisis involving hand stuff and possibly the death of physical affection in general. So…I’d say we’re looking at protecting yourself against the world’s bullshit and also, you know, STDs.
To further this idea, between “Body-Hats (Part Two)” and “Body-Hats (Part Three),” there is probably the most involved ode to onanism ever recorded in human history. This includes The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” Divinyls “I Touch Myself,” The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” “Dancing With Myself,” “She Bop,” “Beat It,” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man From Galilee).” Hell, I’ll even throw in South Park’s endlessly catchy “Jackin’ It in San Diego.” None of those quite measure up to the three-part, seven-and-a-half minute fantasyland suite “Jerkit Circus,” with the “Circus Entrance” and “Circus Exit (The After-Nut)” on either side. Sure, it can just be seen as puerile, teenage boy goofery, but on the Body-Hat Syndrome record, and the thrust of many of the surrounding songs, this is easier to interpret as trying to stay safe in the dicey sexual world of 1993. “Circus Entrance” also has a bunch of fun Humpty dialogue in the background – “Right right, I wanna bust it but I can’t trust it.” And – and I can’t emphasize this enough – lyrics be damned, “Jerkit Circus” is an absolute, “Pop Goes the Weasel” sampling banger. It’s a completely insane concept for a song, never mind three of them – a psychotic carousel of beats and chicken choking unparalleled in modern music.
But on an album with twenty tracks, this thin premise across the middle doesn’t really extend well to the work as a whole. So it’s probably best to take the rest apart and deal with the excellent – “Shake & Bake,” “Doo Woo You,” “The Return of the Crazy One,” and the mind-expanding closing track “Wheee!” – separate from the rest. Oh, and let’s not overlook that while the parade of hoes is intense (“Shake & Bake’s” “I’ve got a PhD in nasty” caps a wild run of lyrics in this area), this album is also by far the leader in outstanding food references. “So let’s all light up a big pack of butter beans!” “You need a tuna fish sandwich” “Hold your sausage hostage” (Okay, that’s “Jerkit Circus again) “How ‘bout a big plate of curry goat with some barbecue ox tails?” “A fat can of pinto beans” “I like biscuits and grits hold the sausage” “I blew a bubble and some Bubble Yum got caught up in the booty” “She spread cottage cheese on my belly!” “Honey on the side, jelly on the head/Peanut butter on the bedspread/Baby said, ‘Do you like it dirty?’”
I’m sure if we could ask, they would want to point out “Wussup With the Luv” as one of the defining tracks on the record (as it’s the only BHS song to make the greatest hits album). Not only does it feature a terrific verse from Tupac, but it also serves as the heavy message song on the album, while working as a weird bit of prognostication. But it’s not a great overall song, and sure as hell doesn’t fit in with what’s going on around it. It makes strong arguments against gun violence, drug dealers, colonialism (?), and general shitty behavior – it also features oddball heavy-handed grim anecdotes. It’s interesting to be sure, but it doesn’t stand out on this madcap release. Plus, the message is undoubtedly hollowed out by Tupac’s death only three years later, from the very things being warned against in this song.
Not like, say, the best closing song on any D.U. release – five bonkers minutes of “Wheee!” One of the three songs inexplicably left off the cassette – along with the fun “Dope-A-Delic” and the cheeky “Humpty Dance Awards,” shouting out all the songs that had sampled the image and the style that you’re used to – five Underground members go for broke in their respective verses. From Shock’s catchy opener “Ridin’ in a drop-top Vette doing 90,” Money B’s “kick eight bars/and not rhyme once and still sound fly,” Clee “sittin’ underground but my head is to the ceiling,” Schmoovy-Schmoov “In living colour, gumbo from my mother,” and of course, Saafir’s “I’ve got camel humps on my back.” It weirdly harkens back to the unbridled fun of “Doowutchyalike” while providing something completely different and wholly unexpected.
And when it wrapped, closing out their longest release at 74 minutes, nothing was ever quite the same for Digital Underground, and by extension, for any of us.
The main argument for Shock G and Digital Underground’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (if such an argument is even required, after the existence of “Holly Wantstaho”) is oddly outside their catalog of hit-and-otherwise albums. I’m not super versed on the Hall’s rules, so I don’t even know if this would work, but looping Shock’s producer work with other artists in alongside their dazzling track record of heated beats you could step to seems like the best angle to take. This was my argument in 2010, and it remains so today, even though (to my knowledge) D.U. is yet to get even a whiff of Cleveland, no matter whether or not they in fact like the way we swing.
You can make a case that with the extreme degree of talent he possessed, Tupac was going to be a huge star no matter what. Someone was bound to give him a break and get him in the studio at some point. But the fact of the matter is that without his Digital Underground connection, it would’ve taken longer, and hell, living as fast and loose as he was, who knows if his career would’ve gotten in line in time. He joined up on D.U.’s tour with Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane in 1990 as a roadie (according to Shock interviews), but was quickly incorporated into their wild live show, and subsequently got that amazing verse on “Same Song.” Shock was quoted as saying the plan around this time was for the group to expand in a more Parliament Funkadelic mold, with a slew of rappers appearing on an album and becoming de facto members of the group. Considering 2Pac’s vibrant political messaging at the time, it was probably naïve to even think he’d stick around in this “humorist band,” but man, what could have been!
Shock’s co-producing of 2Pacalypse Now in 1991 and his breakout hit “I Get Around” in 1993 helped him get over as a solo act, and both have a lot of D.U. influence in their sound, which dissipates significantly in Pac’s music afterward. Sure, it helps that Shock does a bunch of background vocals and piano work on 2Pacalypse, to add in some of that classic DFLO sound, never mind him and Money B’s guesting on “I Get Around,” giving the world probably his most famous line – “I’m Shock G, the one who put the satin on your panties.” He’s also credited on a number of other songs from Me Against the World, including “Fuck the World” and “So Many Tears,” and some tracks unreleased during Tupac’s life.
There’s a grab bag of songs for other artists across the ‘90s and ‘00s, including tunes for Prince and KRS-One, plus D.U. vets Money B (with Raw Fusion) and Saafir, but one that I was familiar with only in the Shock G connection all of sudden had a huge reemergence a few years ago in the Jordan Peele movie Us – the Luniz smash “I Got 5 On It.” I had no idea what reaction this song had in the ‘90s, as I only ran across it on streaming years later, as Shock produced a number of songs on the Operation Stackola album, but apparently it was enough to go platinum, eventually, and now stand as a legitimate classic. Does this not sum up the great man’s magnanimous nature in spreading the spirit of the Dope-a-Delic around? He helped the biggest names in the game when they came calling, plus lent a hand to the up-and-comers, whether from Oakland or not. He worked to build titans in the industry and to get feet in doors, all while continuing to put out the best ham hock related rhymes of all time. If that gold plated nose from the Body-Hat era does not get enshrined alongside John Lennon’s piano or whatever, the world is being handed a vicious disservice. Just saying.
It’s not that the other Digital Underground albums aren’t great in their own ways – there are still some fantastic songs in those later collections – but they start getting baggy in Future Rhythm in ‘96, bounced back a bit by bringing the full party in ‘98’s Who Got the Gravy?, and then it was basically over for the group. ..Cuz a D.U. Party Don’t Stop! was a decade later and was clearly a thrown together afterthought, coming even after Shock G’s lone solo effort, which functions as a far better coda to the D.U. experiment.
Fear of a Mixed Planet is at once more somber, more thoughtful, and still wildly into groceries on a mellow, groovy 75-minute cruise. There aren’t exactly songs standing out from this album – it’s not blasting with hyper-sonic jams and then insidiously sneaking in message between anthems about banging hoes like a train derailing, like many earlier albums. But it is a consistent curio of songs that land with varying degrees of success in delivering more of a consciousness expansion than pure driving beats. And yet, there are random references to Tupac and quick glimpses of Humpty and even Money B diving in to add verses, making this more a spiritual successor to Sons of the P than anything else since ’91. It’s easily the most significant overall release of Shock’s post-1993, even if it’s not exactly as catchy or as fun.
But it absolutely isn’t fair to just disregard the fourth and fifth Underground records, either – Future Rhythm has that absolute pinnacle of edible rap, the endlessly quotable “Food Fight,” featuring none other than “Mistadobalina” and Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” artist Del the Funky Homosapien. “Get ready for confetti with the groceries!” “Gonna hit ya in the neck with a cheeseburger!” And sure, there’s plenty of Humpty here, too – not gonna lie, there really isn’t a Humpty-centric tune anywhere in the catalog that I’m not a fan of – but this is later topped by the twisted, surreal “Hokis Pokis (A Classic Case),” which might be the band’s best full effort to comprehensively depict a full-on descent into insanity. Really, what else is even happening here? You’ve got Humpty telling the others to shut up, repeatedly, and adamantly declaring that he’s not crazy. And everyone else? Quacking like a duck. Mind-bending keyboards and pianos, a parade of characters, and madness. “I’m talking about a temporal lobe, post-traumatic, cranial gland disorder. Homicidal maniac!” Worth the price of admission by itself.
And the rest of Future Rhythm is worth hearing too, even if the main release, “Oregano Flow,” isn’t anything in particular, some of the filler is standard D.U. stuff, and “Glooty-Us-Maximus” is particularly dumb. But “Walk Real Kool”? Nice groove. “We Got More” with Luniz guesting? A nice thing to roll to. The general mood is just a little down on this one. And again, maybe this was part of the process in leaving the old label, plus having the built-in problem of robbing songs back from a movie soundtrack á la Nothing But Trouble/the EP Release, this time with “We Got More” and “Food Fight” coming from Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. So while it’s definitely the weakest of the five main Underground albums, it’s still a quality release.
But it sure is nice that the group more-or-less went out on a high note with the vintage, wild Who Got the Gravy? as not only does it also go heavy on the edibles, but it brings in some pretty fun guests and delivers two of their great, unsung jams, back-to-back to open the show after the solid “I Shall Return” intro by KRS-One. “All you gotta do is follow that music and listen for the rhythm” kicks off the rapid funk from Shock, Humpty, Esinchill and Clee on “Holla Holiday.” “Shine the lights, this is Harlem Nights/True, Digital U and Papa Hump’s/Bringing that slump you can bump to, boo.” It’s a fun, solid groove to open up, and well positioned, as it eases you into the overall mood before smacking you with the slamming, Parliament-esque funk of “Wind Me Up,” a song that deserves way more attention than it has ever gotten. Great driving beat, high energy, solid inventive runs, some fun oddball vocal effects and choices. The Big Nose back with the big bouncy track! “Glazed extra mayonnaise with no bologna on it!” “Y’all thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’? I’m drinkin’ what you drinkin’!” And yes, this song should’ve tipped me off to the whole Shock G/Humpty alter ego thing, as, after Shock’s opening verse Humpty jumps in saying “Let me put my nose back though.” So…I’m an idiot.
The album can’t quite maintain this dynamite opening, but highlights includes a kinda dumb but fun Humpty/Biz Markie insult battle in “The Odd Couple”; another vintage title track tackling a crazy concept, including some metaphorical recipes, grabbing an assist from Truck Turner, and the line “a track without the gravy is like dried mashed potatoes; and “The Mission,” a swinging throwback to the full-on club-raging lady-hunting days of Sex Packets, perhaps a little more toned down with the flow amped up. But, the record all but collapses as it winds down, under the weight of the eight-minute “Man’s Girl” thing, with a few minutes of “Peanut Hakeem” to set it up. You’re so whipped after fighting through that thing that the last two songs leave zero impact – this is a record I’ve heard 100 times, and I couldn’t tell you much of anything about “April Showers” or “Cyber Teeth Tigers.”
And again, there were other random releases in the 21st century – The Greenlight EP in 2010, The Lost Files in ’08, that sixth album – but these are all largely forgettable, comprised of songs that didn’t make the cut on earlier albums (and for good reason) or a bunch of live tracks, that are interesting but don’t do well to capture the legendary craziness of a Digital Underground show. No, I thought we were transitioning into an era of more solo Shock work, and considering the weight he threw behind Fear of a Mixed Planet, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic about future compositions. But with the exception of a few singles – the Obama presidency inspired remake of a FoaMP song “Cherry Flava’d Election” in 2016 (a song I’ve honestly never heard, as I can’t find it anywhere, and trust me, I’ve looked) and the remixed version of Greenlight’s “Used 2B A Sperm,” released as “Used to Be a Sperm,” and neither of them are anything in particular – there was basically nothing from Shock, for the last eleven years…
Well, almost nothing. Because in my prescient wisdom, I had forced the world to bend to my absolute, imperative need to go to the Merchant Street Music Festival in Kankakee in the summer of 2014. I’d had my ear to the ground – at least I thought – for some time, in case Shock G and any assortment of the fellas got out of California for live shows. But with the band essentially broken up – and doing a variety of shows classified as their last – it seemed that any chance to see them that came along had to be capitalized on. Also, at some point in those pre-’14 days, I realized that I’d totally booted my best opportunity up to that point, when apparently Digital Underground (with Money B no less) had played a show with Naughty by Nature at the Congress Theater here in Chicago in June of 2012 – the very theater where I’d seen George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic only the year before. I had zero awareness of this show happening, and according to my detailed Facebook Activity Log of the time, I was actually enjoying live music a mere mile-and-a-half from there that very night! Look, I don’t remember a thing about the Do-Division Street Fest of 2012, I’m sure it was fine, but this was a ball thoroughly dropped.
Obviously, such a blunder could not be allowed to happen again. And so, as recounted earlier, I got the wife on board, threw Steven Tyler to the curb, secured D.U. t-shirts from the vast internet, and we headed down. My memories of Kankakee itself are a little vague. I haven’t been there since, and there isn’t much to solidly differentiate it from every other small town/suburb I’ve been to in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa over the past decade. The festival was kinda neat – the main stage was in…a park square, maybe? Or on a street, adjacent to a park? Adjacent to an old timey train station? Not exactly the most dazzling music venue, but hey, Kankakee did their best.
I knew my main issue would be my astronomical expectations and the insane build up this event had in my mind. I also knew there was almost no chance this street festival concert was going to be ideal for a super hardcore fan, and tried to put myself in check. Figure, there was no theme to this festival, musically speaking. We saw a jazzy lounge quartet do Sinatra-style standards followed by a pretty epic Earth, Wind, and Fire cover band directly before Shock was coming on, so the crowd was all over the place in tastes and ages and ethnicity. Going early may have actually helped with my sky-high anticipation of what was to come.
The show was just Shock G – I knew that going in. This is a pretty limiting experience for someone as accustomed to the complete, vast D.U. repertoire, as while there are a few Shock/Humpty only songs, there aren’t many. The crowd was…okay. I want to say a few hundred people managed to cram together in front of this makeshift stage. We were well positioned – I want to say we may have staked out some space during the prior act, which might account for my vivid memories of that Earth, Wind, and Fire cover band. They were all rocking huge white afros! Pretty boss! But the Underground crowd – even with a few other people sporting band t-shirts (no matter what PCU said) – was sturdy, if a little distracted and wobbly from the long day at the festival. It was a subdued, amiable ambiance, without a ton of eager electricity that normally precedes a concert.
Looking at all this from a distance, you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling a general sense of disappointment. It wasn’t even an issue of how the mighty had fallen. It was the absolute grade Z of music venues at the very end of a tour that no one bothered to mention was out of gas a decade-plus earlier. It was a stark, bleak reminder of the fleeting nature of fame and celebrity. It was a grim, paved stretch of middle America with a largely drunk, apathetic crowd who might’ve recalled your name from decades earlier and thought what a novelty it would be to wander down to the old railroad yard and hear that one song.
So was I let down? After two-and-a-half decades of fandom, never really believing that I’d see the great man in person? Was my spirit crushed by the circumstances surrounding this landmark event in Kankakee County history? I once sat in the third row at Zanies to see a very famous comedian give the worst stand-up/Q&A performance of my life. I remember a story from someone who’d seen Billie Holiday in concert toward the end of her life, when she was in very serious decline, and how this changed their perception and memories of her, how they couldn’t help it. A number of people from Scranton told me a similar story about seeing Mitch Hedberg in concert toward the end of his life, when he was so messed up that the audience shouted out the punchlines to his jokes for him. No matter how much you like a performer going in, it’s entirely possible their live presentation could sully and ruin all your prior feelings and opinions.
But thankfully, this did not happen for me. I’ve said –tongue half in cheek, but half not – that this was one of the top live entertainment moments of my life, right up there with seeing David Ortiz steal a base in Baltimore, The Foo Fighters playing “Hero” in the rain at Lollapalooza, getting a picture with Greg Sestero after a midnight showing of The Room, and…maybe that time Gillian Anderson asked the wife if she wanted to make out at a meet-and-greet. And the actual performance is somewhat hazy in the memory now, so wrapped up was I in the fact that Shock G was twenty feet away.
He worked through the super famous Digital Underground songs that he could do with no assistance – “Packet Man” getting a weird prominence in the show, but again, that was the platinum album. There was some “Same Song,” some “I Get Around,” a little “Doowutchyalike,” and then of course “The Humpty Dance,” which included the new line adapted to the current situation – “Yeah I called you fat, look at me, I’m fat too.” He hit the keyboards a bunch, and only broke out the nose to wrap up.
It was the end of the brief concert that provided the odd twist I wouldn’t have expected to live with me ever after. With the DJ still playing and amidst the cheers, you had the typical sign offs and bows, the back-up musicians heading off, a general scattering of stage personnel, and Shock G…didn’t leave the stage. Again, this whole operation was a pretty makeshift bit of workmanship, so leaving probably meant hopping straight into a car somewhere back behind the lights, but Shock sort of danced toward the wings as the crowd began to wander away, and stopped. I saw this happening and figured I was sticking around as long as he’s out there, because what sort of chance was I ever going to get to see him again? Music continued to play, so Shock just sort of bopped around a few seconds, before sitting down on a speaker. He continued to groove while I got right up to the front fence now, mere feet away. This wasn’t the time to head off and find where the hell we’d parked the car – Shock G was right there!
I’m not much for meeting celebrities – we’ve done it a few times, like at the aforementioned Gillian Anderson event – but I’m always kind of embarrassed. They’re just people trying to live their lives and sometimes wander out with their fame to give the folks a treat, and that’s all great, but I’d rather just see a famous person in the flesh than actually try and interact with them. I got a picture with famed Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson once, and I literally had no idea what to say to him. What, that I liked Ghostbusters? Who the hell doesn’t! How many times has that guy had to field that banal statement? So there was no way – no way on God’s green Earth – that I was about to shout at Shock G to bless me with any sort of acknowledgement. What if he was lonely after the show (that he clearly was in no hurry to leave) and wanted to say hi and hang out and tell me stories about the good old days with Money B and Kenny K and Clee? I was not equipped to handle that. So with the crowd dwindling around us (the wife obviously did not bolt to leave me there alone), we just watched as Shock sat there, bounced around a little looking around at the fading lights, before slowly making his way off stage. It always struck me as a supremely weird ending to a concert, but only in retrospect does it seem so sad. I wished the crowd could have somehow demanded an encore – even though he’d already left once to get the nose on – or that Kankakee’s street festival was even situated to allow this to continue longer. Odds are this had to wrap up when it did, but Shock really didn’t seem to want to leave that stage. I feel like part of me will always be stuck in that moment, standing at that fence watching while Shock sat alone, still ready to party if the crowd wanted him to…
Gregory Edward Jacobs died on April 22, 2021 at the age of 57, alone at the Vista Inn & Suites in Tampa, Florida, less than five miles from where he went to high school, and only 40 minutes away from where he first undertook a study of music theory, at Hillsborough Community College. The official cause of death has yet to be released, but reporting from the Tampa Bay Times paints a picture of spiraling drug use and a handful of police incidents in the month leading up to his death. On one occasion, Jacobs was taken into protective custody under the Marchman Act, which allows law enforcement to detain an individual obviously under the influence for substance abuse evaluation.
This article – with some recent videos confirming – states that Jacobs was essentially homeless (or “houseless, as he called it), living out of hotels despite his continued performing and having means. Friends are quoted saying that he was still working on music and writing, creating right up to the end, but that he had serious insecurities about his work, possibly exacerbated by his drug use, or possibly just part of his character – a fairly humble figure of great talent who’d been in the industry for a very long time, but rarely given proper recognition, if ever.
I highly doubt if I’d gotten my original “The Case for Digital Underground to Make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” together in 2010 it would’ve made any bit of difference in the band’s chances at hall immortality. Let’s face it, Knowingly Undersold does not have that kind of pull, or there would be statues of Louis Tully in every town square in America. And also, it’s highly doubtful Greg Jacobs himself would’ve seen a word of it – what, he’s prowling the internet reading blogs? But at least I could’ve had it out there while he still walked the Earth, while there was still a heartbeat to give props to. It’s my eternal regret that it took the man’s death to finally put this together.
So even though this massive talent was taken from us too soon, and under hugely unfortunate circumstances, I do hope when he was clear of mind he was able to recognize that the fans were still there, that people still had great appreciation for what he gave to us. I was frankly surprised to see the huge outpouring just in my little social media circle here as the pandemic starts to wind down related to people’s memories of Digital Underground and “The Humpty Dance” and real respect for the musicality and fun of this “humorist band.” I never have a great sense of their public perception – it’s a huge blind spot because I still listen to them so much and have always considered them unfairly overlooked and forgotten. Maybe they aren’t, or at least not to the degree that I believed.
So my lasting hope is that some of this resonated with Shock G before the end, that he had some access to that adoration, that the issues plaguing him in the final days weren’t from a feeling of being forgotten. That’s all any of us really want, right? Just to know that someone still cares, that we’re thought of now and again, that maybe someone has a kind memory of times together gone by. The long isolation of the pandemic exacerbated these sorts of worries for many, so it’s a largely relatable concern. I just want to believe that Shock wasn’t forever left sitting on that speaker, alone, watching as everyone drifted away, ready to sing and dance and bring the fun, but no longer sure that anyone still cared if he did.
And for what it’s worth, here’s my personal Digital Underground greatest hits compilation:
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