Digital Underground co-founder blazed his own path in hip-hop, and helped out a legend along the way
It was sometime around my freshman year in college when I realized that Shock G and Humpty Hump were the same person. It shouldn’t have taken me that long to figure it out. But these were pre-internet days, when not everyone knew everything, and there was still a little mystery in the world.
Humpty Hump was the most outlandish character I had ever heard. I was 11 years old when “The Humpty Dance” hit the radio in early 1990, and the song was so much fun that the first time I heard it I instantly needed to hear it again. Of course in those days, On Demand listening didn’t exist. So I camped out at the radio, a blank cassette in the tape deck, and I waited.
Next time it came on, I released the record button and bam, it was mine, preserved forever on magnetic tape, likely right after Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” or Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” or other radio hits of the day. (Curation didn’t exist on radio-pulled mixtapes, you got what you got in the order you got it in, and you lived with it.)
“The Humpty Dance” was a watershed moment for crossover hip-hop. It was a party song with an rubbery bassline that could start an earthquake, which was so groovy Shock-as-Humpty gave voice to it in the middle of the song: “Durr-rerr, durr-reh.” The song featured rhymes about lumpy oatmeal, shooting arrows like Cupid and getting busy in Burger King bathrooms. To a sixth-grader, it was everything.
Few songs in my lifetime have caused such time-stopping moments. “The Humpty Dance” remained a staple throughout the ’90s and is still an all-time classic today. It was the best known work by Digital Underground, the Oakland, California hip-hop group founded by Gregory “Shock G” Jacobs, who died Thursday at age 57.
But it was far from Shock’s only contribution to the rap world and hip-hop at large. Digital Underground dialed up hits across a handful of releases and helped set a tone of strangeness that seeps through Bay Area hip-hop to this day. He was a creative genius who expanded the boundaries of hip-hop, playing with humor through characters and alter egos and making the rap genre an altogether freakier place. And he helped usher a young Tupac Shakur into the business, giving him his first appearance on a major single and producing several songs on his debut album, “2Pacalypse Now.”
Shock G is the latest hip-hop heavyweight to fall in a month that has already taken New York rappers DMX and Black Rob. Hip-hop does a better job at mourning its fallen than any other genre, with artists often stopping their concerts to pay tribute to those who’ve passed and to let their music be heard. But these deaths are stacking up at a tragic rate when large scale public mourning still doesn’t exist. When the world gets back to some semblance of normal, expect “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem,” “Whoa” and “The Humpty Dance” to go off with renewed fervor.
Digital Underground was a collective of freaks and weirdos working outside of hip-hop’s norms, more Parliament-Funkadelic than Public Enemy. Humpty Hump was a character Shock G played by donning a fake nose and glasses, and rapping in a nasally voice. In videos Shock and Humpty would appear alongside each other, creating the illusion they were different people, and thus fooling “Yo! MTV Raps” viewers everywhere into thinking Humpty Hump was a real person. Or at least fooling this one.
“The Humpty Dance” was one of a string of hits from the group, which also included the 2Pac-featuring “Same Song,” the R&B come-on “Kiss You Back” and the wacked out “No Nose Job.” “Sex Packets,” the group’s 1990 debut album, kicks off with “The Humpty Dance” and features deep cut favorites such as “The Way We Swing,” “Freaks of the Industry” and “Packet Man,” as well as “Doowutchyalike,” the group’s second biggest hit, a nine-minute odyssey that perfectly summed up the group’s aesthetic: do what you like, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
In 1993, Shock G was featured on “I Get Around,” 2Pac’s breakout single, which set Pac on a course for superstardom. Shock was eight years older than Pac, and it wasn’t a case of a student eclipsing his teacher; Pac was always destined to be a supernova, and Shock helped clear a path for him.
Even though the group never reached the commercial heights of “The Humpty Dance” again, its legacy and Shock G’s stamp on rap were never in doubt. Digital Underground made six albums before disbanding in 2008, and in 2012, a reunion outing brought the group through Detroit’s Chene Park. Shock G gleefully donned the Humpty nose while running through the group’s catalog of hits, and took it off to lay down some gnarly funk on his keyboards. Grey streaks shot through his hair like lightning bolts.
After the group’s set, Shock hung around, watching from the stage while the Geto Boys performed. In that moment he was a fan, taking in the show from the best seat in the house and loving every minute of it. The nose and glasses were off, a smile was on his face. Like the song says, he was doing what he liked.
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