Digital Underground helped usher in a new style of rap music during the late eighties, a style heavily influenced by the sound and attitude of seventies funk bands like George Clinton’s groups, Parliament and Funkadelic. Sampling from recordings by Clinton’s various „P-Funk“ bands, the Underground also emulated the wild stage shows featuring bizarre and funny characters that were the other side of the P-Funk legacy. From its independent debut single, through hits like „The Humpty Dance“ and „Doowutchyalike,“ Digital Underground has broadened its appeal, continuing to live up to its self-description as an „all-Atlantic, all-Pacific, all-city, grand-imperial dance music and hip hop dynasty.“ As Newsday commented in 1990, „Digital Underground looks like the new face of hip hop, as the music tries to make sense of its expanded range of possibilities.“
Before becoming a „dynasty,“ Digital Underground was the brainchild of musician and rapper Shock G. whom Eric Weisbard of the San Francisco Weekly described as „a hip hop jack-of-all-trades: He plays drums, piano and other instruments; is a capable MC and disc jockey; produces his records; makes his own videos; [and] designs and choreographs his stage show.“ Born Greg Jacobs in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, c. 1963, Shock G played drums in a band that only knew one song—the Commodores’ funk hit „Brick House.“ Hip hop was a fledgling form, but the excitement of early rappers like Grandmaster Flash left an indelible impression on the young musician. Soon, Shock was asking his parents for turntables and a mixer, the main instruments of a rap DJ. In an interview with Weisbard, Shock G recounted, „We’d constantly spend time at 42nd Street Records, Downstairs Records, getting all the break beats.“
Founded by Shock G and Chopmaster J
Shock G’s family moved to Tampa, Florida, in 1980. He landed a job there disc jockeying on radio station WTMP and participated in a rap group known alternately as Spice or Chill Factor. He also picked up work recording demos for other rappers. His outlook changed, however, when his parents divorced; Shock dropped out of high school and became involved in various illegal activities, including pimping and selling drugs. He served a number of jail terms but after a few years went straight, got his high school diploma, and began pursuing music. While monitoring rap’s development, he took music theory classes at a neighborhood college.
Shock moved to Oakland, California, in the mid-1980s and began working in the keyboard and drum machine department of a music store in neighboring San Leandro. One day a customer named Jimmy Dright—an experienced drummer trained in jazz but determined to jump on the hip hop bandwagon—spent several thousand dollars on equipment. Sensing an opportunity, Shock struck a deal with Dright: he would teach him to use the new equipment if Dright would let him make a demo with it. That night, according to Weisbard’s article, the Dright and Shock recorded four-track versions of the two songs that would grace Digital Underground’s first single: „Underwater Rimes“ and „Your Life’s a Cartoon.“ Dright sent the tape to a producer friend in Los Angeles, who offered to oversee the re-recording of the tracks. A partnership had been created. Though Shock was leery of allying himself with an acoustic drummer who considered himself a hippie, he knew his new friend had business savvy. Shock was right; soon Dright became „Chopmaster J“ and Digital Underground had a 12-inch single.
Unfortunately the song’s release was held up by a number of complications. Consequently the duo spent a couple of lean years without a record contract. At one point they were even living off of a $10,000 loan they received from a bail bondsman, but the money ran out before anything spectacular happened. Meanwhile hip hop was maturing into a multifaceted art form, and emerging artists like De La Soul were reaping praise and profit from a style that Shock G and Chopmaster J felt they had helped invent. Turnabout came in the fall of 1988 when Digital Underground’s new manager, Atron Gregory, finally got the record released on TNT/Macola Records. Daria Kelly of Leopold’s Records—described by Weisbard as „one of the guardian angels of Bay Area rap“—sent the 12-inch to the hip hop label Tommy Boy. Interested, the company signed Digital Underground in 1989.
By this time Shock G and Chopmaster J had recruited two new members—DJ Fuse, also known as David Elliot, and his friend and roommate Money B., also known as Ronald Brooks. Shock G particularly admired the new recruits because, as he told Weisbard, „Money B and DJ Fuse eat, sleep, and drink hip hop.“ The revamped Digital Underground fell halfway between the hardcore Oakland rapping style that was Money B’s preferred mode and the extravagant strangeness of Shock’s P-Funk model. Trouble hadn’t strayed far, though; the ensuing album, Sex Packets, was not released until early in 1990 due to legal problems related to samples the group had selected.
Tall Tales and Sex Packets
Thematically Sex Packets juxtaposes sex, fun, and silliness with a few more serious subjects, most notably street life as in „The Danger Zone.“ The album also spawned the infectious hit „Doowutchyalike,“ a tune Billboard branded „a hilarious party record espousing personal freedom,“ in addition to „The Humpty Dance“ and „Underwater Rimes.“ The latter songs showcased the rapping talents of two mysterious figures, Humpty Hump and MC Blowfish. Though Shock G never admitted to providing the voices for these two characters, his talent for different voices is legendary in the rap community. Stories circulated in press releases and interviews about Humpty’s former career as a soul singer and the tragic accident that deformed his face and ruined his voice—hence the necessity of his wearing a rubber nose in videos and other appearances. MC Blowfish, according to the band, pursued the group by swimming back and forth between the two coasts.
The yarns escalated; Shock even claimed in his interview with Musicmakers that the group formed when „we were all out eating pizza. The ground rumbled and opened up and this voice said ‘You are the chosen ones.’ We were sucked down into this underground recording lab and the equipment in that place was so fabulous that we didn’t even worry about what was happening.“ The story continued: „This light blinded us, we lost consciousness, and two days later we had these master tapes in our hands and our name was Digital Underground.“
Perhaps the most controversial element of Sex Packets was the legendary—and, many claim, fictional—substance that gave the album its name. Shock told interviewers around the world that sex packets were a special drug originally designed for astronauts; „All they have to do is put a capsule on their tongue in order to have an orgasm,“ he explained to Musicmakers. Given Shock’s flair for tall tales, the sex packets story was taken with a grain of salt by most reviewers. Though critics were skeptical about the existence of the drug, they were believers when it came to the record. Detour proclaimed, „This is one hyped up album.“ Rolling Stone called it an „inventive debut,“ and Sounds declared that „Sex Packets is consistently engaging in a way that many rap albums aren’t. It also shows there are no rules in hip-hop.“ Billy Kiernan of the San Francisco Independent dubbed the effort „a concept album that will be considered a landmark in rap music for years to come.“ Kiernan’s praise was modified only by his distaste for some of the album’s „sexist imagery.“
„The Humpty Dance“ made its way into Billboard’s Top 100 with a bullet, dominating both radio and dance clubs, and helping propel the album to gold status. Another sales-pushing factor was the innovative sampling featured on Sex Packets. For example, „Underwater Rimes,“ the self-described „Underwater Hip Hop Extravaganza“ and sequel to Parliament’s deep-sea funk epic „Aqua Boogie,“ sampled that Parliament tune as well as „Chameleon“ by jazz-rock pioneer Herbie Hancock; the latter was a sly choice, given Shock’s chameleonlike character changes. „The Humpty Dance“ nicked its large-nosed character’s groove from Parliament’s nasally fixated LP Trombipulation; „The Way We Swing“ lifted a riff from „Who Knows“ by guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, looping it to emphasize the swing in its rhythm. „Doowutchyalike“ and two other tracks sampled different parts of Parliament’s hit „Flash Light.“
Digital Underground toured the planet, discovering a worldwide audience that was mad for P-Funk-inspired hip hop. In Vienna, when a computer program lost all the group’s samples, a DJ loaned them all the records they needed to redo the program.
A World Tour, an EP, and New Personnel
1990 saw the advent of This Is An EP Release. The seven-track recording featured the single „Same Song“ and marked the debut of rapper 2Pac, who would later release a hit solo album entitled 2Pacalypse Now. The Underground had also recruited rapper-drummer Big Money Odis and singer-musician-producer Ramone PeeWee Gooden. Digital Underground continued touring and reaching ever-larger audiences in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
By 1991, as noted in The Source, the band had „sold more product, domestically, than any other Tommy Boy artist, including De La Soul.“ That year Chopmaster J left the group to start his own project, Force One Network.
In 1992 Digital Underground released Sons of the P. The new album sported a more ambitious batch of Funkadelic samples than either of its predecessors, and none other than George Clinton himself appeared on the record to hand the mantle of P-Funk over to the Underground. „Digital Underground is where Parliament left off,“ Shock insisted to James Bernard in the New York Times. „Funk can be rock, funk can be jazz, and funk can be soul. Most people have a checklist of what makes a good pop song: it has to be three minutes long, it must have a repeatable chorus, and it must have a catchy hook. That’s what makes music stale. We say, ‘Do what feels good.’ If you like it for three minutes, then you’ll love it for thirty.“ The joy-in-repetition argument certainly applies to the record’s first single, „Kiss You Back,“ which Bernard described as „an irresistible, playful ode to cuddling and snuggling.“ He further observed that the album „focuses attention on the ground-shaking bass, which seems injected with adrenaline.“
Yet Sons of the Palso takes up more sober topics. Even the relatively comical „No Nose Job“—narrated by Humpty, of course—makes some tough arguments about cosmetic surgery as a retreat from ethnicity. „Heartbeat Props“ insists that too many people don’t get „proper respect“ until they die; to remedy this, the song lists dozens of prominent African Americans, from Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan to rapper Queen Latifah.
Most of all, though, Sons of the Ptakes the legacy of P-Funk as its major focus; the recurring theme here is the legendary „DFLO Shuttle“—the mythical train that transports Clinton’s successors from the underground to the outside world. This concept, like the cover photo of the group members sleeping in glass pods, makes reference to Parliament’s 1976 album The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. And yet Digital Underground didn’t merely pay homage to those funkmasters in efforts like „Tales of the Funky,“ a song detailing the highlights of P-Funk tours over a sample of Funkadelic’s „One Nation Under a Groove.“ „We’ve come out and declared that this isn’t a tribute to P-Funk, it is P-Funk,“ Shock told The Source. „Instead of harping on how live everything that George [Clinton] did was, he’s on the album, doing it. It’s like the next step in funk.“ New personnel included singer Schmoovy Schmoove and young rapper MC Clever. Shock emphasized that Digital Underground „is a liquid band,“ and that the rotating personnel—and multiple MCs—reflect a desire „to bring fresh new perspectives into Black music. If we just sealed ourselves off and said ‘these are the members, ’ where would the opportunity be for other brothers? Plus, it keeps it fun.“
Fun, of course, has been the name of the game all along for Digital Underground—a band that, in New York Times contributor Bernard’s words, „make the kind of music that would make Scrooge laugh, if he were not too busy dancing.“ As Shock G was quoted as saying in Spin, „We’re trying to break out of the normal modes of music. There’s no one out there like us.“ Like Clinton, Shock expanded a band into a small musical industry, and the fluctuating musical talents of Digital Underground serve to get more solo projects onto the market while infusing Underground records and tours with fresh blood. Of course, into every hip hop dynasty a little rain must fall; „Humpty’s been on an attitude trip and doesn’t show up unless he has to,“ Shock reported to Bernard. „He doesn’t do any interviews until ‘No Nose Job’ comes out.“
„Underwater Rimes“/ „Your Life’s a Cartoon“ (single), TNT/Macola, 1988.
Sex Packets (includes „Doowutchyalike,“ „The Humpty Dance,“ „Underwater Rimes,“ „The Way We Swing,“ and „The Danger Zone“), Tommy Boy, 1989.
This Is an EP Release (includes „Same Song“), Tommy Boy, 1990.
Digital Underground, Tommy Boy, 1991.
Sons of the P (includes „Kiss You Back,“ „No Nose Job,“ „Heartbeat Props,“ „Good Thing We’re Rappin’,“ „The DFLO Shuttle,“ and „Tales of the Funky“),