San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Rapper infused hiphop with humor
The late ’80s and early ’90s were very serious years for hiphop. Public Enemy brought the noise with heady Black nationalism and perhaps the greatest of all rap albums, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” N.W.A. owned gangsta rap, lashing out at law enforcement with the violent fantasies of “Straight Outta Compton.” This was no laughing matter.
Then there was this wild new crew from Oakland known as Digital Underground. Their leader — rapper and producer Gregory Edward Jacobs, better known by his stage name Shock G — donned a fake nose, glasses, fur hat and nasal delivery to create an alter ego named Humpty Hump. Their breakthrough album, 1990’s “Sex Packets,” blended punch lines with a scifi concept about a virtual sex drug.
These memories flooded back to me Thursday with the news that Shock G was found dead at the age of 57 in a Tampa Bay hotel room. He was known for producing Tupac Shakur’s breakout single, “I Get Around,” and for embracing the funk influence of ParliamentFunkadelic. He represented the East Bay as few other rap artists
— Too Short, MC Hammer, E40 — ever have. But where Too Short was all about braggadocious street tales and Hammer ruled the pop charts, Shock G, on songs like “The Humpty Dance” and “Doowutchyalike,” dared you not to laugh.
The first lines of “The Humpty Dance” are almost a mission statement: “All right stop whatcha doin,’ ’cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that ya used to.” He then proceeded to do just that, right down to a raucously hummed baseline and a touch of selfhospitality: “I’ll eat up all your crackers and your licorice, hey yo fat girl, c’mere are ya ticklish?” “The Humpty Dance” flirted with novelty status, but it was way too banging for that. As Shock G boasts on the song, he even had his own dance. The track hit No. 1 on the Hot Rap Songs chart shortly after its 1989 release.
Other rappers had dared to be funny before the Underground came around. Biz Markie warbled his way through “Just a Friend” only a year before “Sex Packets” was released. Also in 1989, De La Soul rode producer Prince Paul’s skewed sense of humor on its debut album, “3 Feet High and Rising.” (It felt the need to come back hard on its followup, “De La Soul
Is Dead.”) Before that, Slick Rick, whose natural nasal delivery presaged Humpty, spun rap narratives spiced with humor.
But nobody committed to comedy quite like Digital Underground’s frontman. Nobody else harked back to Groucho Marx to create a performative persona. And Shock G proved he could be funny without Humpty’s help. The other big single on “Sex Packets,” “Doowutchyalike,” is a blast of tongueincheek hedonism, essentially a duet between the rapper and his alter ego, years before Biggie, another progenitor of hiphop humor, split himself into two characters on “Gimme the Loot.”
In cracking wise, the Underground didn’t just create a party vibe. It made a radical statement: Hiphop doesn’t have to be hard to have an impact, and being funny isn’t the same as being soft. There was something deeply humanizing in this stance, something that stretched the essence of what hiphop could be and do. Digital Underground was many things, but they were absolutely not the same song. For that, we can thank Shock G.