The Digital Underground party has apparently come to an end. If so, we must acknowledge the group for more reasons than popularizing "The Humpty Dance".
When Public Enemy's Chuck D famously referred to rap as the musical version of CNN, I always took the analogy to be a positive one. I think most people did, and still do. Chuck D's quote positions hip-hop (the culture) and rap (an element of the culture) as vehicles for information. It speaks to music's ability to transcend its inherent entertainment value by expanding its audience's perspectives and connecting communities. Of course, this interpretation of the analogy probably gives CNN (the TV Network) way too much credit. It still sounds pretty good, though.
Lately, I've been wondering if Chuck D's analogy might be used to pinpoint a few of hip-hop's weaknesses. In terms of subject matter, there are some who believe hip-hop (as a genre) has become more like Nickelodeon, a format for mindlessness in place of thoughtful lyrics and quality beats.
In my own view, the news analogy takes on a more general level of application, as the concept of "news" itself parallels society's attitudes toward music and the music industry. "If it bleeds, it leads," goes the news media's credo for focusing on sensational stories. But today's headline goes into tomorrow's recycling bin. Likewise, Gang Starr's 1991 opus, Step in the Arena, contained the track "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", a succinct explanation of how quickly the "hot" band of the moment can turn into a cold dish.
News functions exactly as its name suggests. It covers the "new", the recent, and latest. In this way, news can be as fleeting and disposable as the latest hip-hop phenomenon, which shouldn't be too surprising given the fact that a newspaper's hodgepodge of stories mirrors a hip-hop song's collage of samples and sounds. There are other similarities. The music industry is rife with stories of one-hit wonders and wunderkinds who fall out of the spotlight, and hip-hop is no different. It seems like we're always waiting for the top performers to "fall off" just like we're waiting for the next big news story.
This is unfortunate, as a general proposition, but even more so when we consider the long-term effects. If hip-hop is a culture, as many of us like to claim, then we've got to start supplementing our rap-equals-CNN equation with some type of archive. Maybe we need a hip-hop Smithsonian. At the very least, we need to recognize our pioneers. Otherwise, the culture is likely to be plagued by apathy and this peculiar form of sonic amnesia in which "you're only as big as your last hit".
A prime example is our collective reaction to Digital Underground, one of the most important hip-hop groups of the 1990s. The group's lineup was in constant flux, with a core membership of Greg "Shock-G" Jacobs, Shock's alter ego Edward Ellington Humphrey III (also known as "Humpty Hump"), and Ron "Money B" Brooks. For the Humpty Hump alter ego, Shock-G wore glasses with a big brown nose and donned a stuffy-sounding voice for the rhymes but, at first, fans didn't realize they were the same person. Humpty Hump was Shock-G's sillier, freakier side, something like Parliament's "Sir Nose" who was "devoid of funk", a significant difference being that Sir Nose vowed that he would never dance and Humpty Hump landed Digital Underground on the map with "The Humpty Dance".
Certainly, if we're naming the biggest and most popular hip-hop groups of all time, we're more likely to list N.W.A., Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, or A Tribe Called Quest, but Digital Underground's contributions shouldn't go unnoticed. That's what seems to be happening, though, as the California hip-hop crew releases what appears to be a final album ironically titled ...Cuz a D.U. Party Don't Stop! Unfortunately, it looks like a D.U. party does stop, since this year's release, a mixture of mildly intriguing new material and concert tracks, misses the mark of Digital Underground's more distinguished and quality work.
Who knows whether this will really be the Underground's last album. Maybe, maybe not. But, on the possibility that it is, we should all be moved by the Digital Underground legacy. My fear is that we're really going to let Digital Underground go out as the Group That Made the Humpty Dance Famous when, in fact, Digital Underground's body of work exhibits far greater complexity. Shock-G, for one thing, is a fabulous producer, who has worked with folks like Tupac Shakur and Prince. For another thing, Digital Underground's albums added a sizable chunk of funk, humor, and content to the hip-hop landscape.
One powerful theme in Digital Underground's music is the interplay, or lack thereof, between individuals and society, as well as between each other. Digital Underground consistently exposed the barriers we raise against each other through fear, prejudice, and even technology. That doesn't mean we should kick "The Humpty Dance" to the curb as too silly and transient a rap ditty to be of value. On the contrary, Digital Underground's comedy was a key factor in the group's ability to craft memorable tunes. The comic relief, besides serving as entertainment, deftly demonstrates another tie that binds us, as people, through a shared understanding. It also operates as a foil for the West Coast's harder-edged "gangsta" side. While I'm not sure I share the opinion that the "gangsta" and "thug" images destroyed the free-wheeling and fun side of rap, I can admit there was a contrast between the two. Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992) usually gets credit for sparking and accentuating that contrast.
What follows is a stroll through Digital Underground's official releases, and an examination of the group's many highlights. Please note that Shock-G has a solo album called Fear of a Mixed Planet (2004), which is intriguing in its own right, but is not included here. My list also omits The Lost Files, a collection of previously unreleased Digital Underground material.
Sex Packets (Tommy Boy, 1990)
Digital Underground's debut album is considered by many to be one of hip-hop's greatest releases, despite my rating. However, it isn't generally discussed as a "concept" album, but it almost lives up to the label. In terms of music, Shock-G and crew built the Underground's grooves on the funkiest of foundations. They used George Clinton and Parliament songs such as "Atomic Dog", "Flashlight", and "Aqua Boogie". Even a cursory listen to Sex Packets will have you wondering, "Wow, how many songs can they make from that 'Flashlight' sample?" Still, the cuts and snippets are expertly executed, setting up the musical themes of later releases, and especially the next full LP, Sons of the P.
In terms of content, Sex Packets doesn't carry its theme through the entire album. Only the last four songs, including the title track and the faux show-tune "Packet Man", deal directly with Digital Underground's dream for the safe-sex frontier: a pill that enables the user to experience any assortment of sexual and erotic scenarios. Another song, "Freaks of the Industry", details the dilemmas of various sexual encounters such as the dangers of being overheard during the act.
As I mentioned earlier, Digital Underground explored issues of isolation and interconnection, and Sex Packets hints at this through its depictions of fictional technology (the fantasy-fulfilling pill) and sexual relations. These conceits set the stage for the Underground's 1993 release, The Body-Hat Syndrome, built around the idea of a gigantic condom that would cover our entire bodies from mental and physical toxins. But Sex Packets will go down in history for its two biggest jams, the high-charting shenanigans of "The Humpty Dance" and the party vibe of "Doowutchyalike".
In my opinion, the emceeing is a bit simplistic and substandard in spots, considering the other releases of the time period like, say, Naughty By Nature's debut or EPMD's Business as Usual. EPMD, like Digital Underground, employed cleverly executed funk samples. Nevertheless, Sex Packets is filled with interesting ideas and intriguing moments.
This Is an EP Release (Tommy Boy, 1991)
This Is an EP Release will be remembered for one song, and then only one aspect of that one song: Tupac Shakur's introduction to the rap world. On "Same Song", our Digital friends got busy with yet another Parliament sample ("Theme from the Black Hole"), allowing Shock-G, Humpty Hump, Money-B, and Tupac to absolutely obliterate the track. Many hip-hop fans remember the first time they saw Tupac in the "Same Song" video. He was dressed in a dashiki and Afrocentric accessories while delivering a brief but impressively catching rhyme, beginning, "Now I clown around when I hang around with the Underground / Girls who used to frown say I'm down when I come around."
While "Same Song" is the undisputed heavyweight of the EP, Digital Underground comes through with a remix of "Sex Packets", an even doper remix of "The Way We Swing", and a slick bout of boasting in "Nuttin' Nis Funky". The theme of interpersonal conflict again rears its head in "Tie the Knot", a comically pessimistic view of getting married.
Although the remix of "Packet Man" fails to satisfy, album closer "Arguin' on the Funk" pits Shock-G's notions of history and tradition against Humpty Hump's nihilistic view. Shock-G makes the point that the contributions of George Clinton and the Funk Mob were vital and essential to later generations. Humpty Hump maintains that the new generation has its own sense of style. Shock-G's point is basically the point I'm trying to make about Digital Underground.
Oh yeah, This Is an EP Release documents the group's lyrical growth. The rhyme skills received a big boost here. However, part of the reason for the low rating is that it's an EP, not a full album.
Sons of the P (Tommy Boy, 1991)
With all the Parliament-Funkadelic sampling going on, Digital Underground turned its homage to the funk into a full-fledged concept. Sons of the P contains a cartoon in its liner notes that outlines the rise of Digital Underground as the successors to the Parliament (the "P") musical dynasty. George Clinton even hops aboard to bless the project and officially pass, or at least share, the funk torch.
"Kiss You Back", a fun frolic that imagines interpersonal contact as a type of quid pro quo ("If you kiss me then I'll kiss you back"), emerges as the radio and commercial standout, but Sons of the P offers two captivating shots of social commentary. One, "Heartbeat Props", is dead serious, while the other, "No Nose Job", is comical with an edge of truth.
"Heartbeat Props", riding Clinton and Funkadelic's "Freak of the Week" groove, should really be a bona fide hip-hop anthem, standing on the pedestal next to the KRS-One organized "Self Destruction", Marly Marl's "The Symphony", and Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full". The song challenges us to be vigilant in celebrating the talents of those walking among us, to honor the living with the same fervor that we cherish the dearly departed. "I see you posing with the Dr. King hanging on your wall," the song goes, "only difference is Chuck [D.] might give you that call to march on Friday." An explanation follows, "A dead leader can't tax your mind / Therefore he's not a threat to your personal time."
Digital Underground invites us to stop nitpicking and criticizing our contemporaries who are striving to find solutions to society's ills. "Go on and give my man his props," they say. "Don't wait 'til the heartbeat stops," is the refrain. The song goes on to pay tribute in rhyme to Ice Cube, Iceberg Slim, Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, Beverly Johnson, and Muhammad Ali, before Shock-G wraps things with a roster of shout-outs, including Spike Lee, Alex Haley, Brand Nubian, Whoopie Goldberg, Dick Gregory, Poor Righteous Teachers, Denzel Washington, and Stokely Carmichael. In the years since the song's release, its message takes on greater significance given the number of people mentioned in the song who've passed away.
The second tune, "No Nose Job", finds Humpty Hump, "the original big-nosed rapper", presented with the option of getting his nose "fixed". As his reputation in the rap community has grown, Humpty is questioned about whether it's time for him to mainstream his look, to sellout his "community and race".
Humpty rhymes his response, which constitutes the verses of the song. He flat-out rejects the quick-fix mentality and any notions of instant gratification in the appearance department. He refuses to submit to the mainstreamed ideal: "I'm high yellow, my nose is brown to perfection / And if it was to change, it'd be further in that direction". Besides the rejection, there's an attack on those who undergo the procedures, as Humpty calls them a "fake-hair, contact-wearin', liposuction carnival exhibit". Now, it's entirely possible that people who choose cosmetic surgery are not suffering from severe self-esteem issues or a desire to betray their cultural heritages, but the song at least emphasizes inherent beauty.
Sons of the P captures Digital Underground on the rise, decreasing the filler while maintaining the humor. About the latter, "Good Thing We're Rapping", a tale of Shock G and Humpty Hump's experiences as pimps prior to their rap careers, is just plain hilarious. If you take it seriously, it comes off as pretty dumb, in spite of how fresh the beat is. It only works as a joke.
The Body-Hat Syndrome (Tommy Boy, 1993)
The Body-Hat Syndrome expounds on the Sex Packets motif. Everything about the Body-Hat concept is bigger. Where Sex Packets promoted sexual gratification by ingesting a pill, The Body-Hat Syndrome suggested that we cover ourselves in gigantic condoms to keep us from coming into contact with deadly diseases and harmful discourse.
Aside from Humpty Hump's bumping opener, "Return of the Crazy One", Body-Hats's prophylactic theme dominates the album, including a series of skits interspersed throughout. "Doo Woo You" introduces the theme of protecting ourselves from "F.A.D.E.S.", or Falsely Acquired Diluted Education Syndrome. "Holly Wantstaho" displays the results of F.A.D.E.S., and living without a "body hat", through the character of Holly, a female looking to make a fast buck by selling her body. In essence, she's practicing the opposite of the "body hat" mentality, offering herself instead of protecting herself.
The theme is best realized in the songs about relationships. "Bran Nu Swetta" plays on the word "sweater" as an article of clothing and as someone who "sweats" you like a stalker. In this song, the Underground crewmembers are dogged by women who refuse to give them space. "While I was sleepin', she was up sneakin' around, writin' letters to me," says Shock-G, before he laments, "I hate somebody all up in my face while I'm sleep!" Trapped in relationships that cramp their styles, Shock-G and company find themselves "stuck wearin' a sweater". I find it interesting that the sweater, as a type of clothing, is a type of body covering, yet the fact that this sweater is being involuntarily worn makes it less attractive than the group's "body hat" device.
"Digital Lover" and "Jerkit Circus" narrow the sexual experience down to its most fundamental component: pleasure. "Digital Lover", with its computerized moans, hints at the temptation of seeking pleasure from a digital stimulus, while "Jerkit Circus" is exactly as it sounds -- a place devoted to self-love. Both tunes work alongside the general theme of self-protection and self-preservation. By avoiding interpersonal contact and focusing on carnal pleasure, these songs suggest that we might be safer if we place ourselves in some sort of isolation. Then, of course, you have to interpret these suggestions as tongue-in-cheek because, at some point, human beings have to interact. Or at least we should. And so the "body-hat syndrome" can be seen as a coping mechanism instead of a solution.
"Wussup Wit the Luv", featuring a verse from Tupac, makes this epiphany abundantly clear. The song encourages us to "look deeply in each other's eyes" and lower the self-imposed barriers that divide us. Although the song appears in the middle of the album (it was the last song on the first side of my cassette), its sentiments are actually the key to understanding the whole point of the "body hat" concept. It probably should have been placed at the end of the album. The good news, though, is that it contains a sly sample of Prince's "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker". For Prince aficionados like myself, that's almost worth the price of admission.
Future Rhythm (Radikal, 1996)
Future Rhythm is by far my pick for the best Digital Underground album. It will never be the album that's synonymous with the Digital Underground name. That distinction will go to Sex Packets. But Future Rhythm belongs in the pantheon of great hip-hop records, as the group absolutely corners the market on being the successors to the P-Funk legacy.
There's no filler. No wasted space. No wrong moves. Even the goofy stuff works, like "Food Fight" and its food-laden vocal relay between Del the Funkee Homosapien and Humpty Hump. There are two versions of "Oregano Flow", the lead single, yet another song with a culinary lean to it. The idea is that Digital Underground has more flavor than everyone else, is capable of putting "new spice" in the game, and is always cooking up something original.
Shock-G's singing voice holds a note or two in "Walk Real Kool". This song reminds me that there are times when Shock-G sounds a lot like Bootsy Collins. "Walk Real Kool" opens the album with an introspective model, peeling back the layers on the calm, cool, and collected attitude that attempts to hide underlying insecurities. This leads into the second song, "Glooty-us-maximus", a heavy mid-tempo jam about social constructs and racial harmony that breaks things down to the common denominator: everybody's butt stinks, so there's no use pretending some people are inherently "better" than anyone else. It's a weird way to reach a recognizable destination -- from the bottom up, so to speak -- but even that one works.
Another favorite of mine is the final track, "Want It All", in which the whole crew talks about the things they want out of life. The catch is that nearly everything they say is a contradiction. They want to be vegetarians, but they want to go out later and eat burgers. They want to "jack a busta for his car keys", but they also want to stop crime. They want everything. It's the ultimate in not only greed, but in the excesses of our society and the many options with which we are presented. There's not enough time to do everything we want to do, yet we are asked to play a variety of roles on a daily basis and, further, we are acutely aware of what's socially acceptable as we're navigating it all. "Want It All" seeks to exceed the limits of time and social acceptability. At least we can have it all in that moment when we're dreaming about it, right?
Who Got the Gravy? (Interscope, 1998)
This album was basically the sequel to Future Rhythm. A bit too short, with a bit more filler, Who Got the Gravy? continued the food theme of its predecessor in its album title and title track. Other than that, it's not a concept album at all, just a collection of strong music accompanied by several guest spots. Truck Turner and the late Big Pun do an excellent job with "The Mission", although said "mission" basically entails picking up women, and KRS-One's voice provides a different texture than we're accustomed to hearing in the Underground sound. KRS-One doesn't add much, though, and neither does Biz Markie's pairing with Humpty Hump, "The Odd Couple". When the album came out, I remember the reviews being rather excited about "The Odd Couple", where Biz and Humpty trade verses dissing each other's coastal locales. Biz, naturally, reps the East and disses the West. Humpty reps the West and disses the East. The idea, of course, is to parody the 1990s beef between the two regions, as illustrated by the refrain, "Why can't we be friends?" Unfortunately, "The Odd Couple" is more irritating than enjoyable.
Two gems from this set are "Mans Girl" and "April Showers". The first one, "Mans Girl", falters with some rather lame lyrical references as the crew tries to pick up this spectacular female, but the song wins overall in sheer groove-ability. "April Showers" is the masterpiece of the collection, working in a spoken word format that is almost, dare I say, romantic.
An extra bit of fun appears in the liner notes. There, you find a cartoon explaining, in outlandish fashion, the circumstances that allowed Digital Underground to hook up with the guests artists featured on the album. Basically, a group of haters kidnap Humpty Hump to get him to reveal the Underground's top-secret flavor recipes. He gives up the secrets, but his captors still hold him hostage, demanding that Shock-G and the rest of the crew actually cook up a batch of their original flavor (the "gravy"). The crew agrees and delivers "the gravy" to the meeting spot, only to discover they've been ensnared in a plot designed by an evil villain, the "Chief-Executive Corporate Asshole". He's bent on cornering the "flavor industry", but the plan is foiled by KRS-One, Truck Turner, Tank, and the Boogie Down Productions squad. They rescue our Underground heroes and get them back in the music industry, giving them back to us so that we can finally give them their props. Okay, so I added the part after "industry", but you get the idea.