There are several multiverses in which Digital Underground and Shock G don’t exist in the form we knew them. In the first one, they follow down the path they began early in their career: beret-wearing, Black Panther–influenced rappers who peddle in, as Shock once put it, a “serious,” “pro-struggle type of thing.” Undoubtedly, they would’ve been great at it—there wasn’t much Shock wasn’t great at—but it’s not the world we live in. Instead, we got Public Enemy, who mastered their brand of militant, pro-Black hip-hop so expertly that Shock and Co. were forced to switch their style.
There’s another multiverse in which Digital Underground were able to be the flower children they aspired to be at one point. There was the group’s free-love ethos (see: Sex Packets in general; “Freaks of the Industry,” specifically) and Shock’s early love of psychedelics (shrooms and mescaline, as he told journalist Brian Coleman in the book Check the Technique). But on our planet, De La Soul exists, and when they broke big in 1989, Digital Underground had to pivot again.
Rather, in our version of the multiverse, we ended up with a third iteration of Shock G and his group—the ones who distilled the essence of George Clinton’s Mothership into its purest form. In our world, they go on to become many things: platinum-selling superstars, creators of one the biggest party jams in rap history, Bay Area rap royalty. With Shock’s talent, charisma, and sense of humor, this could’ve happened on any planet at any time. But on this one, they were able to do it in a way that no one else had dreamed of—and that perhaps no one else could’ve pulled off had they tried.
You will of course remember Shock G, who died Thursday at age 57 of as-yet-undetermined causes, for the most famous of his many alter-egos—Humpty Hump, a mix of Groucho Marx’s humor and Benny Hill’s perviness complete with a fictional backstory about a grease-fire accident—and the aforementioned massive party jam, “The Humpty Dance.” And with good reason: If you’ve heard the song at any point in the past three decades, you can recall what he’s about to ruin, the size of his nose and how he’s living, and where he once got busy. (Shout-out to the MTV censors, who must’ve really valued those Burger King checks.) You’ll also recall its indelible video, which introduced the world to Hump’s prosthetic nose, thick-framed glasses, and fuzzy bucket hat with the price tag still attached (and made massive fans out of other early ’90s icons, Beavis and Butt-Head). “The Humpty Dance” was a breakout hit, topping Billboard’s hip-hop chart for five weeks in 1990 and reaching no. 11 on the Hot 100 in an era before rap dominated commercially. More importantly, it’s endured as a party-starter even as many of its contemporaries faded—the only songs that topped the rap chart for a longer stretch in 1990 were Salt-N-Pepa’s “Expression” and Candyman’s “Knockin’ Boots,” and when was the last time you heard either of those?
But Shock G’s legacy stretches far beyond one novelty hit, as great as that novelty hit remains. In addition to his talents as an MC, the artist born Gregory Jacobs was a skilled multi-instrumentalist who taught himself to play piano by sneaking in sessions at various stores and college campuses. He put those talents to use when he created Digital Underground after arriving in the Bay Area in the 1980s after bouncing around the East Coast early in life. Although dozens of members (counting a Shock alias or two) cycled in and out of Digital Underground over its 20-year run, it started as a one-man band.
While working at a music equipment store in 1987, Shock convinced jazz drummer and aspiring hip-hop producer Chopmaster J to buy what Shock considered his “dream setup.” There was a catch: “Our deal was that if I made a couple house calls to set stuff up, he’d let me finish my demo on his equipment,” Shock said in Check the Technique. He’d record Digital Underground’s first single (“Underwater Rimes” and its B-side, “Your Life’s a Cartoon’’) largely by himself. Released by T.N.T., the small label owned by N.W.A and J.J. Fad road manager Atron Gregory, “Underwater Rimes” would perform relatively well for independent record, selling about 20,000 copies and “reaching no. 1 on a chart in Amsterdam,” according to what Shock told Coleman.
Most importantly, “Underwater Rimes” caught the attention of Tommy Boy Records, home to De La Soul and Afrika Bambaataa and soon to be one of the biggest companies in music, which signed Digital Underground to a deal. By this point the group had other members—Chopmaster J still, but also Money B, DJ Fuze, and crooner Schmoovy-Schmoov—but Shock remained the visionary behind it. He crafted most of the music himself and under the alias Rackadelic, he drew the cartoons that would appear on album covers and in liner notes. Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman would later say, “Shock is a genius, maybe the most talented artist that I ever worked with.”
The first album to come from the Tommy Boy partnership was Sex Packets, a remarkable, conceptually dense record that today feels both of its era and light-years beyond it. Beyond “The Humpty Dance” and its other single, another Humpty Hump showcase called “Doowutchyalike,” its songs are alternately sensual, raunchy, and downright psychedelic. The title track is based on a fictional pill the group called the “G.S.R.A.” (Genetic Suppression Relief Antidotes) that would give whoever took one an ultrarealistic wet dream. (“No sex can be safer,” the song boasts.) Songs like “Freaks of the Industry” are, well, freaky, but it should be noted that Digital Underground tried to do something its peers often neglected: write erotic songs that appealed to women. As Shock told Coleman, he wanted to “bridge the gap between Prince and hip-hop.” At a time when 2 Live Crew was pumping out hits that turned women into two-dimensional sex objects, Digital Underground’s staunchly pro-female-pleasure stance felt downright revolutionary.
At the center of Shock G’s music, both on Sex Packets and beyond, sat the influence of George Clinton. It was in the samples and other musical cues, sure, but it went deeper than that—it was in the humor, the concepts, the style, artwork, the overall freeness Shock brought to everything. No one—not Dr. Dre, not André 3000, not Kanye West and his elaborate stage designs—did a better job at synthesizing the Clinton aesthetic. And Shock openly admitted he worshipped at Clinton’s altar: While working as a radio DJ in Tampa as a teenager, he was fired for playing the full 15-minute version of “(Not Just) Knee Deep” during a five-minute time slot. More than two decades later, after a journalist attacked Clinton’s legacy, Shock penned an open letter defending his hero. To him, Clinton was as important to the development of Black music in the back half of the 20th century as any artist. “They were the Grateful Dead of the Black world,” Shock said of Parliament-Funkadelic in Check the Technique. “Their concerts were more like rituals.” At the close of the decade, he’d appear alongside his idol on the Woodstock ’99 stage as part of the P-funk All-Stars.
Following Sex Packets, Digital Underground would produce a handful of good-to-great albums and a few memorable singles (“No Nose Job” is a best-case-scenario novelty-hit follow-up) before disbanding in 2008, but the group’s impact went beyond the music they released. Digital Underground would give Tupac Shakur his start—first as a roadie, then as a backup dancer, and finally as a guest rapper—and when Dan Aykroyd tapped the group to perform their single “Same Song” in his first (and only) venture as a director, 1991’s Nothing but Trouble, Shakur would be featured front and center. (Avoid the movie at all costs, but please watch this clip to see Chevy Chase realize in real time just how low he’d go for a paycheck.) Two years later, Shock G would produce and guest on Tupac’s “I Get Around,” arguably the most joyous song Shakur ever made. Shock would also play a key role in helping other legendary West Coast acts like the Luniz, Saafir, and Murs find success. His legacy isn’t just in the music he made, but also in the music that was able to flourish because he touched it.
Shock G’s passing marks the third loss of a ’90s hip-hop icon in less than two weeks, following the deaths of DMX and Black Rob. Each represents a staggering loss, each were icons behind some of the decade’s biggest songs. Shock’s death feels particularly gutting because of how singular his work felt. He created a legendary alter-ego but never let it consume him. He was deeply comedic but never someone to laugh at. He blended the sacred and the profane in a way few in hip-hop—few in any genre, really—ever had. He altered the course of Bay Area hip-hop—and hip-hop as a whole given his work with Tupac—but his influence today is more felt than readily seen. In the past three decades, many groups have openly borrowed from Public Enemy and De La Soul, to varying degrees of success. Few have done so with Shock G and Digital Underground. In a way it’s fitting—it’s hard to imagine any succeeding had they tried.