Cult heroes: Digital Underground peaked so high, so early, little more was required
Digital Underground are best remembered for one novelty song and giving 2Pac his big break. But that completely undersells a pioneering hip-hop group
There is, of course, no justice. If there were, a series on cult heroes would be redundant. But for an example of the particular and peculiar kind of injustice by which the music business is riven, one need only compare the relative renown of Greg Jacobs and Tupac Shakur.
Both men started out in the same band – in the same sense that John Lennon and Pete Best both started out in the Beatles. Imagine Lennon was now best remembered for giving Best his break. No, that doesn’t scan, but still. Imagine.
Digital Underground was Jacobs’s band, and Shakur was a fringe member; a roadie, then an onstage dancer and hype man whose own recording debut didn’t come about until the Oakland, California, crew had already peaked. Jacobs, who mentored Shakur, would go on to co-produce the latter’s first album, 2Pacalypse Now. Shakur first featured on Same Song, the lead track from Digital Underground’s 1991 EP This Is an EP Release. That was only a year after their first album, Sex Packets, came out. A brief and early peak, then. But one so towering that little more was required.
Digital Underground were one of those wonderful groups who doom themselves to cult status at best by arriving too soon. Or, perhaps, by being the first to accomplish something that might well have not happened without them, and from which their successors reap the benefits. In their case, it was the seamless integration of P-Funk with rap. Three years before G-funk took over hip-hop, they picked up where George Clinton had yet to leave off, seizing on 70s Parliament/Funkadelic’s stretchy, booty-bouncing grooves and mob-handed extravagance, along with Clinton’s tauter 80s techno-funk. (Their first notable single, the droll, rollicking party jam Doowutchyalike, featured no fewer than three P-Funk samples, plus more from Chic, Prince and Vaughan Mason.) To this they added the remarkable vocal talents of their real star, who bears the distinction of having been not one but two of the finest MCs to wield a mic.
As Shock G, Jacobs was the straight man, sort of: a semi-parodic playa with a cool, insinuating delivery and ingenious, dirty, druggy rhymes. Then, sticking a joke-store nose-and-glasses combo over his face, he transformed into Humpty Hump, an outlandish, honking hybrid of Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers and Rudy Ray Moore. Humpty it was who would make Digital Underground, for a little while at least, famous, taking the lead on breakthrough hit The Humpty Dance.
The Humpty Dance is that rare and glorious thing, a novelty song that is also a great pop record, and remains fresh at each hearing. I’m always delighted by its rubberised rhythm and quotable lines – “Both how I’m livin’ and my nose is large”; or, when describing the titular steps, “People say, ya look like MC Hammer on crack, Humpty.”
The shame is that The Humpty Dance and Shakur’s fleeting contribution are all that remain in popular memory of Digital Underground. Sex Packets is an extraordinary album, an hour-long pyrotechnic display of wit, imagination, sleaze, pneumatic beats and sundry flavours of lyrical doolally. Underwater Rimes, for instance, is performed in the piscine character of MC Blowfish, who sounds exactly as you’d hope: “Get out of here with that boat and a stick / Get out of line, I’ll call my homie, Moby-Dick.” Why would Jacobs do that? Because he could, presumably. Freaks of the Industry may not be the filthiest track ever recorded – but it surely sounds like it.
Thanks to TheGuardian.com for this information.