Shock G Liked His Oatmeal Lumpy
Murs had a keyboard player. I thought that was pretty weird. Sometime in the early ’00s — let’s say 2003 — I caught a Def Jux package tour at my local indie rock club, and when headliner Murs was onstage, there was a tall, slightly familiar-looking guy off to the side of the stage, adding all these jazz-funk runs to his squelchy underground rap tracks. Especially in the context of a skronky and chaotic underground rap show, those slick keyboard embellishments were a surprise. But they worked. About halfway through the show, we got a bigger surprise. That keyboard player briefly stepped out from behind his instrument, put on a pair of plastic novelty glasses with a fake nose attached, and he instantly became a whole other person. That keyboard player wasn’t just a keyboard player. That keyboard player was Humpty Hump. It was like watching Clark Kent transform into Superman in front of me.
It seemed impossible: This early-’90s rap hero and kingmaker — the man who essentially discovered Tupac Shakur, who rapped a song that I memorized in middle school — was playing keyboards at this indie-rap show, never drawing attention to himself except when he put on those glasses. But Shock G, the inventor of the Humpty Hump persona, was a musician first and foremost. On the Digital Underground records, Shock wasn’t just a rapper with a funny alter-ego, though he was probably the first of those. Shock was also a producer, arranger, and piano man. On Digital Underground records, he played smooth, fluid piano and organ solos like the ones that he played onstage with Murs that night. Shock G dedicated his life to keeping things funky.
Last week, Shock G died at 57. His body was found in a Tampa hotel room, and his cause of death hasn’t yet been determined. Like a lot of the rappers of his era, Shock had problems with substances. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more rap heroes passing away in middle age — not because of gun violence but because of the accumulated wages of trauma and addiction and the general headfuckery of fame. Shock G was at ground zero when rap music first truly crossed over to the pop charts, and it’s hard to even imagine the whirlwind he must’ve gone through in the early ’90s. His death caps off a brutal two-week stretch in which we also lost DMX and Black Rob, rappers who were only a few years younger than Shock and who must’ve dealt with the same kind of whiplash. Shock G’s death hits especially hard, if only because his records exploded with such goofy and positive energy, such life.
Gregory Jacobs heard rap when it first started. Growing up in Brooklyn, Jacobs was around for rap’s mythic park-jam era. As a teenager, he moved to Tampa, where rap was barely a presence. That’s where Jacobs fell under the spell of George Clinton’s P-Funk empire, which would become a massive and towering influence. Years later, Jacobs would be largely responsible for importing that influence into rap. As a teenager, Jacobs got a job as an on-air DJ at a Florida radio station — the youngest in the whole state — and he got fired for playing “(Not Just) Knee Deep” in its full 15-minute glory. Years later, Jacobs sampled that very same track on one of his biggest hits.
Jacobs studied piano in college, and then he moved west with a girlfriend — first to LA, where he gigged around with nightclub funk bands, and then to Oakland, where he found a job in a record store. There, Jacobs linked up with young DJ Chopmaster J and founded Digital Underground, a group that would go through many different lineups and incarnations over the next two decades. Jacobs had been rapping since his time in New York, and he’d already adapted Shock G as an alias. Shock originally intended for Digital Underground to be a Black Power-themed group, and he abandoned those plans when Public Enemy came along and did it better. Instead, Shock embraced the silliness of the P-Funk records that he loved, and that silliness is already on full display on “Underwater Rimes” b/w “Your Life’s A Cartoon,” the first Digital Underground single.
Digital Underground released that single on Macola Records, the LA indie label and pressing plant that West Coast pioneers like N.W.A and MC Hammer used for their early records. Shock drew the cover art himself. That single sold about 20,000 copies, which got Tommy Boy Records interested. Shock was astounded that an East Coast rap label wanted his group, and so he signed a single deal with Tommy Boy. In 1989, the group released the dizzy, absurdist party-rap anthem “Doowutchyalike.” The track became an underground hit, and that was good enough for Tommy Boy to greenlight an album. “Doowutchyalike” was a landmark in another way, too. It marked the on-record debut of Shock’s extremely silly Humpty Hump alter-ego. In a great, extensive Vibe interview in 2010, Shock explained the genesis of Humpty Hump:
He was a slow, piece-by-piece evolution. It started with me imitating that cartoon singing Warner Bros. frog. That bit was funny to me. There was also some Bootsy, Rodney Dangerfield, Morris Day, and Slick Rick thrown in. But it was mainly based on my uncle Tony Red. He really talks like Humpty. He didn’t know how to dress, but he was the coolest n***a in the world. He would walk up to girls and say the most stupid shit [laughs]. They would look at him crazy, but he would be like, [in the Humpty Hump voice], “There must be something wrong with y’all, man… I’m Tony Red.” It wasn’t until the day we shot the video and we were picking up party supplies that the whole idea for Humpty’s nose came about. This store in Berkley had some bargain bin noses that were 99 cents each. One was a sharp nose, one was a pig nose, and the others were some odd, brown Groucho Marx noses. I put it on and it was just so fucking hilarious to me. That was the birth of Humpty Hump.
Humpty Hump became a kind of conceptual performance-art thing. Shock probably got the idea for different characters from P-Funk, and Humpty himself probably had something to do with Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, the eternal nemesis of the Starchild. But Shock also turned it into an Andy Kaufman kind of thing. Lots of people didn’t know that Shock and Humpty were the same person, and Shock worked to keep that illusion going, using Humpty Hump imitators in live shows and videos so that he and Humpty could be seen in the same place, at the same time. With the release of Digital Underground’s next single, Humpty Hump became a star.
“The Humpty Dance,” Digital Underground’s biggest single, was a pure showcase for that Humpty character, and it almost instantly became a rap classic. It’s a perfect piece of work. In the video, Shock fully inhabits the character, changing his delivery and his walk and his facial expressions to become this kind of freak nerd game-show host. The track is genuinely funny, and it’s also a character study. Humpty truly introduces himself, and he tells us everything that we need to know about him. His nose is big like a pickle, but he’s not ashamed. He’ll get stupid, shoot an arrow like Cupid, and use a word that don’t mean nothin’, like looptid. People say he looks like MC Hammer on crack. He once got busy in a Burger King bathroom. He’s even got his own dance.
“The Humpty Dance” became a huge hit, peaking at #11 on the Hot 100 in an era when very few rap songs got that far, and Humpty became a sort of albatross for Shock G. The song opened 1990’s Sex Packets, a concept LP about astronaut sex drugs becoming black-market commodities, and the album went platinum in six months. Digital Underground went into touring overdrive, and the bosses at Tommy Boy started pushing Shock to include Humpty on every Digital Underground single. Humpty even made his big-screen debut in 1991, stepping up on the big screen in the widely hated Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd flop Nothing But Trouble.
The Nothing But Trouble soundtrack single “Same Song” also marked the on-record debut of a 19-year-old Tupac Shakur, who anchors the track with a ferociously charismatic verse and who plays an African prince in the song’s stereotype-heavy video. (Shakur is also in that Nothing But Trouble scene, lip-syncing a hook that he didn’t sing, a year before he played Bishop in Juice.) Shakur met Digital Underground through his manager Antron Gregory, and Shock took the young rapper under his wing. Shakur toured Europe with Digital Underground, starting out as a roadie and then becoming a dancer and hypeman. Shock knew that Shakur would move on to bigger things, and he was hesitant to ask Pac to participate in Digital Underground foolishness, but Shakur was always happy to jump around onstage in a housedress or a banana hammock. Later in 1991, when 2Pac’s debut single “Trapped” came out, the video was staged as a dialogue between Pac and Shock G, with the latter playing the wise, militant elder.
The members of Digital Underground produced much of 2Pac’s 1991 debut album 2Pacalypse Now, and Shock kept making tracks for 2Pac for years. Shock made the breezy, funky beat for 2Pac’s 1993 breakout single “I Get Around,” which peaked at #11, just like “The Humpty Dance” before it. Shock also rapped on the song, bragging about putting the satin on your panties in a verse that Shakur wrote for him. Shock in that Vibe article: “I had one of the best in the business writing for me. If you had to have a ghostwriter, why not 2Pac?”
As 2Pac’s star ascended, Digital Underground struggled to replicate the success of “The Humpty Dance.” Tommy Boy wanted them to pretty much write the same song again and again, to rely on the cartoon blueprint that their big hit had so brilliantly established. Shock G wanted to push the group into some astral psychedelic funk shit. Sometimes, those interests aligned, as on the goofy-but-serious 1992 single “No Nose Job.” But subsequent records didn’t sell like Sex Packets. By the mid-’90s, Shock was a Bay Area elder, rapping as both himself and Humpty Hump on the posse-cut remix for the Luniz smash “I Got 5 On It.” By 1998, Digital Underground were off of Tommy Boy, and they were once again underground for real.
In the years ahead, Shock G kept putting out Digital Underground music. He toured with his P-Funk heroes. He worked as a keyboard player for Murs. He lived life. But rap music moves fast, and it’s wild to think of how many permutations the genre has been through since “The Humpty Dance.” More than any musical genre in history, rap turns its artists into comic-book superheroes, and Shock G pulled that off in the guise of a fuck-around inside-joke alter-ego. But human beings made that music, and we should do a better job letting those human beings know we appreciate them while they’re still around.
1. The Alchemist – “Nobles” (Feat. Earl Sweatshirt & Navy Blue)
This is so pretty. Also, The Neverending Story is a good movie.
2. EBG EJizzle – “Jizzle Flow”
A young Memphis shit-stirrer hijacks the merciless bassline from “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s,” the 1993 track where Eazy-E called Snoop Doggy Dogg an anorexic rapper, to let us know that he contemplates murder before he even brushes his teeth in the morning.
3. Wiki & NAH – “Hip Hop”
Wiki slurs his words all over a beat that sounds like it’s about to fall apart, bending your brain for 80 seconds and then cutting off completely. Exhilarating!
4. Bandgang Lonnie Bands – “Selena Blanco” (Feat. Flockhardt)
Everything about this track stays locked on mutter-murmur: The bass, the looped-up acoustic guitars, Lonnie Bands’ delivery. The ad-libs sound like bubbling swampwater. It’s the good kind of creepy.
5. Lakeyah – “Poppin” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
Project Pat’s 2001 classic “Chicken Head” was the basis of a Cardi B/Migos collab a few years ago, but it still sounds great underneath the voice of the hard-snapping Milwaukee newcomer Lakeyah. Gucci Mane, who definitely learned a few things from Project Pat, knows exactly how to ride a beat like this.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO