Rather be Humpty
Shock G was the Donald Fagen of hip hop: a piano player, most comfortable behind his instrument, thrust into the role of a front man. His birth name was Gregory Edward Jacobs, and most of his audience knew and remembered him as Humpty Hump – a sign of how uneasy he was in his skin, with even his onstage persona hidden behind other personas. But every one of them exuded warmth and good humour. In Oakland, where Shock G made his name, he’ll be remembered not just for his genius but for being a gentle and generous force on the scene.
Oakland is not a big city; one of its nicknames is ‘the Town’. But for a long while, starting in the late 1980s, it had one of the strongest rap scenes in the country. Too Short, E-40, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Saafir, Souls of Mischief, the Coup and Tupac Shakur were all Oakland rappers. Until Shakur came along, MC Hammer was far and away the most popular. (Elsewhere, Hammer may have been seen as a joke; in Oakland he’s a hero.) Shock G, who mentored Saafir and Shakur, among others, liked to play the role of a clown. But really he was the scene’s jack-of-all-trades.
Raised up and down the East Coast, like Shakur, he’d been there when hip hop emerged from New York’s outer boroughs. In Tampa, where his father lived, he dropped out of high school, got in and out of trouble with the law, and formed a large crew of MCs and DJs called the Master Blasters. They were popular enough to land Jacobs his own radio show on Tampa’s big R&B station.
This was the same route that Sly Stone (another former radio DJ) had travelled, but it took Jacobs a much longer time to arrive. Fired, apparently for programming a fifteen-minute Funkadelic song into a five-minute time slot, he bummed around the country, sneaking into practice rooms at colleges and music stores to play the piano, before ending up back in Tampa – where, like Sly Stone, he studied music theory at a community college and worked as a journeyman record producer. He worked as a piano man, too – later on, ‘The Piano Man’ became another persona – and played in funk bands in Tampa and, eventually, Los Angeles. In 1986, he moved to the Bay Area and found work in a music store in Oakland or San Leandro (accounts vary). One day, a drummer named Jimi Dright walked into the store.
‘Jimi had a MIDI setup and a lot of credit,’ Shock G told Brian Coleman, who interviewed him for his book Check the Technique, ‘so I sold him my dream set-up. But he didn’t know how to work any of it, so our deal was that if I made a couple of house calls to set the stuff up, he’d let me finish my demo on his equipment.’
Shock G had already sketched out the two songs that appear on Digital Underground’s first single. ‘Back in 1988 we used to wear berets and shit,’ he told Coleman.
That was the style for ‘Your Life’s a Cartoon’. Then when Public Enemy came out we were like: ‘Damn, they did that to the fullest, way better than even we were thinking about.’ So then we decided to include humour in what we were doing, and that’s why we did ‘Underwater Rimes’. We decided we’d be this hippie-oriented band. Then De La Soul came out. Everything we tried, someone else did it, and usually better than us. So we were like, ‘Fuck it, we’re gonna be on some Parliament-Funkadelic shit, and do all kinds of different songs and wear different hats all the time.’
As a rule, rappers are not known for their modesty. (‘I don’t mean to be braggadocious,’ Nas told me once, in an interview, ‘but I might be the humblest person you will ever meet.’) In this case, the self-effacement was semi-warranted. The tracks were professional. So was the cover art, which Jacobs had drawn and credited to ‘Rackadelic’, another persona. But the whole thing didn’t click into focus until De La Soul’s record label, Tommy Boy, agreed to release Digital Underground’s second single, ‘Doowutchalike’, which sold enough copies to get the group an album deal with the label.
In reality, there was no group. Just Jacobs, doing the bulk of the work, with Dright and a Tampa friend, ‘Kenny-K’ Waters, chipping in.
But ‘Tommy Boy wanted to see a group,’ Shock G told Coleman, ‘so I had to get one going! I always wanted Digital Underground to be this big supergroup, but we didn’t have all the true characters yet. Basically, most of the time if I had a vision of a kind of guy we needed, I’d just be that guy.’
Jacobs recruited Money B, a younger, more streetwise MC, along with Money B’s DJ, Fuze, and a few other companions. But when the album was all but done, they ran into clearance problems with the samples for a couple of songs. ‘Freaks of the Industry’ and ‘The Humpty Dance’ were last-minute substitutes. (In an interview in 2012, Shock G explained that he based Humpty’s voice on a singing cartoon frog from the 1950s.) There was no way the sexually explicit ‘Freaks of the Industry’ would ever be played on the radio. But ‘The Humpty Dance’ was an immediate hit. Prince covered it in concert. The Fresh Prince covered it on his TV show. To this day, it’s a sure-fire way to fill a dancefloor.
A backstory for the character was quickly created: Edward Ellington Humphrey III, a smooth R&B singer, had burned his nose in a deep-fat fryer and turned to rap. (It’s an odd story, given how nasal Shock G had made Humpty’s voice, but he was doing a fair bit of mushrooms, ecstasy and coke at the time, as well as mescaline and, probably, a few other drugs. Anyway, it didn’t have to make sense.) ‘I remember a George Clinton interview from when he was younger where he said that characters live on longer than human beings do,’ Shock G said. ‘They don’t burn out as quickly. So that was an inspiration.’
A dance was choreographed: inspired by the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, it’s supposed to look like the floor’s shifting underfoot and you’re trying to keep your balance. It’s a dance for people who can’t dance, to a song about people who don’t quite fit in, but feel sexy and want to have fun anyway.
The live shows were unusually good. At first, Jacobs pretended that Shock G and Humpty were separate people, hiring body doubles to appear with him as one or the other in public. Sometimes even his old friends were fooled. Some personas, like MC Blowfish, fell away. Others, like Peanut Hakeem, were waiting in the wings. Saafir and Shakur joined Digital Underground as roadies and dancers. (Saafir went on to become a brilliant, idiosyncratic, underappreciated MC.) Tommy Boy pushed for a follow-up album, but with Jacobs doing so much of the work himself, it was hard to come up with one quickly. As a stop-gap, Digital Underground released a four-song EP that featured Shakur’s first appearance as a rapper.
Shock G went on to produce and appear on Shakur’s breakthrough single, ‘I Get Around’ – it peaked at number 11 in the charts, the same spot that ‘The Humpty Dance’ had reached – and kept on working with him. He made many more Digital Underground albums, collaborated with Prince and George Clinton, and performed with Parliament-Funkadelic. Because he was lighthearted and funny – ‘I like to rhyme/I like my beats funky/I’m spunky/I like my oatmeal lumpy’ – it was easy to overlook his contributions. From the get-go, he’d pulled hip hop in a few new directions, stretching songs every which way, incorporating piano breaks and live, improvised instrumentation. James Brown was the bedrock of the East Coast sound, but it was largely thanks to Jacobs that the West Coast turned to P-Funk, and in doing so found its footing. And not just the West Coast: Outkast and André 3000 also owe a lot to Shock G and Humpty Hump.
But, to a degree, it was Shakur who caused Shock G’s kind of music to lose traction in the marketplace. From now on, rappers had to be ‘real’ and ‘hard’, not open, inclusive and optimistic – this kind of cartoon, not the other. Shock G wasn’t bitter about it, just smart. ‘I don’t recognise my friend Tupac when I listen to “Makaveli”,’ he said. ‘I enjoy those records but I don’t really recognise my friend in there; it’s a character. It’s his Humpty.’
Tupac was murdered in 1996. In 2012, he appeared posthumously as a hologram at Coachella, performing with Snoop Dogg. ‘That’s dope,’ Shock G said. ‘I love it. I’m about to buy a few of them, soon as the price comes down, though. And they don’t gotta be dead. It’s going to be Digital Underground featuring Lauryn Hill, RZA, Tupac and Jimi Hendrix. Imma make it who I want. But the first hologram I’m gonna buy? I’m gonna buy me a Humpty, so I can be Shock G on the keys … Or ahologram of Shock. I’d put him on the keys, and I could be Humpty. Sometimes, I’d rather be Humpty.’
Jacobs died last week, alone in a Tampa hotel room. He was the same age Prince had been. Like Prince, he’d gone out of his way to help others, but not always himself. For periods of time he crashed with friends or stayed out on the road, moving between motels with no permanent home. But there is no road anymore for our working musicians. Jacobs and Shock G both deserved better endings.