THE NEW FOOL IN TOWN
A REMEMBRANCE AND APPRECIATION OF SCHOCK G (AND HUMPTY)
It’s June of 1992 in Nashville, Tennessee. Neighbors of mine from down the street have a daughter, and she’s getting married today. My parents and I attend the wedding. We also attend the reception where the entertainment is Nashville cover artist Tall Paul. At some point he launches into Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song about the day The Music died (The Music here defined as Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, Ricardo Valenzuela AKA Richie Valens, and JP Richardson, DBA The Big Bopper.)
What I see that night is etched into my brain: it’s the sight of my dad, age 45, and five or six of the groom’s frat brothers, age approximately my own, signing along, arms around each other in a spirit of unfathomable camaraderie. I can’t be sure of this, but I think they’re kicking their legs out as if they’re in a chorus line. Are they drunk? Is my dad drunk? I’m not sure of that either. What I am sure of is that I am mortified by my dad’s embarrassing level of joy (and probably mad that he has embraced these frat boys instead of me.) Once the day’s wedding festivities end, we all go back home and I immediately get into my own car and drive off to the small town of Joelton, far from my own house in Hermitage, to spend the evening with the lady who later becomes my wife.
Like I said, I don’t remember if my dad and the frat boys were doing a chorus line.
Like I also said, I don’t remember if he was drunk or not.
One thing I do remember is what was playing on the cassette deck of my 1982 Toyota Corolla Tercel as I drove away. It was the extended cassette single of a song called No Nose Job, a song adamant about African-Americans refusing to confirm to white standards of beauty—or, in this case, one particular African-American refusing to do so. His name was E. Edward Ellington Humphrey, irreverently known as Humpty Hump; his distinguishing characteristic was a set of Groucho nose and glasses, the nose usually brown or gold—and unflinchingly wide, brazenly African-American—as a way of hiding that his actual nose had been damaged in a freak accident involving a deep-fat fryer. (The real name and nasal backstory were only mythos, part of the fun.) Pressured to fix his nose, and perhaps reduce his blackness, Mr. Hump wasn’t having it:
So, catch me on the beach, I’ll be getting’ a tan
Make sure there’s no mistake that
Humpty Hump is from the motherland;
Laying in the sun, string bikini
Between the buns
Of two cuties,
Still mackin’: There’ll be no nose job.
Did I have it turned all the way up? Yes. Was I performing every word with him? You know it. Was I doing so in Humpty’s ebonicized Kermit voice? Absobloodylutely. My dad could have Don McLean; had the phrase existed yet, I would have wished him a heartfelt OK, Boomer. My Gen-X ass had Humpty Hump and his band, Digital Underground.
The operative word there being had. We no longer have him. Thursday, April 22, in a hotel room in Tampa, a 57-year-old man named Gregory Edward Jacobs died. Greg Jacobs was also known as Shock G. He was also known as Humpty Hump. He was part of what a marketing executive for a now-ancient radio programming format would have called The Music of My Life.
Once upon a time in the Land of Ago (1989) I was a suburban white boy high-school senior who thought the sun rose and set on prog rock: Floyd and Tull. Then one afternoon, channel-surfing at home, I came across BET and a show called “Rap City.” On this particular afternoon, they played a song called “Doowutchyalike” featuring an MC who looked and sounded like a black Groucho Marx (a hero to me then and now, don’t most suburban WASP teens look up to long-deceased Jewish comedians?) I was intrigued.
A few months passed. I went through at least three separate girlfriends and settled on two or three colleges I was interested in. I kept drifting to BET in the afternoons—except that it stopped being drift and became appointment television. A band named Public Enemy got me excited to Fight the Power (even as I didn’t clearly get who The Power were or how I might benefit from them.) A devout Floyd fan, I had sworn to like any rap crew that sampled Mr. Waters and company; lo, some fellow Caucasians called 3rd Bass sampled the clocks from “Time” in a song called “Steppin’ to the AM.”
Weeks shy of my 18th birthday in 1990, the “Doowhutchyalike” guys, who it turned out went by the very cool name of Digital Underground, released a song on which the black Groucho was the lead vocalist. As I and the rest of the world would come to know, black Groucho’s name was Humpty, pronounced (all together now!) with a “Umpty.” He liked his oatmeal lumpy. And all the rappers in the top ten, he intended to bump thee. This song would only reach #11 on the Billboard charts.
Even failing to break the top ten, the previously obscure band was having a cultural moment—and I, your humble correspondent and suburban white boy, was ahead of the curve. I already had the cassingle (truly the Land of Ago), I bought the album, I waited patiently for BET to play the video and recorded it on glorious color VHS when they did. That song, an eternal all-time slapper and banger named “The Humpty Dance,” became one of this white boy’s favorite songs. And when I say favorite, I mean something about a billion light-years north of favorite: When that song came on, it was like something possessed me. I sang along, I danced along, I did the voice with surprising accuracy—I became Humpty. If you could see my senior yearbook from high school—you can’t; the 2010 Nashville flood got it—you would see multiple signatures accompanied by text in which the author says he/she will forever associate me with that song.
Summer of 1990 came, and I was a high-school graduate working at the now-defunct Opryland. I had been transferred from my old job in the park (dressing like Count Chocula, doing silent comedy and being told by little kids that they loved me) to a new job in the park (hosting a ride with people who were already in college and who made it fairly clear on a regular basis that they hated me.)
August of 1990 delivered me from the job, and delivered me to Starwood Amphitheater (like Opryland, another bitterly missed chunk of Nashville history.) There I saw The Summer Sizzler Tour, a hip-hop revue with Kid N’ Play, Kwame, and, as the headliners, Public Enemy and a then-obscure female MC named Queen Latifah.)
There was one other act, the last act before Public Enemy took the stage: Digital Underground themselves. You shoulda seen that excited, skinny Caucasian in his dashiki and wool Rasta hat! You shoulda seen him dance and shout every lyric at the top of his voice! Mostly, though, you shoulda seen the band.
Digital Underground sprayed champagne over the audience and inflatable “love dolls” were…a factor. The vocalists brandished huge caricatures of other groups and played an interactive game with the audience called “Who’s That Rapper?”
The group even had presence after they were off stage, as these yellow sheets of paper began to circulate around the audience. On them was a comic strip telling the (completely made up) backstory of the title of their debut album, Sex Packets. According to the comic strip that I still have a copy of, a brilliant scientist named Dr. Earl Cook (really just a member of the band) had invented pills to be given to astronauts, pills that would induce highly specific wet dreams “…ya see the girl on the cover? You black out, and she becomes ya lover.”
Unfortunately, bad actors and ne’er-do-wells had gotten their hands on the formula for the pills, and now—horrors! —black-market packets were flooding the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Not that they would succeed, though, not on Digital Underground’s watch. The comic strip explained that Shock, Humpty, and company felt duty-bound to release their album about it all as a warning.
As an 18-year-old, I had two reactions to all of that: (1) I knew it was just banana oil (2) I ate it up with a passion. (When I told my parents about the Sex Packets, they felt the need to tell me that they probably weren’t real and to not take any, were they offered me. I kid you not.) The packets were but one thing I (figuratively) consumed about the Underground. I scoured every magazine, I studied BET and (finally) MTV; this was the one and only time in my life when I bought a copy of a now-defunct magazine called Word Up! My ROI was a Digital Underground poster for the wall of my freshman dorm room.
As time passed, as time passes, I looked/look back and realize that the shift from prog rock to Digital Underground wasn’t that drastic. One year, I sat down with my copies of Thick As A Brick and The Wall and listened obsessively to every lyric and note, as I looked over the album cover art, searching for clues, inside jokes, narrative.
Now I had Digital Underground—their lyrics both hilarious and serious, their notes movement-inducing, and research-inducing. In 1990, most DJs were still sampling James Brown almost exclusively, and Shock G preferred to sample Parliament/Funkadelic, which launched many a fan into deep-dives of the oeuvre of Mr. Clinton and company. Their album cover art, likewise, contained clues, inside jokes, and narrative, all by their own in-house artist. Pink Floyd had Gerald Scarfe; Humpty and the lads had Liz Racker, AKA Rackadelic. When you chose Digital Underground fandom, you got a lot of educational bang for your buck.
To my endless regret and disgust, Digital Underground and all things Humpty had their moment in 1990, and never quite returned to the centre of the pop-culture universe. Not that they didn’t keep producing music. While Shock G himself never went back to the center, he sent forth someone who did. 1991 saw the lads put out This Is An EP Release, largely a vehicle for releasing their track “Same Song” which appeared in a train wreck of a movie called Nothing But Trouble, directed and written by Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd counts himself a huge fan of the group (and is a fellow Aspie; Digital Underground skews well among autistic white boys, I guess?)
One of the last stanzas of the group’s cultural influence comes from a youngster who started as a backup dancer for the group, a fellow Oaklander named Tupac Shakur. Yes, that Tupac Shakur, who went on to enjoy both commercial success and street cred/respect (not all rappers maintain both)—for a further six years, until his death in a still unsolved drive by shooting.
Even decades later, anytime “Same Song” comes on it’s spring of 1991 again—I’m home from college, cruising Nashville in my aforementioned Corolla Tercel, again pursuing multiple ladies.
Their next full-length album, Sons of the P, came out later that same year; there wasn’t a Humpty Dance on it, but two singles, “Kiss You Back” and “No Nose Job,” were certified gold—and I did my part. If it was winter of 1992 and I was walking from class to class, I was listening to the album. If it was summer of 1992 and you were in my Corolla Tercel, you were hearing the extended dance mixes of “Nose Job”—this was not up for discussion.
1993 would see the release of The Body-Hat Syndrome, and I was right there, blasting it as a senior in college and a promising young editorial intern— my college newspaper even gave me an award for a review I wrote of the thing,
I began to backslide in my fandom at this point; I completely missed 1996’s Future Rhythm, and didn’t hear (or even know about) 1998’s Who Got the Gravy? until 2001. On that one, I made up for lost time—I hear the songs from that one, and I’m…well, I’m years out of college, married, a homeowner, and a newly-minted father of three. (The Corolla Tercel has been dead for five years.) Adulthood caught me, and I fell out of my old wannabe B-boy life.
Sometimes, though, you can fall back in. In 2010, I found myself in training for one of my many call-center positions. Within this particular training class, I was the oldest member and the only WASP male. I didn’t have a smart phone yet, but I had a portable Mp3 player, and loved that I could fit all the music I’d ever loved onto my new toy. Naturally, Digital Underground found their way onto the player.
The night we all graduated from our 6-week training class, we were all-high spirited, all joyous; our group’s ringleader sought out upbeat music. I naturally suggested “The Humpty Dance,” and the ringleader—who had been in multiple college step shows set to George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”—went with it. Somehow, through the mists of time, my inner Humpty…came back. I sang along, I danced along, I did the voice with surprising accuracy—I became Humpty. Other training classes came to watch. Were they kind of laughing at this old white dude? Probably. Did some of them realize (between that and knowing that I was a transracially adoptive parent) that this was at least one WASP male who, however goofy, was actually an ally? I hope so. I hope so more every passing year. Do I still work at that call center? No; in fact, within a year, none of us from that class were still there, and that company has now closed.
Time passes. Reality changes. Every paradigm, even your current one, will eventually end. Memory endures. Music endures. Music has a magic ability to take to utopias we dream of and utopias we’ve created of the past. It did that for my drunk dad in 1992. It does that for me now.
For all my fandom, I never once met Shock G, but he and his music became part of my life, woven in like a family member. This is not just performative grief for social media. I’ve lost someone important. Greg, Shock, Humpty—thanks for everything.
Peace and Humptiness forever.