Attempting to write about an artist who has passed away can feel like an overwhelming task. It feels that way now as I sit here looking at my laptop screen. Where do you start? How can you adequately condense a life and career into paragraphs? How can you fully convey what that person meant to you? What they meant to others? The truth is that you can’t. Not completely. All you can do is hope your admiration and appreciation comes through in the words you decide to use. So I’ll jump right in and try to start flowin’ on the D-Line.
Gregory ‘Shock G’ Jacobs was special. That much was evident the first time any of us heard Digital Underground, which for me, like many, was when the group dropped their “Doowutchyalike” single on Tommy Boy Records in 1989. But at that point I didn’t know exactly how special Shock G was. I didn’t know he was playing multiple roles within the group under different aliases. But it was clear that Shock G was Digital Underground’s leader. Their guide. A keeper of the same funk that had been beamed down to our planet years before via George Clinton’s supergroovalistic Mothership.
Hearing Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike” for the first time on the radio here in the UK was as much a memorable moment for me as when I heard Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message”, Ultramagnetic MC’s’ “Ego Trippin” or Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause”. It was so unique. The sounds. The rhymes. The voices. The humour. The creativity. The sheer brilliance. That moment happened on Jeff Young’s Friday night Radio 1 Big Beat show. If my memory is correct I believe I then heard it again the following evening on Tim Westwood’s Capital Rap Show (with Tim taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by Digital Underground for deejays to announce their “station identification” about three-and-a-half minutes into the track).
Having been introduced to Hip-Hop in the early-80s, I, like many other heads, was used to constantly hearing the new new throughout that decade. Lyrical styles and production techniques had been consistently changing and evolving. The speed at which the music had been developing was breathtaking, exciting and to some degree, by 1989, expected. Yet with all that being said, hearing Digital Underground for the first time felt like a different type of new. It was hard to pin down. “Doowutchyalike” tumbled out of my speakers on that particular Friday night with gleeful abandon, hinting at what a Kool Herc jam may have sounded like had he settled in the Bay Area rather than the Bronx, or what might have happened if Prince had been a b-boy. And Shock G was in the middle of it all, sounding like he was having one huge party, but making sure we all knew that everyone was invited.
I distinctly remember thinking how free and uninhibited Shock sounded on “Doowutchyalike”. He was clearly of Hip-Hop, but at the same time seemed to be more than Hip-Hop. Larger than life but with a down-to-earth coolness suggesting that if you met him you could talkhowyalike and he would kick it with you for five minutes. I was an instant fan and needed to own that record.
Shortly after hearing “Doowutchyalike” on the radio I found the 12″ single in my local music shop, Kriminal Records. I walked home inspecting the brilliant cover art by Rackadelic (another Shock G alias, unbeknownst to me at the time). That artwork further fuelled my intrigue around the group. I pulled the record from the sleeve, placed it carefully on my turntable (no fingerprints on the vinyl!), gently lowered the needle and proceeded to have my mind blown all over again for eight minutes and fifty-four seconds. Then I heard “Hip Hop Doll”. Damn! Still to this day one of the flyest tracks ever recorded. Some schmoove Oakland playa s**t mixed with cartoonish exaggeration and a dirty groove. The game is meant to be sold not told, but Shock dropped so many slick one-liners throughout that song that certain lyrics became catchphrases amongst my circle of friends.
Then came “The Humpty Dance” single. A huge bass-heavy chunk of slapstick Hip-Hop comedy that if attempted by a lesser artist would have seemed ridiculous, but in the hands of Shock G just seemed right. In hindsight, that was a brave track to release given that it could have led to people simply writing Digital Underground off as a novelty act. Some probably did. But most of us were too busy laughing at punchlines about getting busy in Burger King bathrooms, debating whether the person behind the fake nose and glasses was actually Shock G, and marvelling at Humpty’s fashion sense in the video. The record further connected Shock and DU to the P-Funk legacy, with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins often introducing different characters in their music. It also made it very clear that Shock G wasn’t interested in playing it safe or adhering to any supposed Hip-Hop rules. Here was a group yet to drop an album, attempting to establish itself in a rap world dominated at the time by the likes of N.W.A. and Public Enemy. But there was Shock G as bold as could be asking girls if they were ticklish whilst wearing a cheap party disguise. Individuality, it seemed, was everything to Shock, Money B, DJ Fuze and the rest of the DU collective. I wanted more.
Around this time I remember a good friend of mine, Cory, describing Digital Underground as being like a West Coast version of De La Soul. In 1989, Plugs One, Two and Three had released “3 Feet High And Rising”, an album rooted in the idea of simply being yourself. It was okay to be different. Not being obviously cool could also be cool. Messages which very clearly came through on those early Digital Underground singles. So I could see why the De La comparison was being made, but I didn’t agree with it completely. To me, De La Soul came across as a group of close friends who were letting listeners in on the conversations and jokes they would have shared whilst chillin’ at each other’s houses. Digital Underground on the other hand, thanks largely to Shock G’s imaginative vision, appeared to be on the verge of letting listeners into a kaleidoscope world of outlandish personalities and psychedelic experiences, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Speaking of which, where’s the Packet Man?
1990’s “Sex Packets” was (and still is) a towering work of mischievous ingenuity. Even if that had been the only album Digital Underground had ever released, Shock G’s name would still deserve to be in the Hip-Hop history books. Word to MC Blowfish! The hallucinogenic drug concept was masterfully executed, sparking endless ‘Can you really buy those?’ conversations. The album also fully showcased Shock’s talents, including his inspired used of live instrumentation and ability to pick just the right sample, whether familiar or obscure. (On a side note, “Freaks Of The Industry” contains some of the greatest chemistry you’re ever likely to hear from two emcees, with the back-and-forth between Shock G and Money B sounding totally fluid and effortless).
I was fortunate enough to interview Shock G back in 2004 when he dropped his excellent solo album “Fear Of A Mixed Planet”. I was pleased to have the opportunity to tell him how much his music meant to me. We talked about “Sex Packets” at length. Shock told me how, prior to the album release, the group distributed leaflets around the Bay Area, mainly leaving them on public transport and in medical centres. These leaflets presented info about the fictional sex packets as if they were a real drug and were made to look official. Which obviously caused some confusion. I thought that was hilarious and also a testament to Shock’s determination to push his idea as far as he could. I wondered then, and still wonder now, how many people read one of those leaflets whilst sat in a waiting room and what questions may have been asked once those same people walked into the privacy of a doctor’s office for their appointment?! (During that same conversation Shock spontaneously played the piano parts from “Doowutchyalike” over the phone to me, which was definitely ‘a moment’).
1991’s “Sons Of The P” is my favourite Digital Underground album. It took me somewhere else. It still does. It was the album I reached for on Friday morning after waking up and learning of Shock G’s passing. The playfulness and humour of both “Sex Packets” and the subsequent “This Is An E.P. Release” were still to be found in abundance, but for me “Sons Of The P” is the DU album that seemed to connect to something deeper with the music working on numerous levels. It was both the future and the past. Just listen to the title track. That’s the sound of spirits moving.
The Digital Underground house party was still very much in full swing on “Sons Of The P”, but it was clear that whilst Humpty Hump was busy chasing girls around the garden as a deejay played the Commodores’ “Brick House”, Shock G could be found hanging out in a backroom surrounded by Black Panther Party memorabilia discussing social issues with community activists and academics (see “Heartbeat Props”).
“Sons Of The P” was also the album that saw the circle becoming complete, with George Clinton himself appearing on the record. Can you imagine how Shock G must have felt seeing his hero and inspiration Dr. Funkenstein shining a flashlight in his direction to give his work an atomic seal of approval? Amazing.
Plus, I guarantee that if you mentioned “Kiss You Back” to my mother right now you would see an old lady smile. She used to hum the hell out of that song.
October 1993. I had started my first year as a student at Luton University and had been there for a week or so. Digital Underground had just dropped their third album “The Body-Hat Syndrome” which I had purchased on my way to class one day from the great (but sadly now long gone) Soul Sense Records. I’d only heard “The Return Of The Crazy One” prior to the album being released, but that didn’t matter. I was a dedicated Digital Underground follower. I would have bought the album on sight without hearing anything from it. I get to the Uni building on Park Street and make my way to the lecture theatre. It’s locked. I’m early. So I make my way back to the reception area and take a seat. In walks Vanessa. She’s on my course but we haven’t really spoken yet. A naturally attractive girl who seemed to always be wearing a Nirvana or Guns N’ Roses t-shirt under her denim jacket. She smiles politely as she walks past. I tell her the lecture theatre is locked. So she sits down. The awkward small talk begins. After a couple of minutes Vanessa notices my Soul Sense bag. She asks what I have in there. The new album from Digital Underground I tell her. She isn’t familiar with the group. I babble something about her possibly knowing “The Humpty Dance”, which just further confuses her. She asks to see the CD. I pass it across. She looks at the cover, apparently trying to make sense of what she’s seeing. Then she looks up and asks “What’s a body-hat?!”
Vanessa turns the CD over. At this point I hadn’t even fully looked at the track-listing myself having only just got the album. An expression makes its way across her face which to a passer-by would have suggested she’d just become aware of an aroma that wasn’t particularly sweet. She starts reading out a few of the track titles. “The Humpty Dance Awards”. “Jerkit Circus”. “Do Ya Like It Dirty?”. Vanessa passes me back the CD. “They sound a bit too weird and freaky for me” she says. I laugh and say no more. Even though Vanessa had pretty much just summed up Digital Underground in a nutshell. I’m sure Shock G would have laughed to.
To some, Shock G will always be known primarily as the person who helped introduce both 2Pac and Humpty Hump to the world. But to many of us he was so much more. Hearing and reading interviews with Shock, he made music sound like less of an artistic endeavour and more like an essential process of nature that simply had to happen.
Some people create who they are. Shock G already was what he created.
I can imagine a bleary-eyed Shock waking up at 2am and writing an entire song at his piano after having had a dream involving him, Jimi Hendrix and Rick James racing DFLO shuttles around the rings of Saturn with the cast of “The Mack” cheering them on from the sidelines.
Behind the dark sunglasses he was often seen wearing, I like to think that Gregory Jacobs saw vibrant colours, joyous scenes and a better world for all of us as one nation under a groove.
There is so much more that can (and should) be said about what Shock G achieved both inside and outside of Digital Underground, from his 80s debut to the present day. But as a fan, your relationship with a musician really comes down to one straight-forward question – how did that artist make you feel?
Whenever I’ve needed it, the music Shock G blessed us with has always made me feel good and I will forever be grateful for that.
Shock G was the wide-eyed student who grew-up to become the eccentric teacher.
Shock G was a loyal son of the P who became the proud father of his own incredible musical world.
Shock G was a prankster, a philosopher and a genius.
Shock G was, of course, the one who put the satin on your panties.
Love and condolences to his family and friends.
May Gregory ‘Shock G’ Jacobs rest in peace surrounded by the warm glow of the funk.
“In walks Vanessa”
The right stuff? Uh uh, not Vanessa with the singing career….