Shock G of Digital Underground eschewed grand theft auto for a career in the music industry
Not Just Knee Deep (Part 2)
Wax Poetics: So when you were young, Shock, what did you imagine yourself doing or being when you were older?
Shock G: I wanted to own a big, huge underground car [theft] ring that would specialize in Ferraris and Porsches. And like on TV, if you were running from the cops, you could hit a switch in your car and a piece of the mountain would flap open. You drive in and it flaps back, and the cops go right by because it doesn’t look like anything. Then down there it would be all high-tech, people working on the cars, blue and candy-apple-green Lamborghinis everywhere—my imagination was a little crazy.
Until I went to jail for the final time. I got six months once for grand theft auto, and I’d been in jail for stealing cars enough. This time it had built up, and I almost went to prison when I was nineteen years old.
Music wasn’t a reality to us. Those people were magic; they came from Magicland. But I always did music and always had a music job. We always had a gig, whether it was my band or my DJ crew. Then we would get into talent shows, just because it was fun at school, and I started racking up first-place trophies: “Most Talented,” “Winner of Art Competition.” But I always felt like you go to school to learn somebody else’s style. Why would I go to school to learn it? I thought that the dopest people who I liked never went to school. When I was a kid, my favourites were George Clinton, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, and they just did it. Speaking of Herbie—oooohhhh [plays Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”]—“Chameleon,” when that came out? How did he make that sound? Some of the keyboards in that record were so ahead of its time. And everybody credits “Flashlight,” including me. I was one of those people running around promoting “Flashlight” as the first song where people use synthesizers instead of a bass guitar. Nope. Come to think of it, Herbie Hancock, that shit right there. “Chameleon,” 1974. [plays piano] Same sound that producers are using now, he was using in ’74. Hoo, hoo, hoo! Herbie’s an alien. An extraterrestrial.
Are you a fan of Sun Ra at all?
I don’t really know him. But I like the fact that he looks like George Clinton and has the big mob of homeless people with him. For most of the groups I like, the artists I love actually, a song spoke to me first. I loved it and found out who it was. I’ve never discovered that something I love is Sun Ra, but I like his personality. I read about him and I like his whole nutcase approach.
I like that. Being led by the music rather than the person.
I saw pictures of him and documentaries and people making a big deal, and he looks all spaced-out. But I went and listened to the music, and the music wasn’t psychedelic like his image was.
It wasn’t like Bitches Brew; it was like show-time jazz. [breaks into a little jazz ditty] Just like that. It was real disciplined, it wasn’t loose. As loose as he claims he is. I guess the same could be said about Digital Underground. I consider myself an open-minded person, but I’m a shy person, my whole life. “Gregory come sing for the adults!” My mom would make me come into the living room and sing for everybody when I was four or five. [sings Stevie Wonder “Uptight”] I didn’t want to, she would just interrupt me. I wanted to finish whatever I was doing, building something with paper or whatever.
So it was the same when I made a song and Chopmaster J sent it to someone he knew. He called me at work one day and was like, “Greg, check this out. My friend Darryl, he produces Barry White and Cherelle and Alexander O’Neil, and he wants to put you in the studio and put a record out, but you got to put me in the group.” I worked in a music store selling keyboards, and was like, “Yeah, sure, I gotta go… I got someone on the line.” I was just doing my job. I’d done music all of my life and had never got close to anyone in the industry. I could never get to that stage, never won a deal for sending in tapes to those shows like Polygram. Even when people cheered for us most at the end, it was like: “How many people like Master Blasters?” “Haaaaaa!” We got a roar. “Jesus Saviors and the Gospel Men?” “huuuhhhuh…” And then they would win. The gospel group. I knew it was all rigged. I didn’t understand it.
Then, as well my father is very business oriented, he climbed from the bottom to the top just by studying and working hard. So that’s what he believed in and was always saying, “What are you going to do? You can’t just sit around.” I was like, “Maybe I’ll draw a cartoon for a newspaper or play in a band or something.” “Music? You don’t want to get into that. There’s no money in it. All those guys are strung out and nothing but drugs.” I was like, “No money in it?” This made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. I said, “Rick James makes more in one show that you do all year. What do you mean there’s no money in it?” “Rick James? Rick James??! Gregory, Rick James and Michael Jackson, those people you see on TV? Those are special, blessed people. If you had that kind of talent, we’d know about it by now. Now go clean your room!” And I knew I couldn’t say anything when he was in that zone; you can’t even say, “But, but.” I just had to walk away, but I knew better. I knew that it was just people who did that instead. I mean, maybe Michael Jackson, but the rest of it…
But back to the store that I worked at. So Jimi [Chopmaster J] was one of my customers. I was tutoring him and teaching him how to do things. I sold him a $5,000 home recording studio, and it was my dream setup that I could never afford. I only used to use it at work in between customers, so I got like four bars of a song done at work in two years. But tutoring him, I was able to record “Underwater Rimes” and “Your Life’s a Cartoon.” Just to send to my little brother and hip-hoppers back east, not to enter in any contest or for the public. I was fifteen years tired of that, and I’d started to believe my father a little bit. So when Jimi said, “You got to put me in the group and split everything 50/50,” and “They wanna put us in the studio in L.A.,” I was like, “Ah yeah, sure, whatever, I gotta go.” Two weeks later, we went to L.A., and the dude was serious.
You see what happened is, I was making my music at [Jimi’s] house, and then leaving the master tapes and the four tracks. He took it, made his own mix-down, and sent it to his friend in L.A., with dreams of being big. That’s how Jimi is; he’s just real status and material. Which is cool, we needed that. He was the one who would introduce us to managers and things like that.
So we went to L.A. and recorded some stuff for Capitol Records, and that fell apart. Then we were recording for Car City Records about a year later, and that fell apart. Every time we were about to press the records up, something else happened. Bad luck shit, like the owner of the studio got arrested for crack or Reggie Jackson’s car collection burnt down. The baseball player’s brother was like the black sheep and had a start-up label, just trying to do something with his life, like, “How do you start this so-called record company?” And his famous brother was funding him. When Reggie Jackson went through some crises and his car collection burnt down, he just abandoned his brother. So that was the second time. Too many times, I came back to Thanksgiving in New York or Christmas in Tampa, like, “I got a record coming out!” After a while, my family would just go “mmm” and smile or look down. “Well, your father’s got work at IBM…” It was so embarrassing when I had to go beg for my job back at the record store. By the time we got to TNT Records, I was like, “I’m going to wait this time before I start making these announcements…”
“Underwater Rimes” came out, and it was number one in Amsterdam, and I think number eleven in London on the rap charts or some kind of dance or underground chart. We were doing okay in the States. In the ’80s and ’90s, if you could sell twenty thousand records in your local city independent, not the trunk of your car or whatever, that translated to growing and a big record company would support you. We sold eighteen thousand. We were shy a couple thousand, but it was enough that Tommy Boy signed us. We did the first video, and I still didn’t say anything. So one Christmas, I call home and I’m talking to my cousin, and he’s like, “Such and such, yeah, he’s doing okay and da-da-da… Greg, I want to ask you something… Are you Humpty??” “Yeah, that’s me.” “God damn!!! Greg, Greg! It’s Greg!!!!! He’s Humpty, oh God!! I knew it was you ’cause of the teeth—I knew it was your teeth, boy!”
How did that feel?
Oh, it felt good. It felt good, but, you know, it also…
Yeah, it was bittersweet. I saw it coming before that. We had NWA’s road manager managing us, and we were distributing “Underwater Rimes.” It was real before that. But the record wasn’t a hit in New York or Florida. So to my family, I was fooling myself or just in a fantasy world that I’m in the music industry, even though I said I had a record and had sent them copies of it. But that was fun when they discovered that.
You mention Humpty. How seriously did you take it back then, keeping the mystery of whether it was you, Shock, or Humpty?
That was fun. George Clinton used to use his anonymousness to keep paparazzi and record company people off of him when he didn’t want to answer to them. People used to wonder like, “Which one is George Clinton? He’s either Starchild or Sir Nose…” You never really got a good look at him. So I had that game as well. I was really entertained by Andy Kaufman having two or three characters too; I always thought that was funny. My mom used to tell me about all the Saturday Night Live cast, how they would fool the [company] president and sometimes come in dressed a certain way to scare NBC. I liked the practical joke thing. I didn’t plan it. I get a lot of credit; people are like, “Shock is genius—he got Humpty for this, and Shock G for the…” But it just evolved.
There was a point when the whole group were like, “Wait, wait, wait—you don’t look all the way Humpty yet—let me see—the pants! The pants ain’t Humpty. Better pants, better pants. Yeah, all right. I think he should go in with two girls, you need another girl.” I’m like, “I don’t know if I should. I don’t know anybody… Cassandra’s mad at me…” And they’d be like, “Okay, fuck it, take La’Tonya. La’Tonya, go with him.” And La’Tonya would be his wife. But Humpty had to look right, because that was the image, and everybody was in on it. It was so fun to do that I just would do it. Not so much for business purpose, and not so much for artistic purpose, but it was just so much fun. It was like having the Joker in my pocket.
Then I started realizing how lucky I was to have this band member who doesn’t complain, who I don’t get the extra plane ticket for, and is always in the studio anytime I need him. Who I can pay, but keep his money… So on paper: “We got to split this four ways: T. Shakur, Money B, G. Jacobs, E. Humphrey,” because Humpty’s verse counted; it mattered.
Nobody in the group had a problem with that. It was just me being stupid splitting the money up, my share was the same.
I hear that. Are your various alter egos different sides to your personality? Or just characters you created?
They’re just characters, usually patterned behind real people I know in regular life. Just like Woody Harrelson’s not a natural born killer, or Jim Carrey’s not the Mask, I’m not Humpty. My home life is really quiet and simple. And boring probably.
Read Part 3.
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