Digital Underground frontman Shock G went from music-store clerk to rap superstar/alter ego Humpty Hump

Not Just Knee Deep (Part 1)

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Digital Underground's Shock G at six years old

Digital Underground’s Shock G at six years old. Photo courtesy of Shock G.

“Be peaceful and enjoy your time on Earth as much and as often as you can. The more you do, the more it becomes you.” –Shock G

Some people in this world are true originals. And though we may all possess the potential to carve out beautifully unique identities, there are a few who manage to channel their inner beings to distinctly magnified proportions.

From the way he writes, raps, and plays piano to the tips of however he styles his ’fro, Gregory Jacobs, aka Shock G, is a class A original. Whether clowning around under the guise of one of his many personas, or just going about his day-to-day business, Jacob’s radiates creative flair and good humor: “You can ask any girl who’s spent the night at my place; I make the bed up a different way every time I do it.” Oh, Shock-tart!

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Jacobs’s early years were spent on the East Coast. He lived for most of his childhood in Tampa, Florida, but at age twelve moved back to New York with his mother. “Life got funky” again for him being in New York at a time when early movements in hip-hop were being made. But after causing too much mischief in Manhattan when he should have been in school in Queens, he was shipped back to Tampa to live with his father, just two years later in ’78.

Though Jacobs had a tendency to get into trouble growing up, he was always musically active, whether entering talent contests, playing shows, making tapes to share with friends, or playing jazz standards to busk on the streets. Notably influenced by free-thinking innovators such as George Clinton and Herbie Hancock, Jacobs’s approach to making his own music became similarly creative, playful, and experimental. For a time, he even used the moniker “MC Starchild,” a nod towards Parliament’s “Mothership Connection.” This was until he was named “Shah-G” at thirteen by his cousin Shah-T of the Queens group No-Face. “Shah-G” became “Shock G,” which Jacobs kept when he relocated back to Tampa and founded the Master Blasters crew.

Years later, Jacobs decided to settle in the Bay Area, moving to Oakland and making the West Coast his home. He found work in a local music equipment store, regularly serving customers such as Too Short, and it was during this time that he established Digital Underground with Chopmaster J and Kenny-K.

After several disappointments trying to make it in the music industry, they finally had success distributing “Your Life’s a Cartoon” b/w “Underwater Rimes” independently in ’88. And as a result, Digital Underground landed a deal with Tommy Boy Records. Their now classic 1990 debut Sex Packets reached platinum sales, and featured singles such as “Doowutchyalike” and “The Humpty Dance.”

Surprisingly, “The Humpty Dance” was a last-minute addition to Sex Packets, only coming into the picture after another song, “Underground System,” was pulled for sample-clearing difficulties. Nevertheless, the song was a hit and made a household name of Shock’s most notorious alter ego, the nasal-toned, prosthetic-nosed, and wildly attired Humpty Hump.

In fact, Shock states that “both Humpty and Tupac came along after we recorded that album. That’s why neither appear in the cover photo.” For as well as for the outlandish antics of Humpty Hump, Digital Underground are well known for launching the meteoric career of Tupac Shakur.

After Sex Packets, Digital Underground went on to release both This Is an EP Release and Sons of the P in ’91, working with George Clinton for part of the latter. In ’93 came The Body-Hat Syndrome, followed by Future Rhythm in ’96, Who Got the Gravy? in ’98, The Lost Files in ’99, and the final Digital Underground recording, ..Cuz a D.U. Party Don’t Stop!, in 2008. These days, Shock continues to work on music and play shows—“That never stops,” he says, though has spent recent years high above the City of Angels up at the top of Topanga Canyon.

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It was George Clinton who turned me on to Digital Underground. The original Starchild himself citing their use of P-Funk samples as one of his personal favourites was what led me to dig into the Digital Underground discography. Similar to P-Funk in their balance of funk rhythms, food for thought, and just the right amount of filthy, I was converted as I learned first-hand how listening to the Digital Underground oeuvre can mess up your mind (in the right way.)

So, I caught up with Shock from his Mount Olympus–like retreat, hearing stories from his childhood, music career, and musings on life, as he scored our conversation with piano at hand. Within minutes of getting on the line, I could hear the recognizable lead-in to a song that introduced a certain West Coast icon to the world…

 

Shock G: So by the time I got to “I Get Around,” I’m the lowest voice on there, and I mixed it! I was so afraid that I was cheating myself loud, that I cheated myself quieter than Money B or Tupac. Crazy, huh? It goes, [raps quietly] “You can tell from my everyday fits, I ain’t rich/ So cease and desist with them tricks/ I’m just another Black man … the one who put the satin on your panties.” Then it comes in strong from Money B with “What’s up, Love? How you doing?”

Wax Poetics: I love your verse on that song though.

Shock G: Thank you. I mean, I like my tone. It was a nice ride in there, and I think I wasn’t too cocky or not confident enough. But to play no volume, my voice was low and you had to strain to hear it when you listened. Tupac’s verse: “Fingertips on her hips as I get a tight grip/ I love the way she lick her lips/ See me watching…” I like the chasing the chick all around the tennis court, because you don’t see Pac clown like that. Especially from that point on…life got him.

Wax Poetics: I read your open letter in defense of George Clinton, and I think it is very astute how you link the “free your mind and your ass will follow” message to your discussion of Tupac and Puff Daddy and their backgrounds.

Shock G: I thought that was a good one too, like I snuck and got one in for the team. Usually you can’t talk about death in any other way than “Tupac was honorable and didn’t do anything wrong.” Fuck that. If Pac had the same parents and upbringing, the same settled household, and the same support and consistency that Diddy had, then he wouldn’t have felt the way he did. It’s not what we’re born with even; it’s what you’re born with.

It seems the ones who do in this world are the ones whose parents said, “Come on, you can do it,” with a pat on the back. I think Jay-Z’s and Diddy’s moms were like, “You can do it, baby, you’re so talented.” Afeni [Shakur]’s the same way, she’s a beautiful woman. She’s so supportive, but she wasn’t around; she was in jail for freedom fighting.

So Pac had those eyes, and my mother described it best. On the set of the “Same Song” video in ’90, she was like, “Who’s that guy right there?” “Oh right there in the shirt? That’s Tupac, he’s new.” She said, “Watch him, Gregory; he has that look. He has that look like a star, like he wants it.”

But then she used to say, “Is he crazy? Is your friend crazy? I don’t want you hanging out with him anymore, Gregory!” This was in ’94, when he was out and away from Digital Underground. I remember I was getting married and told my mother and father about it, and she said, “Is you friend going to be there?” So I was like, “Who? Tupac? I hope so. He’s very busy, but I invited him.” She said, “Are you going to have a metal detector there?” I was like, “Ma, he’s not like that around us.” So Pac turned up and surprised us; he didn’t give me a heads-up he was coming. He showed up with about eleven or twelve cats, and my family members just loved him. My mother came to me afterward and said, “He’s a beautiful man, Gregory. I see what you mean; he’s decent.”

So it switched over the years to “Is your friend crazy??” and then it switched back to her loving him. In the middle, I was fed up and like, “Ma, he had a rough time.” She said, “I know, Gregory. You know how I know? He has those eyes that little kids give you in the grocery store when they’re not getting love at home, and they’re like, “Will you save me? Will you take me home? Will you feed me?” But they’re not allowed to say anything, and they look at you a little too long.” She said Pac had those eyes when she first was around him.

Wax Poetics: That’s very deep and perceptive. 

Shock G: He kinda did, like, “Will you believe in me?” It wasn’t that Pac’s family didn’t love him, of course, but he was born into a warzone.

Wax Poetics: In that article, you depict Tupac and Puff Daddy’s worlds—how would you describe the world that Shock G came from?

Shock G: My preferred, comfortable state of mind is confident, trust, and happy. But it’s not my only state. I also have that stern Virgo side; I’m anxious to be accepted and for people to know what I’m about. More than is necessary, I hang on other peoples’ thoughts of me. That hurts or slows me sometimes.

Gregory (Shock G) and Kent Jacobs, 1969

Gregory (Shock G) and Kent Jacobs, 1969. Photo courtesy of Shock G.

Growing up? Dad’s family: Huxtables, Bill Cosby. Mom’s family: Good Times, Thelma Evans. So that’s why I say, “Daddy from the ’burbs, Mommy from the ’hood—growing up I wasn’t sure if I’m supposed to speak well or dance good…” But that’s how it was. The majority of my years were spent with my mom and dad at home, but they divorced when I was about twelve years old. Up until twelve, I had a pretty normal, American phase, with a little back and forth. My mother wasn’t the type of person to let us be middle class. She always said, “I don’t like him going to the school where there aren’t other Black kids; he’s not going to that school.” She made sure I went to mixed schools, even when we were in a neighborhood where I would have gone to a predominantly White school. She also made sure that we stayed in touch with people who didn’t live in the neighborhoods we lived in. I see in hindsight that a lot of times the babysitters she picked for us were so we didn’t lose touch relating to the ’hood. My mom was from Brooklyn, and she was a tough woman. She could walk down Broadway or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at two in the morning, coming home from some place…

Wax Poetics: What did your mum do? What was her thing?

Shock G: First, she was happily a housewife. My dad made enough money and didn’t want her to work. That was what was going around in the ’50s and ’60s, and that’s when she grew up. She took a lot of pride in being a homemaker, but her dream was television. She liked music, but she’s not musically inclined, it jumped over her somehow. My grandmother’s the singer and the jazzy person, and she taught me “Round Midnight.” [plays “Round Midnight” interlude] But my mother really had a passion for the arts and said, “Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be in front of the camera; I would like to be a camera operator.”

So she was going to school, and my dad tried to talk her out of it all of the time, but she didn’t let him. Eventually, when we were all old enough to take care of ourselves, she started working. She worked here and there, and my dad hated it. He just talked her out of her love of behind-the-scenes cameras and all of that. So when she divorced his ass, and bounced with the kids to New York, she followed through on her dreams and took the courses that she wanted to take. It took her two or three years, but eventually she got a job at ABC.

We were living with my grandmother and life got funky again. I’m twelve/thirteen years old and loving it. But by the end of those years, my grades had slumped so bad, because in New York you can’t really pay attention to the class without being picked on.

There are usually three kids at the front of the class with their desks facing the teacher. Everybody else as soon as the bell rings would re-arrange the desks so we could get our card game going, or over here they’re playing bounce the ball. There were about four White kids in our class, and those were usually the ones that were sitting up front. The rest of us? The Puerto Rocks and the brothers, we were all broken into our usual groups of whatever we were doing. I was at a table of cartoon drawers. Sometimes I would sit at the bounce-the-ball table or the cards table, but I was usually in the comic-book huddle. That’s how school was, and if you were in those three people up front, you got shit thrown at the back of your head all day.

School in New York back then in the ’70s, the teacher was afraid to talk to us. Some of the kids would talk to the teachers like, “Bitch, what you say to me? I’ll beat your ass.” I was raised and old enough to know not to do that, but I was young enough to be entertained by it, so I got sucked into that. We would check into homeroom and get the credit for being there, and then take our train passes and spend the whole day in Manhattan just running around and looking at stuff. From record spots to going to Forty-Second Street to fuck with the hoes. We were real young.

Wax Poetics: What age were you by then?

Shock G: Twelve and thirteen. And the prostitutes were weird to us; we weren’t looking for them. We were looking at sneakers. Hanging downtown was just a pit-stop, but it was enough that pretty soon I got charged for failure to appears, and eventually mom shipped me back to my daddy.

But while she was in camera school, she got a job as a receptionist at NBC. She was working towards being a camera operator, but she was at least up in the building.

When we went back to live with my dad, I remember one night she called and said, “Greg, stay up late tonight and watch this new show, you’re going to love it. It’s called Saturday Night Live. It’s this new show I’m working on.” So at the audition, she was the one sitting there like, “Okay, they’ll see you now.” She tells me all these stories about Bill Murray, John Belushi, and all them and how “they’re crazy.” She said they were throwing spit balls on the wall and cracking her up, all the comedians that came in to try out for the show that later became that first cast.

So she saw her dream, and then after about four or five years of living in New York, she bounced to L.A. for a job opportunity. She left NBC and went to ABC, and she became a part of the televised Olympic committee. That’s when she got her “happily ever after” story. The president of ABC used to stop by her desk and ask her out almost every day, and she used to look at him like he was crazy. She dated a couple of cool cats after my father, and they always let her down. Musicians too, and that’s when she learned all she taught me about the business. “Do not leave your wife in the room alone with anybody, even if you trust them, Gregory.” I wouldn’t believe her. “A female sheep in the room with any of them!” And she was right about that.

So this square White dude comes along. My mother is a Cancer—Cancers are very material and safety oriented—so she was like, “You like me? You want to take me out? I don’t see nothing, what?” So the next time Herb stopped by her desk, he stopped by with a ring and he said, “I like you, I want to take you out.” Just from watching my mother interact with people in the office. My mother said, “Well, that’s a sweet gesture, I couldn’t accept this.” But she said that he got the point. She didn’t take the ring but they went out on a few dates, and a year or two later they were married. She’s still married to him. They live on a golf course in San Diego, and they’re retired finally so they’re not running around. That’s her happily ever after story.

We hated it when she first married him, because we were seventeen-year-old hip-hop African Americans, so we were like, “Ma? Him? Ugh, if you’re going to marry someone White, can’t you marry like a cool White boy??” We would rather her have been with an Eminem or a Justin Timberlake.

Wax Poetics: That’s funny!

Shock G: At basketball and birthday parties and everything, in comes her walking up with him and we’re all embarrassed in front of our other Black friends or whatever. But as it turns out, we grew to love Herb. It only took a couple of Christmases visiting. After a while, you can’t help but love him. He’s like an Obama, except a White version.

So that washed racism clear out of my blood. I never was a racist, but I used to play the game of play your sides. I thought I had a side. There’s only one side: a good side. It’s the good people versus the assholes, period. That’s how I feel. It’s not nationality. Animals as well, the ones who come and pee in the bush are assholes.

Back to Florida though. Mom shipped us back to live with Dad, but it was too late. I already had that bug in me; I already was the kid who skipped school. When I got to Tampa, I just fell right in with those kids again. I wasn’t stupid; I passed the tests and got an A or a B, whatever the class. Whether I studied or not, because most of what they taught in school, I caught at home or on TV or in life somewhere. I always paid attention. And my grandfather was very verbal about informing us, just about fun stuff all through the day, wherever we were. Driving through Manhattan or Brooklyn, anywhere, “You see that, Greg and Kent, right there? That’s the Kosciuszko Bridge, built in 1920. It was to connect the Jewish workforce on one side of the Queens Bay River.” And he’d tell us the history of why it was built. “You see that guy walking right there? That’s called a Hasidic Jew, orthodox Jewish, the reason he wears those clothes…” My grandfather was such a cool dude that it didn’t bother us, and he made it sound interesting. “You see that right there, Greg and Kent? It’s funny, in the 1950s, that didn’t exist.” My grandfather was just like that, he loved us to death.

My dad was nothing special growing up, no college, he was just a hard worker who read the books, went by the code and did what you’re supposed to do. He worked real hard and a job opportunity is what bounced us to Florida from New York when I was about six years old. And he became one of them brothers. My dad was like a Colin Powell.

His father was a Bed-Stuy Brooklyn Black Mason, and used to work laying the tracks. He said the electric trail blew him twelve feet once when he touched it by accident and he woke up on the other side of the platform. He had to be there at seven, and he would get up at five to drive to the Bronx from Brooklyn anytime the weather was bad to take my grandmother’s friend to work, an older lady who had hurt her leg and had to walk with a cane. He didn’t really know her, but back then all the girls played bridge on Fridays and she was one of my grandmother’s bridge buddies, and that’s all it took. Every morning until he died actually, if it was raining or snowing or cold, he would drive all the way to the Bronx to drive her to work so she didn’t have to walk with her cane in the snow.

Wax Poetics: That’s so decent.

Shock G: That’s the kind of dude he was. So growing up, I feel like I got twenty-five per cent of the Shawn Carter/Diddy New York ’hood in me, but then the other seventy-five per cent is more like Bill Cosby/Huxtable.

Continued in Part 2…

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