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Classic Albums: 'Sex Packets' by Digital Underground

Classic Albums: 'Sex Packets' by Digital Underground

DJ/producer Shock G formed Digital Underground in 1987 with Chopmaster J and Kenny-K; injecting the Bay Area-based rap group's music with a heavy dose of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic sound and anything-goes ethos.

Shock himself was born Gregory Jacobs in New York City and had moved around the East Coast with his family before eventually settling in Tampa. It was there he became interested in Hip-Hop and took on the name "Shah G" before eventually settling on "Shock G." The duo recorded the standalone single "Underwater Rimes" in 1988 as Digital Underground and became something of a sensation in the Bay Area rap scene.

"At around 23, I started to do less MCing and more playing," Shock told VIBE. "I learned from copying records for my bands. Playing instruments was something you didn’t see in hip-hop. And on top of that, I was a huge Prince fan. I loved that he did it all in the studio by himself."

Shock G initially envisioned Digital Underground as something topical and militant in voice and presentation, but as groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions became popular, he decided to take the group in a quirkier, more whimsical direction. "...Rimes" features Shock G rhyming as an aquatic emcee. The lyrics are comically irreverent, and established immediately that Digital Underground was a rap group that was cut from a different cloth.

quotes
I tried to mix a cut from a TV blooper/Got pulled by a deep sea state trooper/Told me that I didn't have the right to bite/I said, 'Your wife looks just like a fat blue grouper...'"

- "Underwater Rimes"

Shock and Chopmaster J eventually recruited a Hip-Hop duo known as Raw Fusion into their fledgling group. Raw Fusion’s Money B and Shock formed a potent combo on the mic; Money had a charming everyman quality that paired well with Shock’s sly maestro. The group independently released their single "Doowutchyalike" in 1989, and the song suddenly became a hit on rap radio. After landing a deal with Tommy Boy, the crew (which now included DJ Fuze, rappers Schmoovy Schmoov and a growing collective of rappers and musicians) set to work on their debut album.

Sex Packets is a brilliantly bizarre concept album that centers on a drug called "G.S.R.A. (Genetic Suppression Relief Antidotes)" that simulates sexual encounters. The album's funky sound was broad and ambitious, a testament to the group's diversity.

"Each individual has his own set of influences, from Jimi Hendrix to Erroll Garner via George Clinton, from hip-hop to doo-wop, from jazz and R&B to funk and rock,” Shock G said in 1989. “Sometimes we’ll combine any two, three or more styles and sometimes we’ll stick to just one. It depends on whoever is getting involved in the track. There’s often plenty of different things happening in our songs, but that doesn’t mean we’re not into the idea of doing a simple rap over a basic beat. We like doing real straight stuff, real hardcore stuff too.”

"Doowuchyalike" remains one of the best party tracks EVER: screwball, brilliant and undeniably funky.

Though the ubiquitous "Humpty Dance" would become the bigger crossover hit, "Doowuchyalike" represents the heart and soul of Sex Packets; an infectious and loveably fun single that established D.U.'s musical hallmarks early on. And the popular, cameo-heavy, pool party-set music video made stars of the group—and of Shock G's Humpty Hump alter-ego before that single dominated radio in the first half of 1990.

"The Way We Swing" is a loose track; a great way to introduce the group. D.U. makes it clear you might find it hard to define them; and on "Rhymin' On the Funk" Money B gets a showcase as the "regular guy" with a naughty sense of humor that complements Shock (and Humpty). "The New Jazz (One)" is an example of the musicality in Digital Underground, as they let Shock be Piano Man, showing again that they're an actual band. 

The spirit of George Clinton's P-Funk collective permeates almost every nook and cranny of Sex Packets, but Clinton's imprint isn't the only funk influence felt on the album. The title track explains the story in woozily psychedelic fashion, featuring a groove that is courtesy of Parliament's "Motor Booty Affair" and "Dr. Funkenstein," but also a brilliantly slowed-down sample of Prince's "She's Always In My Hair."

"Underwater Rimes" is remixed as more of a group effort on the album, with Money B showing up on the bridge to interrupt Shock's fish-themed raps over a flip of "Aquaboogie" by Parliament. And "Gutfest '89," with its "Crazy guts! Crazy guts!" hook is one of the album's most notorious and most musical infectious moments. The album's horndoginess is apparent from the title to the lyrics, and "Gutfest" wears it proudly. "Danger Zone" is a heavier anti-drug song that's more cautionary than empathetic, as they flip Steve Miller and Parliament into a seriously sinister West Coast groove.

But it would be bizarre theme song dedicated to a dance created by Shock G's alter ego that would put Sex Packets into orbit. Shock's love of P-Funk led to his adopting of numerous alter egos, the most famous of which would become Humpty Hump. Shock created a fictional biography for Humpty: born Edward Ellington Humphrey, he was a former soul singer who'd turned to rapping after a horrible accident permanently disfigured his nose.

Humpty Hump made his debut on "Doowuchyalike," but it was the second single from Sex Packets that made the character an icon. "The Humpty Dance" is an undeniable record, rooted in Shock's ever-present P-Funk fetish and zany sense of humor.

Released at the top of the year, "The Humpty Dance" reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 en route to becoming one of the most inescapable hits of 1990.

Money B steals the show on the Dolemite-referencing "Freaks Of the Industry." Over a chopped Donna Summer flip, yet another good example of that playfully raunchy, quasi-P Funk thing that Shock does so well. And the jocular "Packet Man" explains just how potent these packets are, over a flip of Fred Wesley's "Four Play," but doesn't show up until the end of the album.

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Sex Packets warrants more mention as one of Hip-Hop's greatest concept albums; and that concept is outlandishly perfect. It all holds together remarkably well, though It tends to get overshadowed by other legendary albums from that period like De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising  and Paul's Boutique by Beastie Boys, but it's every bit as brilliant a record. 

“I didn’t want just bubblegum, fun and games with ‘Humpty’ to just be Digital’s only legacy,” Shock told Rolling Stone in 2017. Sex Packets is a musical testament to Shock G's vision, and the debut album from D.U. would become a landmark release of the early 1990s; further establishing the growing popularity of West Coast Hip-Hop. With its combination of samples and live instrumentation, all highlighting the group's jazz and funk affectations, Sex Packets established the sonic hallmarks of producer Shock G, and after the smash success of hit single "The Humpty Dance," turned Digital Underground, Shock G and Humpty Hump into superstars. 

But it was just the first chapter in the lengthy history of Shock G. The group would a young Tupac Shakur in the months after Sex Packets release, and would drop the critically-acclaimed This Is An EP release as a quickie follow-up. Shock would go on to become one of Hip-Hop's most revered producers, helming Pac's first solo album and executive producing for D.U. affiliates like Gold Mind and Raw Fusion. His untimely death in 2021 was a shock and stunned so many of D.U.'s fans, but the legacy of Sex Packets remains. So does the brilliance of Gregory Jacobs' unique artistry.

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