Like their forebears Parliament-Funkadelic, DU was a loose collective with singers, rappers, musicians, producers, dancers and artists coming in and out as suited. The most famous alum is Tupac, who was on stage demonstrating the Humpty Dance on his way to becoming a rap icon. Other key members of the crew include rapper Ron "Money-B" Brooks, DJ David "Fuze" Elliott, and Jimi "Chopmaster J" Dright.
There's no doubt that Shock G was the creative mastermind of the group - the primary rapper, beatmaker, songwriter, piano man and visual artist (he drew their funkadocious album art), but Chopmaster J was his equal partner on the business side and also had a creative role, adding drums and other elements to various tracks.
Shock G now performs as a solo act, and Chopmaster, who snarfed up the trademark, has put together a new iteration of the group called Digital Underground Next Generation and is working on a documentary called D.U. Days: Adventures in Digital Underground. He took us through the history of the group and explained why the new version will be humpin', even without Shock.
Chopmaster J (Jimi): My role in Digital Underground were multiple roles. Shock and I met at a music store initially when I went in to purchase a bunch of gear to try to bring myself into the twentieth century with recording. I grew up playing jazz and bebop, playing drums and stuff, and I wanted to get into recording so I went in to purchase a bunch of MIDI gear [Musical Instrument Digital Interface].
I would provide a studio situation for us to record some songs that Shock had. We recorded songs called "Your Life's a Cartoon" and "Underwater Rimes." And from there I went into being an executive producer by going out and getting monies from my father and others to have us go into the studio for real and go record it.
In addition to that, I was going out and getting the other guys – Money-B, Fuze and others - to come and be a part of the group. I also took our song that we had on cassette at the time and went around as a radio promoter and promoted it at all different college and community radio stations. That led us to being broken on a power station that's called KMEL.
Songfacts: What song was this on the cassette?
Jimi: This was "Your Life's a Cartoon."
Songfacts: And this is in Oakland?
Jimi: Yeah, in Oakland/San Francisco Bay area.
Songfacts: So you've got the enormous challenge of trying to get this song from a group nobody's ever heard of on the air. How did you did that?
Jimi: Well, it was an interesting time because hip-hop was definitely new in the Bay area. It had been hot in New York, and there were hits here and there out of a Los Angeles situation, but I had to go to community radio stations as well as college radio. So, with Cal Berkeley around there, with Stanford out in Palo Alto and things like that, I was able to successfully get on those hip-hop shows that would be on once a week with people like Davey D in Berkeley over at KPFA and KALX from Cal Berkeley. KPFA is the community station which is most famously known for being the place where the SLA, who kidnapped Patty Hearst in the '70s, used to have those tapes played on that station. That's a really famous station for community radio.
In 1988, KMEL had a show called "Kiss It or Diss It" and they played it on the air and people "kissed" it, they liked it, and so we were put into a light rotation over at KMEL, which also led us to being the local act that got to open up for the national acts' tours that would come through, or the ones that were sponsored by the radio station. So, we ended up opening up for Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, for Tone Loc and things like that.
So, I was radio promoter and then I had the task of going out and shopping it and getting a deal for it. I ended up getting a deal for it with a label called TNT Records, which was a company fired up by a friend of mine named Rodney Franklin and his partner Atron Gregory. Rodney Franklin was a Columbia Records artist that had several jazz recordings. I grew up in the jazz program in Berkeley, California and Rodney was the elder statesman who inspired me to play music. Atron at the time was Tour Manager for JJ Fad from Ruthless Records, and he went on to be tour manager for N.W.A during that wonderful N.W.A Straight Outta Compton period.
So Shock and I ended up doing a deal with TNT, and Daria Kelly, a friend of mine at Leopold's Records in Berkeley, a very popular record store, sent our 12-inch to friends of hers in New York. Daria was a 12-inch buyer for Leopold's - her friend in New York would send her East Coast vinyl and Daria would send her West Coast vinyl hip-hop. You've got to remember back in that time the only person really making records out of the Bay Area was Too $hort and eventually MC Hammer.
Daria's friend worked for Tommy Boy as an intern, and she brought our 12-inch in over at Tommy Boy. At the time, De La Soul was popping over there and De La Soul heard our record and loved it. Dante Ross, the guy who signed De La Soul and Queen Latifah and others over there, they signed us to a 12-inch deal and we did a song called "Doowutchyalike."
When we sang "Doowutchyalike," we'd be throwing our confetti and Pac would be throwing balloons out as I'm jacking off champagne in the crowd. It was a wild party, and we represented fun. So from that point, it got to be a fun thing.
We came back and that summer we were finishing up our Sex Packets album. Atron had been friends with a lady named Leila Steinberg, who was manager of a club in Santa Rosa. There was a group called Strictly Dope that she liked a lot and was trying to manage. She wanted us to record with this group because they had a young man named Tupac Shakur that she became quite fond of.
Shock was too busy trying to put the finishing mix on "Humpty Dance," which we were trying to meet a deadline for the Sex Packets album, so when Leila sent Strictly Dope over to audition for us at the studio - we were recording out of Starlight in Richmond – Shock passed, since he did not want to stress himself by trying to take on too many tasks. They asked me if I would do it, and at that point I went in and I produced the earliest recordings that are on the group Strictly Dope with Tupac on them.
So I got into being a producer as well, because I was co-producing and playing drums and programming drums on the Digital Underground stuff, as well as doing character vocal things – we did a lot of character vocals – and I mixed a lot of those songs. So, when you asked what I did, I did a multitude of things. I was everywhere from the studio to the boardroom handling the business. I was like a Diddy in terms of a performing, executive producer, manager, babysitter. I did everything and it's quite an unsung position because people don't necessarily recognize a lot of those intangible things that you end up doing to make something happen. The talent is obvious, but it takes so many great things to get people to be able to hear that and for that to get into position.
It was a team effort. Shock and I were 50-50 partners on Digital Underground and we had a lot of fun and a lot of success very quickly, which also meant we weren't prepared for certain things that came our way, like offers. It was that really trippy period where hip-hop was getting that corporate acknowledgement. Personally, I wanted to go all the way with everything: jello pudding, bubble gum, Sprite, Doritos. 20th Century Fox wanted to do Sex Packets: The Movie and Shock in his artistry and trying to remain true to the culture of hip-hop decided that he didn't want to do any of those things.
Songfacts: This is really interesting because it is so unlike the current culture of hip-hop, which is to go after the money and get as many deals as you possibly can.
Jimi: Well, the fact of the matter is, African Americans for the most part in this country have always introduced a lot of the culture that permeates through the world.
The reason hip-hop has been even more potent than the other art forms – jazz, gospel, R&B, rock and roll – is because up to the advent of YO! MTV Raps, this is one of the first times that black folks got to sell their music directly to the audience, uncut, raw and right in their living rooms. If you look at a lot of early records from rock and roll, they might have a beautiful Caucasian woman sitting on a beach for a Temptations album cover, or something of that nature.
We got to sell our music directly to the people, and that was very powerful. It shows how powerful it is when the very first people that you really do see are Flavor Flav or LL Cool J or Run-DMC. You didn't see Eminem first to represent the culture. But back in the day you saw Elvis first representing rock and roll, and in jazz you saw Benny Goodman before you saw Duke Ellington. It plays a role.
So, yes, we were able to knock down a lot of corporate doors and gain acceptance in the culture. Kids loved that Flavor Flav was something they could emulate directly, immediately. And it's had an everlasting effect - now you see Colonel Sanders rapping on a chicken commercial.
Songfacts: It seems like there was a very "anything goes" attitude with Digital Underground that later caused some problems, but at the time must have contributed to your sound.
Jimi: Absolutely. Shock washed ashore in the Bay area. He's from New York but he ended up growing up in Tampa Bay, Florida. I'm born and raised in Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco Bay Area in Berkeley has always been this place of eclecticism, from the Free Speech movement to the Black Panther movement to the Women's Liberation movement - all those things were birthed one mile from each other in the San Francisco Bay Area in the '60s. And then you also have all of the different music: Santana, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone. It a very eclectic area that doesn't get enough credit for all the things that have been birthed there.
I think it was Hemingway who said there are three great cities in the United States: New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. And everywhere else is Cleveland. I don't know that to be true, but it was a very important part of us coming up with our sound.
Initially we wanted to be the Black Panthers of hip-hop. We looked up and there was Public Enemy, so we couldn't do that one. Then we wanted to be the hippie cats, and we looked up and De La Soul had the daisy emblem and were being marketed as that. So we just decided to be ourselves, which was an eclectic blend. Our first single, "Underwater Rimes," which was the B-Side of "Your Life's a Cartoon," was a blend of "Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock and "Aqua Boogie" by George Clinton and the Parliament - it was some really trippy stuff. "Your Life's a Cartoon" was some Henry Mancini Pink Panther theme that we rocked over a funky jazz hip-hop swing beat and then with Shock rapping some political/social agenda.
It turned out to be something that was very different, and that's why we were probably the first West Coast group signed to an East Coast label. Because back then, East Coast didn't take West Coast seriously for hip-hop at all, and we were taken seriously amongst them and were able to make a lot of different things happen.
Plus, Shock puts on the nose. He's the brown Groucho Marx with the nose and the cigar, and that reached out to whole 'nother demographic. We were talking about fun: do what you like, anarchy, just have a great time. And that stuff was very, very welcome. It's needed now in hip-hop. There needs to be some things that are just, "Wave your hands in the air and party like you just don't care." We were like the last part of that golden era of hip-hop that celebrated party and fun, and I'm glad to have been a part of that.
Songfacts: You guys came up with a very specific sound which was that kind of swirling bassline. How did you guys come up with that?
Jimi: The heaviest influences we had was the funk of the '70s, primarily promoted and inspired by George Clinton and Parliament. And the funk was all about the bass and the party. So it was always a search for the funkiest, newest sound - the lowest end that you could get to reverberate and rock the car speakers as well as the club.
That initial thing was done when we sampled "Let's Play House" by George Clinton for "Humpty Dance." Then we were kind of arguing about something when a loop of the bass ended up getting stuck in a sequencer, and it was a wonderful, beautiful mistake. It kind of locked in there when we had too much MIDI gear hooked up and too many things going at once where that bass was being played... I'm giving up some secrets. But the bottom line is that that ended up looping in a way that was something we hadn't heard before and quite honestly no one's ever been able to duplicate since.
It was a wonderful, beautiful accident that looped us right into the #1 spot. "The Humpty Dance" ended up being one of the fastest-selling songs in pop history. It's up in there with "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, "We Are The World" by Quincy Jones, and Tone Loc's "Wild Thing." Ours sold faster. Didn't sell the most, but it was the fastest-selling single, period.
Sometimes the best things are a mistake. We were jazz inspired as well, and in jazz accidents happen and it's called innovation.
Songfacts: Let's go back to when you took this first trip to Berlin. Was it just a one-off show or was it a whole tour?
Jimi: It was a one-off show.
Songfacts: OK, so you did this show in Berlin, but at this point the only material that you've recorded is that first single and "Doowutchyalike." What else do you have?
Jimi: Well, we had worked out a show, and back then we'd do what's famously known as a mixtape. Now, you hear a lot of people releasing mixtapes, but I hate the term now because it doesn't mean what it used to mean. A mixtape used to mean that you would primarily rap over the most current hit song. You would rap over the instrumental or you would find a piece of that song that was instrumental and you would rap over that so your original lyrics are going over a hit song.
With our show, we would primarily sample whatever was hot and Shock and Money-B would rap over the top of whatever loops were going. We would either take current songs or we would rap over some classic funk or some James Brown loop or something and rap over it. So that would go in between our original songs, which would be "Doowutchyalike" and "Underwater Rimes."
But we had started recording the album Sex Packets. "Doowutchyalike" was the first single released from it and then when we came back from Berlin we did "The Humpty Dance" video. After doing that "Humpty Dance" video, which was recorded in some very turbulent times, because that's when the Loma Prieta earthquake happened.
Songfacts: Oh yeah, with the World Series.
Jimi: Right, there's a 30 for 30 film by ESPN - it stopped the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's, and it also stopped a story that was being made about us. The BBC – the British Broadcasting Company – had been sent out to shoot something on us and the film crew stopped filming us to go out and get whatever footage they could catch of this historical earthquake that was going on.
We shot "The Humpty Dance" video two days after the earthquake. It had already been scheduled, promoted and everything for people to come out and participate, and it was difficult to get people because the Bay Bridge had collapsed. We shot it in San Francisco and most of our friends and fans and supporters were in the East Bay, which is over in Oakland and Berkeley, so it was hard to get people to want to come over to San Francisco because the Bay Bridge wasn't open. The BART tunnel – the Bay Area Rapid Transit – has a tunnel that goes through the Bay from Oakland to San Francisco that you have to go through like a 9-mile tube in the water. So, people didn't want to go through that to get there.
But lo and behold, we had a great turnout. People came in droves, and we fired it up and we did "The Humpty Dance" video and after that we went back to Europe.
You know, Digital Underground survived the Loma Prieta earthquake, and then in 1991 there was the Oakland Hills firestorm, which was in October as well. We were burned out of our homes, Shock and I and others.
So, we toured all through Europe in November. It was Europe winter – real snow on the ground, the real deal. We're carrying around our gear, playing clubs, getting in with different promoters in different countries. It was handled by one agent, the Foundation, which was a great company, but we had all these different little independent club promoters through the different countries there. So you'd get off of a plane and you'd jump in a station wagon or car, and you can't really communicate well because he's speaking Dutch or German or French or Italian and you're speaking English. We'd jump in these cars and go play those clubs. It was really fun and it was adventurous and different.
But during that period I got very upset because I used to carry around all these samplers, keyboards, drums and things of that nature, and I was my own roadie then. Fuze had his turntables and we also carried trunks with props in them because we used to throw out party packs to the crowd that would consist of a noise maker, like a horn blower or something, some chewing gum, a condom and things of that nature. We'd throw it out to the crowd in little sandwich baggies because we wanted the crowd to participate in the party. We were one of the first interactive groups. I saw the Blue Man Group in Vegas once. I was going, "Wow! They must have came to a Digital Underground show years ago." We knew how important it was to interact with the crowd and the audience, and we continued to do that even when we went on to play arenas.
After that European tour we got scheduled to go out on tour with Big Daddy Kane in the spring of 1990 and I said, "We gotta get some roadies, man, I can't carry all this stuff around like this anymore."
And so, when we get back from Europe, the group featuring Tupac that I'd been working with, Strictly Dope, had broken up. Tupac was at our band house when we got back and he was being forced to either go on to become the head of the new young Black Panther party out in Stone Mountain, Georgia, or he could come out and be our roadie. I really lobbied for him to come out and be the roadie because I didn't want to carry this gear that I'd just got through trekking through snowy Europe.
In "Humpty Dance" there's Money-B, there's Humpty Hump, and there's another kid who at the time was Money-B's brother who danced in the video. When we performed it live, Shock wanted it to look the same way as the video, so he wanted that other dancer there. So Tupac came out to be a roadie and the dancer to look like "The Humpty Dance" video and then also to be a backup MC for those times when Shock would leave the stage to change as Humpty Hump and come back. We just felt as though we needed another support MC for Money-B, and Tupac was more than happy to take that role.
You know, he was a guy who very much understood that he had to do things he'd never done before to get things he never had before, and he represented an attitude that I wish a lot of the youngsters would learn to adopt and take in. During those periods when we had "Doowutchyalike" out and "The Humpty Dance" had came out and we became very popular in our area, every available MC would come around: "Man, you should help me. You should put me on, man. I can make you rich, man." And Tupac's attitude was: "Chop, what can I do to help so that I can be put on?" That was the magic word. It was like "open sesame." It made you want to help this person because this person understood that in helping him, he was going to bring something, and he was willing to do that. He was a burst of energy.
So Tupac became my roadie and my roommate. I was not accustomed to having a roommate when we were on tour, but it was, "You want this roadie, then he gets to share a room with you." So, now I have the task of looking out for what turned out to be the voice of a generation, one of the last real pop culture icons of the twentieth century. But at the time he was a headache!
We were on tour and pulled off the road to get something to eat at a Waffle House in Nashville at two in the morning. The nice lady brought us our plates and forks and silverware, and Tupac says, "My fork is dirty! If I was a white man would my fork be dirty?"
You'd have to dial him back to save first of all our own lives as well as his. He had this fervor, this energy, but you had to put him back on track like, "Man, you've got to pick your fights. This isn't worth fighting about."
We were in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena, and in the arena you see people sometimes sitting beside the stage. They're not the great seats but they're kind of up the side of the stage in the rafters a bit. And these guys were yelling out to Tupac that his gold and all the necklaces he had on were fake. "That fake ass gold you got on, you fake!" And Pac couldn't handle it. Now Pac is just a dancer and a roadie, he's not the star. But he gets into a verbal altercation with these dudes. He's mad and he wants us to go up and fight these guys. I looked at him and I said, "Pac, the gold is fake and we're not going to go up there and fight these guys in Detroit. We're the hip-hop Humpty funk dudes - this isn't N.W.A. We're not thugging."
He was edgy, but he was a sweet good kid. He was just confrontational - he was a guy raised to be a leader of the Black Panthers. I ended up becoming a mentor and a big brother and a person that would try to help cool him out in situations where it could have escalated into other things. So, my role then, at that point, was mentor to Tupac Shakur and doing those various different things.
And, you know, there's rules when you're on the road. You can invite girls to your hotel room, but you can't invite everybody. You can't be down in the lobby after a show, where there's hundreds of people in the lobby, and say: "Come up to my room! Let's go! Room 217!" You can't do that. So I would have to curtail him from doing that.
It was a different time. I was happy and blessed to have been in his path. He's such an icon and the things that he stood for... I hate when people call him a gangsta rapper because he was not a gangsta rapper and never had been. He was a socialist and he would rap some social equality. His message became a lot more encrypted as he went on because in the star-oriented society, you have to serve people things the way they like to buy it. So, if it means that a socialist has to take on a persona to get the message across, then that's what he did. He was an actor as well.
So now we're out on the Big Daddy Kane tour, we're doing our thing, and Tupac is the youngest member of the group. The Sex Packets album comes out, and it sells like hotcakes. People are loving it. We started weighing all kind of offers for a summer tour.
Now, MC Hammer had the big tour going out that summer with En Vogue and other groups. We were still a support act because we only had one single out, so that summer, we had to choose: it was either the Hammer tour or the Public Enemy Tour. The Public Enemy tour was the cooler tour to be on for hip-hop heads like Shock, because you felt like you could be more true to hip-hop and only hip-hop. And the Hammer tour was a pop tour.
There was a show called Youth Teen Summit that was in San Francisco and we didn't care to go, so we sent Tupac to go. Tupac went on and he was being the guy that he is and all that. The host of the show asked about Hammer and Tupac was frowning at everyone. She said, "Why are you so down on him?" He said, "Everybody loves to see Ham Bone dance. To see Bojangles dance." We knew at that point we weren't going on the Hammer tour.
That had gotten canceled and squashed right then and there, and we were on the Public Enemy tour. Now, the Hammer tour was guaranteed locked. It wasn't a rap tour - it was a tour that had a rapper and some offbeat groups, so it wasn't classified as a rap tour. For a pop, country music, or a rock tour, the insurance would be like 35 cents a head for those arenas, and it was a thing that you could afford. But for a rap tour that would allegedly break out in fights or bring violence, those tours were a dollar a head, so rap tours didn't fare well a lot of times or ended up getting canceled. They kind of stopped until later with Jay-Z and DMX, and after MTV went pretty much all hip-hop.
So, every other night we went on tour with Public Enemy and we're not sure if we have another show the next night. It was stressful because you didn't know if you were going home, week to week. But for the most part it turned out to be very good. We played arenas - we went out with Queen Latifah, Heavy D and the Boyz, and I think Kid N' Play. It was fun, man. We did a lot of big things.
We came back, and Dan Aykroyd came to one of our shows here at the Palace in Los Angeles and asked us to be in this movie and asked us to do a song for the movie. We were asking him: "What kind of song do you want?" And he said, "You know, like the 'Humpty Dance,' knuckleheads. Like the same song." And there be the title of the song.
There was a deadline. He needed the song immediately for the movie because they actually wrote it into the movie and we performed it in the movie. So we would take breaks during the Public Enemy tour that summer to go and stay in LA and shoot this movie. It came out the following year. The movie wasn't a big success - it was a $40 million flop at the time - but it kind of became a cult film.
Songfacts: It's the kind of film that you still see on TV and you stop and you watch it, which I'm guilty of Jimi. I actually like that movie. I wouldn't want to plunk down 10 bucks to see it in a theater, but for TV entertainment, it's good stuff.
Jimi: Absolutely. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live as a child and I loved Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd and those guys, so it was a real treat to be able to be on the set of something like that. It was fun, it was off the hook, and once again it was one of those things we had at our disposal, and we disposed of it improperly.
I was a jazz musician and I grew up playing be-bop and big band swing music, so for me to pursue any pop music is kind of a sell-out. All of my jazz fiends were like, "Man, you're going to lose your chops playing that stuff." They were all down on me about doing it. But I'm pursuing the idea of the popular aspects of it and the things that come with it, which is the money: the record sale money, the touring, and lo and behold all of the merchandising situations which Shock and I are 50/50 partners on. So we're sitting in JFK in New York and we have all these offers and Shock was like, "I don't wanna do that, man. If Sprite offered us $150,000 this year, they'll offer us $250,000 next year." And I'm like, "Noooo, man, that's not how this is going to work. Maybe next year country music might be the rage."
I swear I said this at JFK airport and I was pissed because I was going to make 50 percent of everything that was happening. And I'll be damned if we didn't go from "The Humpty Dance" in 1990 to Billy Ray Cyrus and my "Achy Breaky Heart" in '92.
In addition to being a musician, have been a bit of a visionary and I see things ahead. That's why I jumped into hip-hop away from my jazz and R&B friends in the Bay area. And then even with Shock, I pulled Shock from being a guy who really, at the end of the day, wanted to be a mixtape MC and make records that way, to understanding that we were going be huge and we were going to sell this. He didn't dream that way and I did, and I was pushing hard for all those things and to get there. To have him not want to take it all the way frustrated me.
So, we went on and we made "Same Song" and we did this EP release. And "Same Song" featured Tupac - that was his first song that he was on and it did very well. Then we went on to make Sons of the P with "Kiss You Back" and things of that nature, which was really, really good.
I'll tell you another quick story - a really short one. In '90 we went to dinner with Cara Lewis who was an agent for William Morris Agency - she was the one who booked our tours and she handled us for William Morris. She also handled 90 percent of all the hip-hop stuff that ran through William Morris back then. She suggests that Money-B comes out to audition for a film that her friend is making at the time, and if we wanted that we should all go. We didn't care to go, but Tupac tagged along. Money- B was given a role to audition for, and Tupac, who wasn't invited, went and was taking all the direction that the director was giving the people that he had auditioning. It got to the point where the director noticed. "Who's this guy? What is he doing? Wait a minute, well who is he? Have him come over here, have him do that over here." And he comes over and he does it and, lo and behold, it's the movie Juice and Tupac had basically auditioned on the side of the auditions to get into the movie.
So, all that outspokenness and all of his behavior was the squeaky wheel trying to get the oil, and that's exactly what he did. He went on to become the star of the movie Juice and that part is history. So, he goes from being a roadie to a movie star in less than a year with those tactics.
So, during this period around 1992, Shock takes a wife, gets married briefly. He's married and he has a young wife and Tupac has kind of gone on now and he has his own crew, Thug Life. Shock had married a very cute young lady, and young guys around your wife is not a good idea. Shock's gone a while - he's working, he's doing his thing. So, it got rumored that some of Thug Life was hanging out with Shock's wife.
Shock had been told that that's what occurred, so he drives from Oakland to Los Angeles at like two or three in the morning in tears, very upset about the rumors, and the couple of guys telling him about it were riding in the back seat, so they're pumping him up with all this stuff the whole trip down.
So when Shock gets down here, there are two members of Thug Life. One's a guy who's not very tall - Mouse Man I think his name is. He opens the door: "Hey Shock, what's happening, man?" And Shock just hauls off and cocks him, right? It was a real big deal.
Tupac now is very upset with Digital Underground and announces war. So, basically what ended up happening is there was a truce. Two things had to be given in the truce: one was Mouse Man gets to punch Shock back, so he punches Shock back and really did damage. He clocks Shock and breaks Shock's orbital around his eye. Shock had to get plastic surgery for that.
But, the song "I Get Around" was also put on Tupac's album instead of the Sons of the P album as a consolation and as a truce part. Because "I Get Around" should have been on a Digital Underground album not on a Tupac album. And that's one of Tupac's most popular songs.
Songfacts: That song also was big for him because by then he was a really big deal, and being down with the Underground and having his roots and his original crew, that seemed like it was big in terms of his credibility.
Jimi: Well, absolutely, but it would have been the very same thing for the sales of the Underground album too, because our sales were starting to diminish.
Songfacts: Oh, I see. He was still a member of the group at the time.
Jimi: Exactly. And it would have been a feature on the Digital Underground record with his movie star stuff.
So, I moved towards doing some other stuff and signed a big deal with Quincy Jones. We all kind of parted ways, but the Digital Underground family has more of an open door policy. It's kind of like Parliament-Funkadelic where the star of the group is the group. And Shock spent a lot of time making it so people couldn't put their finger on exactly who was who and what was what, even to the point that today people still say, "Is Shock and Humpty the same guy?" And so, because of all that mystique, people came and went in and out of the group.
I went on to start a group, Force One Network, with Quincy Jones. We had a song in the Boyz N the Hood movie called "Spirit (Does Anybody Really Care?)" featuring a kid named David Hollister - he sang on some of the Blackstreet hits, and he's also a big gospel star, but he's even more known for singing on "Brenda's Got a Baby" for Tupac and he's the guy who sang "Keep Your Head Up" on "Keep Your Head Up."
I'm happy to announce that my son born back during that period is now the new frontman for the new Digital Underground – Digital Underground Next Generation. His name is S.O.T.U, Son of the Underground. We just completed Sex Packets II: The Sequel and we're looking to carry this thing for the next 25 years with a whole new group and a new groove. It's about continuing to pass the art form down to the next crew, and that's what we've done.
Shock has been doing the Shock G Trio. You know, "formerly of Digital Underground." I went in and there was a lot of things left on the table to keep the brand alive and to move it forward. Shock is a talented artist, musician, graphic artist, recording engineer, producer, who has been quite reluctant to take on the pop scene that way. I was the guy always lobbying for all of those different avenues.
So, I looked up and our trademark, and it had been abandoned. Of course I went in and I bought the trademark and I bought the name - I bought everything. And the funny thing is my son looks more like Shock than me - he's tall and slender. He produces and writes and does everything. He looks so much like the Humpty/Shock character.
We're going to keep making this thing happen. We're going to carry Digital Underground as far as we can and get out on tour and promote with our shows.
Our shows were very vaudevillian, very much theatre and fun, and I want to bring that back. We're going to be very creative – you've got to be creative when you don't have big budgets. So, it'll be a fun show for people to come out and check out. "Freaks of the Industry" is out right now on iTunes, and the Sex Packets II album will be out top of November.
Songfacts: Now this is all under the name Digital Underground, which it sounds like you have acquired the rights to?
Songfacts: Wow. Alright. Is there any concern that people are not going to accept Digital Underground without the frontman?
Jimi: I don't believe so because it's a whole new generation of people. Some know Digital Underground from back then - the older folk like ourselves who do know. And I do think there is a way for the older folk to have fun and relive this thing again because Shock does not want to tour and gig as that anymore. He hasn't done it. Maybe one day he'll come aboard and we'll do some stuff.
The star of the group, yes, was Humpty and Shock and Money-B. Money-B's on board - he's in the Digital Underground Next Generation. He's rapping on some of the songs. I don't see where that'll be an issue. I don't see where it was an issue with Van Halen going out and changing up some of the people in that group, with Eddie's son playing bass and then changing lead singers. No, I think the most popular thing and the thing that will keep the Underground going are the songs.
Songfacts: Yeah, but it means your son will have to put on the nose and do "The Humpty Dance," right?
Jimi: Yeah, well, we have someone that's doing that who looks even more like that. Yeah, they're more than happy to have the fun and do it. My son isn't doing it but the other guy in the group will be doing it, and it's fun. I think that it's important for us to carry on the legacy. Shock's not going to be able to be Humpty Hump forever. I mean, he could if he wanted to but he doesn't care to. He became like Flip Wilson with Geraldine with that. Flip Wilson said when Geradine gets bigger than Flip Wilson, he would stop doing Geraldine, and he did.
It's a mixed blessing for some people to create certain personas, create certain things and those things become larger and you have to be that clown every day and you don't care to be because you really only did it for fun but that's what people locked into. But, I don't think that we're misleading or having people buy into something that's not the real deal. We're selling the next generation of Digital Underground.
Songfacts: Did you have any presence on stage or in the videos or in the movie?
Jimi: Sure. For all of you who watched Nothing But Trouble, I'm the guy who snatches off his glasses twice to look at the Judge when he pops up. I'm the guy on the keyboards in "The Humpty Dance" video rocking; I used to rock the bandanas and the glasses and do all the various different things. On stage and in concerts I was the guy who ran around on stage performing as the musician on stage. There were only five of us: the DJ and me and then there was Money-B, Shock/Humpty and then Tupac.
Songfacts: When you guys set out after Berlin on that first tour of Europe and you've got all this equipment – and why you didn't just bring a tape and lip-sync your performances is beyond me – you've got to set up this whole sound, which has all these intricate samples going on. How do you create that in a live environment?
Jimi: It's funny you say that because the first day we get over to Vienna, Austria. I had the sampler in this flimsy road case and we were running to get to the plane and it got dropped and bust into a thousand pieces in the airport. So there was the show, because a large part of the show was all of my samples - but we did go on.
It was a headache initially but we were trying to be performance-oriented as musicians and bringing musicianship into hip-hop. We eventually ended up doing a television show where we used a digital audio tape, a DAT tape, and from there on we did start putting our shows on DAT and focused more on the performance aspect.
But for me, that meant I'm like Marcel Marceau up there. I didn't have a problem being a performance artist doing that, but that's not what I do. Ask Elton John to come up and do his show without playing the piano. I mean, you're a musician and it's a live show. But, you know, there are those times when you're doing something like television and you can't afford a live mistake, so people will just do the tape. But to me that sucks.
It's millions of people and millions of dollars, and nobody wants to make a mistake and look human on stage or on television. And by that point the records are already launched, they're already known, and people want to hear the song the way they know it. So, I do understand that aspect.
Songfacts: When you guys are on tour in Europe, from what I understand, Europe wasn't crazy about "The Humpty Dance." Is that correct?
Jimi: They bought into "The Humpty Dance" but they also bought more into the artistry and the eclecticism of the different songs. "Doowutchyalike" was a bigger hit over there.
Songfacts: I read that when you got back from this European tour in January 1990, people were doing the Humpty Dance even though it wasn't officially released yet.
Jimi: Yeah, absolutely. The video had been released. Because back then you used the video as a promotional tool to promote before the release of the record.
Songfacts: Oh, alright. Now here's something else that's really interesting about your time period. This was right around the Wild West of sampling when it was just getting into that legal gray area. Can you talk about if you guys were clearing your samples and what effect that had?
Jimi: You know, we were probably the only group to legally, without an issue, sample Jimi Hendrix for "The Way We Swing." We rocked some "Band of Gypsys" - that's the loop on "The Way We Swing." And that just happened because George Clinton was in the office over at Tommy Boy when we were trying to get clearance, because Tommy Boy was telling us no, we couldn't use it because we couldn't get clearance. And George got on the phone with someone over at the Jimi Hendrix estate and got us clear on that song back then.
But technology was going faster than the law, so it got to be a thing where if you sampled less than four bars, you don't have to clear it. The first sample that everybody knows is "Owner of a Lonely Heart" with the James Brown sample from the group Yes. And they sold millions and didn't have an issue.
When I went on to do Force One Network in '91, Biz Markie had gotten sued by Gilbert O'Sullivan for "Alone Again (Naturally)." That guy shut Biz Markie's record down, which was Cold Chillin' Records and distributed to Warner Bros.
I had one of the first R&B albums that had all these samples in it, because I'm coming from this rap background and made a sample-oriented new track. So we had to pay all this money for samples for the Force One Network record. Natalie Cole had just been given a Grammy for the duet she had done with her father that they had put out.
Songfacts: "Unforgettable," yeah.
Jimi: Yeah. I had used that sample in a song and they were like, "You're not going to be able to use that." And all I used was this [sings] "Unforgettable" – I used it one time in the song and they were like, "No!"
With Digital Underground, I think we couldn't get a Kraftwerk sample cleared of "Man-Machine."
Songfacts: Yeah, but you were trying to clear your samples back then. You weren't just putting them out there without clearing.
Jimi: Well, Tommy Boy definitely did because they were a hip-hop label.
Songfacts: Oh, I got you. That makes sense.
Jimi: They were one of the pioneers of putting out hip-hop records and they were also one of the pioneers of being sued by companies and publishers. They did have Afrika Bambaataa, Soulsonic Force; they had all these different records that they had put out.
Actually, that's an interesting question you asked because the song that we sampled by Kraftwerk, "Man-Machine," was for a song called "Underground System" and because we couldn't get that cleared Tommy Boy made us go back in the studio to cut another song, which turned out to be "The Humpty Dance."
That's really weird you asked that question. "The Humpty Dance" was not conceived when we were trying to get those clearances and Tommy Boy was like, "We're not releasing your album, your album's going to get pushed back until you give me a single." And so, we went in, cut "The Humpty Dance" and that's how "The Humpty Dance" was born, because we couldn't get Kraftwerk cleared.
Songfacts: Did you guys do your own videos?
Jimi: Looked like it, huh?
Songfacts: It kind of did. It looked like somebody said, "Let's have a party and bring some cameras."
We were one of the first groups in the video era out of the Bay area, and there were only a few at that time. It was Hammer, Tony! Toni! Toné! En Vogue, and the rest would be primarily rock groups. Your friends and associates and people would hear about it just thought it was fun to go to a video shoot. It was a big deal. And then we incorporated people into it, so it was kind of like the Fatboy Slim videos back in the day: not only can you come watch the video being made but you can be in it.
I guess we did have a groundbreaking style in the way that we would shoot those videos. It was definitely fun.
Songfacts: Did you have any interaction with Public Enemy when you were on that tour?
Songfacts: OK, I've got a question for you. Shock puts on the nose, he's Humpty Hump, but he does it in his own way. Flavor Flav takes the character into his head, almost like a professional wrestler who acts that way all the time. I've talked to at least one person who told me that Flavor Flav is actually a very talented musician with a lot of depth. But I'd like to get your thoughts on that.
Jimi: Flavor Flav is a classically trained pianist who speaks four languages.
On tour there'd be lots of times when his room would be next door to my room, since we weren't all booked by groups and the promoter doesn't care, he's just putting you in a hotel. Girls were lined up to be with Flav back then.
But a lot of hotel lobbies have a piano. You'd hear this beautiful piano playing, and you look and it's Flavor Flav playing the piano. I sat there and just listened to him play because I could appreciate what he was playing. Such a dichotomy of his persona.
Shock would play Humpty Hump as a character for fun, but Flav was Flav 24/7. And I loved the idea of him being that way. For the most part, Flav was the guy like when your mama gave you medicine back in the day and your dad would hold the airplane - "Look over here" - while she gives you the medicine. That's what Flav was. Chuck was in your face talking about the government or whatever political thing he was speaking about at the time, getting a message to you, while Flavor's distracting you with his fun or his silliness.
Songfacts: Yeah, but if Shock was Humpty 24/7, you would have killed him.
Jimi: There were a few times were Shock did stay in character. One time it was funny as hell. It wasn't really funny at the time, but we were in the back of a limo going from a concert to an after-party at a club to perform, so he stayed in character. We were drinking alcohol in the back of this limo and he's choking. He can't breathe, he's got the nose on, he's choking to death. We're cracking up laughing, but he was choking to death back there. I think our security dude ended up performing whatever maneuver on him.
Or the even funnier one, when we come around to the hotel room and some girl's mom is looking for her daughter and she's wondering, "Which room was Humpty Hump in?" Now we're all registered under our stage names, but she's going from door to door. So, we hear her down in the lobby looking for Humpty, so we go up to the room to tell him, "Hey man, you better get that girl out of here. Her mom's downstairs and she's looking for her daughter." He comes to the door in his drawers and the Humpty nose on and you can see the girl back there. And I was like, "Man, why do you have the shades on?" "She wanted to have sex with me, but she didn't want to have sex with me, she wanted to have sex with Humpty, so she asked me if I could leave the nose on."
He probably loved and hated Humpty Hump for that reason.
Songfacts: Well, also, with the Public Enemy thing, pairing up PE with DU is an interesting combination because you're both doing some very innovative stuff but Public Enemy was so forthright with what they were doing. Was there any issue with the clash of styles? I'm just trying to get your take on what that was like from the Chuck D perspective.
Jimi: Chuck was a very knowledgeable cat and very smart and very wise about a lot of the stuff that he was doing. He understood the growth of hip-hop and the certain commercial aspects that were going on because as much as he was very serious about what he was doing, he had a novelty thing himself with having Flav out there doing that as well.
But with us, the promoter was smart enough to recognize that he needed something on the other end of the spectrum commercially that was fun and safe. Heavy D was that too.
I can remember being in Memphis around Elvis's birthday and thinking, "These people are going to kill Chuck if he raps 'Elvis was a hero to most.'" We were all very protective of Chuck and the movement as it were – not that they needed our help since they traveled with S1Ws as well as the Fruit of Islam, in each city, which is the security for people who are members of the Nation of Islam.
I can remember us being in Oklahoma where the Oklahoma police did not want to provide security at the event, probably because thought Public Enemy was N.W.A.
So, with us Chuck was a dude who laughed and knew that we were some real hip-hop cats and that the novelty pop song that we were getting over with wasn't all that we were about. He knew there was much more depth to our character as musicians, producers and real hip-hop folk.
Songfacts: And did he do the Elvis line when he was in Memphis?
Jimi: You better believe it. It was also great when we did The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in Hollywood and they did "Burn Hollywood Burn." Ice Cube had come out on tour because he just had his solo album produced by Public Enemy's Bomb Squad production team, and Big Daddy Kane was there because he was shooting a movie. I remember Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger and all of the press and all of the cameras were there at the foot of the stage when Chuck came out: "Burn Hollywood Burn, I smell a riot."
Oh my God! It was the most profound and most powerful thing that I have ever been involved with in hip-hop and have ever seen in hip-hop since.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the tour at every turn, based upon whatever the public relations were at the time. Public Enemy had something to do with the Jewish Defamation League, so one of his lines was, "I told the Rabbi to get off the rag." That's why every other night we didn't know if the tour was going to go on. While "U Can't Touch This" - the MC Hammer tour - was not having a problem. Vanilla Ice ended up getting our slot on that tour.
Songfacts: Which was actually a much better fit.
Jimi: Oh, you're damn right it was, and let me tell you something, it was a much better fit for their bank accounts too as it pertained to Vanilla Ice selling 18 million copies of that album. That was because they were playing sold out arenas throughout the country.
Songfacts: On the creative side, a killer weapon with Digital Underground was the piano sound, which I don't think was sampled. Marky Mark had the big hit with "Good Vibrations" in '91, which was after you guys did it. Can you talk about that piano sound and how it relates to the evolution of hip-hop.
Jimi: The whole thing that you're saying is very valid since that was Shock and I's initial attraction to each other as musicians. I played drums, he played piano, and we used to spend a lot of time jamming and playing. As a musician you learn popular songs to play, but when Shock sat at the piano he would go from playing a little bit of "'Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk into some Boogie Down Productions or other hip-hop cover.
He would play the musical parts of rap songs on the piano, and it was kind of dope. That's why you had the piano solo in "Doowutchyalike." That was one of the first songs to ever have a solo in a rap song, and that was innovative stuff. That's what I wanted it to continue to be: us being musicians playing hip-hop.
So, the piano thing was because Shock is a musician first, who appreciates hip-hop. True musicians were frowned upon in hip-hop because it was a DJ-oriented thing and didn't require their services.
Songfacts: Were there any rap groups in the '80s using the piano like that?
Jimi: No, not really. If you want to go back to the '70s, a lot of those groups like Sugarhill Gang would record with a band, but they made their money off "Good Times" and sampling Chic.
Songfacts: But that was an actual bass player playing on "Rapper's Delight" who was recreating it."
Jimi: Yeah, exactly. So, there were always musicians in and around it, but I think the sonics had all that jazz, which was right before us. There was one track that had Kool G Rap on it that was called "The Symphony." Marley Marl produced the track and it had a lot of piano and was really cool. That had a bunch of different guest artists and it was heavy on piano. But we did it with the most flair and originality.
Songfacts: Are you credited on any of these albums?
Songfacts: I'm looking at my Sons of the P CD - where's your name on this?
Jimi: Well, by the time of Sons of the P, I started exiting out of the situation. I was on the songs with the hits on them that sold millions - the Sex Packets album and the EP release which had "Same Song" on it.
Songfacts: So you were out of the picture by the time Sons of the P came around?
Jimi: Yeah, I'd just jumped ship.
Songfacts: That's a pretty concentrated couple of years there.
Jimi: By the time you get to Sons of the P, which is a decent record, there's some stuff on there that's cool, but it started to wane. It went from having fun to, "You're lucky I'm rappin' because if I wasn't rappin' I'd be mackin'" and all that stuff where people were trying to take themselves more seriously, not having fun with it, fighting the pop success and fighting the thing that came with putting on the nose, and basically killing it off.
You saw that with De La Soul. After they had their success they went for De La Soul is Dead because they didn't like the idea that the marketing had become bigger than them.
Songfacts: Well, according to Shock, the record company was always on his case for more Humpty. Were you on his side or were you more on the record company line of, "Hey, give the people what they want"?
Jimi: I wanted to give the people what they want. Tommy Boy was so into what we were doing that they looked and said, "Shock, don't worry about it. We'll do a Shock G album, we'll do a Humpty Hump album." They were down to do whatever he wanted to do that way. They wanted to utilize all of the different personalities and the different characters and make records around it.
It sounds like I'm breaking my arm patting myself on the back or tooting my own horn, but the fact of the matter is if you don't toot your own horn, who will? But the real deal is that this guy was someone I found and I took and I worked and molded into a recording situation and we went and we made records together. But he is a guy who would be much happier probably sitting on the beach drawing pictures. He did all the animated covers and illustrations. He does all that.
Songfacts: Yeah, and in this alternate universe where there is a dedicated album by Humpty Hump that Tommy Boy would be thrilled to put out, that means you could have also had a Digital Underground album where he could do Shock G completely and it probably would have made sense.
Jimi: Exactly. They wanted to do an MC Blowfish [Shock's character on "Underwater Rimes"] record, they wanted to do a Piano Man record, they wanted to do a Shock G record.
Digital Underground did one more album after Sons of the P, which was The Body-Hat Syndrome. Tommy Boy had moved on to "O.P.P." and Naughty By Nature.
There's some ugly aspects of the reality of what goes on within these successes. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger can connect and still get together and make money, but I don't know if they care for each other off the stage. Shock and I, we kind of have that relationship.
Songfacts: And there's nothing wrong with that. In order to be creative you need to have a little bit of tension in many cases.
Jimi: Absolutely. And when it was good it was good and we had a lot of fun. I love and appreciate those times. And, you know, I think I'll be able to recreate and relive some of that, because I'm older now and I still want to have fun. We're doing some new things and I don't think people will find it cheesy in any kind of way. I think you'll find it actually authentic and good.
November 12, 2015
Photos from Chopmaster J's collection, used with permission
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