Happy Anniversary to Digital Undergrounds debut LP Sex Packets, originally released March 26, 1990.
Just havin’ fun y’all
And if you think that it’s wrong
You got to admit
It’s a new type of song
If there is one verse that perfectly encapsulates Digital Undergrounds music, well, Id argue that its this one, from the Oakland-bred groups debut single Doowutchyalike, released in the fall of 1989. When I first heard their unapologetic ode to party-fueled hedonism, I was blown away by the irresistible joie de vivre of their distinctive sound. Desperate to hear more from them, I wanted to figure out how to get my hands on an invitation to the next debauchery-filled affair they planned to orchestrate.
A few months later, Digital Undergrounds swelling fan base and I were handsomely rewarded in the form of their breakthrough debut LP, Sex Packets. Beyond being an indisputably funktastic revelation of an album, Sex Packets formally introduced one of the most unique and charismatic acts that hip-hop culture has ever produced. The driving force both musically and aesthetically behind the groups undeniable appeal was the counterweight dynamic between co-founder and lead emcee Gregory Shock G Jacobs and his manufactured alter ego, Humpty Hump. Whereas Shock G embodied effortless swagger on the mic, the outlandish, court jester-like figure of Humpty Hump assumed the role of the consummate prankster. The fact that it was never made entirely clear if Shock G and Humpty Hump were two different people or if they were, in fact, one and the same, only added to the mystique surrounding the group at the time.
Beyond its memorable personalities, which also included Shock Gs gifted rhyming counterpart Ron Money B Brooks, Sex Packets thematic focus offers further testament to the groups unparalleled originality. Sex Packets was developed as a concept album, founded upon the fictional premise of drug-enabled, simulated sexual gratification. In a 2010 Vibe interview, Shock G recounted the background behind how the album was conceived:
Smooth, one of the singers in the group, had an actual plan to create sex packets. He really believed he was going to get a grant from the United States government to develop this technology to help astronauts have sex when they traveled. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but I didnt think technology reached a point to where we could induce a dream and allow someone to see who they wanted and have sex with them. Acid and ecstasy were close, but it wasnt quite that. As we were putting together the concept of the album I told him, You know what? Sex packets would make a cold concept for a song. Let me try to flip it.
Then we started going over the Sex Packet concept to make sure people couldnt poke holes in it. We started studying the properties of ecstasy and LSD and what all the jargon was. We created a story where there was a professor at Stanford University who designed sex packets for astronaut travel so they could be sexually satisfied. The name of it was GSRA which stood for Genetic Suppression Release Antidote. We created this story that a powerful drug leaked into the streets of San Francisco and it was called sex packets on the street. Then on top of that, we went to Kinkos and made a serious looking pamphlet on how to use sex packets because it was dangerous and fucking people up [laughs]. We made thousands of those pamphlets and left them on the back of buses and at hospitals. After all that, it was Tommy Boy Records idea to name the entire album after the Sex Packets song.
Uhhhhh come again? Just what kind of demented I mean brilliant mastermind devises such an intricately calculated scheme for a song, let alone an entire album? Shock G and his compatriots were definitely on some out-there, next-level ish, to say the least. But their ideas ultimately proved to be pure visionary genius when transformed onto wax, and cemented the groups status as the quintessential non-conformists of hip-hop.
By 1990, exploring sex through song was certainly not a novelty in hip-hop. However, while artists like 2 Live Crew and Too $hort tended to leave little to the imagination with their overtly brash and explicit and some would contend, misogynistic sexual content, Digital Underground adopted a more clever and playful approach to deconstructing sexual taboos on Sex Packets. By injecting humor into their songs and never taking themselves too seriously, the group embraced the notion that sex is fun, sometimes comical, and should be celebrated as often as possible. Take another listen to Money B and Shock Gs exchange of verses on the Donna Summer-sampling Freaks of the Industry, and youll find its hard not to appreciate their refreshing levity where sex is concerned.
Moreover, the groups playful, inventive word choice and phrasing contributes to the albums head-scratching, yet ultimately endearing allure. I recall pressing rewind incessantly while I listened to the album for the first time, so I could be sure of what I just heard and commit it to memory. Humpty Humps references to getting busy in Burger King bathrooms, liking his oatmeal lumpy, girls grabbing guys in the biscuits, and using words that dont mean nothing like looptid ensured that Digital Undergrounds voice was truly unique, unlike any other in the game.
Sonically, Sex Packets is as proudly indebted to the funk as any hip-hop long player ever has been, and serves as the groups homage of sorts to the storied legend of Parliament-Funkadelic. The George Clinton-fronted collective, among a handful of other funk and soul greats, is reverentially sampled throughout the album to thrilling effect. In exploring the albums obvious inspirations in the same aforementioned Vibe interview, Shock G explains that Sex Packets didnt feel like 100 percent hip-hop. It felt like some psychedelic, space funk. It felt like we were doing what P-Funk or Prince would be doing had they used samplers. While some might interpret his analogy as misguided hubris, considering the other-level icon status of the artists he references here, I actually think the association is a reasonable one. Perhaps best exemplified on the buoyant, Flash Light sampling track Rhymin on the Funk, the album faithfully merges funks signature rhythmic grooves with Digital Undergrounds own nuanced hip-hop style and sensibility. And the result is a profoundly intoxicating aural experience that begs to be replayed again and again.
While I imagine there are plenty of people who remember the group primarily for their most recognizable, dance-craze inducing single, the reality is that Digital Undergrounds recorded output extends so much deeper than this. Sex Packets is a bona fide classic, without question, but their five subsequent LPs (or six, if you count 1999’s The Lost Files, a collection of previously unreleased tracks) are worthy of high praise as well. Not to mention that the group helped to springboard the careers of such dynamic hip-hop acts as 2Pac, Saafir and Mystic, to name a few. Regrettably, Digital Underground is no longer making new music and has only performed live intermittently during recent years. But the vibrant legacy the group first set in motion with Sex Packets and cultivated during its extensive recording and touring career endures to this day, and surely will for a very long time to come.
My Favorite Song: “Doowutchyalike”
Bonus Video: The Humpty Dance
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