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"The Humpty Dance" might be the most cartoonish, outrageous song to ever grace the Billboard charts. The song is basically one long joke being told by Humpty, aka Shock-G, aka Greg Jacobs. Jacobs grew up in Tampa, Florida, but frequently bounced between New York and Los Angeles. He was a natural lover of music; during his vagabond days, he taught himself how to play the piano in hotel lounges and college dorms. In his spare time, he played bass, DJed, sketched cartoons, and wrote P-Funk inspired rhymes. It was only when he settled in the San Francisco Bay Area that this one-man band morphed into Digital Underground. As Shock-G, Jacobs set out to create a music collective of emcees, DJs, and funk musicians that would carry on the legacy of positive black music of Parliament Funkadelic, a 1970s collective of black musicians led by George Clinton that blended rock, funk, and soul. Shock-G embodied a funk ideology that set the tone for all of Digital Underground's recordings.
While working at a music equipment store in Oakland, California, Shock met Chopmaster J, a local jazz musician who was trying to set up a home studio but didn't have the technical knowledge to build it himself. Shock offered to do the installation as long as Chopmaster allowed him to record a couple of demos, the result being two early songs: "Your Life's a Cartoon" and "Underwater Rimes."
Shock's status as a musician evolved quickly from there. Chopmaster loved the tracks and quickly introduced Shock to a record exec at TNT Records, who offered to put out a single. "Underwater Rimes" and the B-side, "Your Life's a Cartoon," sold 20,000 copies in the U.S. and—oddly enough—charted at #1 in Amsterdam. ("Underwater Rimes" is a funky, psychedelic journey into the adventures of a group of aquatic Emcees. Picture a hip-hop "Yellow Submarine.") The success of the single caught the attention of Tommy Boy Records, who signed Digital Underground under the presumption that it was a group, not just one man.
As Shock-G tells it, "Tommy Boy wanted to see a group, so I had to get one going! I always wanted Digital Underground to be this big super group, but we didn't have all the characters yet. Basically, most of the time if I had a vision of a kind of guy we needed, I'd just be that guy" (Brian Coleman, Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip Hop Junkies, 178). Under pressure to present the record company with an actual group, Shock recruited Bay Area record spinner DJ Fuze and rapper Money-B and finalized the core line up with his roommate, Schmoovy Schmoov, who envisioned the concept for their debut album, Sex Packets.
Tommy Boy okayed Digital Underground for an album after their next single, "Doowutchalike," sold 90,000 copies. When it was time to shoot the video for the single in the Fall of 1989, Humpty was born on a spur of the moment trip to a party supply store. "The video was supposed to look like an insane party," Shock says, "so we got all these accessories for the video, like the Groucho nose. Shark noses, pig noses." When Shock and the other members of the Underground realized the powerful voice Shock had created with Humpty, Shock didn't hesitate to make him a full-fledged persona, complete with his own background.
"Humpty's like a nerd version of a pimp n!@@#, with a little perv mentality from Benny Hill, some Morris Day, and Groucho Marx's sense of humor. It wasn't until we were editing the footage [for "Doowutchalike"] that we realized [the image of Humpty was] more powerful when the nose goes with that voice.
"Foolin' around with the Humpty voice was like doing hip-hop ventriloquism, putting a spin on Slick Rick, like a skit. I started the myth of Humpty during a college radio interview. I said that he was my brother from Tampa, an ex-lounge singer who got in a grease accident in the kitchen. He stood as a hero for all handicapped people around the world, because you can do anything. And people were buying that s#!%!" (Coleman, ebook section 2908)
P-funk Mythology, a continuing narrative in the lyrics of Parliament Funkadelic, influenced Humpty’s history and the recurring cast of characters that Shock-G would come to embody. Developed primarily by George Clinton, P-funk Mythology tells the story of Starchild, an intergalactic being destined to reveal The Funk to humanity at the behest of the universe's Supreme Being, Dr. Funkenstein. Starchild's arch nemesis is Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk (Devoid of Funk, get it?) who continually attempts to end The Funk because he is too cool to dance. (Noticing a theme with noses and dancing here?)
The full dossier of Humpty Hump (Edward Ellington Humphrey III) would, like Digital Underground and all of Shock's characters, evolve over time and be recounted in different ways, but Humpty's official anthem, "The Humpty Dance," was birthed from a simple bass line Shock wrote during a jam session.
"Humpty was never part of a master plan. The album was almost done when we recorded the song. That's why there's no picture of Humpty on the album cover, because when the cover was shot we hadn't even written that s#!% yet!"
Shock sent the track to Tommy Boy Records, and "The Humpty Dance" was added in the last stages of production. The song that embraced the unpredictable, irreverent, and instinctual was borne out of the party that Shock and the rest of Digital Underground were making of the recording process. Fitting, isn't it?
"The Humpty Dance" is the only song on Sex Packets in which a member of Digital Underground incorporates hip-hop braggadocio—the song is rather sexist and raunchy, and it’s easy to understand how those not in on the “joke” could be offended by it—, but its quirkiness and radical individualism place it outside the major trends of hip-hop in the early 1990s and draws a distinct line back to its Parliament Funkadelic ancestors. Many of Parliament's songs and stage shows were simply jam sessions that turned into hits. They didn't view themselves as musicians, exactly, but rather spiritualists possessed by the music, their instruments and voices communicating a message of love, happiness, unity, and black power from another plane of existence. With this in mind, it makes sense that one of Shock's many alter egos would speak from his own psyche and produce "The Humpty Dance."
Money B sums up the last recording session aptly: "I'm not sure that we knew it would be a hit, but we definitely all really liked it…. We recorded the song maybe three or four times, actually. The demo of it was really hot, and we kept trying to re-create it but just couldn't do it. That eight-track version might still be the best version ever made" (Coleman, ebook 2921).