In 1990, Bay Area group Digital Underground released their debut album, Sex Packets. It wasn’t just an assortment of party anthems that listeners would expect from a ’90s rap album. It was a multiverse of fictional and imagined narratives, a hybrid of aesthetics, personified characters, and a science-fictionesque back story about a government-funded drug (called “sex packets”) that induces a hyper-sexual fantasy for users—something like psychotropics, but with more orgasms.
It was a project that embodied the diverse and imaginative layers of the Bay Area, and expanded a sense of masculinity in ways that were uncommon in the West Coast rap scene. It was ahead of its time, and it represents the pinnacle of what rap can allow a person—particularly a man of color living on the margins of American society—to express.
Now, if this sounds like a hella strange and unorthodox basis for a golden-era rap album, that’s because it is. Created and led by the calculating, out-of-pocket visionary Shock G, who passed last week at 57, Digital Underground was pure weirdness. Weird af. Weirder than Weird Al. Yet, it never came across as corny or stale, as much as it felt like a genuine expression of artistic experimentation, of redefining the boundaries of expected rap machismo. Putting on costumes and creating alternative-realities? That led Shock G to to create rap’s most iconic alter-ego: Humpty Hump.
I grew up listening to Shock G as a South Bay Area kid. I must’ve been in fifth grade when I first heard him rapping about satin panties, rolling up a blunt, and being down for the cause on his slept-on “I Got 5 On It (Remix)” cameo, alongside tha Luniz, E-40, Dru Down, and other legitimate Bay Area rap legends.
That song was a local slap that reached the wider mainstream, featuring some of the hardest dudes in the rap world at the time, who often bragged about manipulating women, murdering their rivals, and selling drugs–literally. I don’t mean to simplify Bay Area rap from the 90s— because it was a relatively innovative and creative scene—but, due to record labels and execs who profited off easy, flattened stereotypes, rappers back then largely based their commercial success on the holy trinity of sex, violence, and drugs.
So, when Shock G, a tall and lanky dude with cartoonish features—wearing a plastic nose, fake mustache, oversized hat, and too-big, lens-less glasses—emerged from a mob of East Bay hitters on the video set, I couldn’t help but pay extra attention. He sang, he danced, and he rapped in multiple voices about various subjects, while his peers could only rap in one frequency.
Look, I’m not saying Shock was better than Mac Mall, Celly Cell, Spice 1, or any of those contemporaries from his time and region. I’m simply saying he was different in a way that stood out and allowed me to re-examine what it meant to be creative and original and confident in alternative ways as a Mexican American kid surrounded in an environment of manhood.
Up until then, confidence among my friends was portrayed as being tough, as being real, as being more silent and stiff than expressive, as viewing women as objects to be acquired. This is what most Bay Area rap songs seemed to convey to us. But when you had a dude like Shock come out on stage, talking about pleasuring a woman for her sake (not always his), doing the Humpty Dance, and pretending to rap underwater—all while accruing respect and loyalty from Oakland—it gave us all permission to do be different in our own ways.
Shock G is a deviation, an aberration, an outlier on a graph of static predictability. It turns out Shock wasn’t just a lyrical savant, either. He was a producer, a multi-instrumentalist, a performer, a dancer, a visual illustrator, a group manager, and even a self-deprecating humorist. And bigger than that, he became a gateway for other artists to emerge from.
He introduced the world to a teenager named Tupac Shakur by adding him to Digital Underground as a backup dancer, then later gave 2pacalypse his first major rap feature on “Same Song.” Shock also groomed Pac’s roommate—a fellow backup dancer—Saafir, who would go on to become a recognizable Bay Area name. And of course, would any of us know “Money B, the freaky deaky, the squeaky meaky” if it wasn’t for Shock G?
It’s no surprise that Shock went beyond himself and invited others into his vibrant and fluid world by writing songs that pushed into new dimensions early in his career. Songs like “The New Jazz (One)” and “Doowutchyalike” pointed back to his musical roots while declaring an autonomous and unboxable approach towards fresher, unknown sounds. Shock didn’t follow any formulas—instead he mixed and sampled and made his own, like all great musicians before and after him have done.
He’s the first rapper I ever heard shout out Black, white, Puerto Rican, and Samoan people in consecutive lines at the end of “The Humpty Dance”. He also shouts out the UK, the Philippines, and “even Cleveland” in “The Way We Swing.” For context, most rappers of his time were shouting out their cities, street intersections, housing complexes, and neighborhoods. But Shock was on some intergalactic tip with his game, light years ahead of the majority and showing love to anyone who fucked with his sound.
It felt so authentic to my Bay Area upbringing–where my neighbors and friends were immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Iran, Samoa, India, Russia, and elsewhere. No one else was shouting out those countries before Shock–at least none that I ever heard on local rap stations like 106.1 KMEL and Wild 107.
Once, when Shock was a teenager growing up in Tampa, he was fired from a radio station he DJed at for playing a 15-minute George Clinton song during a five-minute segment. A zealot for outrageously bold funk, Shock openly declared his love for George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. He took the blueprint they laid out in the psychedelic-dimension of the ’70s and flipped it for the synth-infused streets of California in the early ’90s. If that’s not a form time travel, then I’ve failed at understanding the physics of our world.
Shock didn’t only break time barriers, he constantly broke down walls of traditional rap creativity. When rappers say things like “We do the things that we wanna do” they’re usually flexing about the way they maneuver the streets with power and respect. Not Shock G. He literally means that he does what he wants on a song, in his creative and artistic expression, in his whole being.
That’s a powerful shift for a young listener. Not simply that you can be in control for the sake of exerting power (a typical male trope), but that you can define your sense of self by dressing and sounding however you want to achieve idiosyncrasy. That’s the type of divergent message that very few rappers—especially in 1990s West Coast—were communicating.
It’s no wonder that Rolling Stone magazine recently declared Shock “hip hop’s freest spirit.” Or, that my community college sociology professor recently told me that Shock smoked her out at a rave while they talked about politics. Or, that my older brother often reminds me how Shock was like a “softer” Mac Dre before Mac Dre became Ronald Dreagan. And these stories and influences of the many-sided artist go on. Thanks to him, we can all put on our metaphorical noses to stand out against the norm more comfortably, in order to—as he would always say—“live large.”