We’re only a few months into our Flashback ’90 series, and we’ve already unearthed about as many regrettable hits as we have certified classics — and chances are, you aren’t sure which column the Digital Underground’s Sex Packets belongs in. If you were around at the time, you probably loved the album’s big hit, “The Humpty Dance” — at least until MTV and the radio overplayed it, at which point you never wanted to hear it again. These days, “The Humpty Dance” might be good for a few minutes of ironic nostalgia, but I’d lay even odds that for most listeners, it’s worn out its welcome long before it reaches the six-and-a-half-minute mark. To a lot of people, the Digital Underground was a novelty act, which is easy to understand, given that their biggest hits center around the goofing of a guy wearing glasses and a fake nose.
But they weren’t a novelty act. They were sort of groundbreaking, in fact — and though their commercial prospects dwindled as the ’90s wore on, they remained a steady live draw until 2008, when leader Shock G (a.k.a. Humpty Hump, as well as a number of other equally ridiculous characters) pulled the plug.
More of a posse than a concrete musical group, the Digital Underground brought P-Funk’s freewheeling party vibe into the hip-hop era, fusing live instrumentation with samples before it was trendy and releasing a series of uptempo party tracks (starting with the classic “Doowhutchyalike”) populated by a rotating cast of contributors that notably included a young Tupac Shakur. Long before every other rap song came with a “feat.” credit attached, the D.U. invited everyone from George Clinton to Del tha Funkee Homosapien (and, uh, the Luniz) to be part of their songs.
And the songs were good, too — “The Humpty Dance” might have been a gag, but it was backed up with an addictive hook and some terrific lines. For pale suburban kids like me and my friends, Parliament-Funkadelic might as well have never existed; we didn’t hear the Clinton influence at all. What mattered to us was Shock G’s rubbery flow, and the way he gleefully embraced his funny looks while mixing absurd asides (“I’m spunky — I like my oatmeal lumpy”) with sexual boasts (“I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom”). Part of N.W.A.’s appeal was the way they gave you a glimpse at a different (albeit abjectly horrifying) world; what was great about Humpty Hump was that he was a little like you — and it didn’t stop him from getting down. It was a gag, but it was a life-affirming one.
Like Humpty, the D.U. was too crazy to be contained on Sex Packets — consider that this is a hip-hop concept album (uh-oh) about a glowing pill developed by the government to create real-seeming virtual sexual experiences for the user (UH-OH). Not everything works, but given the ridiculousness of the concept, the fact that anything does is a major feat. And really, Sex Packets hangs together well with or without the concept; if you’ve never listened to it, you might expect it to consist of “The Humpty Dance” and a bunch of lame filler, but it’s pretty solid — you get “The Way We Swing,” “Freaks of the Industry,” and “Packet Man,” plus “Doowhutchyalike,” “Rhymin’ on the Funk,” the wonderfully dumb “Underwater Rimes”…aside from the title track and a couple of others, there isn’t much here that doesn’t hold up surprisingly well.
The Digital Underground managed to score a handful of post-“Humpty” hits, including “Same Song,” “Kiss You Back,” and “No Nose Job,” but none of them had the same impact, and although they continued to sporadically release albums for the next 18 years, they found it harder to gain attention on the rap charts. By the time they disbanded, they’d been pretty well forgotten outside of Oakland (though their influence was still appreciated by hip-hop scholars; read the chapter about Sex Packets in the oral history collection Check the Technique).
In the years since Sex Packets‘ release, hip-hop has expanded to pretty much envelop the music marketplace, but in doing so, it’s narrowed its focus; there was once room for Public Enemy, N.W.A., and the Digital Underground, but now…well, as I write this, Timbaland and Drake have the #1 R&B/Hip-Hop single on the Billboard charts, and of the artists in the Top 10, only Ludacris comes close to that humorously hedonistic vibe. Most of what you hear now is purposely sterile — and it somehow feels darker and more claustrophic than any of the Bomb Squad’s brilliantly cluttered work. Hell, even the Digital Underground’s later albums lost the group’s earlier loose-limbed joy. Whenever the big-ticket reunion tour craze makes its way to classic hip-hop, here’s hoping there’s a fat paycheck and a few screaming arenas for Shock G and his crew.