If George Clinton’s Parliafunkadeliment Thang served as the musical basis for an overwhelming number of hip-hop releases in the late ’80s and early ’90s, nobody in hip-hop took P-Funk’s high-concept, African collectivism, democratic method and loony attitude more seriously than Digital Underground. Skilled Berkeley multi-instrumentalist Shock G (Greg Jacobs) was the group’s inventive overlord, orchestrating complex song and performance structures that would allow for maximum rump-shaking individualist anarchy. When it worked, Digital Underground threw a peerless kind of conscious party, sharing more with the big funk bands of the ’70s and contemporary punk-funkers like Fishbone than any hip-hop peers. When it didn’t, they merely seemed weird.
Digital Underground made its first mark in 1988 with a couple of funny (ha-ha, not funny peculiar) independent singles: “Your Life’s a Cartoon” and “Doowutchyalike.” By 1990, they were signed to Tommy Boy and ready to unload a sack of conceptual metaphors. As an appropriate vehicle to disclose and liberate America’s uptightness, the group invented (and fashioned its debut album around) the fiction of “sex packets,” concentrated doses of orgasm more seductive than Prince and more addictive than crack — but safer than the real thing. On Sex Packets, alongside the imaginative fun, the Underground take a more direct approach in the irresistible nastiness of “Freaks of the Industry,” the Hendrixy “The Way We Swing” and the aquaboogie of “Underwater Rimes.” Aiming to create the ideal space where everyone could safely locate their own funk, they achieved it on the ridiculously bumping “Humpty Dance” (introducing Shock G’s brilliant Groucho Marx-styled comic alter-ego, the nerdy and nasal Humpty Hump) and “Doowutchyalike.” A monumental and mad-fun debut.
The six-song This Is an E.P. Release keeps the joint jumping with less concept and more hilarity and muscular musicality. “Nuttin’ Nis Funky” showcases DJ Fuze working two copies of Miles Davis’ “Back Seat Betty” while the crew lights up the microphones. The fear-of- matrimony “Tie the Knot” comes from the soundtrack of Nothing but Trouble (the EP cites the disastrous 1991 film in which the Underground appears by its working title, Valkenvania). There’s a silly historical debate between Shock-G and Humpty Hump entitled “Arguin’ on the Funk.” And “Same Song” (plus an augmented remix of “The Way We Swing”) introduced the world to Digital denizen Tupac Shakur.
The free-floating Underground expanded — no less than 18 rhymers appear on Sons of the P — and attempted to consolidate itself as the rightful heirs of Clinton’s throne on its second album. Unfortunately, Sons of the P lacks an idea as engaging or any grooves as grand as those on Sex Packets. Only the super-stupid “No Nose Job” (in which Humpty frantically resists Michael Jackson-like surgery) and the sublimely spare title track, in which George Clinton himself passes the torch to his spiritual children, reaches the debut’s heights.
In the intervening two years before the release of The “Body-Hat” Syndrome, members of the Underground went on to varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. The charismatic Tupac Shakur started on his way to stardom with Shock G-produced singles like “I Get Around.” Meanwhile, Raw Fusion — a longstanding duo of DJ Fuze (David Elliot) and the Underground’s number-two rapper, Money B (Ron Brooks), that returned for the mothership’s next flight — cut a forgettable, uneven debut, Live From the Styleetron. (Hoochiefied Funk is no better, a dull slow-groove sex collection with none of the Underground’s wit or character.)
At 75 minutes, the CD version of The “Body-Hat” Syndrome is essentially a double album. Musically, Digital Underground is back at the top of its game, but conceptually the group is sounding the retreat. Where “Sex Packets” liberated, “Body Hats” insulates the crew, condom- like, from the world’s evils. The seven-and-a-half- minute “Doo Woo You” is a subtle diss directed at the record label, which turned down two versions of the album. “The Humpty Dance Awards” takes a swipe at pop copyists. On the other hand, Humpty Hump’s manic “The Return of the Crazy One,” the insinuating “Digital Lover” (in which Humpty argues “You need a Biblical brother!”), the gorgeous “Wussup wit the Luv” and all the appearances of young Oakland rhymer Saafir the Saucee Nomad are standout moments in a massive undertaking.
Saafir’s own album, which appeared the following year, has promisingly jazz-flecked beats and a pleasant flow, but the rapper’s lyrics are hollow, crude and obnoxious. “Worship the dick”? Oh, grow up.