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Remembering Shock G, the Funky Digital Underground Frontman Who Shaped Oakland Rap

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Shock G of Digital Underground performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards in 2010 in Atlanta. Shock G died Thursday at age 57.
Shock G of Digital Underground performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards in 2010 in Atlanta. Shock G died Thursday at age 57. (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

Shock G once named himself “the one who put the satin on your panties.”

Any deep dive into classic literature, be it Beowulf or The Iliad, won’t reveal a more puissant epithet. The passing of the former Digital Underground frontman/avatar comes as a, yes, shock to many, G. It reverberates with the recent passing of iconic rap figures like Black Rob, DMX and MF Doom—a sign that hip-hop has matured to the point where its heroes are becoming ancestors.

As you read this, local social media pages have been filling up with heartfelt tributes and remembrances of Shock, who passed away of unknown causes on April 22 at age 57. (He died in Tampa, Florida, the city where the New York native spent his adolescence and young adulthood before relocating to Oakland.) People have shared stories about buying early cassettes from the artist, real name Gregory Jacobs, on Telegraph Avenue, and discoursing about film, art, and food on tour buses. One story finds him randomly showing up at Albany’s Ivy Room to rock an impromptu 15-minute freestyle, rapping through headphones to Brick’s “Dazz.” There are many other stories circulating about this hip-hop legend, a man who came along at a time when Bay Area hip-hop was beginning to heft national gravitas and helped push it over the hump. His contributions to local music culture remain truly significant.

Funny and provocative, Shock allegedly “once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.” But he also put Tupac, Saafir and Mystic on and produced Pac’s “So Many Tears,” “Rebel of the Underground,” and “Changes.” Inspired by Parliament-Funkadelic, Shock dubbed his erstwhile bandmates “Sons of the P” and revived the conceptual approach that separated George Clinton’s groups from the rest of the funkateers, creating urban mythos around aphrodisiac pills and full-body condoms. Underrated as a rapper, he nevertheless contributed a deceptively-smooth verse to perhaps the Bay Area-est rap song of all time, the remix of the Luniz’ “I Got Five On It.” Shock held his ground alongside Yukmouth, Numskull, E-40, Dru Down, Spice-1 and Richie Rich. The half-rapped, half-sung lyrics sum up his ethos: “still bringing satin for them drawers, velvet for the mic, and a pound for the cause.”

Most notably, he led the greatest hip-hop band not named The Roots or Stetsasonic, skillfully blending live instrumentation with P-Funk samples, turntables and rhymes that often ended up being catch phrases. Digital Underground crafted a unique identity in the burgeoning ’90s hip-hop field as the “Freaks of the Industry,” to name-check a classic song from Digital Underground’s 1990 debut album, Sex Packets, which sold more than one million copies. The song was never officially released as a single. But that didn’t stop the promo-only 12” from becoming a radio and club favorite that still clocked spins and rocked parties decades after its release.

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Despite the salacious overtones of many of their songs, DU were a very nuanced and diverse group who covered a broad range of topics. For all the whimsical humor and self-clowning of their biggest hit, “The Humpty Dance,” they were equally capable of making poignant pleas for unity (“The Same Song”), togetherness (“Wassup Wit The Luv?”) and emotional resonance (“Heartbeat Props”). They made party anthems like “Doowhutchyalike” and “Kiss You Back,” but also injected social commentary in unexpected places, as on “No Nose Job,” a subtle dig at artists who dilute their image to chase pop stardom and commercial success. Their live shows were known for their energy—a major reason why they remained a touring act well into the late 2000s.

If DU was the hip-hop equivalent of a circus act, Shock G was its ringleader, a man of many talents who rapped, sang, produced, played the piano and designed cover artwork. Years after their success had faded, in 2004, he released a solo album, Fear of a Mixed Planet—which I flagged as one of the year’s best albums in an East Bay Express holiday round-up: “Digital Underground founder Shock G will always be linked to his colorful, proboscis-flaunting alter ego Humpty Hump, but there’s more to him than just a nose.” Specifically, the Tupac tribute “Keep It Beautiful” stood out for “a poignancy that has all but disappeared from rap music.”

At the height of their success in the early ’90s, DU toured with Public Enemy. Their show at the Shoreline Amphitheater easily kept pace with Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s frenetic tone. Two decades later, Shock closed Oakland’s Life Is Living festival with a remarkable solo set that showcased all his talents: rapping, singing, and playing the keyboards. The set felt like a gift to Oakland, the adopted home with which he will forever be identified.

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