PERMANENT RECORDS: FREAKS OF THE INDUSTRY
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change.
45. DIGITAL UNDERGROUND - SEX PACKETS (1990)
Personnel: Shock G, Money B, Chopmaster J, DJ Fuse, Schmoovy-Schmoov; guest stars: Humpty Hump & MC Blowfish
Producer: Digital Undergound /Label: Tommy Boy
"Are you guys old school, new school, r&b, or hip hop?" an anonymous person asks Shock G at the beginning of "The Way We Swing," the second track on Sex Packets, the debut album by Northern California's Digital Underground. The song itself is an explanation of sorts, convoluted in its language, placing less importance on information than on Shock's verbal dexterity, the words he uses trumping what he actually says. "The Way We Swing" attempts to elucidate that which cannot be elucidated, and so it's fitting that the poetry tumbles in on itself. Digital Underground, as a group, were difficult to compartmentalize, and it would take more than six minutes--or the words in this essay--to nail everything down. The most important element is all you really walk away with: that MCs, fans, and the band itself likes the sound being made. And when the song is done, you like the sound of the Underground, too.
It's almost hard to remember a time when rap and hip hop were possessed of a seemingly unlimited capacity for creativity, where anything could go and usually did. When Sex Packets came out, Dr. Dre and The Chronic were just around the corner, and that disc would begin to solidify the foundation of mainstream hip hop, for better or for worse, to spawn endless deviations of the same. Hip hop was about to become serious business, and nothing else would be entertained. In some ways, the Underground would orchestrate their own demise, blazing a trail with the kind of P-Funk samples that would become a cornerstone of the West Coast sound and elevating Tupac Shakur from a back-up dancer to a performer, but when they debuted on the scene, there was nothing else like them.
Back then, rap was already mainly about boasting, but groups celebrated their lyrical skills rather than the cars they would eventually have repossessed and the criminal activities they allegedly indulged in. The Underground would not spend just one song promoting their untouchable style, but would immediately follow with a second, "Rhymin' on the Funk," where Shock and his rap partner Money B would decree, "We solemnly swear to never bust a style that's bunk." The track after it is titled "The New Jazz (One)." The first half of Sex Packets is like a blueprint for a music group, a map for where they were going, for all the things they intended to encompass. Funk, Jazz, hip hop...and whatever else their ears fell upon. "Gutfest '89" is an epic narrative of a massive party and music festival. It begins with Shock G broadcasting from the event, posing as a reporter named Phil, explaining what Gutfest attendees can expect from the weekend. Surely it's telling that the first three bands he mentions as performing are the Who, the Clash, and Digital Underground, drawing a lineage of bands that mattered, lumping his own in with rock groups. The only hip-hop band mentioned is EPMD, and the jazz stage will feature Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, and Miles Davis--all innovators and cross-over artists.
With these influences under their arms, the group cooked up amazing things in the studio. Perhaps their philosophy was best summed up by one of their singles, "Doowutchyalike," a party jam telling everyone to do as they pleased and not be ashamed. The song is all forward momentum, sampled ooh-ooh's, a simple bass line, drums that shimmered at a steady pace, scratches like cheers. Midway through the song, at the radio-friendly three-and-a-half minute mark, a female operator informs all DJs that the record will fade on their behalf, only to come back up for anyone bumping the track at a party, where one need not be restrained. By this point, it's no surprise when the song suddenly breaks down and a free-form piano solo takes over, becoming a new voice on the number. The rest of Sex Packets is imbued with the same spirit. Any of the songs could go anywhere, from the dirty sex party of "Freaks of the Industry" to the oddball remix of "Underwater Rhymes," which seems to exist merely as an excuse to rap with filters on the vocals and give Shock's Edward G. Robinson-imitating MC Blowfish a place to take center stage. Digital Underground were not an overly serious rap group who were afraid to have fun.
In fact, Blowfish was one of two characters Shock played. The other, the large-nosed Humpty Hump, ended up being more famous than the man behind the proboscis, and his anthem was Digital Underground's biggest hit. "The Humpty Dance" didn't quite crack the top 10, surprisingly, but it was everywhere, pushing Sex Packets to platinum status. A goofball single hearkening back to manufactured dance phenoms like "The Twist," it introduces the band's court jester, a musical prank that took on a life of its own. Though the identity of Humpty Hump seemed pretty obvious, from the sound of the voice to the facial features not obscured by the fake snout, Shock G went to great lengths to foster the illusion that he and Humpty Hump were two people, going so far as to have stand-ins onstage to play either identity when he was in the other. I know I had at least one argument at the time with someone who wouldn't believe that it was just one guy. Go figure.
"The Humpty Dance" was a step above a novelty single, its slithering bass line and its sense of humor making it unforgettable. Humpty Hump was a braggart who exposed his own oafishness with his inane boasts. "I like the girls with the boom/ I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom," is perhaps the most famous. "Ya know I'm in charge/ Both how I'm livin' and my nose is large." It's a goofy shtick, but it works, allowing Shock G to tear through the braggadocio of the rap world without really exposing himself, freeing Digital Underground from the crippling need to pursue an image of "authenticity" while also emphasizing the importance of performance. There's no other rapper who is so deep into his alter ego that you might consider that guise to be its own entity. Part of this success is that the band trots the character out sparingly. Humpty's only on two songs on Sex Packets, and he doesn't even appear on the album cover. Eminem invokes the name of Slim Shady so often, it's impossible to tell the two apart, much less figure out where his supposedly "real" identity of Marshall Mathers fits in.
But such is the nature of Digital Underground. As I've emphasized all along, there is no easy path here, no dipping your toe in. They're going to pull you in and expose you to the entire world they've created. It's not just about the sound, it's about the experience. If the first half of Sex Packets is meant to establish the terrain, then the second half is the payoff, a grouping of the five songs from which the album takes its title.
This is where the long-arm of Pete Townshend suddenly becomes evident, when Sex Packets becomes a concept record. One can even feel echoes of Townshend's unrealized, futuristic Lifehouse opera in the concept: in a society where sex has become unsafe, science steps in. Instead of the regular drugs, dealers on the street now sell "sex packets," condom-shaped sleeves smuggling pills that when ingested will give the user a fully realized, virtual-reality fantasy featuring the girl pictured on the cover. All varieties of females are available, you just have to choose. (Adding to the Underground's prankster mentality, false announcements about actual sex packets being developed by NASA were sent out by Shock G and fooled a couple of real-life media outlets.)
The cycle of Sex Packets songs plays like a sci-fi blacksploitation picture. "Packet Prelude" is the overture, just a simple, meandering piano leading to Shock exclaiming, "It's so real!" A disembodied answer assures him, "It is real." This leads into the title track, another mellow roll where the concept is explained, sometimes in utopian terms: "It's not what it seems/ there's love."
Third in the line-up is "Street Scene," a skit about a guy looking to score that sets up the energetic "Packet Man," where a buyer who sounds suspiciously like Humpty Hump haggles with a dealer over his merchandise. "Packet Man" is the concept's Isaac Hayes number, complete with a horn section and bouncing rhythm. Despite the illegality of his enterprise, the Packet Man is providing a service: "There's only one thing safer then using your hand/ Dial that beeper number, and call the packet man." He is a kind of urban antihero, and yet the end of the song takes us back to the characters of "Street Scene," the first man so caught up in the throes of his packet addiction, he's willing to do anything--including trade his TV and VCR--to get another pill. One can't build a utopia without pulling it down.
"Packet Reprise" closes it all off, returning us to the piano of "Packet Prelude," taking us out on a dream melody, the slowed-down, deeply buried pulse of a bass drum.
The finale is the ultimate payoff for the Digital Underground promise. It's the realization of all their claims to being "the microphone masters/ known to MCs as the raw dog bastards." The way they end up swinging is only limited by what crazy things they can come up with, and it's proof positive to the hip-hop community that this particular genre of music has unlimited potential. Too bad the mainstream wasn't paying more attention, as creative masterminds like Dan the Automator would be the norm, dominating over the safely limited P. Diddies and Kanye Wests, and we'd have hopefully gotten more than the handful of Digital Underground albums that were to follow, themselves struggling to live up to the standard of the original.
As it stands, Sex Packets exists as the concrete realization of its own internal metaphor: pop open the packet/jewel case and insert the pill/disc, then sit back and enter this brave new world of aural sensations.
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Current Soundtrack: Mogwai, Mr. Beast
Current Mood: working
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich