DUST IT OFF: Digital Underground’s “Sex Packets”… 25 years later

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The first I heard about Digital Underground was by taking a chance when I went to Tower Records on 82nd in Portland, Oregon back in the fall of 1989. I was in the cassingle section when I saw the word “Doowutchyalike” and the phrase Digital Underground right on the front. In my mind, maybe this was electronic music or some kind of odd dance music, maybe along the lines of M|A|R|R|S, Bomb The Bass, or Simon Harris. To be honest, their name sounded like something within the Kraftwerk family so I was expecting that. Rap artists weren’t using the word digital often throughout the 1980’s and the tape was not in the rap section so there was no way I knew what it was or what type of music it could be. The cover was illustrated, and all I concentrated on was the name of the tape, I didn’t bother to see the other titles until I got in the car, so I never saw “Hip-Hop Doll” until after the fact.

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The song begins with a drum beat and a nice amount of tape hiss, so I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any more than this. Did I have to turn it up. I hear a synth bass melody before I recognized the “OOH!” sample from Parliament’s “Flashlight”, then Doug E. Fresh saying “I see guys and girls dancin'”, then returning to the “OOH!” again. All of a sudden, a voice comes into the song at an odd spot in the track, and it felt weird:
Now as the record spins around, you recognize this sound
well, it’s the underground,
you know that we’re down with what you like

In thirty seconds, I managed to discover one of the funkiest songs I had heard that year, in a year that already gave me 3 Feet High And Rising and Paul’s Boutique. I was more surprised that this was a rap tape, but Digital Underground seemed like an un-rap name to call an artist. It was just weird but I couldn’t get enough. Then I discover the song had three rappers, or was it four? Could it be two? Now why do I hear other voices sped up, are these voices made by one of the guys in this Underground group? The song is then interrupted by a station identification, fades out, beeps, and then comes back. What the hell just happened? Did this song fade out on the tape and come back like a radio show? “Hip-Hop Doll” seemed somewhat odd too and when I say odd, hip-hop songs are traditionally 4/4 with generally 16-bars for a verse. With “Hip-Hop Doll”, you really had to concentrate at first to figure out where the bars started or where a verse began or ended. With those two songs, I wondered if Digital Underground would ever come out with an album but I discovered the news in the new year.

  • When Sex Packets was released on Tuesday, March 27, 1990, it was one of the first albums to be released in what I called the year of uncertainty for hip-hop. I say uncertainty because I wasn’t sure if hip-hop was going to continue to be as big and powerful as I felt it was or if the music industry felt it was a fad and decided to give up on it. Fortunately, artists and labels were not ready to make anything a thing of the past. I remember picking up the tape and seeing who Digital Underground might be, that it’s more than just Shock G. and Humpty Hump, although Humpty was not on the cover. I did see DJ Fuze and Money B., so it was time to figure out who this Underground were. I was familiar with the group’s new single, “The Humpty Dance”, as it was becoming out of the hottest songs of the early months of 1990. I remember seeing the video and knowing the group had Shock G. and Humpty Hump and I was thinking “wait: these guys are one and the same. Someone is incognito and letting people know he’s two different people. Let’s see how far this goes.” You never quite saw both of them at the same time, Shock G is seen as the slighly off-member of the group while Humpty was just completely off his rocker, and had a fake nose. Despite the novelty factor, it was one hell of a song that was highlighted by sampling Sly & The Family Stone’s “Sing A Simple Song”, specifically the right channel. By moving the balance on one side of the stereo spectrum, it eliminated the horns and organ, so all you heard were the drums. That would become one of the most used samples of the 1990’s but “The Humpty Dance” had so many highlights to choose from: lyrical reference to doing the 69, saying MC Hammer looked like he smoked crack, getting busy in the Burger King bathroom, and as someone who is Hawaiian, I celebrated when Humpty gave a shout out to Samoans. This was easily one of the most warped rap songs I had ever heard and I wanted to know what else this group had to offer. Oh, there was more.

  • The first new song on the tape was “The Way We Swing”, and I immediately caught the guitar sample: Band Of Gypsys’ “Who Knows”. It was nice to year a Jimi Hendrix sample on here and for Buddy Miles’ voice to be part of the song. The song sounded bluesy due to the sample and it was a bit of a throwback without it being old school, it wanted to say that it was a throwback to the era of Hendrix, which for the song was New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. We were flashing back to 20 years so it was a bit of a cultural and musical reference. The song also lasted longer than the norm (close to seven minutes) and in fact, some of the album’s stronger songs were that lengthy and felt like the extended songs you’d hear on a rock or soul album, while you’d enjoy the single edits on the radio. If you very much wanted more of what you’d like, you’d go to the album so Digital Undergroup seemed to bring back the era and vibe of the jam back into the tightly created rap art form.

  • “Hip-Hop Doll” came up next and then it was followed by “Underwater Rimes (Remix)” and at the time I wondered about it. If this was a remix, where was the original version? I hadn’t been aware the group had released a single in 1988, so I learned “Underwater Rimes” was the group’s true origin, at least on wax. I remember an early MTV interview where Shock G. talked about the B-side in depth, called “Your Life’s A Cartoon”, and mentioned how the song was as in-depth as a Bruce Springsteen song with the kind of lyrics with detail and a story that is meant to be heard and analyzed. At the time, I was unable to find anyone in the Bay Area to get me a copy (I would find someone to make me a cassette dub of it a few years later) but I thought if these guys aren’t afraid to make a casual Springsteen reference just like that, then they are much more than just guys who are able to make funny references at every turn.

    Back to “Underwater Rimes”, what struck me was the bassline, which was very much a recreation of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and again, it was a recreation, not a direct sample. Digital Underground weren’t afraid to play with what could be sampled and what couldn’t, or how it was to be sampled and heard. Also, Shock G. introduced two more characters into the scene, MC Blowfish (who was also pictured on the inner sleeve) and The Computer Woman, who was originally heard in “Doowutchyalike”.

  • “Rhymin’ On The Funk” was great because it was another song that showed Digital Underground were admirers of the P-Funk empire, what they’d self-proclaim as the Sons Of The P, and the song also offered another twist: Money B. said he too was Humpty Hump. I wondered if Money B. was Humpty, then who is really Humpty, or who was Shock G.? Is Shock G. really Money B.? I liked what they were doing, even if at the time I didn’t know why.

  • “The New Jazz (One)” sounded a bit like the Prince side-project Madhouse, complete with Run-DMC scratches heard through out, and this brief interlude lead us to “The Danger Zone” with yet another Parliament sample. This time, Shock G. brought the listener deep into the inner city when one might get caught up in the world of drugs and violence. The song also featured a verse from D.U. member Kenny Walters, b/k/a Kenny K. The song featured a siren where we discover a woman had a crack overdose and while someone is trying to help her, the ambulance never shows up.

  • Side 1 ends with “Doowutchalike” and with the exception of “Underwater Rimes (Remix)” and “The New Jazz (One)”, every song is over five minutes, most over six. This was not your normal rap album and I felt if this was what the 90’s were going to be like, they may end up being one of my favorite groups.

    As for The Piano Man, while it was credited that Shock G. played piano and keyboards in the song and throughout the album, the truth is that it was Rodney Franklin who played in “Doowutchalike”, “The New Jazz (One)”, “Freaks OF The Industry” and “Packet Prelude”. Franklin is a pianist based out of Berkeley and had played on a lot of jazz and soul albums before releasing his own albums on the Prestige, Columbia, and Atlantic labels in the 1980’s. In an interview last year, Shock G. revealed Franklin was the piano man specifically for the Sex Packets album but he would continue to share and expand his talents on future D.U. releases.
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  • Side 1 said it was the “Safe Side” but Side 2 would be the “Sex Side”, which begins with the ultra-sexy “Freaks Of The Industry”. Sex rhymes could be found throughout hip-hop, whether you wanted Too $hort or the Ghetto/Geto Boys but this just sounded nice and sleazy, moist and meaty, hard and soft, a need to compare skin tones for the hell of it. It was nice to hear Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” as the song’s primary sample, and when Money B. states that it all begins with the birds and the bees, and then gets a bit more complex and raunchy, even enjoying the freckles on someone’s face or elsewhere. When Shock G. makes reference to Vanesse, not the lady with the singing career but the X-rated video queen, things get more adventurous, especially when he refers to “the booty starts makin’ that clappin’ sound”. Despite the fact the verse refers to “you take it out and put it in het butt” and “I hit it and split it, lick it and quit it”, it never gets as raw and explicit as Too $hort or the Geto Boys would, but it is nasty enough to where it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. You’re listening to a porn lay out in song and your Cinemax After Hours tapes with the highlights was just a nice side effect.

  • “Gutfest ’89” was one of the cassettes tape-only tracks and easily one of the best songs on the album, for we were now entering a possible orgy, a gangbang, a group sex extravaganza and a music festival that was a concert I could’ve went to: Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, The Who, The Clash, EPMD, and Digital Underground. That’s a fantasy come true, and then for it to take part in something called Gutfest? Who didn’t want to get down to music and some crazy guts? The song gets off with two fine samples, Dexter Wansel’s “Theme From The Planets” and Johnny Pate’s “Shaft In Africa”, both of which are partly the reasons why DJ Shadow used both to create his “Lesson 4” as a means to honor his Bay Area representatives. What I also liked is, as someone who had just finished high school, the idea of an actual Gutfest was like a dream come true, even if I had no idea how to get to something like it or how I would be able to pay for admittance. Nonetheless, they made up a fantasy world that didn’t have to be exclusive to the world of rap music, it was a world Digital Underground wanted everyone to belong in. Another cool element about the song was that the music was assembled by David Elliott, a/k/a DJ Fuze (b/k/a Goldfingers), so it was he who was involved in assembling the Wansel and Pate samples.

  • “Sounds Of The Underground” highlighted DJ Fuze and Money B., whom we would later discover they had their own group known as Raw Fusion and this song was their way of letting people know Digital Underground was not just Shock G. and his numerous pseudonyms and all of his friends. I always liked how Fuze scratched The D.O.C.’s “It’s FunkY Enough” throughout but after hearing how hot this song was, one couldn’t wait to find out what Raw Fusion could offer (which they did when they were signed to HollywoodBASIC, a hip-hop subsidiary of Disney that would also sign Organized Konfusion and DJ Shadow).
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  • Another song I loved was “A Tribute To The Early Days”, which wasn’t only the old school personified, but it sounded like a tape dub someone made from a radio show remembered but long gone, complete with massive tape hiss. It was just a casual freestyle laid over The Olympic Runners’ “Put the Music Where Your Mouth Is” (also sampled later by DJ Shadow in “Lesson 4″) and even though it was pre-recorded in the studio, it felt like all of us heard that in some radio show many years ago.
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  • The album concludes with the Sex Packets mini-opera and it begins with a “Packet Prelude” before starting up the suite with another Parliament gem, the live version of “Dr. Funkenstein”. One of the song’s other core samples is Prince & The Revolution’s “She’s Always In My Hair” and it is here where we learn what these Sex Packets really are. We see an image on the cover but it looked like a condom packet. Instead, we discover that it’s sex in pill form, where you’re supposed to take the pill, imagine yourself in any scenario and have an orgasm without having to touch yourself. Recorded during the decade when the AIDS virus became a major concern, the 1990’s was a way to discover and rediscover what could and couldn’t be done. Tommy Boy Records even hyped up a story claiming Shock G. was ready to invent these sex packets and have them ready by the time the album came out. When the album was released, there was a minor story claiming that these packets were on their way very soon. On top of that, Tommy Boy even released promotional sex packets to the media where one could tear up the packet and see what happened. My packet consisted of a photo of an interracial lesbian couple. Being 19 years old, I was more than curious on if this thing was going to work so yeah, I slapped on the song “Sex Packets”, tore up the packet and popped the pill in my mouth. It tasted like a lemon candy and in fact, that’s all it was. The lemon candy was nothing more than a promotional tool for the album and as for those who found themselves nude with a torn packet nearby, they were out of luck, although there was still very good music coming out of the speakers.

    The song then goes into a “Street Scene” where we hear how someone is able to get their own packets before they became legal. You had to find a dealer who sold them and whatever scenario you wanted in your mind, you could have it by popping it in, but you had to meet up with the “Packet Man” first. He would then tell you how much it was, not to go overboard, and then have fun. The suite and album ends with “Packet Reprise” and by the end, you realize you went through a very exhausting experience through funky sounds, incredible concepts and a sense of imagination.

    The world Digital Underground expressed on Sex Packets was very much what was going on in the Bay Area circa late 80’s, but it was not just the Bay Area people wanted to express from a rap group. It also chose to explore a side of the Bay Area people may have known through other means: its sexy side. It basically said that when it comes to pleasure, it shouldn’t be limited to one or two groups, it can be celebrated by everyone. If the Bay Area was known for its sexual openness and freedoms, Digital Underground wanted to let people know they knew all the hot spots to find what you want and where you need to get it. Sex Packets wasn’t an album limited to ones horniness or potential to get and remain hard, it also shared a sense of humor that also belonged to anyone and everyone. On top of that, all of it was united by the soul and the funk, all tied in with the greatest musical sponge known as hip-hop. Everyone in Digital Underground placed their role so while Gregory Jacobs rightfully deserves the credit for coming up with various concepts, lyrics, and his many personas, people like Money B., DJ Fuze, Schmoovy Schmoov, Chopmaster J, and Sleuth were all a part of the crew too. It was Jacobs, a/k/a Shock G., a/k/a Humpty Hump, a/k/a MC Blowfish, a/k/a The Computer Woman who made this masterpiece work and without him, hip-hop would not enter the next phase back in 1990.