Shock G’s radical imagination
Gregory “Shock G” Jacobs, who passed away on April 22 at the age of 57, embodied what scholar Robin D.G. Kelley has called “the Black radical imagination.” As a rapper, producer, pianist, writer and illustrator, he created an artistic world centered in humanism. It was a psychedelic landscape filled with libidinous energy, political fervor, goofy humor and quirky, P-funk-inflected animation.
There’s a lingering sense that the world didn’t quite know what to do with Shock G’s myriad talents—whether it was the hip-hop scene he’d followed since his years living in New York, or the Oakland rap world he celebrated in his greatest creation, Digital Underground. Had he emerged now instead of in late 1989 with “Underwater Rimes,” DU’s inspired riff on Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie,” he could have become an animator and world creator on par with L.A. producer Flying Lotus. The mind reels at what could have transpired had he brought his infamous cartoon characters like MC Blowfish and the Assholes to Adult Swim. Years before Wu-Tang Clan, his DU collective spawned spinoff projects like Raw Fusion, Saafir, the Underground Railroad production team and, most famously, 2Pac. In a different time, they would have been covered in the media as an emerging Panther funk empire instead of blithely ignored as regional fodder.
Even Kelley himself neglects to include Digital Underground in a roll call of imaginative Golden Age rap icons for Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, his 2002 book which lays out a new sensibility informed by socialist theory and surrealist poetry, (The ingeniously creative Bay Area rapper Del the Funky Homosapien does get a shout out.). Perhaps Kelley associated DU with “The Humpty Dance,” the kitschy yet beloved Billboard Top 10 hit that dominated night clubs, frat parties and radio stations throughout the summer of 1990, and little else from their sprawling repertoire.
DU’s debut album Sex Packets is more than just a critically acclaimed P-funk update that happened to spawn a left-field novelty hit. Heard today, it stands out for its thematic range, from its bizarrely fascinating appropriation of sexual aids used by astronauts in “The Packet Man” to a protest against crack addiction in “Danger Zone.” The classic “Freaks of the Industry” is remembered for its intensely X-rated funk vibes, and a seductive verse from Shock G that involves plenty of cherries and whipped cream. Less remembered is how he elevates his partner as an equally freaky participant: “She said, ‘I like it when you scream, baby let yourself go.’”
Fair play and a sense of justice pervade Shock G’s work. Tracks like “Family of the Underground” and “Cherry Flava’d Email” bustle with weathered studio vets and street rappers alike. On “My Opinion,” from his underrated 2004 solo venture Fear of a Mixed Planet, he allows Numskull from Oakland duo Luniz to spew racist and sexist verses about Mexicans, Native Americans and others, only to respond, “I think I’m crazy to let you talk that shit on my album / We got bigger problems than the homeless / Shootin’ ’em ain’t gonna solve ’em.” He seemed careful with language, and rarely referred to women as “bitches.” However, listeners will remember when he rapped, “If you hit me then I’ll hit you back” on “Kiss You Back,” a sentiment that may not sound as egalitarian now.
Still, in contrast to the speculative fictions of Afrofuturism—a movement which nowadays looks tragically co-opted by military/industrial culture corporations headed by right-wing plutocrats—the Black radical imagination calls for a total transformation of modern society. Shock G may not have completely earned his proper due in his lifetime. But you can hear his dream in songs like “Keep It Beautiful”: “Compassion is the only way that we gon’ make it now / So forgive me, but I’m going to be that rapper still wearing a smile.”