Melody Maker | Feature | 16 September 1989
"Lots of people have said we're similar to De La Soul simply because we're with the same record company in America and we both have an alternative perception of hip hop. But the fact that we're both trying to do something new with rap doesn't mean we have the same ideas. Digital Underground do not sound anything like De La, nor do we have a concept to match all that stuff about the Daisy Age. With Digital Underground, we're talking about a totally different kind of oddity."
You'll be hearing a lot about this totally different kind of oddity in the next few months. Signed to the auspicious Tommy Boy label earlier this year, Digital Underground's "Doowutchyalike" single was one of the best selling imports of the summer. Now it's been released as the group's first UK record by the independent BCM imprint. Following the lead of Melody Maker, it has been made Single of the Week by most of the other music papers, a rare accolade for a previously unknown act.
The interest in Digital Underground is partly because, like De La Soul, they are determined to undermine the common view of hip hop and push the genre into fresh areas of ingenuity. The complicated arrangement of "Doowutchyalike" owes more to jazz than any other musical style. There's even a lengthy piano solo which sounds like the work of Oscar Peterson. The song's slowed-down and loosened-up P-funk groove is spiced with all manner of quirky noises and voices, including the gurgling of somebody introduced as Baby Dope.
The only immediately recognisable sample on "Doowutchyalike" is Chic's "Good Times". With the B-side, "Hip Hop Doll", they steal from sources dating back to the 1940s. It's been described as the first ever ragtime rap track. These guys don't only take from other people's records. They take liberties.
"All we're doing is following our own advice – we're doing what we like, when we like, how we like," laughs Shock G, one of the group's two lead rappers. "What we're saying is that it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, upper class or lower class, if you're black, white or candy-striped. Who gives a fuck? The trouble is everybody's running around with their butts clenched tight, their eyes bulging out of their sockets. They're all tensed up because every little thing is considered to be important. That's why the modern world is in such a fucked up state."
Digital Underground are based in Oakland, California, but they have conspicuously distanced themselves from the current hype about West Coast rap. Instead, they declare that they're an "all Atlantic, all Pacific, all city hip hop and dance music dynasty" and say they have no interest in territorial rivalries of any description. They'd never come up with a track along the lines of Eazy-E's "Boys 'N The Hood".
The reason for this is largely because the various members of the DU crew were brought up in different parts of America – in New York and Florida as well as California. Having met each other through a small circle of mutual friends in the early 1980s, the three central figures of DU – Shock G, his rapping partner Money B, and DJ Fuse – spent several years trading words and sounds over the telephone, eventually forming the group towards the end of 1986. They had to do something to pay off their astronomical phone bills.
Others have been recruited since then and, according to Shock G, a veritable army of some 20 people now contribute to the Digital Underground sound. No wonder they prefer to think of themselves as an orchestra rather than a group. Alongside the main triumvirate, there's the cigar sucking, bowler hatted and somewhat bloated MC Blowfish and the lanky Humpty Hump, a gentleman with an unhealthy love of obscenely patterned kipper ties. There's also MC Dazzle, Cool Kitty K, Kenny K and Curly Teeth.
Name who you like, each is ridiculously larger than life. Some of the names belong to real people and some are alter-egos.
"We've got street DJs and MCs who've been raised on a diet of hip hop," says Shock G. "We've got rappers who couldn't whistle in the right key let alone sing. We've got vocalists who can't rap, not even a Christmas gift much less on a microphone. People like the great Smoothie Smooth. He's got this Seventies vocal style that's as raw as Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. He even looks like them. Both of them. Then we've got technical wizards who work the computers and the drum machines, and we've got musicians such as our pianist Chopmaster J.
"Each individual has his own set of influences, from Jimi Hendrix to Erroll Garner via George Clinton, from hip hop to doo-wop, from jazz and R&B to funk and rock. Sometimes we'll combine any two, three or more styles and sometimes we'll stick to just one. It depends on whoever is getting involved in the track. There's often plenty of different things happening in our songs, but that doesn't mean we're not into the idea of doing a simple rap over a basic beat. We like doing real straight stuff, real hardcore stuff too."
"Doowutchyalike" is taken from Digital Underground's first LP, "Sex Packets", which will be released in the UK this November. The title is derived from the name of a sexual stimulant created by Edward Earl Cook, a Californian university lecturer and sometime scientific adviser to NASA, following the discovery that astronauts perform their duties better when they are sexually satisfied. American space flights have apparently carried rations of sex packets for some time and the pills are now proving to be popular on the West Coast underground drug scene.
"You take one of these pills and it basically puts you to sleep for a couple of minutes, during which time you have a wet dream," explains Shock G. "There's nothing to worry about though, the orgasms aren't particularly powerful. They make you a bit damp rather than blow the roof off."
Are you speaking from experience?
"Yeah, but when we came to writing a track about these pills, I have to admit we were guilty of a little elaboration. The ones I've seen come in a clear packet, so we decided it would be great to have celebrity packets, packets with photos of famous people on the front. The idea is you hallucinate that you're having sex with that particular person. I'm sure Sheena Easton and Vanessa Williams would be pretty popular, and for the girls there'd be a Mickey Rourke or an MC Hammer. Can you imagine one of them dancing around and stripping off in your own front room?"
Alongside Digital Underground's ever apparent sense of the absurd, they have some serious messages to impart. It's a question of balancing your funny bone on top of your head. The group's debut single in the US, "Your Life's A Cartoon", was one of the first records aimed at raising black consciousness and "Packet Man" is the story of a drug dealer. Never mind that he's only pushing wet dreams. A nightmare could be right around the corner.
"In another of the songs on the album we take a stab at beauty pageants," says Shock G. "Those things treat women like shit. All they do is reinforce a stupid stereotypical male view of what a beautiful woman is supposed to look like and make girls think they're inferior if they don't have the right curves or the right coloured eyes or skin. The girls in the pageants might as well be naked in cages.
"I think all women should be treated like queens, because that's exactly what they are. Where the hell would we be without them? They've been looked upon as being second to men for too long and it's only in the last 50 years or so they've begun to find their freedom. We're with them all the way. Not that that means we're a bunch of saps. We still like to freak with the ones we're close to.
"In the end, it comes down to respect. Don't take this personally, but before the Europeans started messing in Africa, the people acted brotherly towards each other and towards animals and plants and the natural world. Animals were only killed when people had to eat or they needed fur for clothing or bones for tools. These days, space projects and nuclear weapons are more of a priority. We don't hold with that. The most important thing about Digital Underground is we're pro-people."