"She was a mess," Shock recalls when we sit down for coffee in Nob Hill, "and she couldn't get out of it." But underneath the grime, Cinnamon was an aspiring poet and DJ and had an inner strength that belied her age. Shock was enamored. He told her that if she ever wanted to clean up, she could move to California and stay with him.
A few months later, she did. The move was a disaster. Like many drug addicts, Cinnamon was manic and uncontrollable, and despite Shock's watchful eye, she was unable to outrun her bad habits. On the night that Shock told her, "If you want to waste away, you can do that, but you can't do that here," things exploded. Shock remembers her erupting in a tantrum, screaming and throwing her possessions around the room. In response, he sat at his keyboard and played a lilting, loopy riff that slowly ascended before dropping into a cool wave of sustaining notes. The song would become "Cinnamon Waves," one of the strongest tracks on Shock's recently released solo debut, Fear of a Mixed Planet. Upon hearing it, Cinnamon calmed down and sat beside Shock at the keyboard.
"For me and her that night [the song] was like a drug, like the sun going around the world. She sat there smiling, and she hadn't smiled in a long time. I must have sat there playing that one riff all night. And I never lifted my foot off the sustain pedal."
Shock would only see Cinnamon twice more, and is now unable to locate her. "I didn't know where Cinnamon is," he says, "and this [song] is my best way to reach her."
It isn't the sort of story that you would expect to hear from the clown prince of Bay Area hip hop, the man best known for assuming the persona of Humpty Hump, the hip hop hedonist who helped put our city on the map with such carefree party anthems as "Doowutchalike" and "The Humpty Dance," the latter of which featured lyrics like, "My name is Humpty, pronounced with a Umpty/ Yo ladies, oh how I like to hump thee." "Cinnamon Waves," however, does reflect the more personal nature of Fear of a Mixed Planet. On it we find the expected party tunes and Parliament-era funk explorations, but the album also peers behind the curtain to provide us a glimpse at the thoughtful man in the funny glasses.
Born Gregory Jacobs in 1963, Shock moved to Oakland in 1987 and formed Digital Underground with Chopmaster J. The MC and DJ released the single "Your Life's a Cartoon"/ "Underwater Rimes" and began playing live shows around the bay. They soon attracted a local following with their funk/hip hop hybrid, and in 1989 drew national attention with the single "Doowutchalike," from their debut, Sex Packets. The song was followed in 1990 with "The Humpty Dance," which introduced the world to Shock's lascivious, ghetto-Groucho alter ego. "The Humpty Dance" reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts and became one of Bay Area hip hop's first runaway hits.
Digital Underground returned to the studio in 1991 to record This Is an EP Release with a notable new member, the young and then-unknown Tupac Shakur. Shock recognized the budding MC's talent and charisma, although he had no way of knowing that Tupac would eventually overshadow his group. On "Keep It Beautiful" from Fear of a Mixed Planet, Shock asks, "So many try to be Pac, but only cop his thug side/ How come y'all not want to be Shock, I survived."
When I ask Shock if he resents all the attention that Tupac receives, the rapper declares, "When it's about Pac, it's about me. We nested that egg. We sat on that egg. I feel proud that I was a strong pillar for someone as important as Tupac."
This Is an EP Release was soon followed by Digital Underground's second full-length, Sons of P. It was almost as successful as the act's debut -- reaching the Top 50 on Billboard's album charts and producing the hit single "Kiss You Back." Still, critics complained that Sons of P was a carbon copy of previous efforts. Not surprisingly, Shock blames his then-label, Tommy Boy.
"The record company was trying to tap into the whole Humpty thing," he recalls. "We felt that the science-fiction side of us, the abstract, psychedelic side of us, was getting sacrificed and squashed by the bubble-gum gimmick of Humpty Hump."
For 1993's Body-Hat Syndrome, Shock intentionally downplayed the Humpty theatrics for more spacey, experimental terrain, hoping that the record would redefine Digital Underground as the heir to George Clinton's Afro-futurism. And if the approach irked the label heads, so much the better.
The strategy worked. The album was critically acclaimed, but after only modest sales, Tommy Boy dropped Digital Underground. Unfortunately, Shock then entered into a long creative slump that would take him nearly a decade from which to emerge. "From '94 to '00, I didn't work too much," Shock says. "I wasn't motivated, and I didn't want the quality of my material to suffer."
In 2000, feeling burnt out and wanting a more stable environment, Shock moved to the bucolic Los Angeles suburb Topanga Canyon. Much of Fear of a Mixed Planet was recorded there, and the rural setting allowed Shock to step back and reflect. "It gave me a peace and calm where I can hear myself, hear my heart, the nation," he says.
That tranquility is evident on Mixed Planet. While there are the traditional party jams and funk rev-ups -- including the excellent sole contribution from alter ego Humpty Hump, "Your Son Iz a Pimp" -- many of the songs on the record are more spatial and personal. The aforementioned "Cinnamon Waves" and the beatless "Gotchoo" glide along with a trip hop ambience as they convey a more nuanced view of females; "Pardon Us Cinnamon," Shock raps on the former, "we know not how we sin/ Most of us are savages in gentlemen's skin." And the exceptional "Cherry Flava'd Email" incorporates live flute and sax work and a sultry guest turn from soulstress Delina Dream that slithers over the languid beat.
The album also has a political undercurrent. "My Opinion" -- which features Numskull of the Luniz -- is a humorous screed against George Bush, with Shock predictably concluding, "I think George Clinton should be president." "We're All Killaz" deals with our own culpability in supporting a system of capitalism and oppression, and on the exceptional "Who's Clean" Shock rails against the idea of racial purity.
"I'm a little more mature than I used to be. I've had a chance to travel around the world, and in the process you're allowed to see a few things," Shock says about the album's political statements. "Traveling empowers people in that they're able to see what's going on outside of their immediate surroundings. And it's our duty to report what's going on. I see discrimination, I see happiness."
Although the tracks here feature a who's who of Bay Area hip hop -- including Ray Luv, Yukmouth, and Q-Bert -- as well as much of the Digital Underground crew, Shock released Fear of a Mixed Planet as a solo album because of the personal nature of most of the material. "Digital Underground has a name and some momentum, but it also has a lot of baggage that we carry with us," he says. "And a lot of stuff [on the album] people wouldn't accept coming from Digital Underground."
While fans of Humpty may have a difficult time swallowing Mixed Planet's more subdued tone, Shock isn't worried: "My guru/teacher is George Clinton, and one of the things that made him so deep and beautiful was that he reached a lot. And all the reaching caused him to miss really bad occasionally, but it caused him to hit really well, too. That's why sometimes, even to the disappointment of our listeners, we don't repeat."