The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they've faded from memory. This week's glimpse into the crates:
Digital Underground – The Body-Hat Syndrome
In 1993, three years after “The Humpty Dance,” Bay Area hip hop crew Digital Underground found themselves at an interesting position. The rise of Gangsta Rap, in particular Dr. Dre’s similar-sounding “G-Funk,” had created major-label demand for darker, more intense-sounding music than would make sense with their own light-hearted, fun-loving style. Their previous album—1991’s Sons Of The P–had sold fairly well (appearing on the Billboard charts), but came nowhere near replicating the runaway success of the “Humpty Dance”-driven Sex Packets, but member Tupac Shakur’s decisively gangsta solo career quickly began to overshadow his contributions to the group itself. In fact, Shakur’s Strictly For My N***az had been released earlier that year to considerable commercial response and critical acclaim; its second single, “I Get Around,” featured Digital Underground founders (and leaders) Shock-G and Money-B and was enough of a runaway hit to garner interest in a proper Digital album.
When The Body-Hat Syndrome dropped in October, the band was already in a state of flux. Shakur was already on his way out of the group proper (he only appears on two of the album’s twenty tracks); new members Saafir and Clee had joined, and head musical brain Shock-G seemed to clearly feel the limitations of a sample-based sound. Musical in-jokes abound on Syndrome, beginning with the very first song: “Return Of The Crazy One,” featuring Shock’s wildly famous alter-ego Humpty-Hump riffing on the fact that he’s the most famous member of the group. Indeed, by 1993 “The Humpty Dance” itself had been sampled to the point of painful ubiquity, with everyone from Kriss Kross to Marky Mark to Joe Public using the song’s infectious beat to varying degrees of effectiveness (although Cube’s blatant swipe-job on “Jackin’ For Beats” is almost as fantastic as the original itself). In typically whimsical Digital fashion, Shakur and Humpty appear on Syndrome’s fifth track, “The Humpty Dance Awards,” a skit (in itself rare for the group) showcasing the vast majority of pop songs to use the beat.
The album itself follows an extremely-loose concept: that, in the face of growing threats to authenticity, awareness, and mental and physical health, the (Black) community requires the use of full-size “Body-Hat” prophylactics to prevent the spread of Falsely-Acquired Diluted Education Syndrome, or F.A.D.E.S. Even songs that don’t explicitly invoke the concept stick with the theme: “Doo Woo You” and “Hollywantstaho” (the album’s second and third tracks) emphasize peaceful coexistence and the need to strive for self-improvement, respectively, albeit through a bizarre lens. The latter track prominently showcases one of Digital’s trademarks: creative use of Parliament/Funkadelic samples (in this case, Parliament’s “Holly Wants To Go To California”). Digital’s production-by-committee—spearheaded, in his understated way, by Shock—dredges up a fantastic cornucopia of sounds for the other tracks on Syndrome, often via samples, in particular on “Do You Like It Dirty,” a raunchy party joint near the end of the album powered by a brief, half-measure jazz-funk break. When Digital minimizes the samples and turns to live instruments, however, the results are often even more appealing. “Wassup With The Luv” certainly functions around a pair of percussion samples, but the piano and keyboards (played by Shock) anchor the piece as much as its solid verses; a surprise guitar solo by P-Funk legend Michael Hampton only adds more emotional urgency. Shakur turns up on the track as well with a verse-long tale of urban woe not unlike his own “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” while Shock remains content in the background, occasionally turning in his own melodic flow.
For, truly–despite his efforts to convince people of the contrary—Digital Underground is definitively Shock-G’s show. It’s his understated genius that drives every song on Syndrome, whether it’s his persona-shifting moments on “Shake and Bake” and “Jerkit Circus,” his silky-smooth flow on “Bran-Nu Swetta,” or his complete-package brilliance on the multi-part “Body-Hats” suite. For all the credit given to Digital’s various other members—even his own alter-ego—Syndrome cements Shock’s legacy as a bandleader on par with his idol, George Clinton. A three-song set in the middle of the album encapsulates the sheer breadth and depth of his musical vision:the somber, conscious “Wassup With The Luv,” the simple, do-the-nasty post-funk of “Digital Lover,” and the high-energy party track “Carry The Way (Along Time).” The latter track is Syndrome’s undeniable highlight, a rolling, funky beat featuring what sounds like all of Digital’s members (minus Shakur) rotating in-and-out of verses seamlessly, pausing only to allow Shock to deliver manifesto-esque explanations of the band’s intent, the only moments in which he allows himself a sense of awareness of just how influential his band’s impact truly was. “We are def, dope, and blind to all who oppose us,” Shock says, delight and defiance clear in his voice, only to allow comrades Clee, Saafir, and Money-B to take their turns in the spotlight.
Which, perhaps, is the reason why Syndrome–and, in fact, Digital Underground’s humble, fun-loving, subtext-heavy, high-concept approach—quickly faded from the pop forefront following the early 1990s. Not long after the album dropped, hip hop’s pop audience began to demand the more self-aggrandizing egoist-as-MC-type characters. Digital managed two more proper releases in the five subsequent years—1996’s excellent-yet-completely-ignored Future Rhythm and, two years after, Who Got the Gravy?–before spending most of the 2000s intermittently touring on the nostalgia circuit. Shock-G, comfortable in his role as a wrangler of talent, appeared on various studio releases, producing breakthroughs by, among others, the Luniz and Mystic, before finally releasing his own proper solo album (the amazing Fear Of A Mixed Planet) in 2004. Digital Underground released their final two albums—2008’s …Cuz A DU Party Don’t Stop and 2010’s Greenlight EP—to relatively little fanfare before properly calling it quits. Both of the band’s two constant members (Shock-G and Money-B) continue to quietly produce music, but The Body-Hat Syndrome is easily their best, most-overlooked work.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/Iowan/curmudgeon attempting to escape Portland, Oregon.