Collaborating with Humpty Hump
One day in 2006 I was driving around Oakland with Dontrell Mayfield, a.k.a. DOT, or Dotrix4000, or 4Rax. Dot is half of the production duo The Mekanix, having helped launch the careers of such Bay Area luminaries as J-Stalin, Eddi Projex, Stevie Joe, Shady Nate, and G-Stack. More recently, he and fellow Mekanic Kenny Tweed even managed to land a beat on the deluxe iTunes version of E-40’s Revenue Retrievin’ (2011), and 40 has returned the favor with a verse on the duo’s upcoming compilation, The Chop Shop, Vol. 2. (Vol. 1 can be found here.) But back in the ’90s, Dot was a DJ, for the Luniz, Yukmouth, Saafir, and first and most importantly, Digital Underground. DU was the first rap group I ever got into, and if I hadn’t met Dot backstage at one of the group’s shows, I doubt I would have been as successful a writer on Bay Area hip hop as I became. He brought me into the scene, introduced me to people, tracked down difficult phone numbers. A new style of hip hop called “hyphy” was popping off in the Bay, and with Dot’s vast industry network at my disposal, I was able to step into the role of journalist with considerably more ease than otherwise would have been possible.
Back in 2006, I had no regular employment; I couldn’t afford a cd player for the car, let alone an iPod, so we were forced to make do with my aging cassette collection, and were listening to DU’s debut album, Sex Packets (1990), for the millionth time. As the tape flipped automatically to side one and the group’s platinum hit “The Humpty Dance” came on, I was reminded of something I’d thought of a few days before.
“You know, Dot, Humpty Hump really is the original hyphy rapper,” I said, citing the Groucho-nosed emcee’s preference for wild partying and incoherent behavior over the gangsterism more customary in rap today. “You guys should remake ‘The Humpty Dance’ for the hyphy movement.”
Dot looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“‘The Hyphy Hump,’ huh?” he asked. He handed me the blunt and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “That might win. That just might win.”
We weighed the pros and cons. On the pro side, hyphy was still a rising force in music; rappers from the Bay Area were signing major label deals for the first time in almost a decade based on its perceived commercial potential. The music had yet to suffer its artificially engineered death at the hands of those same labels and the Clear Channel-owned local rap station. It had always been my impression, moreover, that—DU leader Shock-G’s artistic restlessness aside—the main cause for the group’s commercial decline in the mid-’90s was the homogenization of major label rap into the kind of gangsta-couture-speak epitomized by Jay-Z. The cartoon insanity of hyphy—from its affectation of ridiculous accessories, like grossly oversized “stunna shades” and spinning 26-inch rims, to its ol’ skool, Dionysian conception of hip hop as “going stupid” or “dumb”—was tailor-made for Humpty. He practically invented the concept of the rapper as sublime fool. And though DU was now based in L.A., the group was founded in Oakland and still fundamentally considered an Oakland group, from the platinum era of rap out here, the group that brought out 2pac. Maybe all the hyphy movement needed was the DU mothership to land to bring the situation to a head.
On the con side, well, it wasn’t Dot’s decision to make. After touring with DU as its DJ from ’96 through 2000, Dot had dropped out to begin his production career in Oakland and was strictly a part-time member of the crew. It was up to Shock, because Humpty Hump is Shock, or rather, one of a myriad of characters (like M.C. Blowfish, Piano Man, Rackadelic, Peanut Hakeem Anafu Washington, etc.) Shock created to people the DU universe. Humpty, however, was the one who blew up—“The Humpty Dance” was the first platinum 12-inch single in history—and after 20 years of satisfying fan demand for this character, Shock was a little tired of Humpty. (He told me once he had a nightmare where he’d died and “Humpty Hump” was written on his tombstone.) He still loved Humpty and sprinkled the character into his new music. But he’d spent a lot of energy resisting record company demands to make obvious “Humpty” records; it was the first thing any label head wanted to discuss. In many ways, the last thing Shock needed was someone in his own crew pressuring him to make a Humpty record.
But still, “The Hyphy Hump”—even the alliteration seemed to beg for it....
The next time I saw Dot, he was in the studio with Tweed. Even at the time, the Mekanix went against the grain by not making hyphy beats, which came in handy later on when there was considerable local backlash against hyphy after it failed to explode nationally. But the Mekanix could make anything, so I was hardly surprised to hear the hyphy-style keyboard drone surging out of the studio speakers.
“It’s ‘The Hyphy Hump,’” Dot said, grinning in triumph. “It goes like this: I’m still gettin’ in the girls’ pants and I even got my own dance / DO THE HYPHY HUMP / I’m still gettin’ in the girls’ pants and I even got my own dance / DO THE HYPHY HUMP.”
I was impressed. This wasn’t the lyric from “The Humpty Dance” that I necessarily imagined serving as the hook, but it was already out of my hands and with the professionals. But would Shock go for it? That was a delicate question even to raise. In the meantime, however, Dot and I kept winding each other up with extravagant visions, imagining videos, record deals, a new DU album, based on this purely hypothetical hit single that Shock probably wouldn’t want to do. Then one day I showed up at Dot’s place in San Leandro. He was hungover but smiling, alongside an empty bottle of 1800 silver.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I got drunk last night and called Mun.”
“Mun” was Money B, the husky-voiced, pint-sized Oakland native who formed the perfect complement to Shock’s lanky 6’6” frame. Money B was DU’s second-in-command, the one responsible for bringing Dot into the crew.
“I told him all about the idea,” Dot said, “but I didn’t know how to ask Shock. Then Mun was like, ‘Hold on, Shock’s right here.’” He smiled ruefully at the 1800 bottle. “I kinda went off on it.”
“What’d he say?”
“He didn’t say ‘No.’ And he said they’ll be in town in a couple of weeks.”
The next couple weeks were a time of distracted anticipation. “The Hyphy Hump” seemed like such a good idea to me and it seemed like it might actually happen. Then I got nervous. I remembered Shock telling me that he wasn’t a fast lyric writer. He had a story about making “I Get Around” with 2pac: after several hours in the studio recreating the crispy beat he’d demoed at home, Shock didn’t feel up to writing a verse that day. “I’ll write it later and send you the track,” he told Pac. “But Shock, I need it now,” Pac said. “I’m going back to L.A. tomorrow to mix the album.” He grabbed a pad and pen and started pacing through the studio while Shock tinkered with the beat. After twenty minutes, he ripped out a page and handed it to Shock. “Say this!” “Back then, it was kinda forbidden to let someone else write your verse,” Shock said, “but I looked it over and I could tell he was really feeling where I was coming from. So I made a few adjustments and laid it. Nowadays I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, Pac wrote my verse.’”
This is a great story, but again, the point Shock had used it to illustrate—that he didn’t just peel off lyrics like that—had me anxious. I’d been around enough situations in the rap world to know sometimes there’s only one shot to capture something, especially when a guy’s just touching down for a night and the song’s not his idea. So, although I’ve never been able to write a 16-bar rap as myself even in jest—Lord knows I’ve tried—in my intense anxiety to bring “The Hyphy Hump” into being, I decided to sketch out a verse of what I was driving at and found that I could write a rap as Humpty Hump, having listened to DU enough and long enough that I could, to a limited extent, generate material in that character. Not that it took any genius because the concept was so simple; I just typed out the first verse of “The Humpty Dance” and gave it a line-by-line Foucaultian tune-up through the discourse of hyphy. In the palimpsest version that follows, the crossed out portions are the original “Humpty Dance” showing through, while the boldface portions represent hyphy encrustations upon an already baroque sensibility. The italicized phrases are allusions to specific lines from previous DU songs and the rest is just shit I imagine Humpty Hump would say:
The Hyphy Hump
Awright, stop what you’re doin’, / ’cause i’m about to ruin / the image and the style that you’re used to. / I get hyphy / so, yo, you just might see me / rock a purple stunna nose and a white T. / Now lemme see: I’m the bignose O.G. / and my sound’s laid down by 4-Thow and Kenny Tweed. / There ain’t seeds in my grapes. / I been havin’ records since cds came out on tapes. / My name is Humpty / A.K.A. Shock. / The Yay already know the way DU rock. / My original Humpty dancers were Money B and 2pac. / We go dumb, bro; / sometimes we just go. / We been around the world but come back to the O. / You ain’t know? I got some more in my jacket. / Yeah, I like to thizz but I call ’em Sex Packets. / I raise a racket, just like Mac Dre: / that tall skinny dude with the dreads who gets paid and played / on the radio. / Now blow ’fore I spray you with my big purple plastic nose. / I knock holes in one; I’m like golf. / I love it when nurses say turn your head and cough. / I get off, and even though I got paper, / I once got busy in a ’94 scraper. / I’m a musician, I’m on a mission. / I got my runners in scoring position. / I’m still gettin’ in the girls’ pants / and I even got my own dance.
Understand I didn’t write this verse imagining Shock would use it—I’m not brazen enough to try to write for the guy who discovered 2pac—but just as a guide to the concept, an illustration of the kinds of connections DU could make between Humpty and hyphy. Where a hyphy artist would have stunna shades, for example, Humpty would have a stunna nose. Or the physical and spiritual connection between hyphy’s late patron saint, the thizz-popping, dance-inventing Mac Dre, and Shock’s sex-packet-gobbling, “MC Hammer-on-crack” alter ego could be underlined. In short, I wanted to give Shock a few luminous details in order to spark his own lyricism.
A few days before DU hit town—to play a gig at the Red Devil Lounge in SF—Dot happened to drop by my apartment. With much embarrassment, but still too anxious not to, I handed over a printout of the above in verse form. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“You wrote this?” he asked. I nodded sheepishly. He smiled and nodded thoughtfully. “Not bad.” He folded the paper and stuffed it in one of the pockets of his voluminous pea-coat.
I’m not sure what I was doing the day of the show. I must have had a temp gig earlier, because I got to the hotel late, intending to roll to the club with the crew. At the front desk, I tried Shock’s room; no answer. I tried Mun’s room; no answer. I texted Dot. He texted me a room number. As I walked up the stairs, however, I bumped into Shock. “Shock!” “G!” He gave me a huge hug.
“Man, I just laid your verse!” he said. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it; it was the printout I gave to Dot. “Well, not all of it,” he said, “but I took some of it. And check this out; you ain’t gonna believe it….” He reached into another pocket to find his Humpty nose and glasses. In more prosperous times, when he had label support, Shock was getting his glasses with a custom brown plastic nose attached, but when money was tight, he’d buy a bulk box of Groucho nose-and-glasses and color the noses with various shades of magic marker. “I did this on the tour bus today before I’d even seen your verse,” he said, brandishing a bright purple Humpty nose, just as “The Hyphy Hump” called for. Offhand I don’t think he knows the term, but I’d say from this and other conversations I’ve had with Shock that he’s alive to the surrealist concept of objective chance.
As I learned when I reached Money B’s room, the Mekanix had been there for a couple of hours and recorded a verse, a chorus, and some ad-libs by Humpty on their laptop and portable mixer. Only two lines of “my verse” had actually made it to the real song: “I rock a purple stunna nose and a white T” and “I once got busy in a ’94 scraper,” the latter of which being an almost verbatim lift from “The Humpty Dance”: “I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom.” Nonetheless, I was walking on air; I’d contributed to a DU song! “I like that verse,” Mun said, which completely blew my mind, because Mun doesn’t hand out compliments and because, even now, if it didn’t seem necessary to the story, I’d be way too embarrassed to publish my version here. I’ll just assume it sold him on the concept.
I have no memory of that night’s show, just after the show back in Mun’s room with the Mekanix blasting “The Hyphy Hump” and editing Shock’s ad-libs. Shock had another session elsewhere that evening and vetoed doing two more verses. “We’ve done that,” he said, referring to “The Humpty Dance” itself as he slipped into a cab. “Do something else.” The idea back at Mun’s was for him to do a verse (recorded later), then to have a new Bay Area artist hop on the third verse, which turned out to be J-Stalin. Meanwhile hotel security was dropping by every 15 minutes, threatening to call the police due to the noise level as it was after 3 a.m., but nobody seemed uptight about this. There were many things going on in that hotel room besides the making of “The Hyphy Hump,” but “The Hyphy Hump” was making almost all the noise. But finally Dot and Tweed broke the studio down and shoved speakers, mixer, mic-stand, and all in one massive army green canvas bag, and the three of us literally filed through the lobby of the hotel past the three policemen brought in by management to put a stop to the mayhem. It was almost cinematic. Back at the room, Mun even got to a pull a “what stereo?” routine to the point of extracting an apology from cops for disturbing him at such a late hour. Such are the conditions under which a DU classic is born.
Of course, I’d love to report that I’m writing this poolside from my mansion, and that the 2pac hologram couldn’t make the Coachella gig with Dre because he’s here discussing the 25th Anniversary Digital Underground stadium tour with me and Dot, but things didn’t turn out that way. Within a year, before Shock and Dot worked out what to do with the track, hyphy’d been squashed like a bug, without being given a real chance on a national stage, though now here comes Drake with “The Motto,” doing what the Bay did five years ago to the adulation of millions. Timing is everything in this business, so “The Hyphy Hump” hit its commercial expiration date along with everything else labeled “hyphy” in mid-2007. The song eventually saw the light of day, however, as part of a rarities disc called The Greenlight EP (Jake Records, 2010), so it’s officially joined the DU canon. I admit I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Dot leaked it to Bay Area radio when things were popping out here. I’m not regretting the mansion, but I always feel like Shock-G’s an underacknowledged pioneer of hip hop so I always try to direct attention his way. I want him to win. As a poet, in any case, I’ve seldom had a creative experience more its own reward than collaborating with Humpty Hump.
Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...