All Around the World, Same Song: ‘Nothing but Trouble’ and the Genius of the Late Shock G
When you think of great moments featuring rap or hip-hop on film, scenes like the beginning of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where Rosie Perez dances to the sounds of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” immediately comes to mind. I had the chance to see Do the Right Thing on the big screen with a good friend at the re-opened and much beloved Alamo Drafthouse, and it is striking how much that scene still displays impressive power and resonance today. I also think of experimental pastiche, such as a personal favorite, the 2006 movie Idlewild, which was meant as a vehicle for the two members of Outkast: Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Instead, it came out as this really interesting hybrid-project where the duo performs then-contemporary hip-hop songs against the backdrop of the South, particularly the Black experience, during Prohibition.
And then there’s when we tie a piece of music to a specific piece of visual media, particularly after the musician who wrote it has recently passed away.
The wonderful David Betancourt of The Washington Post, who I can’t wait to see host another comic book discussion at the Library of Congress once the pandemic is officially over, recently wrote a great article. Its subject is how one of the legacies of the late, great rapper DMX, who passed away on April 9th, will be the use of his song “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” in the blockbuster 2016 superhero movie Deadpool. Betancourt credits the film’s success to the use of the song in both the movie itself and in its marketing campaign, contributing to an effort to make Deadpool seem edgy and subversive. “This likely-to-be-imitated but not-to-be-duplicated superhero/rap combo is just one of the many ways DMX immortalized himself,” Betancourt writes.
Allow me to nominate another example from a source even less likely than Deadpool.
All right, stop whatcha doin’
‘Cause I’m about to ruin
The image and the style that ya used to…
Gregory Edward Jacobs, better known to the world as the rapper Shock G, was found dead in a Tampa, Florida hotel room on April 22nd. He was 57. Shock G was one of the founders and most prolific longtime member of the innovative rap group Digital Underground, which formed in Oakland, in the late 1980s. Shock G rose to prominence as its enthusiastic and charismatic lead vocalist. The band had such early-90s hits as “Doowutchyalike” and “Kiss You Back”.
Shock G was known for performing in different personas, the most famous of which was Humpty Hump, who had an exaggerated buffoon personality, colorful clothes, and a Groucho Marx-style glasses-and-nose disguise. Shock G rapped as Humpty Hump on the band’s biggest hit, “The Humpty Dance,” solidifying that character as an indelible part of the band’s lore and mystique. Rolling Stone once referred to Shock G as “hip-hop’s freest spirit,” but it was hard for him to replicate that success on his own, as his only solo album, 2004’s Fear of a Mixed Planet, was not a success.
Listening to “The Humpty Dance” today, it feels more like a novelty song than an inspired rap, in part because of its lack of expletives, which doesn’t invoke NWA so much as it does DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, pre-Bel Air. Regardless, “I once get busy in a Burger King bathroom” is still one of the best lines in hip-hop history. It was originally intended to be “I once got busy in a BART station bathroom,” but had to be changed when music producers realized most Americans wouldn’t get the reference to the Bay Area’s public rail system and their infamously nasty restrooms.
I also consider a song like Eminem’s popular “My Name Is” from 1999 to be the progeny of Humpty Hump and “The Humpty Dance”. It serves as an introduction to a rapper’s fictional persona, in this case, Eminem’s alter-ego Slim Shady, right down to similarity in the lyrics: “So just let me introduce myself, my name is Humpty” versus “Hi, my name is (what?), my name is (who?), my name is Slim Shady.”
But just like DMX’s impact on the success of Deadpool might not necessarily be what you primarily associate with his music, there’s another movie moment that, surprisingly, encapsulates Shock G’s performative nature, skills at transformation and illusion, musical prowess, and ability to bring the best out of himself and his collaborators, particularly an emerging young rapper named Tupac Shakur. And it’s in one of the weirdest movies ever made: Dan Aykroyd’s notorious box office bomb, Nothing but Trouble (1991).
I stumbled onto Nothing but Trouble last summer in quarantine, wanting to watch it in order to listen to the corresponding episode about it on How Did This Get Made? Almost immediately, I knew I had stumbled onto something truly fascinating, downright bizarre, and uniquely Aykroydian. The film centers on Chris (Chevy Chase) and Diane (Demi Moore) two apartment neighbors who, for whatever reason, end up driving through the odd town of Valkenvania. If that sentence isn’t enough to inform you, the plot contrivances in this movie are too plentiful to count. They are pulled over for a speeding ticket by a police officer (the late, great John Candy) loyal to Judge Valkenheiser (Aykroyd under heavy prosthetics). They are then escorted to the judge’s mansion, which is surrounded by a junkyard, for a hearing. Valkenheiser is an ancient, exaggerated, Dickensian-looking “hanging judge” with a phallic nose, distrust of bankers, inflated sense of self, and house that should probably be featured on at least one episode of Hoarders. And that’s before you’ve seen him attempt to eat a sausage in what might be the most disgusting image of a person eating ever captured on film. As Chris and Diane try to escape the house of horrors, Chris tries to evade Valkenheiser’s granddaughter (also Candy, for some reason) who has fallen for him, while Diane encounters uncanny, large baby-like creatures, named Bobo (also Aykroyd, for some reason) and Lil’ Debbull (John Daveiki), who live in the junkyard.
And then, right on time, Digital Underground shows up for what is undoubtedly the film’s highlight. Aykroyd had specifically requested the group, saying in an interview with Arsenio Hall to promote the film that “Digital Underground joined us, we commissioned a song with them,” adding “tremendous talent.” He elaborates, “I wrote a scene in the movie where this 106-year-old justice of the peace that I play in the film runs across these musicians, they come into his compound…So, I wanted a talented group to commission and write a song for the film.”
Just like Chris and Diane, the entire band has been pulled over while driving in their hearse. Upon arriving at the house, one of the band members refers to it as “white man’s heaven.” When Humpty Hump sees the judge’s Rube Goldberg-esque desk begin to operate, he exclaims “what the hell is that?” Clearly, everything is emphasizing how not in the right place Digital Underground find themselves to be, coded as dangerous, possibly racist territory for them. Judge Valkenheiser looks confused and disgusted when they mention that they’re “a hip-hop band.” The judge orders all their music equipment out of the car, and shortly thereafter, they begin to play their hit, “Same Song”. The judge’s massive mansion is soon filled with the song’s catchy refrain:
All around the world, same song/All around the world, same song…
Shock G begins, playing a keytar, bouncing back and forth while sporting shades and a long coat:
I came for the party, to get naughty, get my rocks on,
Eat popcorn, watch you move your body to the pop song…
He bounces back and forth while playing music. He then has his back to Humpty Hump, and when his section of the song is over, he and Humpty Hump do a 180 and switch places. Humpty Hump picks it up from there:
It’s just a freestyle, meanwhile, we keep the beat kickin’
Sweat drippin, girlies in the limo eatin’ chicken
Oops, don’t get the grease on your pantyhose
I love ya, Rover, move over, I gotta blow my nose…
I had watched this clip plenty of times, but I didn’t realize until after Shock G had already died that what we’re witnessing is actually a combination of an illusion and good editing, and one an actual magician friend of mine who has seen the movie called “pretty good.” You see, Shock G plays Humpty Hump, and when that switch takes place, he switches roles. He begins performing as Humpty Hump as the fake “Shock G” takes his place in the back with the rest of the band.
He did similar antics in order to keep the illusion that Humpty Hump and Shock G were different people whenever the band performed on stage, switching places as either Shock G or Humpty Hump whenever appropriate. He always had a double (which, according to the best my research can account for, seems to have been his brother Kent Racker, as also seems to be the case in Nothing but Trouble) playing whatever role he wasn’t in the background of the stage in order to keep the illusion up.
In the scene, Humpty Hump is wearing a massive fur coat, doing a little two-step dance. This appears to start cheering up Judge Valkenheiser’s grouchy disposition, so much so that he begins to play an organ. Humpty Hump and another Digital Underground member, Tupac Shakur, look on in disbelief. Eventually, it turns into outright joy in seeing that this cantankerous official can actually jam with them. While he doesn’t rap in the movie itself, “Same Song” was Tupac’s debut, the first widely-released song in which he rapped. There was also a separate music video that included appearances by both Dan Aykroyd and members of NWA. In both the song and music video, Shock G introduces Tupac:
So just watch, my name is Shock, and I like to rock,
And you can’t stop this,
Tupac, go ahead and rock this…
The rest, as they say, is history. Take it away, Mr. Shakur:
Now I clown around when I hang around with the Underground
Girls use to frown, say I’m down when I come around
Gas me, and when they pass me, they used to diss me,
Harass me, but now they ask me if they can kiss me…
Tupac’s own career, as groundbreaking, revolutionary, popular, and ultimately cut short as it became, starts right here. Despite being associated with West Coast rap, Tupac had moved to the Bay Area in 1988 at the age of 17 from the East Coast. He even sports a Yankees jersey during his appearance in Nothing but Trouble. His manager at the time, Leila Steinberg, got him signed with Digital Underground manager Atron Gregory. Tupac was originally a roadie and backup dancer for the band before his debut in “Same Song,” which I hope that all the rappers and people who were inspired by him take solace in knowing that some of our greatest voices have the humblest of beginnings.
The Digital Underground’s seemingly out-of-nowhere cameo feels like it shares much in common with this era in corporate synergy, where movie studios would incorporate or include music from either up-and-coming performers or chart-toppers. Sometimes the result is fantastic, just think of all the great Kenny Loggins and Berlin tunes from Top Gun. But it could also backfire when the performer is included in the movie itself, just look no further than Vanilla Ice’s infamous performance of the “Ninja Rap” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991).
But somehow, the band’s charm, the fun song, and yes, Shock G himself, helped to turn it from what might have been a memorable moment into the arguable highlight of the film. Just a few days before Shock G died, I watched it again with a good friend I had watched many so-bad-they’re-good movies with over the years. We were cracking jokes throughout the movie about how ridiculous it was. Yet, when the “Same Song” scene came on, we were silent and transfixed. Another friend noted that despite the strangeness of the aesthetic of the movie, “Same Song” was “a real banger.” I must admit that the song is one of my favorite recent discoveries, and I’ve listened to it countless times.
Shock G was remembered for his collaboration efforts, not just with Tupac, but also the likes of Dr. Dre and even Prince. At his funeral, David “DJ Fuze” Elliot, another member of Digital Underground, cried as he said that his late friend “had a gift that could turn mundane moments of daily life into hilarious and cherished lifetime memories.” That’s what I think of when I think of the “Same Song” scene in Nothing but Trouble.
For whatever reason, it works. As weird and difficult to engage with as the rest of the movie can be, Dan Aykroyd was onto something when he insisted on this band at this time for his movie. I think a lot of it has to do with how well it sums up this weird, eclectic, but also performative and skillful artist. It stands as a testament to the sleek cool of Shock G, to the funny antics of Humpty Hump, and all in all, to an inherently talented musician.
Author’s note: It wasn’t until after publication that I stumbled upon something that felt like a summation of this whole experience. Shock G recounts Dan Aykroyd offering him the song for the movie in an incredible oral history featured in Rolling Stone magazine about Tupac’s time with Digital Underground as such: “Dan Aykroyd, he always has musicians in his movies…So Dan pops up at one of our shows. This is mid-summer and ‘Humpty Dance’ came out. We’re, like, hot as fuck right now…And the person to my left said ‘You want to spark a doobie?’ And I look over and the first thing I see is the little white twisted-up old-school blunt, used to be a ‘doobie,’ they called it. I looked further to my left and see the face holding it, and it was fucking Dan Aykroyd! He passed me the weed, I hit it and passed me it back. We passed it around the room. And that’s when they said, ‘We got this movie thing.’ Are you kidding me? Anything you want to do. I’m such a huge fan.”
Aykroyd calls Shock G later to follow up, saying “So we want to roll with you guys, there’s a little scene in the movie. You guys play yourselves and a song in the movie, as well. There’s an organ bit, could there be an organ in it?”
“No problem,” Shock G responds. “What are we rapping about?”
“Nothing special, man. Just keep that same song, just keep that same song you got,” Aykroyd tells him.
“I took it literally,” Shock G states, adding “It was all rushed. All the good shit is rushed.”