Jimi Dright, Jr., better known by his DJ name, Chopmaster J, trained most of his life to be a musician’s musician. Growing up in North Oakland and Berkeley in the 1970s and 1980s, he studied to be a classically trained pianist, but his love for a new kind of music called hip-hop—and a chance encounter with Gregory Jacobs, an aspiring rapper from Tampa Florida who would eventually adopt the stage name Shock G—sent Dright on a remarkable musical adventure.
Dright and Jacobs met at a music shop in San Leandro where the latter sold him keyboard equipment. Dright said Jacobs used the sale as an opportunity to visit the studio where he and his father Jimi Dright, Sr. would play funk and jazz music. Dright and Jacobs bonded over a mutual love of pioneering funk bands such as Parliament and Funkadelic, eventually founding the hip-hop group Digital Underground together in 1987.
Digital Underground boasted a rotating cast of members which included Kenneth “Kenny K” Waters, Ronald “Money B” Brooks, and briefly a young Tupac Shakur, who Dright says he initially brought into the group as a dancer and roadie.
The Oakland-based group released their 1990 debut album “Sex Packets” to widespread acclaim, fueled largely by the infectious jam “Humpty Dance” which featured Shock G as his Groucho Marx-esque persona Humpty Hump.
Following Jacobs’ passing on April 22, the Oakland City Council voted to officially declare August 25 Digital Underground Day, which coincides with Jacobs’ birthday. To commemorate the inaugural day celebrating one of Oakland’s most iconic musical acts, Dright is promoting the release of new music by a group called Digital Underground Next Generation. The group consists of Dright’s son Chasen “S.O.T.U” (Son Of The Underground) Dright and Matthew “Mega” Walker, with a collection of other rappers, musicians, and performers, according to Dright’s publicist Makeda Smith.
Dright is also planning a one man show entitled “Same Song: My Digital Underground Story”, which will tentatively take place later this year.
The Oaklandside recently interviewed Dright about his career, upcoming plans, and the legacy of Digital Underground. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Berkeley but Digital Underground became known as an Oakland group. What is the significance of the city of Oakland honoring you and your bandmates with a special day?
The eclecticism of Digital Underground was influenced by the Bay Area. The Bay Area has more of a hand in this than anything else. I don’t believe this could have come out of Milwaukee. I don’t think this could have come out of Phoenix. I don’t think this could have come out of New York.
The thing about it is you’re talking about something so connected. I was born in Berkeley but I spent the first four or five years of my life on Grove Street, which is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in North Oakland. From what I’m told, Sly Stone lived in the same fourplex that I lived in.
All my family and extended cousins were in Oakland, so I lived in Berkeley and I went to school in Berkeley, but spent all my weekends in Oakland. By the time I had met Shock, I lived at the Parkland Apartments right beside the Caldecott tunnel, which is on top of Berkeley, but it’s actually in North Oakland.
Shock was working in San Leandro at the Music Unlimited store [in 1985], and I was working out of a martial arts dojo on MacArthur and Maple. Shock would get off of work, catch the 57 bus down MacArthur and jump off to where I was at.
I was recording jazz records with my dad [Jimi Dright Sr. of the band Positive Force] in Berkeley, but that was also where all the musicians and all the artists hung out and we just jammed there all the time. And there was something about that dojo because we had boundless energy to play there all day.
So when Shock would get off, he’d sit and just kinda hang because Shock wasn’t playing that kind of stuff at that time. He was more of a developing musician.
When they talked about this Digital Underground Day in Oakland, it was important to me because I said to myself, “This might be one of the only groups that the city would need to come out and claim because we didn’t grow up together. We weren’t a group that was all from the same neighborhood like Tony! Toni! Tone! We were a hodgepodge group of people that included Shock, a down on his luck grifter from Tampa, and me, a guy who was out of control and a little depressed because all my friends were touring with the biggest people in the world.
How was your music initially received by people in the Bay Area?
I grew up in the Berkeley High School music program and that program spawned a lot of greats. All of my best friends and classmates—like Benny Green—are some of the most world-renowned jazz musicians right now.
When Benny graduated from Berkeley High, he jetted to New York and three months later he came back and was playing with the legendary Art Blakey.
My friends that I hung out with in Oakland after high school all ended up playing and joining Prince and Sheila E’s bands. Eddie Minnifield, Miko Weaver, Michael, Levia Seacer—all of these different people played with Prince right after “Purple Rain”.
I was kind of conflicted and a little depressed staying there playing jazz with my dad. I was also into hip-hop because I would go to Fresh Fest, which was hosted at the Coliseum back then. I was loving it and I also watched a lot of rap videos because that was the newest music to want to make records with and tour.
Because of my ability as a musician I was always trying to be the first to do something and be innovative, so I went and got a rapper [Shock G] and started doing that. All of my friends hated me for doing that though and said, “You’re gonna lose your [musical] chops. Stop messing with that shit.”
Musicians didn’t like hip-hop DJs because it meant they couldn’t gig and work, so my musician friends hated what I was doing with Shock.
The other side of that is hip-hop artists and DJs who were relying on scratching and sampling weren’t necessarily keen on live instrumentation either.
It’s funny that you say that because the reason why DJs didn’t necessarily care for instrumentation was because of Proposition 13 by Howard Jarvis [a 1978 state ballot proposition that cut property taxes and led to significant budget cuts in the state’s public schools]. That took all of the music programs out of schools in the 1980s. In the inner-city, kids were deprived of the exposure to instrumentation and instruments in schools and stuff. And so, because necessity being the mother of invention, those kids did what they had to do to be able to make music and party and do their thing.
So they were sampling real music and instrumentation, they just didn’t have access. I think they did what we always do when we don’t have access—we create the next thing. But moving forward, it was funny because I would play music live and then sample it because we initially didn’t have a DJ—it was just Shock and I. We would go by this kid named Calvin’s house who was a DJ. Calvin had turntables so we’d go over and Calvin would give us some rub and some scratches that I’d sample, and I would play those on my keyboard.
So being Digital Underground, we were about trying to avoid any of the old dynamics and just really be new all the way.
My contribution to Digital Underground was innovation and freedom. I had the eclecticism of being in Berkeley and performing in theater arts classes and then on the weekend, I was out there in East Oakland seeing the Black Panther Party across the street and also the Hell’s Angels down the street.
How did your musical background in jazz and funk lead to the creation of Digital Underground’s debut album “Sex Packets”?
It was organic because, like I said before, we’d go down to the dojo where I worked at and then what happened is we’d be jamming and stuff and we’d go back to my pad where the recording equipment was, and we would go and start recording what we’d just jammed. That’s why the song “Underwater Rimes” sampled [Herbie Hancock’s] “Chameleon” and Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie,” because we’d be jamming that fusion.
“Your Life’s a Cartoon” was a cassette that I took to KALX, KPFA, KPOO, and wherever else they had college and community radio stations. I was literally a one man wrecking show going around with a tape because I learned that bigger stations like KMEL were only playing rap after 7 p.m. We learned the hard way that being artsy and alternative would lead to less doors being opened for us, so I went around to rap shows like Davey D’s and would do this to build our audience until we got a buzz.
We kind of went international real quick because our sound wasn’t west coast per say, it wasn’t a particular sound and style because we didn’t grow up together. So we built this together by just mutually loving the music.
Tell us more about Shock. What are your memories of him?
One time we sat in JFK Airport and we were discussing all these endorsement deals—Bubble Yum, Sprite, Jell-O, Doritos. 20th Century Fox wanted to do “Sex Packets” the movie and they were writing us a blank check and said, “Do whatever you want to do with it.” And this cat Shock turned it down.
We were 50/50 partners in all the business and money, and I said, “What do you mean, you don’t want to do it,” because I was in this for the commercialism. I mean, I also wanted to make good music. I think the novelty of “The Humpty Dance” screwed everything up because it was successful and it was dope but it made it to where we were conflicted or he was conflicted about the opportunities of having a novelty hit back when hip-hop was not commercialized. It was frowned upon for you to be a sellout.
We had conflict when it came to that part and I feel bad about it now because later I saw how damaging it actually turned out to be for him in lots of different ways because the success was freaking him out. He didn’t want that shit.
He literally was a sampler. He sampled everything that was going on around him, you know? We were bandmates, but I was more of a muse for him than probably anything, as well as the tangible things that I did too. But the influence was so heavy and, as I was saying, Oakland really needs to claim this because this couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
And you know what else couldn’t have happened anywhere else? Tupac! Because he came up out of this group.
That’s what we did. It created opportunity and hope for a lot of kids there, a lot of people with talent. The success just happened so fast. A lot of us weren’t prepared for it, especially management. That’s why the stuff kind of went haywire too.
It’s like you have this kind of, this kind of success out the gate. Like I’m serious at that time. The Humpty dance sold two million supposedly as quick, or quicker, than “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.
The “Humpty Dance” came out the year of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and we shot the video right after the earthquake. When we did the song, we went on tour with Big Daddy Kane in Spring and Public Enemy in the summer. By the end of the year, Shock was sick of Humpty.
Shock was more of a technical wizard and that’s why the Humpty thing was so easy and it was cool and fun. But you know, I’m still processing all this stuff that’s happened because it pertains to him passing, which just means now what’s left and picking up the pieces and moving things forward.
We have a documentary that’s almost done. I’m doing it with Abdul Malik Abbott who wrote and directed “State Property” for Jay-Z years ago, and he’s done many music videos since.
We started this documentary five years ago and we’ve been working on it since then.
You’re planning on launching Digital Underground Next Generation with your son to coincide with Digital Underground Day on August 25. How do you roll out this next phase of Digital Underground while also recognizing that Shock G had a bittersweet relationship with the group’s success?
Well Shock had that. I didn’t, Money B didn’t, the world didn’t. I think more than anything else, Shock’s reluctance and disillusionment was more with the fame of Humpty Hump and seen more as Humpty Hump than Shock G. Humpty eclipsed everything else.
I think that Shock would be blown away because it’s my son—Son of the Underground who’s fronting and writing and producing and stuff. Shock was there with him when he was a baby and he knows what was up and the stuff is good. I would not let my kid misrepresent our brand.
While Shock was the star, the brand’s going to continue. The city of Oakland locked in a special day for and I just think that’s what’s right. I think people are entitled to understand that this brand and this concept has got legs and it’s going to keep moving.