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Gregory “Shock G” Jacobs, the late frontman of the legendary Oakland hip-hop group Digital Underground, didn’t take to the piano right away when his parents gave him lessons as a kid. In fact, “he hated it,” recalls his brother, Kent Craig. “We never sat down and talked about it, but I figured it’s because his piano teacher never taught him songs he wanted to learn.”
But with musical influences surrounding him, it was only a matter of time before Jacobs came around to tapping out notes on the family’s old piano. “Our pops had a crate of records—Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Band of Gypsys’ was in there, ‘Kind of Blue’ [by Miles Davis] was in there, and ‘Straight No Chaser’ by Thelonius Monk was in there too,” said Craig. “That’s how he learned to play. He would sit down and play the records.”
His grandmother, Gloria Ali, taught him how to play Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and from there Jacobs took off. He figured out how to play more songs by ear and eventually became a mainstay at piano bars in Tampa, Florida, where he lived before moving to Oakland. According to Craig, Jacobs tried studying piano formally for a spell at Hillsborough Community College, but got kicked out of the class (for reasons unspecified by Craig).
Jacobs was a lot younger than the other musicians he was playing with at the piano bars, said Craig, a testament to his skill level and confidence, even at an early age. “Looking back at it, I think he was truly talented. That word is thrown around quite a bit but I think he was talented in that he could hear a song, then he could just play it.”
Jacobs, who passed away unexpectedly in April, was not widely recognized for his musicianship when he was alive—most casual fans remember him today for his raps and various stage personas with Digital Underground—which makes “The Piano Man,”a loose collection of jazz-styled solo piano songs played by Jacobs, so notable. The title of the forthcoming album, planned for release sometime in 2022, is a reference to one of the many aliases Jacobs used during his time with Digital Underground. TNT Recordings released the album’s first single, “To Zion,” on Oct. 26, a cover of Lauryn Hill’s 1998 classic.
Jacob’s began recording the album a couple of years ago, with the help of his longtime friend and former Digital Underground manager Atron Gregory, who’d also helped the band secure its record deal with Tommy Boy, the label that released the group’s classic debut album, “Sex Packets.”
“I sent an engineer to the hotel that he was staying at and said, ‘Just play,’” said Gregory.
The end result was two hours of freeform riffing by Jacobs, which ranged from somber blues chords reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s 1963 rendition of his song, “In a Sentimental Mood,” to lighter, more jovial major-key flourishes that could draw comparisons to Thelonius Monk’s “Monk’s Dream.”
Gregory and Jacobs’ longtime engineer, Michael Denten, are now in the process of breaking the session up into songs, while keeping the free-flowing nature of Jacobs’ playing intact. “The good thing about jazz is that imperfections sometimes are okay because it’s a feeling, so we made an effort to never take away the feeling and stay true to who he was,” Gregory said.
Recording the project may have started a few years ago, but Jacobs’ recording a jazz album was a long time coming. “Kent knows that he’s been talking about this for decades,” Gregory said. “[Well-known jazz musicians] Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea had heard him play the piano and they were like, ‘You have got to do a jazz record.’”
When Gregory played a snippet of one of the songs for him in his living room, Craig said it “felt like my brother was in the room playing as he always did.”
Releasing the new collection of songs, said Gregory, is part of a larger effort to showcase the talented musician that often hid behind the Groucho Marx-esque false nose and wide-rimmed glasses donned by his most famous alter ego, Humpty Hump.
“He didn’t let a lot of people know who he was so they don’t know that he produced the music, wrote the music,” Gregory said. “Casual fans know ‘The Humpty Dance,’ ‘Freaks of the Industry,’ and ‘I Get Around.’ What they don’t know is that he did a remix for Prince, he worked with George Clinton, he worked with Murs.”
Jacobs, as “Shock G,” founded Digital Underground alongside Jimi Dright, Jr., also known as “Chopmaster J” and the late Kenneth “DJ Kenny K” Waters in the late 80s. The group leaned on their musicianship and incorporated live instrumentation into their songs, such as when they reproduced portions of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie” on their song “Underwater Rimes.”
“It wasn’t just samples to make the beats, but it was samples to combine with the live playing and the piano,” Craig said about Digital Underground’s music. “They weren’t the first because there were people doing it early on—because they couldn’t clear samples, so they’d have musicians come in to play it a little differently. But I think that Shock definitely took it to another place.”
Gregory feels a responsibility to represent Jacobs and his music in a way that the artist would have wanted, if he were still living. For him, that means consulting various members of the artist’s family and past members of Digital Underground. “I’ve always said that it’s about what the family wants and if they don’t want something to happen, then it won’t happen,” said Gregory.
Six months after his passing, Gregory and Craig continue to feel Jacobs’ absence. Gregory has a piano in his home but doesn’t know how to play. Jacobs was the one who kept the piano seat warm and the house filled with music, he said. Both have a plethora of heartfelt stories to share about the late musician.
One that stands out to Gregory was a moment that involved Jacobs, Tupac Shakur, and the group Public Enemy while the artists were accompanying each other on tour. “He was sitting around playing the piano in the lobby—we’re all just chilling in the lobby—when all of a sudden the door to the hotel busts open and this guy comes running in, dives over the counter where the staff were, and following him was Tupac,” Gregory said. “Tupac is chasing this guy because he thought he had stolen Chuck D’s Raiders jacket backstage at the concert.”
Craig recalled a story that DJ Charlie Chase of the Cold Crush Brothers told him about hanging out with Jacobs. According to Chase, said Craig, the two musicians were out in Tampa and they were going to a show at “a really expensive hotel.” Jacobs spotted a Steinway grand piano in the lobby, and he couldn’t resist the urge to play.
“Charlie said that Shock just walked over to the piano, pulled the chain off, latched it back, sat down, took his rings off, and everybody in the hotel was like, ‘Who is this fool?’ because he wasn’t dressed like everybody else. I know he looked great but they were looking at him a particular way,” Craig said. “Charlie said to Shock, ‘Are you sure you can do this,’ because the staff started walking over, but he said, ‘Nah, I got this.’ As soon as he started playing, people started coming out and in a few minutes there was a crowd around the piano.”
The excitement felt by those random onlookers when they heard Jacobs play the piano that day is exactly what Gregory and Jacobs’ family hope to elicit with the new collection of songs. “I think most people would interpret this as being beautiful,” Craig said, “like they would be impressed and think it’s beautiful based on his sheer ability.”