Tommy Boy Records, 1990
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/23/1997
Long-time readers are probably thinking, "Gee, Chris's been doing a lot of rap reviews lately." This is what happens when Spring Cleaning comes to the Pierce Memorial Archives (out with the Bay City Rollers, in with... well, anything but the Bay City Rollers). I've been running into albums I haven't touched for some time but still hold a special place in my aching eardrums.
I ran across my battered copy of Digital Underground's debut album Sex Packets the other day, and immediately I smiled. This was an album that took out most of the raunch of rap (though there's still a little in there for flavor), and replaced it with humor and - believe it or not - musicianship. All of this is why I would rank this as the best rap album ever made.
Digital Underground first hit the scene with their hit single "The Humpty Dance," which is where I first heard them. (Months later, I bought this tape on a whim - I wanted to see what the hype was about.) The rhymes that Humpty Hump blares out are more humorous than threatening or sexist, which is exactly what Digital Underground were shooting for on this one. (It still didn't stop MTV from censoring the brag of Humpty Hump "gettin' busy in a Burger King bathroom" - gives new meaning to the phrase "getting it to go.")
Had this been the only solid performance on Sex Packets, Digital Underground would have at least secured a footnote in music history. Ah, but this is only the beginning. Shock-G takes over for most of the album as lead rapper and brings a whole new flavor to the raps. From a declaration of what the band represents on "The Way We Swing" to a strong anti-drug message on "The Danger Zone" to having fun (no, not that type of fun) on "Hip Hop Doll," Digital Underground shows they are a multi-faceted and extremely talented group. The party atmosphere continues on "Doowutchyalike" and "Gutfest '89" (okay, now we're talkin' about that kind of fun).
The biggest shocker on Sex Packets is - omigod! - the use of live instruments, not sampled, on several tracks. In just over a minute of performnce, The Piano Man and Chopmaster J weave piano and drums to create one hell of a groove on "The New Jazz (One)," a groove which I found myself wishing they had continued to explore. The Piano Man returns several times on the album, especially with some free-form riffs on "Doowutchyalike."
The last few tracks of the album concentrate on the fictional creation of the "sex packet," a synthetic compound that provides a new type of safe sex. In one sense, I wish this thing really existed - just think of the hours of relief it would bring college freshmen. (Hell, not only would I have bought these when I was a freshman, I'd still be using 'em from time to time.) "Packet Prelude" begins to build the mood, and while "Sex Packets" is not the best r&b song I've heard, the vocal work - whoa, singing on a rap album! - is impressive. There is even a slightly humorous take on the subject on the cut "Packet Man."
What's that? Oh, you don't like rap? Two words: cram it. In all truth, I was not that big of a rap fan when Sex Packets came out, and even I, a person who could find faults in the Mona Lisa, was left speechless. This is more than a rap album - it merges hip-hop, jazz and r&b into an album that makes you laugh and makes you think at the same time. Digital Underground dared their listeners to think - a gamble that is worth taking.
Digital Underground has continued to make quality albums, though they've never equalled the success they had with their debut - a fate that a band as talented as this one does not deserve. Sex Packets may be a starting point for the young rap fan, but it should also be a stepping stone for checking out the rest of their catalog.
Whew... made it through a review without using a corny line like "you won't feel like you got screwed listening to Sex Packets"...