Giant head prop from Digital Underground tour stored in East Oakland parking garage
on August 31, 2012
In a parking garage in East Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood, an enormous piece of local music history gazes out at parked cars. More than ten feet tall, and sporting sunglasses, the relic is a stage prop modeled after rapper Shock G. The head was featured in a 1993 music video by rapper Shock G’s platinum-selling group, Digital Underground, and went out with the group on tour. Now it collects dust and dirt from exhaust pipes.
“It doesn’t bother me—it’s kind of cool,” says Mike Cheung, 30, a woodworker who lives in the lofts attached to the garage. “The thing’s huge.” When a friend of Cheung’s visited the building, he went to see the head and “opened it up and came out of the nose, as if he was Shock G.”
The nose has two doors that swing open, a design feature permitting Shock G to emerge from inside the giant prop. A small door in the back allows performers, or friends of the building’s current residents, to sneak in for their grand entrances.
The head was built to resemble Shock G in the alter ego he called Humpty Hump. As Humpty Hump, Shock G wore Groucho Marx eyeglasses and a substantial prosthetic nose. The Humpty Hump character rose to prominence in Digital Underground’s 1990 rap hit “The Humpty Dance,” whose music video featured a young Tupac Shakur. “The Humpty Dance” propelled the Digital Underground’s debut, Sex Packets, to platinum sales, and put the Oakland group on the map.
In 1993, Shock G donned the nose and glasses in his music video for the song “The Return of the Crazy One.” During the clip, Humpty Hump emerges from the nose of the now-abandoned head.
Humpty Hump’s head no longer looks as crisp as it did in 1993. “Dirty, very dirty,” is how the building’s owner, Francis Rush, describes it. Exhaust cakes the head’s face, and the fur on the hat and collar is several shades grayer than it once was. In this residential garage, the prop seems as out of place and stoic as a stone head from Easter Island. Several motorcycles park beside it.
Shock G, reached via email, said the head was designed to provide “spectacular stage visuals,” like those created for his funk heroes Parliament. The head cost $50,000, and was built by FM Productions in South San Francisco. The head was too large for many of the venues where Digital Underground played, and was banned from several 1992 shows, Shock G said, out of concerns that Digital Underground and their giant head might upstage the main act, LL Cool J.
According to Marsha Levine, the building’s manager, residents and potential tenants think the head is “pretty awesome,” and some even remember the head from Digital Underground’s heyday. Others were unaware that the giant head is in the building.
Rush says that other than the dirt, the prop is “not in bad shape.” The head, which is on wheels, rolls apart in three pieces. The nose still opens. There are stairs leading up to the nose. The lips and chin serve as steps.
When Rush bought the building in 2003, the head was already there. He believes that during the building’s previous life as a self-storage facility, a manager allowed someone to store the head temporarily. But there’s no paper trail on the head. Rush has no indication of who owns the prop, or how it came to be in his East Oakland garage.
Shock G says that the prop arrived at the garage when the facility was still a storage unit. The head was too big for the building’s elevator, even in three pieces, so they found space for it in the garage. At the time, Shock G says, the garage housed “old military war tanks, fighter planes.” He says that leaving the head in the building wasn’t a “ditch,” but instead “more like an involuntary abandonment.”
Rush has been trying to give away the head for years. “I can’t just destroy it,” he says. “It’s a cool thing, too cool to get rid of.” Levine, the building manager, agrees. “It’s such a part of Oakland music history that it would be a shame to destroy it.”
There haven’t been any takers. “Nobody seems to want it,” Levine says. Rush has tried to give away the head on Craigslist, but could not find a taker. He tried to donate it to the Los Angeles Hip-Hop Museum, which didn’t have space for the giant prop. He was even forwarded an earlier email written by Shock G, in which the rapper said he wasn’t interested in owning the prop.
Recently, images of the head were posted online, where they sparked a renewed interest from Digital Underground admirers. One fan said he hopes to feature the head on the cable TV show Storage Wars, and has called Levine to gauge her interest. A software company in San Francisco, TuneUp Media, has also expressed interest in the head.
But for now, the head remains out of sight in this garage near Interstate 880, an Oakland hip-hop relic without a home.
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