Why 2Pac Embraced the ‘Vaudevillian Variety Show’ of Digital Underground Early in His Career

From the first album he released, Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac) made it clear he was to be taken seriously. “Trapped,” the lead single on 2Pacalypse (1991), dealt with police brutality at a time when America’s culture wars were raging.

2Pac waded right into those battles. Then, on his second single, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” he highlighted the struggles of a 12-year-old who had to become a prostitute to support a child she’d had in horrifying conditions.

Clearly, this wasn’t lightweight material. In fact, if you were a rap fan who recognized Pac as the guy doing “The Humpty Dance” with Digital Underground the year before, you would have a hard time believing it was the same person.

But it definitely was the same guy. According to Digitial Underground founders Shock G (Greg Jacobs) and Chopmaster J (Jimi Dright), 2Pac was willing to do whatever it took to make it in the business. And in the insane Digital Underground world, 2Pac paid his share of dues.

Tupac joined Digital Underground’s ‘circus’ to launch his own career

Digital Underground, circa 1990: Tupac, right, works the crowd as dancer and hype man. | Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In an oral history of 2Pac’s time in the Digital Underground published in 2017 in Rolling Stone, Chopmaster J and Shock G (who doubled as Humpty Hump) reminisced about Pac’s involvement in the group’s weird stage shows.

“A Digital Underground show was like a vaudevillian variety show,” Chopmaster J said. “[2Pac] was the guy who filled up the buckets with popcorn, filled up the buckets with confetti, made sure the cork was off my champagne bottles.”

Chopmaster J went on to compare it to something like an intern — or worse. “You know it’s Karate Kid, man. Wax on, wax off. Paint the house,” he said. “[2Pac] did what he had to do. He joined the circus, he came on out and he did everything he had to do ’til he became the star.”

The internship didn’t last long. In 1990, Pac was doing the “Humpty Dance” and grunt work behind the scenes. By the end of ’91, he’d released 2Pacalypse and made his first appearance in a movie. By ’92, he’d landed his first starring film role and recorded his first platinum album.

2Pac also had to simulate sex with dolls in his Underground days

2Pac performs with Digital Underground at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on January 31, 1992. | Clayton Call/Redferns

When Chopmaster J compared the Digital Underground stage show to a circus and vaudeville routine, he wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest. In fact, he undersold how crazy things got during a typical performance. For example, Shock G enjoyed reminiscing about the group’s blow-up dolls.

“The blowup dolls were cool because, it wasn’t just f*cking dolls onstage,” he told Rolling Stone. “We had a choreographed routine that went along with ‘Sex Packets.’ That slow beat — we would hump the dolls to that.”

With Shock G in the middle, 2 Pac on one side, and Money-B (the other backup dancer/hype man) on the other, the three would simulate copulation with the dolls there, center-stage. “It used to kill,” Shock G recalled.

When it was over someone had to (in Shock G’s words) “fold them bi*ches up and put them back in the crate, throw them under the bus.” Whether 2Pac was among those on blowup-doll care detail, he couldn’t recall.

Also see: The Only Times Biggie and 2Pac Rapped Together on Records