He got stupid. He shot an arrow like Cupid. He used words that didn’t mean nothing, like “loopid.” Humpty Hump was his name and he single-handedly saved the summer of 1990, easily the worst radio summer of all time. Let us now celebrate 20 years of “The Humpty Dance,” summer jam of summer jams, the song that has kept a grateful nation getting busy in Burger King bathrooms ever since.
Sometimes a summer song fights its way out of a crowded pack. Like, what was the summer song of 1984 or 2003? You might say “When Doves Cry” or “Crazy In Love,” while someone else would go for “Ghostbusters” or “Seven Nation Army,” maybe even “Missing You” or “Ignition (Remix).” But any fan can agree these were jam-packed summers for pop radio. Other years, there’s a clear-cut champ — no matter what else you cranked on the beach in 1994, there was only one “Gin and Juice,” and despite all the great tunes kicking around in 2006, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was first among equals. But 1990 was a dismal little sweatbox — you’d have to reach back to the pre-Beatles era to search for a radio summer that weak. There was only one song everyone could agree on, one song you could blast at a party without driving everyone out to the porch. And that song was “The Humpty Dance.”
Digital Underground had already released a fantastic hip-hop twelve-inch in the late summer of ’89, “Doowutchalike,” which built up huge anticipation for their debut album, Sex Packets. Humpty Hump had a cameo in that tune, saying, “Homegirls, for once, forget you got class! See a guy you like, just grab him in the biscuits!” When the Bay Area crew finally dropped Sex Packets that winter, everyone seemed to feel hugely disappointed and forgot about it. But a few months later, “The Humpty Dance” began showing up on MTV and the radio, and blew everything else away. That soles-of your feet bassline. That “Do me baby!” hook. That tone-deaf male chorus, that irresistible “let’s get stupid” gear change at the end, all those cornball jokes about how he likes his oatmeal (lumpy) and his beats (funky). Humpty had the whole song to himself, crowing, “Both how I’m living and my nose is large!”
There were a few other worthy hip-hop singles that summer — A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It,” YZ’s “Tower With The Power,” Roxanne Shante’s “Brothers Ain’t Shit” — but none of them came close to going pop. And Top 40 radio was in sorry-ass shape — this was a time when Nelson could look like a sign of life. MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” still lingered on from the spring. Wilson Phillips and En Vogue both scored horrific hits called “Hold On.” Jon Bon Jovi tried to get serious with “Blaze of Glory.” There were niche hits that people loved to argue about: Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” (which I loved), Snap’s “The Power” (which I hated), Madonna’s “Hanky Panky” (which has to be one of the strangest Top 10 hits in history). But it was “The Humpty Dance” that kept us sane enough to keep the arguments going. All summer long, I went to house parties where they played it six times. At one of these parties I tried spinning Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke,” but it instantly cleared all females off the dance floor, pissing off my housemates yet giving us all a new appreciation for Humpty Hump.
Humpty seemed to go hand in hand with the “Black Bart” T-shirts that were equally ubiquitous that summer. The Simpsons had only been on the air for a few months, yet everywhere you went, you saw bootleg Black Bart shirts. (The other big T-shirt that summer? Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry had just gotten busted smoking crack on camera, so if you lived in D.C., Virginia or the Carolinas, you saw a lot of “THE BITCH SET BARRY UP” shirts.) Like Bart, Humpty became part of the culture, an Eshu-Elegba trickster god in Groucho drag, the stuff of legend. He made occasional reappearances in Digital Underground’s music — he got married in “Tie the Knot,” and defended his nose as an Afrocentric political statement in “No Nose Job.” But we all owe him for “The Humpty Dance.” Thank you, Humpty Hump. All over America, Burger King employees are still mopping up after you.