In 1994, Sway and King Tech were in the midst of their success with the Wake Up Show, airing on both KKBT 92.3 FM The Beat in Los Angeles and KMEL 106.1 FM in San Francisco. The Wake Up Show was an anchor for hardcore and underground Hip Hop diehards on the West Coast and beyond. That year, Sway and Tech broadcasted a lyrical brawl with the caliber of a highly anticipated heavyweight boxing title in both of their syndicated markets for Northern and Southern Californians to listen and call into the radio show to decide the victor.
The battle was between two of the Oakland’s most popular underground Rap crews, Hieroglyphics and the Hobo Junction. In February and May of 1994, respectively, both Casual (a founding member of the Hieroglyphics crew) and his associate from across town Saafir (the de facto leader of the Hobo Junction) released their debut albums Fear Itself and Boxcar Sessions. After a misunderstanding over a featured guest appearance on Boxcar Sessions, the two former comrades expressed their pride and aggression via battle raps and squared off with their crews against each other live on the Wake Up Show. This main event helped catapult the momentum of the Wake Up Show to become one of the highest-rated Rap radio programs in the country. The high ratings would also later serve as a barometer for major record labels to scout and sign new underground Rap talent that had performed on their show for the rest of the ‘90s and early 2000s.
This is the second installment of HipHopDX’s coverage of the Sway, Tech, Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction’s involvement in one of Hip Hop’s epic battles [you can read Sway & Tech’s Q&A here]. After 20 years of minimal documentation on this urban legend, the air is finally cleared straight from the mouths of the sources involved in this story. Casual is currently on tour celebrating his debut album’s anniversary. Having completed a new project, the independently released Mystery School [available now via Bandcamp], he looks back on how his childhood friends formed the Hieroglyphics, and how this historic Rap battle began. Saafir details his story of how he became an associate to seminal Oakland Rap group Digital Underground, how he befriended Tupac Shakur and landed his acting role in the street classic Menace II Society. Saafir also gave his perspective of how the battle between he and Casual began as well. Sway and King Tech chime in on how this event happened on their show, and each of them reflect on the codification on the art of freestyling in Hip Hop, and how the “Casual versus Saafir” battle reverberates in comparison to the Battle Rap scene as we know it today.
We Dem: How The Hieroglyphics & Hobo Junction Crews Formed
Casual: Honestly, I was looking toward the East Coast to get a lot my influences. These are people I was intrigued with—EPMD, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J. But obviously you also have your regional champions like Too Short. That was because I was young and that’s what people were into, but his lyrics didn’t have me going. I was intrigued by the music and playing with words like the Juice Crew, Kool G Rap and all the OGs. So that’s what made to blend what I listened to regionally and accepted it to get the party going with music like Too Short. But I was really intrigued my East Coast influences to blend those styles to become Casual.
Saafir: With LL Cool J’s “I Need A Beat,” I really knew I wanted to rap after I heard that. I really wasn’t a rapper. Me and my brother would beat on like the washing machine, making beats and rhymes, but that was just bullshitting. While Casual and the Hieroglyphics, and other crews where were going to school, I was in the streets. At a young age, I was in group homes and foster homes. I’m one of those stories that went from real rags and nothing to the stadium. I knew I had to metamorphisize myself to a certain degree in order to get within the speed of what was happening in that genre and that era. It was to accomplish what I always wanted and dreamed about. And I dreamed about putting a record out and being in movies. I was really into the music, man. Like I really wanted to be a superstar. Then I got connected to Digital Underground through a cousin of mine. I saw my cousin in the “Doowutchyalike” video once I had just gotten out of jail. That made me want to get to know them. So I hung with them for a minute. My Digital Underground years were the most fun that I ever had. Shock G, that man knew how throw a party, boy! I’ll tell you that [laughs].
Casual: We were rapping before we formed the crew. We all were rappers when we were younger, but we were colleagues. I knew Del, Opio, Tajai, and A-Plus since kindergarten. We were already homies, but we formed the impromptu battle on Aster Avenue back in the ‘80s. We were just getting together to battle each other. And right after we finished, Del said “Hey, let’s just form a crew. Just all of us.” And we went up to A-Plus’ grandma’s house and thought of a crew name. The first name we thought of was The Mad Circle. But then Del had the deal with Da Lench Mob, so he went to L.A., and WC and then had the name. By the time Del came back, we weren’t The Mad Circle anymore. So we were thinking of a new name. I think a lot of the logos developed possibly before we had a crew name. Del came with the name “Hieroglyphics.” He also drew the logo. I guess we were freshman in high school. Del was a junior. And we started blowing that name up. Every little show, we’d show up, we started banging that name, and it became what it became.
Saafir: I knew that I didn’t want to come out sounding like Too Short. You can’t do Too Short. If you come out sounding like him, you’re gonna get dissed or put under his umbrella. I didn’t want that because I really wanted to be original. I came in a fortunate time when Rap was at a transitional stage. I had lived the street life, but I was actually trying to get in the tail end of what they call “The Golden Era” of Rap now. I grew up on East Coast. I grew up on West Coast shit too. Just like niggas in L.A., we grew up on East Coast shit too. I used to listen to everything. Like BDP, that was some street shit back in the day! I was on the block selling weed, and we were bumping that. Like Run-DMC saying, “It’s like that! And that’s the way it is!” It wasn’t, “This is Hip Hop and this is hood.” No, Hip Hop was hood. And then there came a time where it was like, “Okay, you’re gonna be a rapper, an entertainer, or you’re gonna be in the street.” I used to boogaloo, break and all that shit. And I did this other type of dance called “struttin’.” I was cold, man!
King Tech: We thought we had the Bay Area on lock as far as knowing everybody. Then I heard Saafir’s “Battle Drill,” which to this day is one of my top 10 favorite records of all time. I had never heard nobody with that freaky flow before. One of the groups played on the show was Hieroglyphics with the guys being from Oakland with that twisted way. And they were bringing the art of freestyling back, plus they had their own look. They had their own sound. But then you had Freestyle Fellowship in L.A., so the West Coast really started to push their own movement for the first time. Saafir’s flow to this day is one of the most unique flows I’ve ever heard. When we met him, we were trippin’ out like, “Yo, that’s that dude!” That was the era of whoever was weirder and had a dope twist to their flow was getting shine.
Saafir: Money B of Digital Underground introduced me to Tupac. Me and Tupac started hanging, and we clicked real deep. At this time, I was staying between five places. I didn’t have my own spot. Tupac had just gotten his spot as he started getting paid for the D.U. shit he did. One day he asked me, “Where do you stay?” I said, “I got a few places I stay.” He then said, “Nah, where you live? You don’t got your own spot?” When I said no, he told me I could stay with him, and I moved in. He was cool, really on some heavy brotherhood shit. I could see that because everyone that was around him was really down for him. He showed you real love in the beginning. He opened his arms and embraced me at that time, and I learned a lot being around him…positive and negative shit. He opened my eyes to what was real about the record industry.
From there with Tupac, I met the Hughes Brothers after they shot his video for “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” Then [Tupac] shitted on them, they got into it, and they were real upset because they were really trying to connect with him about what had happened between them. I hung out with the Hughes Brothers, trying to get their mind off of what he had just did. And I hooked them up with some females and shared some drinks. Then the next day they asked me, “Yo, can you act?” I said, “Yeah I act everyday with the police.” So they gave me a script and told me to study the shit. A few weeks later, they flew me out to L.A. to audition for the part, and I got to be Cousin Harold in Menace II Society. Shout out to the Hughes Brothers because they gave me my first shot. They saw something in me that I really didn’t see in myself at the time. It’s unfortunate that me and the Hughes Brothers fell out because of some other shit that I was wrongly accused of, and to this day I admit that I did not do. I won’t speak deep on it, but I just want to clear the air about that if they read this. I reached out a couple times to them, but they never responded. I still got love for them for giving me my 15 minutes of fame. So shout out to the Hughes Brothers.
Sway: Opio was just getting out of high school, and his stepfather named Michael Ashburne was our first attorney. He became the attorney for Del and all the Hieroglyphics. He was a great guy, very reputable, very well respected. Tech and I used to go to him, and we didn’t have any money. I told him I wanted to learn about contract law, and he would teach me about publishing, mechanical royalties, whatever this or that meant in a clause. One day he said, “My son is in a Rap crew called the Hieroglyphics. His group in the crew is called the Souls of Mischief. I have their tape. Can I play it for you?” I said, “Where are they from?” Then he said they’re from Oakland, and I thought, “These dudes are from Oakland? They don’t sound like they’re from Oakland. Yo these dudes are dope!” I took a liking to them and started playing them on the 10 O’Clock Bomb, and had them come onto the 10 O’Clock Bomb. We started playing them on the Wake Up Show too. They had Domino, one of their producers, who was dope. Their energy was the same as the A$AP Mob today coming out of Harlem. It was like, “Who is this new fresh thing coming out of Oakland?” And then you started hearing about other people that came from that world that clicked—Hobo Junction being one of them.
Saafir: Our crew came together nonchalantly. I met a production team called The Seven. From that meeting, the Hobo Junction was born through that camaraderie. At first, our name was called “C.O.D.” Children Of Destiny. I was chillin’ with Plan B, Poke Martian, and we were playing around with names because we knew we needed something new. So we were looking through records. I found this Charles Mingus record called “Hobo Ho.” I was like, “‘Hobos is clean.” I think Poke said, “Hobo Junction,” and everybody liked it. It kind of fit us because we were made up of people who either left home early, were young and went through the system, in and out of jail, or fellas that were lightweight crazy. It was different people from all walks of life. Like Big Nose was from Mount Vernon, New York. IQ was from Los Angeles. Me and some of the other members were from the Bay, in Oakland. And we just made it a movement. We were just rapping because we loved it, just to be raw. People starting liking our shit, so we just kept pushing. I knew the demographics of Hip Hop and how far it could go. At the time that street shit was limited as far as getting out to the mass majority and out to the world. I tried to keep my brothers from going back to jail, and Rap was really used as an alternative based on the love of music.
Casual & Saafir Increase Their Profiles & Meet Each Other
Sway: The difference between Hiero and Saafir turns out that Saafir was more of a street dude, really doing some street stuff. The Hieroglyphics, a couple of them were from the Hills, and they were more eccentric guys.
Saafir: I didn’t meet Casual until after I heard his music. I instantly knew that I wanted to work with him because I thought he was dope. He could rhyme and make dope beats. But he beat me to it by asking me out of the blue saying, “I want to put you on this interlude over this track. I think you would like it.” I was like, “I dont know, I’m picky.” But as soon as I heard that B-side, I went in there and freestyled the shit. That’s the only thing I ever did with him. That’s how it jumped off.
Casual: Saafir was just one of the homies hanging out in central Oakland. I just remember A-Plus mentioning another crew called the Hobo Junction. And we just started kicking it because we were both into fast cars, muscle cars or whatever. We were kicking it real tough until he did what he did. When I met him, he would always talk about how he and ‘Pac fell out. It raised my red flag to think, “I thought that was your boy?” And after eight months of us kicking it, I tried to put him on my album.
Style Wars: The Debate Of Freestyles vs. Written Rhymes
Casual: If you go through the real history, when we first came to visit New York, nobody there wanted to freestyle. Freestyling really helped us really step out to the forefront. But we reinvested in it, which is the best way to say it, because obviously there has been some freestyling since back in the day…like Busy Bee or whoever back in the day. But let’s keep it real: a lot of that stuff was premeditated too. He must have had like one or two lines and then busted out with, “A yes, yes y’all! A to the beat y’all!” But we came completely off-the-top. Our style was more like, “just making it up right now,” coming off impromptu. But a lot of artists that inspired us to do that style of rhyming were not from the East Coast. And when I met these artists, they were kind of flattered that we were just making up these words on the spot. So it kind of evened out my stereotypes of what Hip Hop was like. Coming from the West Coast, I was going to the Mecca of Hip Hop truly in New York, so we were all practiced up and prepared ready. And we got straight onto the train ready to battle anybody that looked like a rapper. And we were laughing at dudes who were normal people going, “Yeah I rap.” We were smashing fools coming off the head as dudes as they were kicking “writtens.” And you can tell if you are good at freestyling, or listen to it enough, you can tell the difference between a written and a freestyle. In 1993 and 1994, there were a few artists who were freestyling, but Hieroglyphics made up a lot of the people in that small circle.
Sway: Casual has that off-the-top style that make you think, “Did this dude write this?” Until they say something that you know is spontaneous and like that in the moment. Casual has a laid-back, comfortable style that was seamless and alluring. He was like the Pied Piper of Rap. My favorites ever to come off-the-top on the Wake Up Show were him, Myka 9 from Freestyle Fellowship, Juice, Supernatural, Eminem, Craig G, Logic, Brother Ali, Mitch Littlez from Harlem, and G Major from Philly.
I Didn’t Mean To: A Miscommunication Sparks Casual & Saafir’s Beef
Saafir: I was in the studio in downtown Oakland working on a song called “Hype Shit” (from Boxcar Sessions) about a situation that really happened to me, and I asked Casual to be on it. I did it out of respect for the fact of him asking me to freestyle on his album. But I gave him more action with it out of the love for him even giving me a little more than a snippet, because I didn’t ask him to come on my album to do a freestyle. I wanted him to come on my album to do a song. My song was about muscle cars, and I had a couple actually. I thought it would it would be some hard, Oakland shit, and I was trying to really put him on.
I told Casual about it, and he was like, “That’s cool. Alright I’m on my way to the studio.” It got to the point where it was a couple hours, and I called him again asking him “What’s up brotha? Are you coming?” He said, “Yeah, yeah. I’m on my way right now en route,” and I said “OK. But look bruh, if you can’t make it, tell me and it’s good. I’ll jump on some other shit.” He replied, “No, I’m coming...on my way.” I told him again, “OK, cool. I’ll see you when you get here, man.” I hung up, and he never came nor called. Nothing. I was disappointed that he didn’t come because I had the song planned for him, but I finished the song. I did two versions to it, and kept it like it was a mission.
Casual: After a while, Saafir really caught feelings because I wasn’t available for his studio session for the recording of his album, claiming that I cost him money. But if anybody knows the true nature of the industry, it doesn’t work like that. If somebody can’t make it to the studio, switch your songs and do something else until I can make it. It ain’t like you’re sitting there with nothing to do, or if you do that then that’s your fault. But we bumped heads over that 20 years ago, and we reconciled however we felt back in the day. It eventually came to the point where we were discussing the matter. I thought and said to him that he was “putting too much on it.” And he responded: “Oh I’m putting too much on it, huh?” Then the next thing you know we had beef or what have you.
Saafir: I didn’t trip on it, and I have no problem with Casual. We cool now, and the Hieroglyphics Imperium I wish them more success. I’m happy with them and they got my respect. We started off as folks. But the problem was not about him not coming to the studio—it was about afterwards. The next day, I went to Domino’s (Hieroglyphics producer) house going towards North Oakland, coming from the lake area. I knocked on the door, and Domino and them were playing videos games. And we start speaking like, “What’s happening, bruh?” Everything was going cool. So I asked him, “What happened to you last night?” And his response was, “Awww you putting too much on that. You going out.” And I envisioned myself firing on him and anybody that jumped up when he said that. But I was thinking “Naww…” Because if I get violent and start boxing, I was gonna take it to the streets heavy. And I remember that I looked at him and everybody in that room, and said, “OK, brotha. It’s cool...alright, my nigga. I’ll just holla at you another time,” then left.
What it was all about was some Rap shit, and I would keep it in the spirit of that. I felt like he was dissing me. How you gonna tell me, “I’m putting too much on it” or, “I’m going out” if I’m asking you, “What happened to you last night?” and you said you were coming, like I was beneath you or something? It was about the arrogance of it. I didn’t let nobody disrespect me like that. So I felt like I had to respond. If you disrespect me, we fightin’. And if I get my ass whooped, I’ma take that ass-whopping like a man. But I know I stepped up, handled it and stood my ground like a man. Anybody that knows me knows I been like that.
Casual: Basically the battle was manufactured when he started going on the radio rapping his raps about me and stuff.
Saafir: I was just on the radio clowning. I was just freestyling, and I said his name. But I don’t remember the freestyle totally because it was a freestyle. But I even do remember saying, “Let’s take it to wax” in my rhyme on the radio, and that I wanted to get on record and do it. It was just to show that niggas wasn’t as dope as they thought they were, that they were really gassed, and that I can rhyme. It was a situation in which the best way to deal with it was on a real Hip Hop level. We actually got down on stage at his show. The crowd was big, and he was flippin’. The doorman wouldn’t let me in at first. I told him that I was Saafir, and he said “No you’re not.” I told him “Let me in. I need to do something and talk to that dude on stage.” The doorman wouldn’t let me in until someone came to the door saying, “Hey, what’s up Saafir!” So he let me in. Then I just creeped from the crowd and got onstage. I was on the sideline, and the crowd started going crazy. So Casual instantly stopped the show and said, “Wassup?!” I said, “What’s hap’nin? We gonna battle!” It was some classic Hip Hop shit. He had his DJ put a beat on, and he went in on me. Then after him, I went in on him.
Casual: That happened at a club called The Independent now, but back then it was called the Kennel Club. Somebody came to me from the side of the stage, and I was in my prime back then, so it was full of my people. Not only was it full of my people from Oakland, but also my people from San Francisco were there. And I guess he was there with his boys, and they were old enough to go to the show, which was cool. They wanted to present his animosity to me. So somebody came to me saying, “Saafir is at the front door.” So it was a safe situation obviously, because it was my party. [I said], “Let him in.” And they were over there saying, “He got problems,” so I said, “Give him the mic.” So that was when the initial shit went down.
At that session I learned, before the other battle on the radio, that he was prepared. Because he came with some written raps to a show while I was not even thinking about it [laughs]. And when he got onstage he had “writtens.” I wasn’t about to be giving that beef no respect like that. I was thinking, “I’m not about to think and write no raps for you, bro.” I was gonna approach it like whatever I say after what you say is gonna be strictly off-the-top.
Saafir: I did something in the midst of that battle, and he was flowing really tight. He was in my face calling me all kinds of stuff, and I did something to throw his focus off. I won’t say specifically what it was, but it completely threw him off his game.
Casual: I do not remember that, but I think him spitting written raps about me shocked me. It was odd.
Saafir: At the end of the battle, he said “We can do this on the radio, on KMEL.” So I said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go! Wassup?”
Casual: We had a lot of occurrences in between those battles. Some people would see each other in the streets and espoused our beef, taking it to their hearts to do shit that even we didn’t want to do.
Sway: It was the period that happened where there were rumblings between those crews, and I thought, “Wait a minute…hold up. Why y’all beefing? This is a great thing about to happen.” It was well known in the Bay Area about the beef before we brought them on the Wake Up Show. I think Souls of Mischief came up on the 10 O’Clock Bomb, and I thought they were saying something indirectly about Hobo Junction on the show. Then I feel like the Hobo Junction came on the air and kind of said something too. And I felt like these dudes were trying to make a platform on my show for the wrong reason. So I told Tech about it, but then I used to be an instigator kind of. So I said, “We should just have a battle, and battle it out on the Wake Up Show.” I figured we should air that episode out in the Bay Area because we were doing both down in L.A. at that time.
Hype Shit: How Casual vs. Saafir Became A Media Event
King Tech: One day, Sway called me and said, “I want to do the Wake Up Show in the Bay this week. Yo, you gotta get down here. There’s something going down tonight. There’s gonna be a battle at the (KMEL) station.” I said, “Man, get outta here. Are you serious?” I didn’t even know what had happened between those two crews. So KMEL and The Beat let us simulcast for that episode. We had won so many awards at KMEL for so many years by then, so they let us play what we wanted on the air. They would even pay the FCC fines for us. The ratings were through the roof. What I thought was that I would show up, and one guy would be on the mic and the other guy would come on and say his rap in the battle, and that it would be peaceful highlighting what we do with freestyles on the air. But when we got there, The Hobo Junction dudes were deep, the Hieros were there, and these dudes were like ready to scrap. I think the Hiero crew was more ready on the freestyle tip to battle. So the intensity was hot, and Sway sat behind the board yelling, “Yeah Tech, you get them in the middle of all of them and be the referee!”
Sway: Then I thought we got promotion with getting Rap Pages involved. To have Rap Pages involved back then, that was our Internet [laughs]. We built that up for a couple of weeks, so promoters knew when it was going to happen. We promoted the date that it would happen all the way to the last hour to actually spark the battle and get as many people in Northern California to listen in. And that was the first battle that we ever promoted like that with that technique: you start talking about it in few weeks in advance, drop a new single, talk about that and build it up. And by the time it happened, you can’t tell me of another time that I know of that kind of energy like that. We were embarking on something that none of us had experienced, and in a way that no one had ever experienced or obtained on radio. It may not seem like a big deal now, but what people take for granted is now Hip Hop now gets that kind of leeway on mainstream P-1 stations. And KMEL was the biggest in the country at the time.
Casual: When we got to the radio station for the battle, I saw Saafir and they had publicity there. There were real press people there. Rap Pages was there and some people from his record company. So I’m not stupid, like, “This ain’t natural!” This is me saying this, so I’m obviously biased, but I felt like he was trolling looking for a way to come up harder in Hip Hop. Like how you gonna wind up battling the dude who just put you out on their debut album? No matter how big you feel the beef was, you should have been able to overlook that because you may have possibly even got your deal by being associated with me. People are going to remember you from being on my album. But that was just the age we were, and we had egos back then. We’ve obviously reconciled our differences since that time.
Saafir: I had taken nothing away from the Hieroglyphics. They’re real rhymers, but I was a monster too. You weren’t going to disrespect after I showed you love in a humble way. It was for the fact that he misread my approach, and from him miscalculating it, he said something that was out of pocket.
Sway: Tech is about the core of it all. I was about hyping it, having all eyes and ears on it. I was about making sure of things like, “What beats we were gonna play? How are we gonna to have it: round one and round two?” The energy in that room, man, it was almost kinda scary. Mike G was there for the Hobo Junction, and the Whoridas were there. Souls had more people there. Del wasn’t there though.
Casual: Del didn’t have to be there. He had already proven himself as an artist, and that wasn’t his lane at the time have to battle. It was strictly over me and Saafir, because I was aggressive and he was aggressive in our rhyme styles.
King Tech: And then Tajai jumped in. I could just tell that whatever Saafir had brewing inside of him, he let it out that night. He was ready mentally. A lot of people said that he had a lot of pre-written raps with him to go. I don’t know, but it seemed like he had focused, and he was touring that time with Chino XL and different artists. Think about it: you have a lyrical dude on tour, knowing he’s coming back to the Bay, he’s about to battle five dudes. I know all he’s doing is thinking of raps.
Saafir: I didn’t go after them. Other people just stepped up and started to rap. I was just set out to go against Casual, then Tajai, Opio, and Pep Love jumped in. So I started hitting back as they came. Then my dudes in the Junction started rapping.
Casual: That was what that battle with Saafir was all about psychologically, metaphorically, and metaphysically. It was the old version of freestyling, which is just a rap that you have written, and it’s not gonna be on none of your albums versus off-the-top. And Saafir represented a written rhyme, and I represented a freestyle, which is spontaneity. And overall, over the 20 years, what I get from the story even maybe the accolades are whatever I received after the battle was not necessarily attributed to the specific lyrics during the battle. It was more or less of the fact that I didn’t fall off my square, or didn’t break my ranks, and didn’t get off my position. And I stayed kicking freestyles off the top of the head without referring to a written rap. He stayed kicking written raps without referring to his ability to freestyle. It was a battle of two art forms as well as it was a battle of two artists.
Sway: Saafir was smart though because he combined freestyles—meaning off the top of the head—with his writtens. There was maybe one or two ideas that he had preconceived. That was just one of the most amazing feelings I ever had while doing the Wake Up Show.
Saafir: They were asking me about writtens while we were battling. They were like, “We doing freestyles! Oh, you kicking writtens? You gotta kick freestyles like us.” Who’s making them rules up? You? That’s like saying I’m in a fight, and I gotta just use my fists. Hell naw. If you’re fighting me, I’m kicking you and punching, throwing with elbows. I’m coming with freestyles and writtens…coming with everything. How you gonna sit up and call the shots about the battle? You come in and do what you do, and I do what I do.
Casual: Can’t nobody deny it. When it comes to Oakland, I’m really, really born and bred from Oakland. I never tried to claim no gangster shit, and always been an upstanding, cool dude from the community. And Saafir was someone who came up later claiming he’s a gangster-banger from the streets. At the battle, there were a few Hiero people there and Hobo Junction people there. When we got on the air, you can tell from the music that the battle was real intense. And by the end of the battle, I’ll tell no lies: when we came out the lobby, it was packed with over 100 people from East Oakland that were there to make sure I was okay. I’m talking about people that I had not seen since kindergarten—motherfuckers pulling up in Chevelles and Cutlasses.
In fact, there was even an occurrence after the battle that I couldn’t even prevent because when you’re on the air and he was starting to yell, “West Oakland” and I’m yelling, “East Oakland,” now it’s time for people to come out. So when I walked out of the station, I had a small army of at least 100 people for support and to make sure that I was protected physically and mentally. Seagram was one of the most gangster rappers from East Oakland, from the Village, and he came to the battle to have words with Saafir over having beef with me. Like I said, the streets came out and told their own story to where there were shots fired after that shit. I wasn’t looking for a physical altercation or nothing.
Saafir: I’m from West Oakland. Ghost Town. I migrated from Ghost Town to 2-4, and 2-4 to Ghost Town. And I got the streets to back that up. But all that is bullshit in the bigger scheme of life, because that’s nothing but a chapter in a book. But I had to respond to the point where they felt there were unmatched.
King Tech: There is a shot in Rap Pages where I’m literally between both parties. Someone took a picture of me behind the board in the magazine. And I literally have no expression on my face because I felt like, “Yo man, I’m in the middle of a brawl in here.” And it was a small studio space. So you couldn’t even get out of the way. Luckily I didn’t get hit with anything during the battle. That was a weird battle because there were two things going on at the same time. One, they wanted to freestyle battle, but two they wanted to fight. Luckily, Hiero and Hobo Junction had enough respect for us not to tear the station apart. Every commercial break had a fight, and every end of a freestyle there would be a pushing and shoving match. Then after it was done, they said there was a shooting downstairs outside, and the cops were called. It turned into a crazy mess. It was the Wild Wild West literally. We had to escort those crews out separately. It was nuts.
Sway: People always ask me who I thought won, and I never really commented because me and Tech and I always tried to stay neutral in it. I think Saafir benefited the most because it was him taking on all of them [Hieroglyphics] even though his brothers and his family were there. The Whoridaz were there spitting too. We took the calls for about an hour. We were gonna let the people decide, so we took about 500 calls, which is unheard of for that to happen in radio. And I swear to you, we counted 250 to 250. It was just taking calls with people like “Souls of Mischief,” “Hobo Junction,” or, “Hiero,” “Saafir,” just back and forth the whole time on the phone. It was like one of those Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier type of battles.
How Casual & Saafir’s Battle Impacts Today’s Battle Rap Networks
Sway: I understand it, but what I don’t understand is the way they are doing it now. It’s like spoken word to me—like Def Poetry Jam. You got guys like Loaded Lux and some of these dudes who kind of originated that approach. Its like EDM music, like you know what’s gonna happen. There’s gonna be a beat, and the beat is gonna drop, and some chorus and a build up, a crescendo, and then beat is gonna stop, and then everything is gonna slam. Then the crowd goes crazy. The structure of EDM songs is that you know what’s gonna happen every time. The structure for this generation of battle rappers is exactly alike at the time. Some dudes are a little more clever than others with their metaphors. The big thing now is to dissect you and check your credit report or school records [laughs]. Guys are like, “You flunked out in the 12th grade / How do you have it made / I saw your school records, I even got a copy / Right there, no wonder your rhymes so sloppy.”
Most people are doing the same style and the same thing, and why is that okay? I could be wrong though. I enjoy it, but it becomes like Def Poetry Jam. I have had a couple guys from that battle network on the show, but I think, “OK, we need to have them on too though.” It’s harder to keep on beat and trick your mind to come off the top of the head cohesively and on beat with imaginary syllables or playing with that pocket. The beat creates another level of difficulty for all of these guys who are saying terrific lyrics. But the challenge to freestyling is, “Can you keep time at the same time saying these lyrics?”
Tech: Casual versus Saafir wasn’t like the Rap battles that you have now where it’s pre-formatted. You stand there and nobody says anything. To me now, it’s different. Back then it was real animosity. You didn’t know whether they were gonna fight you or you’re gonna rap. For now, a battle like Casual versus Saafir would be too real, too fabricated to happen on a radio station. It would be done for views on WorldStar, and you don’t know if it’s real or not like WWE. In the ‘90s, we just didn’t give a fuck. Hip Hop is going on the air, and the more freedom we got, the crazier we got, playing the curse versions of the songs [laughs].
Saafir: Hip Hop is still alive, but it’s different. Back then, you had to be anonymous in a sense that they couldn’t pinpoint your style because it’s so new. You had to bust a style that niggas couldn’t do, or that they couldn’t pinpoint. Like say the first time I heard Pharoahe Monch, I said, “This nigga is incredible!” Nobody out here was doing that style, like he was the only one in the world that could do that shit.
Casual: The person that reached international stardom from that battle with me and Saafir was Sway. From that one particular battle, through the next two years after that, KMEL manufactured “pseudo-battles” in order to relive the numbers that they got on the night me and Saafir were battling. So right after that, the Wake Up Show turned into a “battle show.” Before, it was just a place where you would go on there to spit your lyrics, and they never used to put two emcees against each other. So that moment was exploited by KMEL, and even MTV and Viacom with their freestyle Battle Rap shows. I’m not saying this in hindsight, because I lived this and I experienced this. I would listen into KMEL for weeks after that happened, and would be like, “Oh, there’s another battle now? And there’s another battle now? Okay, they should get at me and at least let me be the host of one of these motherfuckers or something.” I got no animosity over it though because Sway and Tech are my loved ones. I remember the days when he and Sway came up, being with him over his house with Saafir and everything.
Sway: I have been to the Netherlands, Rotterdam, France, Japan and the UK where people have approached me about it. Maybe like two or three years ago in Ireland, people there were coming up to me and asking unexpectedly, “Hey... Hiero-Hobo!” And I was like “Huh? What?” They repeated to me, “Hiero-Hobo!” I said, “The Hieroglyphics versus Hobo Junction?” They said “Yessss!”
King Tech: I knew at the time the Hieroglyphics had established themselves with “93 Til Infinity,” and I felt that Saafir just need help getting out there. So I produced and put him on as a feature for that “Come Widdit” record with Ahmad and Ras Kass. We love these dudes from both crews to this day.
Saafir: I told Casual 10 years ago, “That little battle was what it was. But I got no animosity towards you, bro. We need this time period to get paid and do an album. I’m telling you we need to do it.” I left him a message, and we didn’t talk for like 10 years or so. He would see me around and different shit, but he wasn’t ready to do an album with me. Now he is so it’s cool. There’s no hatred. Now we’re going to doing an album together.
Casual: East Oakland and West Oakland had always separated themselves. But we never had two so-called pillars in the arena called Hip Hop, which was not really a gangster arena. So we were outsiders of the arena of street shit, which made it like, “We really shouldn’t be beefing that hard.” But when we started beefing, it brought out the street element to it. But there was no divide between East Oakland and West Oakland from the Casual versus Saafir battle. That would be romanticism to say that. This was a situation from 20 years ago. Obviously we’ve grown to reconcile our differences, feelings, and we’re even speaking on working on some music together. We are just looking to make collector’s item shit for people to hear how that might sound nowadays.
Sway: We had battles after that one. Like the Juice versus Supernatural battle. That was like doing the same thing. People just kept asking for that battle. Like, “Who do y’all wanna hear battle?” We were supporting those types of rappers like that. Sure, they got on some other shows, but to be on the Wake Up Show, it mattered. The Wake Up Show was such a mammoth back then, and it meant something different if you come on our show. We didn’t have any video cameras there at the time, but we started filming everything that. [Laughs] We were young, and we missed out on some things. We were doing it for Hip Hop. We just thought it would live longer on the radio.
Dana Scott is a historian from Boston covering hip hop and pop culture. He is the former host of the weekly mixshow MUSENOMIX on WMBR 88.1FM MIT radio, where he interviewed rap legends, record executives, actors, university professors, poets, comedians, veteran hip hop journalists from The Source Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Grammy Award-winning authors. Follow him on Twitter @MUSENOMIX.