Not every great rap battle happened on a stage. Or in a clothing store. Or on a roof. Or in the streets in a circle of people. Or in front of a live studio audience. In fact, one of the most notorious battles of the '90s happened on the radio. Yes, in 1994, KMEL was home to the legendary showdown between Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction.
The story behind this battle has roots in a rapper no-showing a studio session which, in a perfect world, would always be a battle-able offense. For those unfamiliar with these titans of NorCal: Casual is a member of celebrated rap crew Hieroglyphics, most famous for containing members Del the Funky Homosapien and Souls of Mischief. Casual’s debut album, Fear Itself, is considered to this day by many as the most consistent album in the Hiero catalog.
Casual invited Saafir to appear on Fear Itself in a memorable spot that raised Saafir’s profile nationwide. Saafir was a member of contemporary crew Hobo Junction, but you may be more familiar with his work years later as one third of Golden State Warriors with Xzibit and Ras Kass. Once it came time for Casual to return the favor on Saafir’s album, Cas no-showed the studio session despite confirming repeatedly he was on his way to the studio that day.
The next day, when Saafir ran into Casual and questioned him about his absence, Cas effectively told Saafir he was making too much of a big deal about it. This led to Saafir making a handful of off-hand comments in radio appearances, with Hiero playfully reciprocated in theirs. After a live confrontation at one of Casual’s concerts that saw an abridged battle break out, the call was made for them to settle it on the air. A date was set, a location on the famous "Wake Up Show with Sway and King Tech," and history was set to be made.
There wasn’t a whole lot of precedence for a live radio battle between two established artists, especially one that was 12 rounds. With East and West Oakland assembled in the hundreds outside the station, what started as a straightforward Saafir vs. Casual battle soon evolved into Saafir vs. Hieroglyphics and then Hobo Junction vs. Hieroglyphics. The purists typically side with Casual as the winner for holding his own entirely by freestyling, but Saafir is the emcee who emerged as the star here, weathering the tension of the fight almost breaking out to team freestyles with some premeditated concepts and holding off the whole crew by himself.
Casual and Hieroglyphics continue to have one of the most devoted fanbases in hip hop to this day, with the famous third-eye logo still a staple of high school hip-hop heads’ notebooks. Saafir would put out the highly influential Boxcar Sessions album with its unforgettable “Light Sleeper” single. Both influenced countless underground hip-hop artists in their wake. While the battle does tend to run out of steam near the end (12 rounds is a very long time), it’s one of the most notorious instances of a battle being a major event, and it's still discussed to this day.
Cover image by Greg Rieke.
Check out HipHopDX for an even longer history of this battle.
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