The Bay Area Rap Battle Heard 'Round the World

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This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

Before 8 Mile, before Scribble Jam and WorldStar, and before MTV and BET developed freestyle shows, there was the Hiero-Hobo battle.

Pitting Saafir and his Hobo Junction crew against Casual and his Hieroglyphics crew, the 1994 rap battle held in KMEL's San Francisco studios, broadcast live on the air, lasted more than 40 minutes. But its aftereffects lasted for decades.

"It was like an out-of-body experience, just watching it," said KMEL host Sway. "It was the most amazing, beautiful conflict you could ever witness."

Above, watch Shomari Smith's 2021 short documentary The Battle, which includes rare footage of the battle itself, and read below for some of the director's reflections on this landmark meeting of Bay Area greats.


GABE MELINE: In the realm of Bay Area hip-hop history, in your own words, how important was this battle?

SHOMARI SMITH: This battle was one of the most important, for sure, for West Coast MCs, especially during that time. There was a different style from New York that kind of spawned out of the West Coast, and it was great to see West Coast MCs just battling it out live on the radio. You don't see that very often — I can't think of another live battle that happened on the air, at all. It's usually at a show, or on record. So yeah, it was unique, and very, very important.

Freestyle battles weren't as big a thing in the Bay as they were in New York, or Philly, or Cincinnati. Why do you think that is?

It's interesting, because there was a culture for it here. It was just smaller. You had to seek it out. A lot of it happened on street corners; you wouldn't find it formally happening. And I believe it just had a lot to do with what was popularized here — Too Short, sort of spawning the culture, he had a totally different style. It wasn't a battle-rap style. There was this subculture of MCs who liked to battle and meet up, but it was just a smaller community on the West Coast.

A man in a beanie and headphones raps assertively into a microphone in a radio station studio
Saafir takes aim at Casual during the Hieroglyphics / Hobo Junction rap battle at KMEL Studios, Nov. 18, 1994. (Alex Asher Daniel / Courtesy Skyfre Productions)

What ripple effects would you say the Hiero-Hobo battle had, for its participants but also in the culture at large?

The battle really spawned out of a personal dispute. And I think the biggest thing is that no one was physically hurt. So many times, you'll see two rappers have a problem with each other, and then there's a fight. Neither of these two guys ever got hurt over this battle, and there was a resolve on the mic.

But then also, as the tapes traveled, and now with The Battle being available online, you hear this energy and spontaneity. It spread this understanding that, yes, there are rappers' rappers here in the Bay Area that very early on were following in the tradition of some of the original elements of hip-hop. It really brought attention to the Bay Area in a way that we hadn't seen before.

When you first set out to do this documentary... were you worried at all about reigniting old disputes?

No. Making the Souls of Mischief documentary, because they were a part of the battle, it was something that came up over and over again. At a certain point, I started making the battle a part of my line of questioning. And the last piece of it came when I ran into Saafir in Los Angeles, and I hadn't seen him in a very, very long time, and he said so many nice things about the Souls. Right then and there, I knew this was something I could do.

Twenty years had passed. They had moved on. It seemed like they looked back on it finally like, "Oh, we were young guys, and I can't believe we did that." It was that energy.

One thing that really comes across is that, despite the passage of time, everybody remembers the events in that cramped studio really, really vividly.

It's really incredible! Even 20 years later, the way they tell the story, like with the energy around it. A friend of mine, Alex Asher Daniel, who's close with Hiero, also was in the room that night, and he brought a video camera to the battle. And Alex has had the tape this entire time, been watching it since the '90s, but there's no other tape that's ever really surfaced of it. Everyone else who videotaped that night, I'm not sure what they did with their footage, or if it got lost, or it's so far removed now, but nothing else has ever really surfaced.

I think the greatest element of the film is to actually see the footage of these guys in the studio facing off. It's a special moment in hip-hop, and I think it deserved to be documented. We have to tell our own stories in our own way, and that's why the way it's told, the way I formed it, was very intentional. I didn't have an angle in it, which was something Saafir really thanked me for, because he knows that I'm close with Hiero.

A man in a colorful jacket, rapping into a microphone, surrounded by supporters
Casual battles it out against Saafir at KMEL studios in San Francisco, Nov. 18, 1994. (Alex Asher Daniel/Courtesy Skyfre Productions)

So here's the million-dollar question: Who do you think won the battle?

Well, this is where my allegiance comes in. It's Hiero, for sure. My whole thing was, if you're only saying what is coming from your head at that moment, I think that's pretty remarkable. Casual did not prepare at all, and that's pretty incredible, to go live on the air with no rhymes written. I don't know if there's an MC that does that anymore. So yeah, my allegiance will always be with the Hiero crew, for sure.

Is there anything else you want to add about the battle?

Like I was saying before, things spawned from the battle. Crews got involved. But no one died. This was a hip-hop conflict that was resolved in the right way, in the spirit of the culture. I really like to emphasize that because it seems like, more and more, people have trouble solving problems that don't end up fatal. These guys have been able to go on and live their life, and finally talk about it later.

At the 20th anniversary of Fear Itself, Casual had a show, and Saafir came. Casual brought him on stage. I was there for that moment, I put that in the film, and I think that's the very essence of it. It's like, "We were young, and we had some fun, and here we are now, 20 years later." It's pretty amazing for that to be the case, because so often it just isn't.