Casual: Breaking Down Town Biz

When the legendary Bay Area crew Hieroglyphics as first formed, Jive asked me to write Casual's bio. I went to meet him at Domino's house, suprised to meet a tall, semi-husky kid playing Shinobi, on a video game console. Those were different times.

Now fast forward a decade and some change.

When called me to interview Casual for his new Smash Rockwell LP, I was all for it. I had not seen him in many years.

I went to the Hiero hideout and saw all the usual suspects: Toure, Tajai, and Domino. But when I saw Casual, he was... a man. I'm watching him chill with his baby girl. I'm watching him move, the words he chooses and it's apparent that Casual, has matured not only lyricaly, but physically and mentally.

This mental maturity played out tough on the chess board. The Bishop and Smash Rockwell did battle on the 64 squares of eternal combat. A disputed victory leaning toward Smash was the outcome with both of us unsatisfied, we decided a future battle is necessary.

In this feature, we talk about the evolution of Casual becoming Smash Rockwell, and the struggle to balance your battle skills with your track writing ability. So Casual, why the new name? Where did it come from? It's catchy...

Smash Rockwell: It's been like four years since I dropped my last album. This is a name all my homeboys gave me. 'Cause I be smashin' on fools. I wanted to give the world a more personal side to Casual. Then I did the Handsome Boy Modeling School's [So How's Your Girl?] LP, and got to chill with Chest Rockwell [Prince Paul]. He was like, "You Smash, and you rock well." So, Smash Rockwell. I remember when you used to be on the Bay Area TV show Home Turf in the early 90's, with Dominique Di Prima. It amazes me how much you've grown. At that time, E-40 and 415 were doing their thing but you guys were in different camps. I used to wonder what it'd be like if you guys would do songs together. Now on this album, y'all doin' songs together.

Smash Rockwell: Richie Rich, Too Short, G Stack and E Mack. It's called "Oaktown." It's basically a tribute to Oakland, and we reppin' our area. But to get back to what you was sayin' - I wanted to do jams like this back in those days too. But our genres were too divided. Not our lifestyles- we both live in the Bay. We'd be seein' each other at the parties. But when it came down to business, we were selling music to two different kinds of people. Those two crowds were not ready to mingle yet. What was it like recording with Too Short?

Smash Rockwell: I was on the Too Short compilation Nation Wide. He put it in the air that he was open to workin' with me. So, I knew it would come together. We recorded that in San Francisco. Everybody made it to the initial recording, but Rich. Tell me about the E-40 jam, "Nickel & Dime Gangsta." That's another one of my favorites...

Smash Rockwell: That's another dude who I feel like- a lot of my fans don?t have a high awareness of his skills. I wanted them to see that. He's a legend. It was fun. That was an internet joint. We did that through the internet. I mean, I see E-40 all the time. But when we recorded this, me, Jake [One], and 40 did it all online. Your ability to mix comedy and tragedy is impressive. You have a line on that song where it says "Please don't make me call them hitters out to handle you dudes/ Have ya family holdin' candles on the Channel 2 news/ You could be hurt, You'll be the next block's next dead homie t-shirt."...

Smash Rockwell: I've seen too much goin' on. We don't even realize we making deities out of our peers. Everybody gonna die. I'd rather give my life than have it be taken for something foul. Being a nickel and dime gangsta just means you keep your hustle up. When you broke, don't get discouraged. You gotta keep it smashin' no matter what. I think that the entire Hieroglyphics crew really breaks the mold on the myth that battle rappers can't write songs.

Smash Rockwell: It's like, we don't do that, without sacrifice. You have to balance between being a great battle rapper, and a great song writer. The more time you spend trying to write a song, the less time you spend free styling and coming off the top. It's like Jordan. Freestyle is like jumping from the free throw line. Writing a song is like shooting that jumper. I been tryin' to match my freestyle skills with my writing the majority of my career. I want to freestyle as good as I write. Others might wanna write as good as you freestyle. After Jigga said he don't write no more, I know hecka dudes that stopped writing.

Adisa Banjoko is author of the new book "Lyrical Swords Vol. 1: Hip Hop and Politics in the Mix." Visit for more info.