Happy 25th Anniversary to Casual’s debut album Fear Itself, originally released February 1, 1994.
“Get the fuck off my dick and let me rip this shit.”
The opening adlib that John “Casual” Owens uses to begin “That’s How It Is” encapsulates both him as an emcee and his debut album Fear Itself as a whole. Beyond the line in question, the way that he delivers it in such a blasé, confident manner just oozes with swagger. It shows you that Casual is cocky, clever, and probably a bit arrogant. He spends the rest of the song and the nearly 50-minute long album demonstrating that his cocksure attitude is completely justified.
Fear Itself, released a quarter of a century ago, was the Hieroglyphics crew’s third salvo as they asserted themselves as a hip-hop collective to be reckoned with. It came on the heels of Souls of Mischief’s ’93 ‘til Infinity (1993) and Del the Funky Homosapien’s No Need For Alarm (1993), firmly fitting into the milieu they established. Souls’ and Del’s albums both balanced their fierce lyricism and confident musical presence with a balanced approach to tackling a wide array of topics. Fear Itself relies more heavily on the confident lyricism, but that has much to do with Casual as an emcee.
Casual is the dopest member of the Hiero camp. I wouldn’t have a problem calling him the best emcee hailing from the Bay Area. Or even the West Coast. Every member of Hiero possesses a smirking conceit, but Casual has a rougher, more ferocious edge that has made him stand out even more. And yet he can still convincingly change gears, while assuming the role of the smooth player or introspective philosopher.
Casual sets aside large chunks of Fear Itself to prove his lyrical dominance. With the album’s intro, he showcases his ability to freestyle, pulling rhymes off the top of his head over a mellow loop of Roy Ayers’ “Shining Symbol.” The ability to freestyle well was a central component of the Hieroglyphics “brand,” and Casual comes off the dome with the best of them.
When it comes to lyrical braggadocio, the aforementioned “That’s How It Is” remains Casual’s tour de force. The track is the album’s first single and showcases Casual in all of his fire-breathing grandeur. He follows the amazing opening adlib with a legendary opening line, rapping, “I write raps / And when n****s bite, I clap / ’Cuz their shit sounds better now.” Casual continues to blaze the horn-driven track, produced by Del, adding memorable lines like, “Now how much harder can it get? / N****s try to flow, but they sounding like me a year ago.” He finishes things with a classic closing line, as he raps, “Red light, slow that shit down, bring it to a halt / You’re wack and it's all your fault.”
Though Casual is well-known for his bruising punchlines, his other key strengths as an emcee are his ability to switch his flows on a dime and to put together elaborate rhyming patterns, involving multi-syllabic words and phrases. Sometimes Casual’s battle rhyme exhibitions are upbeat and peppy like “You Flunked,” and at other times they aim for a majestic scale, like on “Get Off It.”
When putting together the production for the album, Casual kept things in-house, self-producing a handful of tracks, but mostly relying upon Domino, the Hiero crew’s manager and future label head. Jay Biz, then one half of The Shamen (with Pep Love), chips in with the horn heavy “This is How We Rip Shit,” allowing Casual to ride along the track with shifting unorthodox flows and cadences, rapping, “Incorrect, when you wreck rhymes / Then respect you collect all the time / I’m your mentor sent for your entertainment / Kid, you'll get your brain kicked / Stop trying to do that strange shit.”
On “Me-O-Mi-O,” the album’s third single, a pensive Casual contemplates how being an emcee has affected his life and interactions with others, from strangers to friends and family. “Follow the Funk” is one of the album’s strongest entries, a Domino-produced track featuring a deep bassline and piano sample from Freddie Robinson’s version of “River’s Invitation” and guitars and vocals taken from Curtis Mayfield’s version of “Hard Times.” Casual spreads his rhymes over the funky beat, rhyming, “I cause mass confusion as you’re choosing / Breakbeats that are broken, from too much using / Who’s in effect, bruising the neck / Of a fly G? I get in more dips than corn chips / I scorn lips, the warning is the keen idealist / ’Cause I feel this threat coming.”
Another of Fear Itself’s best-known and strongest songs is “I Didn’t Mean To,” the album’s second single and Casual’s tale of wanton proclivity to creep with the girlfriends of other men. Casual again turns his swagger up to maximum levels, reveling in his insatiable drive to steal the loves of his friends’ lives. The song’s chorus, “It ain’t my fault that your girl got caught,” is an Olympian-level asshole boast.
Casual does share some time on the mic with his Hiero cohorts. Pep Love makes his major label debut on the bouncy “Who’s It On?” joining Casual and Hiero patriarch Del. Del later appears again on the brief Casual-produced “A Little Something.” He’s as off-kilter as ever, rapping, “Branding X's when I flex this / I wreck shit and leave rappers searching for the exit.”
But it’s an emcee from outside of the Hieroglyphics family that makes his auspicious debut on Fear Itself. Saafir the Sauce Nomad makes his impressive entrance on the relatively succinct “That Bullshit.” Like Casual, Saafir had been working in the Bay Area underground for a few years, putting together the Hobo Junction crew. Over a subtle beat produced by Domino, he dazzles with his unconventional flow, rhyming “Schizophrenic tenant number one / When it comes to housing, arousing the, intellect with introspect / Flex on me, I don’t think so … yet … bitch.” Nearly as dope as his brief verse is his shit-talking before and afterwards (“Thought I was going to rhyme, right?” and “You hear that? Hella. We hella raw.”) where he displays his sense of humor.
Saafir’s appearance on Fear Itself would set in motion events that would eventually lead to the rift between the Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction crews, which would eventually lead to the infamous Hiero vs. Hobo battle broadcast on The Wake Up Show. But that’s a different story for another time.
Though I’ve mostly focused on Casual’s battle raps on Fear Itself, not all of the album is centered around smashing wack emcees. Casual reflects on numerous dire situations on “Lose in the End,” from police brutality to street violence. “Chained Minds” further examines the fixation with violence in many inner-city communities, where problems often escalate to physical confrontation with little provocation.
The album-closing “Be Thousand” is a solid storytelling exhibition, as Casual describes how a night of seeking female attention can easily devolve into a brawl on a front lawn. Casual, who produced the song, establishes a sinister and moody atmosphere with the use of a rumbling bassline and spirited percussion. Tajai of Souls of Mischief and Snupe of Extra Prolific each scatter lines across the brief track, adding extra flavor. With his rhymes, Casual adds extra details to give touches of realism and some gravitas to a straightforward tale of whupping jealous haters and ending up on the run.
With Fear Itself, Hieroglyphics continued to demonstrate the wide breadth and depth of their talents. Casual earned himself respect from Hiero’s loyal fan base, which he has continued to maintain in the years since. Casual has built on the promise he augured on this album, releasing at least nine more albums during the subsequent 25 years to form one of the best overall independent careers of any of the Hiero crew. The raw essence of Casual’s skills as an emcee is preserved for eternity on Fear Itself, and his rhymes still scorch with the power of the sun as a reminder that Hiero isn’t to be fucked with.