Happy 25th Anniversary to Saafir’s debut album Boxcar Sessions, originally released May 10, 1994.
I used to study Saafir’s Boxcar Sessions like it was science.
During my Senior year of college, I’d sit in my homie Geoff’s room in one of the high-rise residences, and we’d pore over the lyrics to each song. We sat listening to the music emanate from the speaker, deciphering each line, pausing and restarting. We tried to identify all of the double, triple, or even quadruple meanings that Saafir would infuse in each rhyme. We tried to identify any subliminal and not-so-subliminal disses. We ignored the lyric sheet included with the album, knowing that sonic experience was much more potent.
Though this wasn’t really the “pre-Internet” days, it was the “pre-everything is on the Internet,” and certainly the “pre Rap Genius” days, so it was left to us to puzzle through the references and try to decode the hidden subtext. It also took what seemed like esoteric knowledge to figure out what he was talking about, like being aware of the dimensions of a jail cell.
All this happened throughout 1996 and 1997, a good few years after Boxcar Sessions was released. Which is to say that this album resonated with me for years after it was released and still does to this day. It’s a forgotten, underappreciated masterpiece, not only of the era, but also within the entire hip-hop genre.
Boxcar Sessions is not easy listening. Released 25 years ago, Reggie “Saafir” Gibson’s debut album is “dense” in every sense of the word. The lyrics burst through each bar, verse, and song, with Saafir the Saucee Nomad winding helter-skelter across each track, unconstrained by traditional meter or time signature. Sometimes the verbal acrobatics and rhyme schemes are so complicated that it doesn’t seem like he’s rhyming at all. His deep, baritone voice and commanding delivery is an imposing presence on each song. Here, he is the equivalent of a Brahma bull in a China shop.
Saafir was a product of the early to mid ’90s Bay Area underground hip-hop renaissance. He came up under the Digital Underground collective, linking with the group through his cousin, and was featured prominently on the group’s much-maligned but thoroughly slept-on third album, The Body-Hat Syndrome (1993). During this time, he lived with 2Pac for a few years before the two fell out for largely undisclosed reasons. In the midst of all this, he had a small but memorable role in the classic Hughes Brothers film Menace II Society (1993). He played the role of lead character Caine’s cousin Harold, who gets killed in a car-jacking within the first 20 minutes of the movie.
Discussion of Saafir has become inextricably linked to the Hieroglyphics crew, for reasons that we’ll discuss later, but it’s notable that both came up during this period. But while many members of Hiero were cerebral, clean-cut cats, Saafir was a certified street solider. He had his own crew, Hobo Junction, which took its name from the Charles Mingus song “Hobo Ho.” The Junction were a collective of emcees and producers from around the country now living in the Bay Area. Saafir was friends with the Hiero crew. Many listeners got their initial introduction to the Nomad through the memorable verse he kicked on “That’s Bullshit,” an extended interlude on Casual’s debut album Fear Itself (1994).
Boxcar Sessions’ musical composition is every bit as complex as Saafir’s delivery. The album was produced mostly by J Groove and Jay-Z. No, not S. Dot Carter, but his DJ, Jeremy Jackson. The soundscapes are dense and layered, a mash of samples that often create aural chaos. Saafir sounds the most in the pocket as the tracks get wilder, nearly assaulting the listener with his flow.
The album opening “Swig of the Stew” sets the sound of the album, as Saafir delivers mind-bending flows and oft-kilter imagery on top of the slowed down keyboard from Bob James’ “Nautilus” and a cacophony of twisted organs and horns. Amidst the musical sensory overload, Saafir makes “tourniquets from broken English” and boasts to “have a deep-dish spoon / N****s be attacking get blackened eyes like raccoons / Blew up like balloons busted / They're getting rusted, thrusted with them screw drivers.”
“Battle Drill,” originally appearing as a promotional single well in advance of Boxcar Sessions’ release, lacks the overall musical pandemonium of the rest of the album. On the contrary, it’s a pretty straightforward braggadocio lyric-fest for Saafir. The “funky nomadic attic dweller” rides the shifting horn loop, kicking sharp bars like, “Through obstacles my saliva be / Live-er than stopping foes in they tracks / Cutting the tape, it’s nothing to debate / Fate tells me this is the last grape to be cracked / Ripping the plaque between the gums / Hums this lift you lip a little more to the chef’s recipe.”
“Light Sleeper,” the album’s first proper single, is a more laid-back lyrical exhibition, with Saafir flexing his skill over swirling drums, vibes, and keys. But there’s an undercurrent of distrust and suspicion, as he ponders the problem of maintaining his composure while still suspecting that his “friends” might not have his best interests in mind. He explains that he gets caught in his own thought process “cause I’m stuck on myself and I depend on my luck and wealth for health matters so I don't explode with stress.”
Heightened awareness of your surroundings is a continual theme throughout Boxcar Sessions. With “No Return (Going Crazy),” he ponders his constant vigilance as he traverses the streets of Oakland. He remains acutely alert of the dangers the city can pose to him as the slow, meandering bassline and piano plod along. On the much more rapidly paced “Playa Hayta,” Saafir keeps an eye out for those disparaging him in order to undermine his stature.
Saafir does enjoy some moments of serenity on Boxcar Sessions. “Can-U-Feel-Me?” is a slice of hip-hop nirvana, with Saafir chronicling his attempts to seek calm as he drives through the avenues of the Bay Area over a delicate piano and guitar loop taken from Donald Byrd’s “I Love the Girl.” While visiting the liquor store and copping a sack of weed, he contemplates the meaning of life as day slowly turns to night. Saafir still continues to hold others at arm’s length even as he tries to chill, conscious of the “chump, but with clout,” who was talking behind his back. Saafir covers similar themes on “Just Riden’,” Boxcar’s third single, a keyboard-driven g-funk track.
“Hype Shit” is another auto-centric entry, but this time much more hectic and consistent with the album’s overall sound. Ever the muscle-car enthusiast, Saafir regales the listeners with tales of his high speed adventures behind the wheel, first racing through the streets of Oakland, then mashing down Interstate 280 in attempts to escape the police.
“Hype Shit” became the catalyst for the Hobo Junction/Hieroglyphics beef. The story goes that Casual was supposed to appear on the song, rhyming from the perspective of Saafir’s racing adversary on the second verse. Instead, Casual missed the studio session, which led to increased tensions between the two camps. Things continued to escalate, culminating in a pair of freestyle battles, the first at the Kennel Club in San Francisco and the second infamously at local radio station KMEL. Although everyone has long since squashed the beef, the battle lingers as a central part of Saafir’s legacy.
Saafir also showcases the skills of his crew throughout Boxcar Sessions. Many members of Hobo Junction get their own interludes/mini-songs, the most notable of which are entries by Rashinel and Poke Martian. A number of Bay Are O.G.s also lend their voices to the project, including departed graffiti legend Mike Dream, famed DJ and future independent label-head Beni B, and Digital Underground affiliates Sleuth Pro and Pee Wee.
But Boxcar remains at its strongest when Saafir keeps things as hectic as possible. “Real Circus” is one of the album’s best tracks, as Saafir likens his experience within the music industry to a three-ringed Big Top. The musical backdrop lives up to the song’s title, as it is a cacophonous mix of offbeat piano-strikes, elephant-like trumpets, and simian howls.
Boxcar Sessions ends in a frenzied rush. “Bent” is surreal presentation, composed of warped drums and reverberating pianos. Saafir rhymes at his most left-of-center, backed up simultaneously by distorted adlibs echoing just a millisecond behind the main vocal, making the whole undertaking incredibly disorienting.
Things come to a proper close with “Joint Custody,” another high-octane lyrical exhibition. Saafir possibly saves his best for last, stating that he’ll “be here like landscape / I’ll scrape your ass off the reel / You’ve been edited, I’m enriched fit / Full blown 11 by 13 it seems at first word / Seeing is no believing unless your vision is blurred / From these cutesy, cutesy new booties.” J Groove provides an exquisite chop of Baby Huey’s “Hard Times,” pairing it with crispy dreams, making the song the album’s most rugged concoction.
I’ve listened to a lot of abstract and underground hip-hop in the last quarter century. Some of it has been really dope. Some has been self-indulgent. Very little has been as fun and challenging as Boxcar Sessions. This album is mentally stimulating and thought-provoking, and has become one of my most rewarding listening experiences.
Saafir has gone through a lot since releasing Boxcar Sessions, a good portion of it heart-wrenching. But that’s a whole other complicated story. Regardless, not many artists making music have a perfectly unorthodox creation to their name. I know that more than most albums that I’ve written about here, there will never be another LP like this one.