The Player and the Pilgrim

Digital Underground is his past. Islam is his future. What caused The Transition of rapper Saafir?

Tall, lithe, and clad in big tinted sunglasses, Saafir hits the fifth-floor elevator button inside a large office building in downtown Oakland. When the doors lurch open, the East Bay rapper, who resembles Morpheus from The Matrix, glides into the offices of Oakland’s ABB Records, greeting people and answering questions without looking at anyone. It’s almost the end of Ramadan, and the emcee has been fasting all day.

Saafir doesn’t remove the sunglasses until he’s ensconced on a couch in the ABB conference room, where he picks up a copy of Scratch magazine and flips through it, pointing out all the hip-hop luminaries he used to work with. “Dre’s lost weight,” he observes, inferring that his old producer friend must have really hit hard times.

The Menace II Society actor and former roommate of Tupac doesn’t appear at all enthusiastic to begin the spate of promotional interviews for Good Game: The Transition, his first rap album in seven years. Touted as a conversion narrative, The Transition concerns Saafir’s fight with personal calamities: a plane crash, his brother’s untimely death, getting out of jail in 2005 only to develop spinal cancer. It also details his personal journey to enlightenment though Islam. The Koran may seem like clichéd salvation for an ex-con rapper, but Saafir appears to truly need it. Now he’s trying to spread the word, with an earnestness that’s, well, kind of endearing, because he hasn’t completely abandoned his old sinful ways.

“People be trying to find the one God, but he’s right inside you,” the rapper says. “All you gotta do is turn to him — like you would turn to a nigga who owes you money — and get at him to get that paper. The same way you put that philosophy on your hustle or your drive is the same way you gotta turn to your one God. I tripped on that I done everything in life — sold dope, sold hella illegal merchandise, been in movies, rapped … only thing I never did was turn to God sincerely.”

About twenty minutes in, Saafir is in full preacher mode. “Imagine a fire under your ass, your nuts, your vagina,” he says. “Imagine being hung by metal hooks through your breasts. That’s one of the punishments for adulteresses.”

The rapper looks up from his magazine for the first time since the interview started as he says the word adulteresses with a hiss that verges on sexual. Then his face changes in a Jekyll-and-Hyde way and he smiles coyly. “So, uh, how old are you, anyway, if you don’t mind my asking? Nah, let me guess: 25? You wanna guess my age?” He scoots a little closer on the couch and starts reminiscing about his freaky-deaky days of drugs and sex while partying with Tupac and Digital Underground. It’s all in the past, he concludes. Scout’s honor.

Mythologizing Saafir won’t be hard. His life story fits the Tupac Shakur template. Combining irresistible good looks and a Machiavellian-hustler mentality, he’s fascinating but not criminally minded. Coming up in grimy West Oakland, Saafir went straight from watching cartoons to slinging contraband. “From twelve to eighteen I was locked up,” he explains. “I’d stay out a couple months, grind, get caught, locked up, group homes, went down for attempted murder, went to take the pee test, dirty, locked up.”

When he wasn’t in jail, he’d breakdance and rap with his brothers Nicaracci and Chop Black — who also has had a remarkably successful rap career as one half of the ’90s mobb duo Whoridas — or sell weed on the corner. “I remember when it was lions, tigers, and gorillas down there,” the emcee says.

Around 1991 Saafir met Tupac, who he says was impressed because Saafir had prevailed at a house-party brawl. “I was sticking and moving at the time,” Saafir recalls. “He asked, ‘Where you stay at?’ I was like, ‘In the Town.’ ‘Pac was like, ‘You got your spot?’ I was like, ‘I got a few spots,’ and he was like, ‘You got your own spot?'”

At first, Saafir was reluctant to let the other emcee take him in. “I was like, ‘I really don’t like living with dudes,'” he recalls, but Tupac said it was cool. Tupac even offered Saafir a new pair of jeans, which the emcee says he declined at first. “I said ‘Well, I don’t really like stickin’ my ass in other niggas’ jeans.’ He was like, ‘No, these are new. These are you.'”

Through ‘Pac, Saafir hooked up with Digital Underground and appeared in the “Humpty Dance” video with a bleached flattop. He also attended some of the liveliest parties the Bay had ever seen. Saafir describes tanks of Bacardi and tequila and bowls of popcorn that might have filled a small pool. Digital frontman Shock G apparently loved popcorn and was known to pop two hundred bags at a time, Saafir relates in coded, elliptical sentences that sound like a Wachowski Brothers monologue.

Saafir then shared a bachelor pad near Lake Merritt with seven other emcees who collectively called themselves the Hobo Junction. Womanizing and thugging probably detracted from his skills as one of the most avant-garde artists ever, but he never restrained himself. The emcee’s 1994 debut, Boxcar Sessions, ranks among the best underground hip-hop albums to come out of the East Bay. Featuring production by Big Nose, J Groove, and an underground cat named Jay-Z (not the New York rapper), the album is stocked with acid-jazz loops, cameos by producer Beni B and the late graffiti artist Mike Dream, and shout-outs to obscure spoken-word poets like D Knowledge. Oscillating between cutting-edge brohemianism and rap braggadocio, the album is definitely the work of a 24-year-old who couldn’t figure out how to channel his special kind of intelligence. Listen to the first verse of “Worship the Dick” and you’ll feel as if you’ve choked on young Saafir’s favorite appendage.

Cut to 2002. Saafir is on the verge of recording an album with his new group, Golden State Warriors, which included West Coast rappers Xzibit and Ras Kass (the group’s single “Three Card Molly” is considered a West Coast classic). Ras gets popped for drunk driving, and Saafir goes to jail a few months later for driving a stolen rental car.

One day in prison he saw another inmate throw a copy of the Koran in the garbage. “I stopped him,” the emcee recalls. “I grabbed the Koran from him, said, ‘You don’t put that book in the garbage, what’s wrong witchu, man?’ I said. ‘I might as well do something productive.'”

He read the Koran to pass the time, until fighting got him thrown in solitary confinement for fourteen days straight for 23 hours and 56 minutes each day. “There’s no distractions; it’s just you and your thoughts,” he says. “It was easy for me to get in my head, my accomplishments, everything. I was looking out the window and I was watching the planes take off. I was in the towers, so I could see the San Jose airport.”

Watching the planes reminded him of his 1992 airline mishap — he’d been on a commercial flight whose engine gave out on landing. No one was seriously hurt, but it had been a near miss. He also thought about a sweet nineteen-year-old Bible thumper he’d met in 2001 on a plane to Phoenix. She became Saafir’s one-way spiritual guide, although they never met again.

“She was like, ‘He has a message for you,’ and I was like, ‘Who, God? What God wanna tell me?'” the emcee remembers. “And she was like, ‘He wants you to know that he loves you … and don’t get discouraged, because he’s gonna use you for something really big.’ … I jumped up, went to the bathroom, locked the door, clicked, and tears were running down my face like waterfalls. I was spooked. I was trying to figure out who this broad was.”

Saafir fast-forwards to solitary confinement in 7C cell 40. “So I’m on lockdown. I’m in there watching the planes, and the planes brought me back to that, the girl in that situation brought me back to God. And the girl on the plane had me crying like a broad. She was talking about God. And I felt it. That was a trip. I started really for real thinking about it. From there it really made me think about what I needed to do. Is God real? I’m sitting up in jail on some bullshit.”

By the time Saafir and Ras Kass had both gotten out of jail and were finally in a position to record together, the Golden State Warriors had dissipated. As Saafir recalls, “I got hit with the guidance, and it changed my motivation of what I was spitting, because before I was doing it for myself, and now I’m doing it for the one guide. And I couldn’t spit in the same way, so I hollered at dudes, and told them what I went through.” The three parted ways.

Then came the cancer. “I went in for a checkup. They took hella MRIs and found a tumor in my spinal cord. So I went to jail, got out, found out I had cancer, went to the hospital for three months in ’05, and now I’m just recovering from that. But I finished the album before I went in for the operation. I’m still hella numb. I still can’t feel my legs or my back. I’m still in pain as I’m talking to you.”

Saafir now attends mosque and prays five times a day. “I give money to people who I know trying to play me to get it,” he says. “I ain’t doing it for me. I gotta accumulate as many good deeds as possible to offset fifteen years of sin. So when I stand up on the day of judgment, I’m gonna be heavy with good deeds, light with sins.”

He wants people to think that there’s a huge disconnect between the edgy 24-year-old philandering rapper and the grown-up 36-year-old spiritual one. He taps into his inner LL Cool J on only one song in Transition, called “Brand New.” It’s about a woman who prays every day, while the album’s real love song, “Devotion,” is about falling in love with faith and morality.

It’s not that simple, of course. The 24-year-old retains a spectral presence on the new album and in the new Saafir. For all his prayers and ablutions, he has a thug’s reflex about being “security-minded.” He doesn’t want people to know where he goes to sleep at night.

He’s also still disarmingly handsome and capable of getting any girl he wanted; probably more so than he was in his twenties, playing Cousin Harold in the Hughes’ Brothers Menace II Society and appearing in several music videos.

On Transition, Saafir raps about being damn near celibate. He still goes out to nightclubs occasionally, but now skulks in the back. “Everything I did previously was all necessary for this transition,” the emcee explains. Yet he still misses being high and not caring about anything.

The past is the past, Saafir says, as he gets up from the couch all smooth like Morpheus (who also lives in two worlds). He walks across the room to get a tissue. “Here, you got lipstick on your teeth,” he says, and puts his shades back on.

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