Within a music industry apparently intent on making us believe that stars rise effortlessly from a YouTube video or a track uploaded to a SoundCloud account, Los Angeles native Nocando embodies the idea of hard work, multiple revenue streams and being proactive.
Former battle rap champion, host of world-famous beat scene hub Low End Theory, co-owner of the Cosmic Zoo, co-host of Podcast Shots Fired, label head of Hellfyre Club and a recording artist in his own right: it seems unlikely that James McCall ever utters his musical moniker when answering the call to a new opportunity.
Last month he added DJ to this list, playing his first set at Low End Theory, and just last week he published his first article with LA Weekly. “There’s other mediums that I want to use my creativity in as well,” he says. “This was really just a way for me to test if I was a creative dude. ‘Can I write a 1,500-word article and keep people’s attention?’ Let’s see.”
The article – Battle Rap: I’m Just Not That Into You – addresses an issue that he deals with on an almost daily basis: the question of his return to the battle scene.
“I fell out of love with it and I wasn’t able to look somebody in the eye and say, ‘F*ck that, that’s for children,’ because I didn’t want to let that person down. People may have thought I was some hard-ass, angry, battle rapper guy, but in reality I first started doing that shit when I was 17. I’m 31 now. I feel like it was morally conflicting and I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.
“When I was younger, I was doing it because I was a weirdo and I would get attacked, so I was basically defending myself all the time. When I became the guy doing it for the attention or for some money, I just felt like I was doing some shit I didn’t want to do. Even when I was winning, like on the day of Scribble Jam in 2007, I was like, ‘I want the money, but I’d rather not be here.’”
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Battling will get you some instant gratification, but it’s like a shot of heroin versus actually feeling good about yourself…
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In his article he comments on kids battling with the hope of making it as a recording artist. And although Eminem and his biopic 8 Mile fuel this fire, Nocando sees it as unrealistic.
“Eminem lost to a to a 20-year-old kid called Otherwize in the (1997) Rap Olympics and he still got the record deal out of it. The record deal came from him having a f*cking amazing EP. It was explaining himself as a person. People discovered him from ‘Just Don’t Give A F*ck’ or ‘My Name Is’. Nobody discovered him through some viral video or hood DVD or however people found that shit. Most artists just want to perform, we want to get appreciation for our efforts that we put out, and it’s really hard to get that. Battling will get you some instant gratification, but it’s like a shot of heroin versus actually feeling good about yourself.”
Having given up the quick hit of battle crowds, Nocando’s work as a recording artist is paying off and finally beginning to attract the kind of recognition it deserves.
“It’s the best response that I’ve ever gotten,” he states of his latest album, ‘Jimmy The Burnout’, released in March. “But the weirdest thing about the response I got from (for the album) was when somehow ‘Break Even’, which was on my SoundCloud as a private track, accidentally became public. I got a gang of online responses and tweets from these college parties in the South. Like, I’m a dork and an LA dude, so there are many reasons why my music shouldn’t resonate there.
“But these crackin’ functions in the South, these cool kids and pretty girls are hitting me up about the shit. And that’s weird because mostly I’ve always had to go out and get fans show by show, prove to them in front of them that I am a good artist. But ‘Jimmy The Burnout’ is something that I imagine that people are playing for their friends and their cousins and their neighbours.”
He pauses before expanding: “To put things in perspective, I’m a struggling, starving artist. I’m not famous. I’m living my dream, but I’m not living ‘the dream’. I looked on Spotify yesterday and I have a song on ‘Jimmy The Burnout’ that has 100,000 plays. I don’t pay any PR, I don’t have nothing. It’s just like it’s effortlessly spreading, and I love it.”
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‘Little Green Monsters’, from ‘Jimmy The Burnout’
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There has been a shift since Nocando’s 2010 debut album ‘Jimmy The Lock’, which dropped before he formed Hellfyre Club and started interviewing rappers on a weekly basis for Shots Fired. As he sees it, his music has become more streamlined.
“I’m looking at rap totally differently, because before I was really trying to be the cleverest and most complicated. I was trying to be something different. I was trying to reinvent the wheel and be like the guys I listened to when I was younger.
“On ‘Jimmy The Burnout’ I’m rapping like I’d talk to a friend, and that’s harder to do. It’s harder to say, ‘I feel like this,’ than to make a metaphor about me feeling like a giant three-headed dragon being killed by a mythical knight, or whatever the f*ck I was talking about before. It’s easy for me to come up with analogies and metaphors and code things.”
In 2012, when journalist Jeff Weiss was offered a podcast on the Earwolf network, he asked Nocando to play co-host. “We’d already shoot the shit anyway,” says the rapper. “And he was like, ‘So you wanna do this shit?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down.’ It was a no brainer.”
Since then, the pair has put out 77 episodes and McCall admits that interviewing the podcast’s guests on an almost weekly basis has had an effect on him.
“I see these things that rappers always say, and it allows me to look at them and be like ‘Damn, I don’t want to be that.’ I don’t want to be the guy that thinks he’s at the centre of the f*cking universe. I don’t want to be the guy that’s pretending to be something because that’s what’s expected of him. I don’t want to be the guy that feels like the world will never understand him. I don’t want to be none of this shit.
“I’m a person, and I don’t ever want to feel like I’m creating some f*cking character. I don’t want to have to ever pretend, ever. I want to be able to speak like I speak to my homies. I want freedom to be what I want to be.” He pauses before acknowledging, “That sounds corny when I say it like that, but whatever.”
The label he founded, Hellfyre Club, is home to critically acclaimed rappers Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle and Milo amongst others. It was born out of frustration from spending too much time on the road with his producer peers from Low End Theory.
“It was the second time that I’d been to Japan at this point, and I realised there was differences between rappers and producers. One is waking up early to go digging for records. All f*cking producers, everybody that I was on tour with – I think it was Ras G and DJ Nobody at the time – they wanted to wake up early and go to these f*cking record shops. I would wake up and be lonely for four hours and have to wonder around Tokyo by myself, or go to these record shops and be bored out of my mind.”
On arrival back in LA he told Daddy Kev, Low End Theory’s founder, that they needed to sign more rappers. “And him being knee deep in beat scene shit, he was like, ‘Uh, how about you sign rappers? Why don’t you start a label?’ So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll start a label.’”
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‘Two Track Mind’, from ‘Jimmy The Lock’
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It’s been a great year for the label, with releases from Nocando and Open Mike Eagle already in circulation and new albums from Busdriver and Milo on the way. Despite the positive reception to Hellfyre Club’s output, Nocando acknowledges that they have a long way to go.
“I can’t really joke, this is going to sound pompous and it’s going to sound arrogant, but I’m going to be real honest about this shit. When I think of Hellfyre Club, and I think of the end game, I think of Def Jam.” There’s confidence in his voice, but no arrogance.
“When I think of the hype and the craziness, I think of No Limit; how fans feel about this shit. I’m happy that we have people that want to listen to our music, and we get good reviews from Pitchfork and things like that, but I’m tired of being the underdog. I battled Macklemore in 2003 and to see him go from the guy there to whatever he is now, that shit is inspiring. Kendrick (Lamar) opened for me in 2010. For me to experience things like that, and to ever believe that this is the hottest that it gets, it’s a disservice to all of the kids who have faith in us, a disservice to myself and all of my comrades.”
His latest video, ‘Lucid Dream’, premiered here on Clash, shows his appreciation for the paths that he has been lucky enough to explore in his life so far.
“I’ve done interesting things, I think. I’ve never had a plan – I’m just freestyling life, like most of us. Back when it was kind of illegal I grew lots of marijuana on a mountain, I was touring Europe when I was 19, rapping. And low-key I got laid off during the economic bullshit that was going on, and I was able to support myself through music and shit like that.”
The beat comes from Dam-Funk, the Stones Throw producer and ‘Ambassador of Boogie Funk’, who has been single-handedly bringing back modern American funk, having notably released a collaborative album with Snoop Dogg entitled ‘7 Days Of Funk’ last year.
“It reminded me of something that my dad would like back in the day. My dad passed away when I was younger, so I guess I was still super-appreciative that I got to hang out with him for one year of my life – because I didn’t really see him much after he and my mom divorced. So I took to that beat because it reminded me of my pops.
“On [albums] I’ve put out before I don’t think I could have ever done that shit, I was trying to be so punchline-y, so technically sound and cool, that I’d never have made a song that my father would have liked. My mother loves this song. I’ve been making music for 10 years and that’s the first time I put on a song and she was like, ‘Hey, this is tight.’ That shit felt good to me. That’s more important than any f*cking accolade that I’ve ever gotten from anyone.”
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