“When it’s silent, I usually just start rapping.”
James McCall cannot sit still. No one is reaching for the fake Adderall prescription, though; this restlessness is what pays the bills. Tonight, McCall—better known as the legendary battle rapper Nocando—has been in constant motion, as he is every Wednesday. As the resident emcee at Low End Theory, his job is to stitch together a bass-drenched latticework of DJs and rap acts across The Airliner’s two stages. As player after player in the L.A. beat scene wrings the state-of-the-art sound system for all it’s worth, there’s Nocando, still darting across the stage, still dripping with sweat, still rapping. The mix isn’t designed for vocals to come through at the forefront—the crowd is here for the titular low end—but McCall commands attention as if on instinct. Though the series of verses are informal and entirely off-the-cuff, the images are sharp (“I was in Japan playing that white Playstation”), and the local flavor always evident: a Raiders mention draws a divided reaction from the crowd.
But as soon as the set is over, McCall weaves effortlessly through the sea of people on the club’s second floor, joining me on the outdoor patio. He picks up his train of thought where he left it when, twenty minutes ago, he checked his phone and realized he was late for the stage. As fans stream by us, he smiles, shakes hands, makes eye contact—but doesn’t break his rhythm in our conversation. (One can’t help but to remember the 2007 Scribble Jam finals, when Franco dropped his microphone while Nocan was rapping. In a split second, McCall integrated it into his verse—rhyming every syllable in the process. He won.) McCall is both disarmingly nice and endlessly curious, always asking questions and never patronizing his audience. But this patience doesn’t always apply to his own life. So when Daddy Kev, the luminary producer and founder of Low End, reminds Nocan he needs to be on the stage again in five minutes, it comes as a relief. Looking around the club, he sighs, lamenting, “I don’t get to freestyle as much as I used to”.
This, bizarrely, is true. McCall cut his teeth at another weekly fixture, Leimert Park’s storied Project Blowed. When he started attending around the turn of the century, the Blowed was already famous thanks to Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, and Freestyle Fellowship, and a host of others. It was a cutthroat environment, but Nocan asserted himself immediately, winning ten consecutive battles his first night in attendance. Years as one of the most feared practitioners in Leimert Park led to an Earth-scorching battle career that includes the ’07 Scribble Jam victory and a wake of shattered egos. Wikipedia’s entry for Nocando notes a career “with wins over what is believed to be hundreds of emcees”, casting him as a legendary comic book villain. This is not inaccurate. Jeff Weiss, the famous Los Angeles-based writer (and McCall’s co-host on their Shots Fired podcast), recalls “a merciless battler who vanquished his foes with Mortal Kombat cruelty”.
(from left: Weiss, Nocando, milo, Jonwayne)
To list all his major victories and show-stopping punchlines here would be impossible; suffice to say Nocan made a name for himself. Says Weiss: “If you knew about rap and lived anywhere south of the 10 freeway, you knew that he was the best freestyle rapper in the city.” But this wasn’t enough. Any history of battle rap is littered with cautionary tales: it’s a vicious, self-cannibalizing circuit, and you often don’t know you’ve lost your edge until it’s too late. And those who try to translate their success to more traditional formats have had, at best, mixed results. Yet Nocando the battler didn’t become Nocando the artist out of necessity. It wasn’t financial pressure, it wasn’t a diminishing skill set—anyone who has heard him in cyphers in recent years can attest to that. Nocando the artist was born in grey areas. “When you’re a battle rapper, you have to either always be right—or be playing the victim”, he explains. “I want to be in between that.”
This duality is something ingrained in his DNA. Born in South Central Los Angeles, McCall saw his parents divorce when he was only five years old. His father moved to the Bay area, where James spent summer breaks as a child. It was a split that worked well for a while. By his own account, he and his grade-school friends were into “nerd shit”. He doesn’t mean this disparagingly—when you ask him which comic books were his favorite as a kid, his eyes light up and he offers “Let me take you through my exact progression”. Yet, while he still speaks lucidly and at length about comics and video games, the innocence didn’t last into his teen years. After disciplinary problems in South Central, he went to live with his father for the tenth grade. The move didn’t have the desired effect. (“I started smoking weed. Started fucking with girls. I learned how to ditch school properly.”)
During his year up north, his father succumbed to cancer. By the time he returned to L.A. for his junior year of high school, he had learned to slip through social groups like the crowds at The Airliner. “Going to the Bay taught me how to socialize with different groups of people. I had a more diverse group of friends—nerds, gangbangers, and just normal dudes.” This was also when rap became something more than an excuse to drive around and rotate blunts. It started with lunchroom battles. There were other kids who were more popular than McCall, but he was one of the best from the jump. “Rap was the first thing I was good at. I took my daughters to a birthday party the other day. We were at the batting cages. I was hitting the ball around and it was like, ‘I forgot I was good at anything else’”, he recalls with a laugh.
It wasn’t a career at first. For a time, the best battle rapper in the world was waiting tables and getting into even less legitimate business. In the middle of the last decade, Nocan found himself embroiled in one of rap’s most bizarre criminal enterprises. At the behest of a graffiti artist acquaintance, McCall trekked up to central California to work on a makeshift marijuana plantation. “I got a call—a Boost Mobile chirp, actually, and the guy was just like ‘Hey, you know who this is? You wanna make ten thousand dollars?’” For almost four months, McCall lived in a tent, digging trenches, building irrigation systems, and protecting the cash crop. Unlike most of the other recruits (who were also rappers, taggers, or DJs), he adapted quickly. “Low key, my family is from the sticks,” Nocan says, beaming. “The country is my shit.”
Easy as the adaption was, he harbored no ambitions of being a druglord. With a young daughter at home (McCall now has three girls), he came home and eventually landed a job in the video game industry. But rap kept calling, and life kept moving; his wife started taking classes in the Bay area, and soon the McCalls were bound for Oakland. Not wanting to abandon Low End, he made the flight down south every week, without fail: “Wednesday morning, I would drop my girls off at school,” he recalls, shaking his head at the implausibility. He would drive his daughters to school in Oakland and his wife to school in San Francisco; record during the day; pick up his wife and daughters; take the train to the airport and a plane to LAX; take the Flyaway shuttle to Little Tokyo, where he would check in at a $40-per-night hostel; then finally make it to the Airliner. “I always missed sound check,” he laughs. But it was worth it: “Not only did it make rent, but it was my connection back to everything I knew and loved.”
And it paid off. By the time McCall was laid off from his day job post-recession, he realized he could swing rap as a full-time gig. The transition into Nocando the artist had already begun. Daddy Kev was instrumental in the process, but there was another key player: DJ Nobody. The two first clicked artistically on a trip to Japan, and a working relationship began shortly thereafter. The first song the two made together was “21”, which landed on Nocan’s 2010 debut Jimmy The Lock. “The reason he was really open to being coached is because he genuinely wanted to be a songwriter,” Nobody explains. “I think he really became one.”
By the time he was recording this year’s Jimmy The Burnout, Nocando was a one-man record label. Says Nobody: “His latest record, a lot of the stuff he literally recorded by himself. He came up with all the structures on his own.” Kev taught McCall how to use ProTools, and from there the emcee took the entire process into his own hands. It shows—Burnout toes an important line, a record that is sonically and topically diverse yet of a singular vision, coherent and cohesive. Many of the songs (including the standout “Break Even”) deal with the plights of others. It’s a stark departure from the battling days: “I just don’t have the bloodlust anymore,” McCall says. “I spent so much time breaking people apart and tearing them down. Now I want to build them back up.”
It’s a slow process, but McCall is an observant and empathetic writer, unquestionably up to the task. What’s more is his willingness to draw on a personal history of which he isn’t always proud (on balancing the tour lifestyle and a relationship back home: “I used to be bad at it. Now I’m good at it.”). “I have gone though enough shit to where I don’t feel like the best person in the room,” he says. “I can’t look somebody in the eye and say ‘Hey, I’m fucking amazing.’ I’m a shitty person. But I think you are, too, and that’s where we meet.” Nocando laughs, but he means it.
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