Low End Theory’s resident MC Nocando maimed a generation as a battle rapper but that was a little bit back, and now after two promising EPs, he will release his debut, Jimmy the Lock, this month on Alpha Pup. He now commutes to Low End Theory weekly from Oakland and he speaks now while riding the bus. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
In the song ‘Flight Risk’ from Jimmy the Lock, is the lyric ‘sitting on a bathroom floor with a gun in my hand/masturbating while I’m staring at a picture of you’ based on a true story?
Nocando: I plead the fifth.
You’ve done interviews before, I can tell.
Nocando: I have done interviews before but I didn’t think that question would ever come up.
Why does that song go right into ‘Skankophilia’? That’s amazing sequencing—suicidal heartbreak into dating ‘community college homegirls’ that like ‘older guys who act mature … and deodorize.’
Nocando: I just wanted to weird people out a bit more. Coming from the whole battle rapper thing, I know how to manipulate emotions on a really crude scale. Like—I don’t know how to make you feel happy, but I fucking pride myself on those emotions and hopefully you might get that feeling. I knew some people, in that section of the record, get a little weirded out.
It definitely gets heavier as you go through it.
Nocando: That is the journey you’re supposed to be taking with Jimmy the Lock. I did that intentionally. Battle rappers can’t make music, but furthermore, battle rappers can’t make a record. There’s battle rappers that can’t make songs and then there’s ones who can’t make records—that’s the stigma, and on both I wanted to fucking smash both of those theories. From the first song on it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a good song.’ OK—I proved that wrong and you can take it through the first half of what I think are modern L.A. underground hits and then after that, if you had any thought that this was a pop record or something shallow, then I just give you really real stuff after that.
Do you feel like you have to prove something against being a battle rapper?
Nocando: I really don’t think that I have to move through it in the public’s eyes. I feel like if you’re a fan of Nocando it might just be because of the songs or the records—it might be because of freestyles or nights at Low End—it’s probably not just for one thing. I don’t think for the public or my fans I have to prove to them that I am a good songwriter. It’s just for me and my circle of friends and all the L.A. underground rappers; it’s like I’m doing what I believe we all can do—what we’ve all been doing—and I’m doing it as hard as I possibly can so that fucking stigma can knock off of all of us. I do feel that I’m the spearhead of L.A. underground rapping, right now, for this generation. Cuz there’s a lot of us—a lot of guys that are really, really dope. L.A. guys who don’t sound like they’re from Detroit or don’t sound like they’re from New York—they aren’t punch-line-based, they are these street characters that if you grew up in L.A. that you would see. There’s no archetype of us anywhere in the country than here. And once one does it—which is going to be me because my record is coming out first—I feel like that might open the door for the rest of us. I’m thinking more like Kail, Intuition and VerBS, Dumbfoundead, myself—those guys you know. There’s more to be named. Open Mike Eagle. Sahtyre.
Low End is really starting to get attention and you’ve been at Low End since day one. Do you feel like you’re the connection between beatmakers and street-level rap?
Nocando: These producers have no idea the talent that is sitting right next to them—MC-wise—and these rappers have no idea the kind of talent that is sitting next to them beat-making-wise. It’s snobbery on both parts and it’s politics on other parts, but honestly—and I consider the beat scene hip-hop, whether people want to call it dubstep or whatever—but I don’t think that great hip-hop records are going to come out of Los Angeles … I mean great hip-hop records that get radar beyond niche counter-culture things aren’t going to come out of Los Angeles until these producers and these MCs sit down, look at each other eye-to-eye and criticize each other and make their record. Bottom line. It’s a great spot to be—it’s like the spot right before critical mass. Which is most exciting.
How does Jimmy The Lock fit into this? You have Nosaj Thing, who’s known for pure instrumentals, alongside people like Thavius Beck and Maestroe, who’ve done great work with you before.
Nocando: I think out of all those producers—all those beat heads—Nosaj’s instrumentals are the most hip-hop-y to me. They have this fat thing in the mid that rappers—a lot of rappers—feel intimidated by. But when I play his beats for my mom, my mom is like, ‘This reminds me of skating at World on Wheels!’ These are just funky-ass beats. I also have some stuff with Free the Robots—I’ve worked with Free the Robots since like 2003 or 2002. My first demo, the Impatient EP, he made the beat to the song called ‘Deep Sea Diver.’ A song about drinking.
What does your mom think of the other producers you work with?
Nocando: Oh, my mom—she really thinks that I need more negrismo in my music.
She said that?
Nocando: She doesn’t say that outwardly but she’s like, ‘Oh, I can kinda get with it, but it’s kind of electronic-y …’ It’s not jamming enough for her.
Your mom’s not fucking around.
Nocando: She gave me a good critique but I’m not going for her demographic anyway. So I got stuff by Free the Robots—DJ Nobody gave me a good hand. When me and Elvin came back from Japan, we had some really great stuff. Every Wednesday when I come out here, I get off the plane and go to his house—he smokes some weed and plays a beat and I write a song and I record it. We’ve recorded some amazing stuff and it’s really intelligent and it’s bordering pop-sounding except … you know, it’s what you would imagine Nocando and DJ Nobody doing a pop record would sound like. It sounds like ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ on Jimmy the Lock, but it gets way more funky. I don’t smoke weed—it slows me down. It doesn’t slow me down but … not until I’m on vacation. But we get along so well because Nobody likes ’90s rock and modern pop rap and I like ’90s rock and modern pop rap. We can talk about fucking the Toadies and T.I. in the same conversation.
Have you actually had that conversation?
Nocando: Yes. Local H and Rick Ross and Drake. By the way, my favorite rapper right now is Rick Ross because he is an excellent liar. Everybody hates him because he’s an excellent liar but I love him because he’s an excellent liar.
That’s hard to do. Not just anybody can lie.
Nocando: Not just anybody can. In his lie he is the coke drug warlord of the world and he was rolling around in that lie and he loved it and it makes me love it.
I know you wrote ‘I Never Lie,’ but are there any Nocando lies we can reveal here?
Nocando: Any Nocando lies? No, not really. I used to get smacked for lying when I was a little kid so I have a Pavlovian dog flinch whenever I do—I can’t do it.
Is that because of your mom?
Nocando: From a myriad of elders. On that whole record, my biggest tool is honesty and observation. I really don’t have the attention span to think up imaginary things now. I’ve read too many comic books in my life and watched too much Japanese anime. A lot of it is really new to people because it’s about me and the good part of it is I’m just like everybody else. So if I have a song about my girl ready to go or my pops dying or I just found a thousand dollars—well, not a thousand dollars—or something like that, then everybody relates to it. Or the people that I give it to relate to it—if you can’t relate to it, then maybe it’ll happen for you later on in life.
Joan Miró said that the more an artist truly represents themselves, the more universal the work will be.
Nocando: I agree with you 100 percent that it connects with people. My grandmother’s weird—she listens to right-wing radio and Dennis Prager was on this morning.
Congratulations on the second-ever Dennis Prager reference in the paper.
Nocando: He had this chick who was writing a book about how the voice tells what you are and it’s the most honest thing about you. And I feel like when I’m coming from a really honest place when I’m recording, it always comes out right. When somebody tells me to write a story about me feeling like I’m the best rapper in the world, it comes out a little pompous. I can pull it off but it’s an act. When I don’t have to fucking act and I can just be in a good mood and make a song about being in a good mood—or if I just won a battle, make a song about being a dope rapper—things where I don’t have to act, performance- and recording-wise, obviously I’m more proud of it and I’m more willing to let people hear it and it gets out quicker and people end up responding the right way after it comes out. When I’m honest. Very few times have I recorded something that was not totally honest or was filtered a little and have not gotten a good reaction from it. You pretty much know when you write it, if it’s honest and sound musically and creatively. You pretty much know when you write it that people are going to like it.
At this point, is there anything that you wouldn’t let yourself talk about? Like that song about your father dying, ‘98’—is anything off limits?
Nocando: Naw, I don’t think anything should be off-limits. Not for me. And it kind of scares me with my relationships. I have a song that’s yet to be released and it’s supposed to be on this Canadian producer Factor’s upcoming record. It’s to the point that it’s super honest and it’s a really great song. It’s about me—well, a whole raging thug thing that I went through in the summer that’s not really me, but just happened to be me at the time. I turned into a raging thug and choked a guy out. I’ve never done anything like that before but I was just so fucking angry. I played it for my girlfriend—who’s still my girlfriend now—and she was like, ‘I hate this. It’s a great song, but I hate you.’ And then we didn’t talk for a week.
That’s a great compliment.
Nocando: Yeah. It is. But if it comes up, I’m going to try my best to put it out. What I learned in ‘98’ when I was in my early twenties—and with everything else I’ve done—is that it’s in my benefit to be as honest as possible. I’d be doing myself as an artist and people who run across my music an injustice because I’ve had people personally—and I didn’t even know how to reply to it—I’ve had people hit me up on MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and say, ‘Hey, I’m going through that right now, man—I listened to that song and it gets me through.’ I haven’t gone through that since I was 14 so I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m glad I wrote that song and that’s bigger than that rapper feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m being lyrical! This is the best punch line ever!’ For somebody to say, ‘After visiting my mother at the hospital I put on your song and it’s good for me to know that you dealt with the same thing and you didn’t break down.’ That’s bigger than any fucking punch line that I ever spat in my life. That’s better than any hundred guys who ever wrote to impress a room full of anybody.
You were talking once about the Impatient EP and said, ‘It’s funny on that EP because I was super, super smart but I was living like a dumbass—it was the dumbest period of my life. And now I don’t have much drama and I’m a smarter dude but I rap dumb things.’ What happened?
Nocando: Back then, I was fresh out of two years of community college and high school and I was constantly learning new things and getting new words and my vocab was out of this world, and I knew the least about music and I was making stupid decisions. I had a daughter when I was 19, me and my baby’s mother—my current fiancée now. But we broke up for a year and I had another girlfriend and I worked on a mountain farming medical marijuana. I lived in a tent for like four months and slept with like three guns. I would wake up and yell and hear a mountain lion and yell and it would yell back. I would do that like once a week. It was right there. But me and my friends were getting into a lot of drama in the street and I was a little dumbass—I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. And as I got older and more focused and I actually learned more, I found that I didn’t have to project this image of a smartass all the time and I could talk about the dumbass that I like to be some times.
Do you feel like you’ve grown into any of your songs? Something where you were artistically more ahead of where you were personally?
Nocando: ‘Paint Me Impatient.’ I’ve always been a hurry-up-and-wait kind of guy and thought about the plight of people that are like me. I don’t think that I’ve grown that much—I wouldn’t be able to show you if I have because I’m too busy living my life. That song, I haven’t grown into that guy but I’ve always been that—and I still am that. And then ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ is the common man’s version of that song. It’s how the 26-year-old version of me would describe how I was feeling when I wrote ‘Paint Me Impatient’—when I was 19.
What are some of the hardest things you’ve done as a musician? Things that really could have gone the other way?
Nocando: In terms of battling, I went to this place called The Pit—where everybody wanted to hear rap about guns—and I won those battles and I wasn’t in my element. I wasn’t in backpacker land anymore. And I went in there with the mindset of ‘these guys are talking about guns and the street and shit and I know; I’ve always lived in the hood my whole life and all my friends and family are fucking in jail and these guys don’t look like the people that I knew from the hood but they do put on a pretty good act.’ And so I went in there—this was on the west side of L.A. Me and my friends hang out in Leimert Park. People have been shot at our rap spot and these guys are on the Westside, by the Westside Pavilion and the 4 Play strip club and a Best Buy. And then there’s the individual battles with old L.A. legends like Dotted Line and Otherwize and things that I didn’t win but that brought the most growth out in me.
What kind of things made you grow?
Nocando: Usually it was the losses. The first time I went up against Otherwize I was 18 and I don’t know if you know Otherwize but he won the ’97 Rap Olympics when he was like 18. He’s a genius. He was heavily intoxicated at the time and he was pretty much trying to establish dominance on everyone there and I was a young kid who wouldn’t shut up. And me and him went like ten rounds at each other—and ten rounds of freestyle, that’s amazing. I won like Iron Man battles where I was the first one up and it’s kind of like last-man-standing and then I went through like 22 other competitors.
What are you thinking at competitor 21?
Nocando: I just take each one as a specific problem. This guy, he’s a crowd favorite. This guy, he’s a pushover. This guy, he’s a tough guy. Every person is a specific situation. This guy’s just like me—how would I beat me? This guy, I’ve battled him before and he really wants to win—what should I do? Twenty-two different people, there’s 22 different way to beat them.
How would you beat you?
Nocando: How would I beat me? I mean really, I’ve only ever lost when I was unprepared or unmotivated so the best thing to do is to catch me on one of those days. That’s like the name of the game—when you’re in the final four, and you’ve got those four players who are exactly like each other but slightly different. That’s what’s so dope about all that battle stuff—it’s a gamble. Which one of you guys is gonna slip? Who’s slippin’? All you gotta do is catch that guy slippin’ and you just won $5,000.
Now everybody is going to be waiting for the day when you didn’t get a good breakfast.
Nocando: Well, I don’t battle anymore. Well, I haven’t battled in a year and a half, so I lied—I do battle. On New Year’s I’m battling and on the 30th I’m battling somebody. It’s just to see if I can still do it. I don’t feel the expression that I used to have when I was younger. I’m not really focused on it anymore. What I’d really love to do is write songs right now. I’m trying to master the idea of writing songs and creating records. After Jimmy the Lock and that feeling you get when you’re done—I haven’t gotten that feeling ever in my life. I want to make that feeling happen for me like five more times! I love performing my songs. I feel like I have really good projection and really good stage presence but I wanna add to my live show. My new obsession is going pro as a rapper and performer and a musician. It’s not about finding the most clever way I can call somebody an overweight homosexual in a green shirt.
Who’s out there now that you’d like to knock out of their spot?
Nocando: Well, let’s be serious about this. I’m way more handsome than Drake is, so if he’s a fucking heartthrob … I might not know how to pander to women, but I’m more handsome. Off the top. Secondly, anybody who’s in that ‘cool black nerd’ niche or whatnot, they can get the fuck out of my way. That’s the thing—the battling has made me … or I probably was before it, too, but I’m hella competitive. I may not be able to do what you do, but don’t think that I’m not going to be able to do what you do. I’m not really playing the game of trying to fill somebody’s niche by writing songs or being the kind of rapper that they are—I don’t think that works anyway. It just so happens that I’m surrounded by all these instrumentalists so there’s not rappers to make look bad. But ever since I was a wee lad, there are very few guys who I can share a stage with. I shared stages with a lot of my legends.
What’s the first time you tasted blood?
Nocando: I don’t want to talk about the battle thing anymore—tasted blood? Come on, man.
I don’t mean battle-rapping. I mean life.
Nocando: I don’t really know—I wasn’t too good. I played baseball as a kid—I was all right. I played left field. I was kind of starting. My competitive thing just came … honestly, I remember freestyling with my friend Terry in his bedroom when we were in high school. We all did it and I was great at it and I wanted to do it all the time. And I kept doing it all the time. I never wrote a rap down for like three years. The whole taste of blood thing, it just came because I thought I was great at it. It really wasn’t a taste for blood—it was more like, ‘Why don’t you think the way I think about me? I’m going to shove it down your throat!’ And then the battling started.
You were talking about the nerd thing—what are the four elements of being a nerd?
Nocando: If comics, video games and anime are three of the four elements then I’ve already got it. I was a video game tester for like four years for EA. With the video game thing, I’m super into 2-D fighting games since I was a little kid. Street Fighter II Champion Edition, King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Guilty Gear. And comic books—I’ve been into comics since I was a kid. $1.25 a week fed my addiction and got me 52 issues every year. Anime—before Blockbuster had the age restrictions I was watching animated breasts when I was like 10. The fourth element? What is the fourth element of being a nerd? Having nerdy-ass friends.
That’s kind of a sweet answer—the friendship of other nerds.
Nocando: It’s like, ‘Wow, nobody else understands me but me and you.’ And you can have conversations with these guys about things that aren’t even important in the video games like, ‘Well, the hat changed color in Fatal Fury 2—it went from a blood red to more of a Target red!’ I’ve had these conversations with people.
I appreciate the detail there.
Nocando: I try.
There’s a line at the end of ‘Exploits and Glitches’ where you say, ‘What the fuck—is this the future?’ What do you think is missing?
Nocando: The only thing I wish was here is a really healthy American economy. Or things blowing up, like I’m surrounded by these rappers that are really bubblegummy rappers and I just thought that would be dead by now. You can make a party song without being a fucking coon. But honestly, away from the rap thing, what I expected was—especially being younger—I thought that things would flourish now, and if I put out a great record it wouldn’t get lost in a sea of wack records. I am happy that I got my relationship with my girl—I’m like Superdad now and a husband and I’m really happy I got my shit together and I took responsibility to do that. I’m really happy that we have a global economy and we get to go to Japan and Europe and trade and learn all these things as musicians. I’m really happy that L.A. music is thriving with this unlikely hero, which is this experimental music. And I’m happy that I put out the best rap record that L.A. has put out in—I don’t know—ten years?
NOCANDO WITH DADDY KEV, THE GASLAMP KILLER, NOBODY AND D-STYLES PLUS GUESTS EVERY WEDNESDAY AT LOW END THEORY AT THE AIRLINER, 2419 N. BROADWAY, LOS ANGELES. 10 PM / $5-$10 / 18+. LOWENDTHEORYCLUB.COM. NOCANDO’S JIMMY THE LOCK IS OUT TUE., JAN. 26, ON ALPHA PUP. VISIT NOCANDO AT MYSPACE.COM/NOCANDO.