By the time he was old enough to drive, Nocando was already a problem. Every high school had a guy no one wanted to meet during a freestyle battle, but not only would James McCall beat you, he'd smash a spear through your chest, Scorpion-style. Go on YouTube and rifle through the grainy clips of his victory at the 2007 Scribble Jam — the March Madness of battle rap — and watch McCall massacre Madd Illz, calling him an "inverted nipple–having King Hippo motherfucker," and "Peter Griffin's Latin piece-of-shit mechanic." The only thing he didn't do was taunt the corpse, Mortal Kombat–like, by yelling "Toasty."
It's been that way since that 1999 debut, when Nocando snuck out of his mom's crib and popped up at Project Blowed, the legendary Leimert Park Thursday open mic that spawned local luminaries the Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract Rude and Busdriver. Despite being a callow, rail-thin teenager, McCall served 10 dudes in a row for 30 minutes straight. Everyone refused to leave until someone dispatched the intruder, but no one could.
"The next time I returned to Blowed, I brought songs with me. They booed me offstage. They were, like, 'You have to work on that,' " Nocando recalls.
That's the thing: Hip-hop history is littered with highly gifted MCs, guys like Supernatural and Juice with unparalleled freestyle skill, only known to the message-board hordes. Being a great freestyle rapper is like being 6 feet 5 and able to throw a perfect 70-yard spiral. It might get you hype and nebulous buzz about "potential," but unless you learn how to write songs and evolve as an artist, you're apt to wind up as rap's Ryan Leaf.
But at first it didn't matter. Nocando not only earned massive respect within Blowed circles, but he also gained stature as the best freestyle rapper on the West Coast by crushing cipher spirits all across the country, which earned him prize money to feed and clothe his two young daughters and put his fiancée through graduate school.
"For the first year of her life, my daughter's diapers and expenses were paid for by battle money. I was working a 9-to-5 and battling to make enough to live like everyone else," the 26-year-old Culver City High graduate says.
Along the way, he acquired the nickname "Jimmy the Lock," a play on words riffing on his government name and a talent destined to open doors. But Nocando could've wound up just another talented footnote were it not for Daddy Kev, the owner of Alpha Pup Records and chief visionary behind the Low End Theory club, the blunted beat bastion at the Airliner downtown.
"Well before the Scribble Jam victory, I'd heard about him as the young Blowed dude who everyone was talking about," recalls Kev. "He had a great voice and was intelligent beyond merely music smarts." The Alpha Pup head offered him a label deal and a spot as the Low End's lone rap resident.
With an avant-garde aesthetic halfway between dubstep and Dilla, the club's sonics are apt to leave lesser rappers exposed. Every Wednesday night a different DJ/producer from Los Angeles or London or Glasgow or Germany shows up at the Airliner with synth lines jagged as uncut crystal quartz, desultory but dynamic drum patterns, and bass that shakes like a subduction zone. The beats have no natural pockets but Nocando finds one anyway, weaving his booming baritone like a jazz virtuoso toying with space and time.
His album was initially a different story. Across a painstaking three-year process, the MC recorded and discarded hundreds of songs with Kev, who, as an underground hip-hop veteran, was acutely aware of the struggle to create something indelible. The nickname "Jimmy the Lock" became an albatross, McCall discouraged that he'd always be pigeonholed as an underground battle rapper, another talented freestyler at a weekly club night.
"There were a lot of 'what the fuck' situations, where James would come to me and say, 'I've recorded 20-something songs, 10 are good. Why aren't we putting the album out?' " recalls Daddy Kev. "As a label guy, it's hard to look someone in the eye and say, 'I don't think you're ready yet.' But we're both glad we waited this long."
The tribulations were worth it. Jimmy the Lock, Nocando's Alpha Pup debut, is one of the best and most forward-thinking L.A. hip-hop records in years. With beats from Low End linchpins Nosaj Thing, Daedelus, Free the Robots and Nobody; guest appearances from Busdriver and Nick Diamonds of Islands; and scratches from the Gaslamp Killer, it's the first rap record fully immersed in the Low End's singular aesthetic.
But Nocando is the star, carving out a niche between the endearing eccentricity of Del tha Funkee Homosapien and the experimental hypersyllabics of his Project Blowed forebears. At once the avatar of the generation of what he calls "cool black nerds," but without the need to overcompensate, Nocando declares he's "swagnostic." On "Head Static," over Nosaj Thing's celestial choir-in-space sonics, Nocando labels himself a "young Ralph Ellison/camouflaged skeletons/transparent melanin/clever as I've ever been/virile and intelligent/devilish and heaven-sent."
"The record's original name was Exploits and Glitches — that's what it takes to beat a video game efficiently. I scrapped that once I got the bulk of the record done," Nocando reflects on his three-year odyssey. "I became Jimmy the Lock again, doors started opening in my head. I lost limitations, the old nickname seemed to fit." Problem solved.