[Editor's Note: James “Nocando” McCall is a critically acclaimed rapper, co-founder of the Low End Theory and founder of indie rap label Hellfyre Club. This is the third in a series of essays called “Unrivaled Under the Sun,” about his inspirations. Part one appeared in our Twin Cities sister publication, City Pages, and was about the late St. Paul rapper Eyedea. Part two was about L.A. freestyle rapper Flawliss.]
Leimert Park on Thursday nights was the most diverse place ethnically and socio-economically that I'd experienced in this city at that very young age of 18. My peers and I have been known to affectionately refer to it as the Dojo later on. We were learning there, real time. It was a party for some; for others it was a college course of freestyle rap 101, with weekly tests and ego-crushing, anti-pop quizzes.
There were a lot of teachers: Myka 9, Rifleman, P.E.A.C.E. These guys all had mastery of their craft and were living examples of there being there more than one way to skin a cat. From them we learned that freestyle could be any style, any pace, any type of content, rhythmic, arrhythmic, melodic, raucous, street, fun, religious, celestial or all of the above.
By the time our generation of 11th and 12th graders from all over L.A. showed up, most of the older guys would only perform inside on the open mic as unannounced special guests, and rarely ever freestyle in the cyphers with us brats. If they did, it would usually be to show us how much better they were at this thing, and give us some insane goal to strive toward.
But there was one OG who seemed to operate differently than anyone else.
He would rap with us kids, keep up with us, bring the energy up, adapt to our style and slowly guide us to his level of being able to freestyle for extended periods of time without error. He also inspiried us to add relevant and relatable content to our verses. His name was the Rhymin’ Riddlore — Ridd for short.
Project Blowed could easily (though not always) become a hotbed of pissing contests and altercation. But as many times as I've seen Ridd rap, I've not once witnessed him ever have to prove himself in that way.
Let's not get it twisted — I have seen him out-freestyle a room full of guys old and young, street or geek. I've seen him diffuse fights between angry grown men with a stern forearm and a short sentence (“Nah homie, that ain't happening here”). He didn't avoid conflict; he was just above most of it. Not in a snobby way, either — more like in a, “I do not have the desire to prove myself, let's just improve ourselves” or rather a, “We chillin’” kinda way. As far as I can remember, Ridd was never challenged, nor did he challenge others in freestyle cyphers. He never made anyone feel less than, but still showcased the extent of his mastery of the craft.
I gravitated to dude. I wanted to learn to be as good as him. Or somehow seem less “try hard” and be as effortless as him. Every time I saw him cypher I’d join in. Where most of my time before was spent battling kids and asserting dominance, now I found myself focusing on cadence and vocab to paint a picture.
Ridd reached out to my crew to hang around and record with him. He had a studio in South Central on Normandie and 82nd Street called The Shack. To that point it was the best home studio I’d ever seen. The best mics, newest computers, most up-to-date software. That's what I saw then. Thinking back on it, what I didn't see may have been the most important.
There was a garden… a huge garden. Rid and his roommate Spud only ate vegetables from this garden. They were eating organic, farm to table — no big deal though. No reason to write home.
Every time I left The Shack I ended up with a new book in my backpack as well. I'd watch Ridd make a beat, while we sat down and wrote verses, then he'd drink a shitload of water, then write a verse in his head. I'd say wow, that's like Jay-Z and Biggie. He'd say, “It's easier than reading my own handwriting,” or something incredibly humble.
We'd freestyle for an hour or so every time I was there. He would usually be freestyling while doing another thing though. Multitasking effortlessly, while we just tried to make things rhyme and sometimes make sense. He'd do it while engineering the beat that we were freestyling to, or while rolling a spliff on his passport, telling us we were gonna need passports of our own one day. Then he’d paint a picture of Geneva, Switzerland in not-too-common vocabulary and clear rhyme form, very matter-of-factly. I think that was the first time I'd seen a passport. People where we were from went no farther than Tijuana.
It is a common thing these days for me to find myself at Low End Theory or the eclectic monthly event Bananas in Leimert Park talking to a music industry guy and a pretty girl about a great album or a great movie or a great city over whiskey and cigarettes while there are some kids in a corner freestyling, then excuse myself just to join in on the action. At those moments, I think back on how big of an impression my OG Ridd left on me.
I'm not sure if Ridd was some hippie, a backpacker, a black political activist sleeper cell, or just an Angelino in the ‘90s. He could've been a Venice Shoreline Crip, he could've been a Buddhist monk. I'm not really sure.
What I can say for sure is that he was my first of many legit mentors in music. Another was Ikey Owens, who recently passed away. These were musicians that were without the big ego, greed and insatiable thirst for attention, the personality trait that we call “lead singer syndrome” that plagues so many of us in music. These are guys that were important parts of well-known projects that they may never get credit for, just because they were not the squeaky wheel. Ikey just loved rock music and playing keys; Ridd just loved hip-hop and freestyling.
I've recently renewed my Hulu subscription and discovered that they have the whole Dragon Ball anime saga available for streaming. Unlike its more popular successor, Dragon Ball Z, it was never aired in it's entirety stateside. I've waited 16 years for this! I watched every episode in about a week.
In the second-to-last season, the protagonist Son Goku goes to a floating island to be trained by a new sensei in order to beat an impossible foe. Not only does the hero become stronger, faster and more skilled, he learns what is arguably the most important lesson in Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z: He learns how to to suppress his bloodlust. He becomes more powerful yet more peaceful.
Watching Goku, it hit me like crooked cop that even though I got a lot of advice and was challenged by Ridd, the most important thing I learned from him is to keep my ego in check, and to not be so goddamn thirsty. With skills and accolades, a little local fame, a cool rep and a little money, it's easy for a kid's head to get big and for him to feel entitled to special treatment. A lot less has created monstrous douchebags and divas who feel like their talent makes them more important than the next guy.
Everyone needs a mentor. I'm glad I had one like Ridd and I just wanna thank him for the lesson of anti-thirst that he taught me through his actions.