words by James "Nocando" McCall
illustrations by Elijah Maura
Nocando is a critically acclaimed rapper, freestyle battle champion, co-founder of Low End Theory and CEO of record label/collective Hellfyre Club.
I'm not the type that can sleep with with the TV on. The dialogue, mood and story bleed into my dreams. The other day my wife was watching Law and Order SVU on her phone next to me and I dreamt I was a Puerto Rican woman fighting off a rapist in the stairwell of an industrial car park with a pillowcase full of galvanized nails. I bought nails at Home Depot the day before so I'm sure that's where that brutal little detail came from. I take it all in by accident. I can be a sponge.
The most influential person in my life is my grandmother Ina. She's a strange one. My grandmother plays very abrasive conservative talk radio in her house 24/7. She votes Democratic. I think she is a Republican though. The kind of black person that was Republican before MLK switched parties, like an early Lebron fan wearing a Miami heat jersey with a Cleveland Cavaliers joint peaking out from under it. I’m glad LeBron got to go back and make shit right though.
My grandmother spends a lot of time alone and talks to herself constantly. She's not mentally ill, she just reviews her day and acts out hypotheticals for upcoming meetings, or revisits unresolved conflicts that could have happened anywhere between yesterday and her teenage years in Mississippi in the mid-to-late 1930's. My grandmother rarely says anything positive. I think that this is a learned defense mechanism and is the reason she's done well for herself in life. She also has a twin sister named Ena, who is her opposite. Ena is optimistic and doesn't judge much, they’re like yin and yang. Life was hard for my grandmother, and in turn she became hardened. She’s a black lady in her nineties from Mississippi with a PHD, she’s well traveled and owns a few pieces of rental property. It's hard acquiring all that even if you're privileged and she had all the chips stacked against her. There are only two ways you beat odds like that, be tough, or be tough as fuck.
Her voice rings in my head, scathing things that one should not say to a child. Brutal honesty, crippling pessimism and closed-mindedness all came from the woman that basically raised me. Yet these are the things that make me. As a child I somehow turned this brutal honesty to playful poetry and tricky wordplay. Crippling pessimism gave in to an overactive imagination and a dreamer’s attitude. Her closed-mindedness made me a sucker for the anything-goes and do-what-thou-wilt mentalities. I appreciate her for that, and now that I'm older and have a little more understanding, I get it. This old lady who was once my least favorite relative, and whom I saw as the biggest bully in my life, has become the biggest help and somehow the biggest influence. Her voice is one that I channel in day-to-day business, songwriting, and shit-shooting.
I hear my father’s voice every once in a while. Not as often as I hear my grandmother's, probably because I'd only see him in the summer. Even in the face of death, he was a pleasure to be around. I remember times that he was in extreme pain and still laughing or cracking a smile. If I had a time machine I would go back to the moment when he tried to get me to rap when I was 12 or 13. We were in Vallejo, CA at his buddy Alton's house. I didn't rap. I hated music as a matter of fact. He was a little drunk and asked me to sing or rap or beat box, to do anything musical. He was very pushy. He then said, "I taught myself how to play guitar, bass and piano. Every McCall has to have some musical ability." I was a timid, soft kid. I was embarrassed and replied, "I don't." Then I cried. That embarrassed my dad. We drove home in his ‘93 Mustang convertible, Pops always had a cool new car every year or two because he sold them.
He died shortly after in a room that we shared in my grandfather's house. I started smoking weed around that time because my head was all fucked up from my dad's death. These are the months when I first dabbled in rapping. Years later I ended up being some kind of freestyle rap virtuoso. I thought my dad was full of shit, incredibly wrong and drunk when he said that I had some musical talent in me. He also told me, "Cool guys end up selling a lot of nice cars to very uncool guys." I didn't understand what this meant at the time but I now cling to this nugget of wisdom like a shit-dipped shank in a prison riot.
I lived in a tent for months in the forest in Mendocino County in Northern California. There were only six or seven people out there with me. We all used walkie talkies. I hated using them, I hated talking really. The last two months I was there became the rainy season. Everyone that lived in the tents found a reason or an excuse to sleep in the house, except for me. I loved the solitude. The walky-talky business became very minimal. Just a goodnight from me and a good morning from them. The only voices that I heard in those months were those of the coyotes. Yip, yip, yip. All the other large animals got ghost during the rain but these boys were consistent, not in schedule but in purpose. They only made noise when they caught prey. It would start with one yip, followed by a couple, then a few more until it became a violent frenzy. It was just like popcorn popping in the microwave but instead it was flesh ripping. I loved that about them, I loved how they were always around but we never saw them and only heard them when they were eating. Their voices popped up in my head this past year whenever I thought of how all of the Hellfyre Club releases were going.
I hear the voices of past opponents whom I'd utterly destroyed in battles. Their poorly put together lines failed to win the crowd over, but definitely made me aware of how I may have been perceived by an average Joe on the street. They would insult me about things that I thought were positives: a unique style of dress, being into comics and speaking "proper.” In turn, I heard the voices of my opponents and used them to write my own biography.
I hear the voice of this one guy at my only show in Milwaukee, as well as MURS calling me an alcoholic. I only drink when I have to force socializing. I drink to numb the voices of people, and the voices in my head. Smoking weed definitely amplifies the voices. I found myself high as Shoryuken on the balcony of a bar that I'm normally comfy at (The Airliner, home of Low End Theory), being called a name that's not my government name by voices that are no more familiar to me than the voices on the Spanish channel. I hid behind a speaker that night.
I've heard thousands of voices up to this point in my life and I wish that I could forget most or replace them with the sound of my little brother's laugh or my friend Marcel rapping. Our voices come from some nature, some nurture. Every voice can be used to inspire or discourage depending on the subject, but it's hard to know when you're doing either.
I write this from my favorite room in my quaint little cabin deep in South Central, Los Angeles. Out the window I hear late-night ice cream trucks, planes flying into LAX, Mariachi music and loud-ass gang bangers running down the week's fiascos. I try to dig deep in my mind to find a phrase to bring this all together and force the point that everyone needs a voice, but as I read it all over and soak in my environment it hits me like a freight train. I'm a guy that has a voice, but to be honest, nothing I can say is as valuable as the witty little car-salesman quips from my dad or the no-nonsense remarks from my mean-ass old Grandma, nor can anything be said with the excitement matching the yips of three or four starving coyotes sharing a rodent in the woods.