words by Eamon Whalen
photo appears courtesy of Hellfyre Club
“Sometimes when people say ‘Oh I like Indie Rap, I like this Rap,’ they don’t know what the difference is. The genesis, where these songs come from, is night and day,” said Los Angeles underground veteran rapper Busdriver, when he was a guest on his friend and labelmate MC Nocando’s podcast “Shots Fired,” with LA writer Jeff Weiss. The quote came after Busdriver was describing labelmate Open Mike Eagle’s musical process, and the divide it represents in the current hip hop ecosystem. There are rappers who record in state-of-the-art studios, then there are rappers who write their rhymes in between volunteering in the park, and picking their kid up from school, while they book their own tours and record in a closet after their family has fallen asleep.
In 2009, Nocando founded Hellfyre Club (an imprint of DJ Daddy Kev’s Alpha Pup Records) on “pure loneliness” and a tax return, where he aimed to make a home for idiosyncratic, subterranean rappers.
A product of the highly influential freestyle-based open-mic workshop Project Blowed and resident host of Low End Theory, a massively popular beat-centric weekly concert, Nocan' has been at the forefront of two of the biggest game-changing movements in LA hip hop, and now he’s trying to spark a third. He’s seen what has and hasn’t worked, and has an eye for talent that cuts through trendiness and collective wisdom, the Rap-Game Billy Beane per se, save for the sabermetrics.
Today, in late Februrary, Nocan’ is on tour with who one could say are the three stars of the now ten-artists deep label (besides himself) promoting Hellfyre’s first crew compilation “Dorner vs. Tookie.” The aforementioned Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle, fellow “Blowdians” who embody the alternative rap (or “art rap”) ethos. Then there’s one of the newest signees to the label and the youngest of the group, Milo. A pensive twenty-two year old rapper who credits “Mike and Regan” for inspiring him to ever try and rap. He recently made the decision to forego a degree in Philosophy for the indie rap life, dropping out of his catholic liberal arts college in Northern Wisconsin essentially to crew up with some of his heroes.
Less than an hour before the first-ever Hellfyre Club show in Minneapolis, Nocan’ and Milo sit in the greenroom of 7th St. Entry. There is talk of drink tickets vs. free beer, the Capri Sun Challenge, yet to be located tour-van keys and for full disclosure, Milo’s upcoming piece for Greenroom Issue 02 and Nocan's admiration for my fellow Minnesotans Slug and Eyedea. Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle are elsewhere for the time being.
Greenroom: So, you met Mike and Busdriver at Project Blowed, what were your first impressions of them?
Nocando: “Project Blowed is kind of tiered like a street gang in L.A. So there’s like the young guys, the guys in the middle generation and then the older guys, the OG’s right? Around 2000 or so, I was the young guy, or in the group of the young guys. The OG’s were still the Freestyle Fellowship guys and the middle tier was like Busdriver and maybe even Abstract Rude is in between those two. I met him [Busdriver] then but we didn’t work together. But we were both just part of this big gang you know? I started touring with Aceyalone and those guys and it started to turn into a big frat, where everyone knows each other. I used to do a lot battling and freestyling outside of Project Blowed in Leimert Park. For awhile there was maybe a year where there was like, no one was good as me. That’s not me being cocky that’s because I put those hours in as a kid you know? Randomly some kid from Palmdale would come out and he’d be amazing so I’d end up freestyling with him for an hour. Mike came to visit his family from Chicago. It was like young, hip looking Mike. He had dreadlocks and all that. I didn’t really know too much about him but you know he was one of those dudes who freestyled as good if not better than me. After that I just needed to have that one moment where I’m like, oh your dope and you go there. [sic] So you know? Now we’re here.”
GR: Do you think that Low End Theory fills some of the void left by Project Blowed?
N: “No, because it’s not rap centric, it’s producer based. Project Blowed was fully interactive. No one was selling tickets to get in. And it was all ages and no security. Low End is amazing and there’s many positives but Project Blowed was almost like a place - so I have a friend thats in a gang right? And he’s from a neighborhood that’s opposed to another one. He can go there and its like a place where that doesn’t matter. Or you could be a 70-year-old man who stumbled in from a Jazz club down the street. It’s like a true anything-goes, no holds-barred.”
GR: Didn’t Kurupt and Daz come through?
N: “Anybody who rapped in L.A. The Game, Kurupt even Eminem and Redman. That’s where people rapped, if you liked to rap you go there, you know what I’m saying?”
GR: This is hitting fast forward a little, but how did you decide to start Hellfyre Club?
N: “Pure loneliness. I was on tour, touring with Low End with the Beat Scene. And we were leaving Japan after a really long run there. And you know with beat guys it’s like ‘what are you going to do today?’ ‘I’m going to dig for records.’ And I’d always find myself in places that didn’t really have anything to do with me. So I was like ‘you should sign some more rappers’ I said that to Daddy Kev the guy who runs Alpha Pup. And he was like ‘nah you should sign some more rappers,’ so I decided to sign some more rappers. So I started with my friends you know? The people that I knew.”
GR: I’m a regular Shots Fired Listener, and on the podcast you mentioned a “Moneyball” philosophy in relation to Hellfyre Club, can you break that down?
N: “I said that better onstage the DVT night at Low End. [Turns to Milo] That was another drunk rant at the end of the set, I’m going to try and not do that anymore. Basically, I saw Mike ten years ago do something amazing for one hour. And I knew like, ‘oh you got that.’ I’m not looking like if your ‘hot right now’ or if you’ve got “the sound that’s in” or some shit like that because none of that really matters. What really matter are some really fundamental things that I’ve seen doing this for 12 years. Theres motherfuckers that are going to hang their shit up and go home if their girl gets pregnant, or they go to college. Then there’s those that are going to keep doing it no matter what. It’s not a good moneyball analogy but I just know that this dude really likes music, and that’s what he does. And he’s going to do it no matter what. And in LA I have a few ways to pull strings, so I’m going to tap him into that and then we’ll see what happens.”
GR: How did that factor into signing Milo?
N: “The actual story with this is. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this story Milo. In 2010, it was me, my wife, my friend Ty and his girlfriend at Coachella. He put a bunch of songs on a flash drive on my computer. And it was early Odd Future stuff. Before anybody but the actual fans of them had heard of them. And he was like ‘yeah they’re looking to get signed’ and I was like ‘but they’re talking about rape.’ I just didn’t really understand it. I saw the Odd Future thing unfold in front of my eyes. The first successful show they had was at Low End Theory. And I saw all these kids and I’m like ‘shit! I’m old! I don’t get it!’ So Mike [Eagle] played me Milo’s record and I was like ‘this is cool,’ but I also told him ‘to be totally honest I don’t get it’. Then I thought ‘when is the last time I didn’t get it? OF, AHHHH!!!!! [laughs]’ Mike had played shows with him and seen him play live, up close. This is my first time touring the Midwest this intensely and Mike is just a road warrior. So Mike A&R-ed that one.”
GR: And Milo for you it’s like the dudes who you listened to who made you want to rap were Busdriver and Open Mike. How does that feel now being in the same crew as them?
Milo: “It’s cool man. It’s surreal at times. Last night we played Milwaukee and that was a lot of people I went to high school or college with, who I’d light incense and sit on a rug and listen to Regan’s [Busdriver] record or Mike’s record. So last night especially it was lot of my friend reminding me that this is very odd and surreal. We’re reared on their music, and now I’m touring with them, it’s great. It’s really inspiring more than anything.”
GR: How is it balancing that mentor versus peer relationship?
M: “You know what? In the beginning it was hard for me. I’m naturally shy, especially around those guys. Now, it’s a lot of friendly jousting, like “Oh this is my new album.” “Oh that’s your new album? I’m gonna style on you this way!” It’s a really good, friendly community of trying to make just better art all the time.”
GR: I’ve heard you say you don’t listen to any rap outside of Hellfyre club?
M: “I don’t really. The only rapper outside of Hellfyre I listen to consistently is Serengeti.”
GR: Why is that?
M: “I mean before I was in Hellfyre that’s all I listened to so now that I’m in it, it hasn’t skewed my interests at all you know?”
GR: Do you either of you want to speak on upcoming projects?
N: “Jimmy the Burnout, March 18th. (Listen and purchase Jimmy The Burnout) I have a whole record, there’s no other writing on it besides my writing, but I have features from Anderson Paak, Open Mike Eagle, and Liphemra. I’ve got the best production cast that I think I could get my hands on for the budget that I had, which is no budget. I got Dam-Funk, Mr. Carmack. A dude named Djemba Djemba that works with Diplo but sounds nothing like what Diplo would do, that’s probably why I got it. There’s a dude named Caleb Stone, who was a drummer in a progressive band or some shit and a kid named Ashtray Jenkins, who is really dope. I actually met his father at Project Blowed twelve years ago, and now his kid is like a prominent member in the Beat Scene, so he may have been 8 when I met his Dad. Oh shit that was actually 14 years ago when I met his Dad, holy shit.”
GR: Having been on the indie-rap grind for years now, with the shift to the internet it’s easier to get music out there but at the same time less people will buy it. How have you seen the model change?
N: “I’m kind of stupid. I don’t really notice things changing. I just adapt somehow or fall into a situation [venue employee enters room and Nocando decides on drink tickets]. So I just fall into a situation like the Low End thing. Everybody told me ‘that’s a bad idea, you’re going to wear yourself out.’ That ended up paying my rent, actually right at the time when the industry I was in, when they fired everybody during the job crisis. I was working at EA [Electronic Arts]. I know that if you hit the road, you sell stuff. If you try to sell stuff, you sell stuff. My problem with the internet is, let’s say with Hellfyre Club right? You may have a pocket of people who are really into that right? Then there’s a bunch of people who won’t even know because it doesn’t get ouf of this circle. Like the internet is not a place where like if you throw it up then everyone is going to end up seeing it. It’s not a billboard on a major thoroughfare, it’s more like a billboard in somebody’s hand and that somebody has to be willing to share it with everybody, and tell everybody.”
GR: Who came up with the title, “Dorner vs. Tookie?”
N: It was either me or Rheteric [Ramirez]. [Turns to Milo] Who made that up?
M: You did.
GR: How’d you land on that title?
N: Because those were the two hardest negroes in L.A [laughs], minus Mayor Tom Bradley.
Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle enter the greenroom.
GR: Mike, what were your first impressions of Busdriver?
OME: “He wouldn’t remember this, but I cyphered with him when I was in high school. It was one of the times I went to Project Blowed. My dad has always lived in L.A so I’d go there for summers and Christmas vacations. I’d go to L.A and always go to Project Blowed. And the first time I rapped there I got ‘please pass the mic on stage,’ and it was somewhat devastating. I started being outside [the venue] cyphering, and I distinctly remember a cypher with him and Myka 9, and [turns to Busdriver] that dude Paradox. We were all cyphering, and I was taken aback because I was from Chicago where the rap style was very punchline-y and everybody out there [in LA] was stylin out of control and I didn’t know what to do but to do my punch lines. But it happened to be okay because no one was doing that there.”
GR: What about Nocando?
OME: “Man, Nocan was away working a job in Northern California. My peer group at the time was this group Customer Service that he was a part of but he wasn’t there at the time. So he was talked about like a mythical creature, he was a beast of lore. [Funny Loud Voice] ‘He’s never lost a battle, he’s the best rapper ever!’ All the shit was true, I can’t even lie. And he came back and it was like ‘shit, this motherfucker.’ To this day I think he’s the best freestyler I know. I think he’s the best, if not, Top 5. I’d also put Busdriver, and Myka 9 in my Top 5. Then, I don’t even know who the other two are.”
GR: What about you [Busdriver]? First impressions of Nocan and Mike?
BD: “I met Nocan when he couldn’t really rap well. If you can imagine Nocando not rapping well, that’s when I met him. That was so long ago. He was outside and we were cyphering briefly and I just came across him. He was really insistent. He kept getting served by the other Blowdians but he kept coming back. He always had a lot of heart. I don’t know when I met Mike. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know Mike.”
OME: “I started bothering him in 2008. I booked you for a benefit show at Project Blowed.”
BD: “I remember that.”
OME: “Then I started sending you music frantically.”
BD: “I remember when Mike’s music became a part of my life, and after that point, I don’t remember Mike not being a part of my every-day life. I got lucky.”
GR: So now, you guys are in a crew together. How did you go from being in each other’s periphery to in Hellfyre Club?
OME: “I mean the Blowed ended in a way. Blowed as a weekly spectacle or event or place for people to go and meet and rap together, is over. The last of the people there who were really going hard trying to make new music and be out of the world were us. I feel like we’re the last space capsule out of like Planet Blowed you know what I mean? And so it kinda went like that you know? We all started making songs together and we all had releases that were kind of current and overlapping - well he [Busdriver] had his own audience but me and Nocando had releases that were kind of hitting the same audience. And he [Busdriver] was hipping his audience to us. So there started to be this community of people that would check for all of us. And it just kind of naturally happened from there. We started making music and really started to understand how similar we all are. Even though we have individual aesthetics, theres a lot of similarities in how we process and look at things.”
BD: “The Blowed was less ours, and I think everyone in Hellfyre Club were kind of outcasts in their own respective corners of the Blowed. A lot of what I create is community based. I go by consensus, and I’m always involved with a bunch of people. That’s how I like to do things. So when I saw Nocan was doing the Hellfyre Club thing, and the first tape Prometheus came out, and I heard Mike Eagle and other people on it, it made sense to me. It clicked, it was like this is where I’m supposed to be now. They have similar origins and are pushing things in the way I want to push it, or am pushing it. It became a pretty intuitive fit. And to be quite honest I joined Hellfyre Club because being an independent rap guy over the past seven years the whole economy and premise changed drastically. So I was more aligning myself with my younger friends to kind of be on top of things, you know what I mean? We wanted to be on top of things together, because I felt like the market was being really relentless, and we needed to be smarter. Hellfyre Club was the best way to do it.”
GR: That leads into what I was going to ask next. I asked Nocan the same question, you guys have been on the independent rap grind for a while now, and like you were saying about the changing economic model of the last seven years with the emergence of the internet, you have a potentially wider audience, but not as many people are buying music.
BD: “Well it’s impossible. It makes no sense. For us to be here right now, I have to forego many things. And it’s stupid, it’s ridiculous for a grown man to do. But I do because it’s great and everyone wants to do it and everyone is crazily talented and we have albums and songs that I think are brilliant. So I go for it, even though it’s not smart, it’s worthwhile.”
OME: “It’s not really a change to me. I started doing solo music in the Myspace era, shit was already fucked by the time I got into it.”
BD: “Shit wasn’t even really fucked then.”
OME: “Well this is how I look at it. If you were okay before Myspace, you were okay. But if you had started cold with Myspace you were fucked. If there was no entity that had preexisting money in you, you were just out there saying ‘hey listen to me, listen to me!’ I think this was also before people could be tricked and trolled by internet marketing. A lot of that shit hadn’t come about yet, you know what I mean? So like right now, even if you are starting cold, there’s so much experience we have as a culture now that you can kind of create your narrative before you even start. That wasn’t there either so all of us were just like ‘visit my page! visit my page! listen to me I’m great!”
BD: “I think that’s a part of the Blowed ethic we had to leave behind. Theres kind of a megalomania that comes with being a Blowdian that I think is really endearing, but it’s also the biggest downfall to every Blowdian.”
OME: “Well I would say that about the negative side of being a Blowdian - and maybe this would fit into what you were saying, there was a time when there was so much money in indie music that you could do a lot DIY and really eat. And I felt like by the time I had got to the table a lot of that had dried up. But a lot of us, and I look at Customer Service, Swim Team, all them. All of us feel like we graduated from a school where it’s taught that if you do it, you book the tour, you make the songs, you make the records, you make the videos and the shit will happen. And it’s just not like that anymore. There used to be a vast middle class of Los Angeles record labels that were helping that happen: Basement, Up Above, and now all that shits gone. So really I think a lot of the aesthetic that were left with in our emphasis of DIY fucks us in the end. Like I’ve booked a lot of my own tours and it’s easy for me to see now that that’s not the way [laughs] you know what I mean? There are booking agents for a reason, that means something to the world of talent buyers and venues and promoters. That’s a whole different game than what I thought was important at first. So that’s why I think the DIY thing may be a negative effect of the Blowed, even though at a time it was very positive.”
BD: “I think the best thing about Hellfyre Club is that we’ve taken the best things that we’ve learned from the Blowed and we’ve internalized them.”
BD: “We’ve internalized them thanks to Nocando. Low End Theory was started by a group of friends of mine. I was making a record called Road Kill Overcoat and we were mixing it and Daddy Kev the lead engineer on the project turned to my producer DJ Nobody and said ‘I’m doing a weekly, would you like to help out?’ Then they got Gaslamp Killer, Edit, and Nocando, and that was 8 years ago. Since then and since all the immense acclaim and amazing young artists that have come out of that place, that has become our second resource to be quite honest. We’ve also internalized everything we’ve learned at Low End.”
OME: “Very true.”
BD: “To me those are the two scenes that we’re the byproduct of. I don’t think anyone in LA can claim that honestly, except for us.”
GR: Do you think Low End maybe filled some of the void left by Project Blowed? When I asked Nocando he was hesitant because it’s less based on rapping and interaction.
BD: “Nocando probably won’t be honest about the impact of Low End because he’s emotionally invested in it and that’s his job, but Low End Theory has had the biggest impact of anything in L.A music in recent time. It changed music, period. It did. It changed music to some degree. It has had an impact regardless of what we think.”
OME: “I think it’s had an impact, but I understand from a rapper context. Especially if you’re comparing it to something like the Blowed, which is responsible for all of our huge, disgusting, monster rap egos, and how [Blowed] it catered to us and gave us a place to be disgusting monsters [laughs] with other monsters and be like ‘we’re not monsters this is what we do.’ But like Low End does not care about Rap music, in a functional way. In terms of it’s foundation. It loves Rap beats, and it loves bass and energy and a lot of the shit that comes along with a Rap show, but it does not love rappers, in my opinion. Of course, Nocan is the host and he raps his ass off there every week, he kills it, but in terms of what the machine over there seems to value, rap isn’t very high on the list. So I would understand what he’s saying, but at the same time, we’ve definitely been able to take advantage of it. Like the advances in production that have come from that- absolutely. It has a lot to do with who understands how important rap can be. You can play your beats at Low End, it can go great, but I think that songs with words, in terms of people’s career arc, are pretty important.”
BD: “Low End Theory has been a gift because I’ve been established for a little while so I do have a certain kind of entitlement when I walk into a place. At Low End, even though I’ve known everyone there since they started, I don’t feel like I have that carte blanche. That emboldens me, because I don’t feel like I can walk in there and automatically be respected. I don’t always like it all the time but I do value where it pushes me. I can’t undervalue all the production trickery that’s been brought there, because it completely governs how we produce our songs right now [laughs].”
OME: “It’s fantastic.”
BD: “Rather than it being from the nebulous internet, it’s very L.A based you know? The beats I use, are the beats I’ve seen work live, you know what I mean? That’s why I use them. It’s give and take. I just think this whole era of music for us - Hellfyre Club is merciless. The market and the crowd, theres like no love, but for me it doesn’t even matter anymore. I’m satisfied. [Pauses[ We’ve been talking a while what’s going on?”
OME: “I like talking, I’m into it. Let’s have the debate, let’s have it recorded.”
GR: Recently you guys have been kind of putting your own spins on flows from the mainstream.
OME: “Oh you mean me? [laughs]”
GR: Like on Mike’s songs, “Degrassi Picture Day,” or “Qualifiers,” and then Busdriver you have remixes of “Versace,” and “Worst Behavior.” But you take them and turn them on their head, is that accurate?
OME: “Yeah, I’d say for me being from Chicago, everything was punchline driven. Then after I came to L.A., it helped me understand style. In Chicago, there were certain kinds of rap styles, like double-time, which had a hip hop cultural implication of like ‘oh only gangsters rap like that.’ So we had this whole different value judgement that we had put on top of the style. When I came to L.A., I had to really delve into the Blowdian history, and the back catalogs, and came to realize that like ‘oh your style is a whole thing separate from the content.’ I’m just now recently thinking like ‘oh, there are expectations of that style but if I run it through my filter and say what the fuck I want to say it’s completely different. It’s another way for people to access me. So on that tip it’s been a conscious decision to say ‘let me do that,’ because I’m not as married to a particular style as I used to be.”
BD: “I think our job is to mess with as many different approaches as we can. I’m not married to any one school. I make albums that have a certain gist to them, but it just happens to be that way. There’s a lot of options out there, and so styles and covers I love to do them. Sometimes it’s put us into perspective for people, which is the obvious intention. As a rapper, you’re sometimes doomed to occupy a certain tier of music. No one here feels that way, ever. We listen to and incorporate a variety things, especially the chasm of rap, we explore that at the very least. It’s good to show it off occasionally.”
GR: To wrap it up...
OME: “Are you going to ask me another question because that’d be cool [laughs].”
GR: You two were the ones to reach out to Milo and Mike you’ve been a mentor to him. What did you see in him that made you want to bring him into the crew?
OME: “I saw, man. I was watching him in this video with his old rap group, freestyling in a car. And he said ‘my genre’s the opposite of whatever Waka Flocka’s is’ and I was like ‘okay, alright, this guy, that’s it!’ He probably wouldn’t even say something like that today. I don’t even know it’s just, that [laughs]. And now you’ll get a better answer because that was terrible.”
BD: “Do I give better answers? Mike put me onto Rory [Milo], and I was skeptical at first. Then I delved more into his music and he understood a lot of things that I didn’t, and I wanted to be around him more. Getting the opportunity to see him grow and do more stuff, he’s just so good. I just try to keep him close by, and do songs with him when he’s ready and the idea is good. His understanding of music is not like any of ours.”
GR: Mike do you want to talk about the Mello Music Group signing?
OME: “Yes, I’m going to put out my next album with Mello Music Group, and then put out a few more collaborative projects with Mello Music Group. [sic] I don’t know exactly how that’s going to unfold but my next album is called “Dark Comedy,” coming this summer.
GR: What did you say in response to what this means for you and Hellfyre club?
OME: “I said ‘Hellfyre, Black Magic Chess Club. This year we’re putting pieces everywhere. Because the rules are from the rulers and we respect no other authority. Wu Tang Forever”
BD: “God damn right. I think it’s important to understand what Hellfyre is, it’s a lot of different things, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. Let’s be honest we’re not a business entity, I mean we are but we have entities within ourselves. And resources are scarce so it’s important that we do what we can. I don’t think Hellfyre Club is playing around. So expect things like this to happen.”