Tag Archives: Nocando

A Walk Through The Avant-Garde World of ‘Art Rap’ Music

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Illustrations by Daiana Ruiz

Coined by Chicago native Open Mike Eagle in the early aughts, “art rap” was originally a reactionary phrase, one that responded directly to the subgenre of “art rock” and implied that the standard set of sonic or lyrical conventions did not apply. On another level, it was a way to distinguish his music from the music that fell under broad and nebulous labels like “hip-hop” and “underground rap,” which are sometimes embraced by rappers and listeners who believe that anything that doesn’t explicitly champion “real hip-hop” is, well, you know—the opposite.

“Having studied the history of American pop music and black music, it’s appalling where we are now,” Eagle told L.A. Weekly in 2010. “That’s why I wanted to give my music another term, something to differentiate itself from the pack. You can’t call everything ‘hip-hop.’ I was listening to rock music, and it struck me that a lot of the rock I liked was called ‘art rock.’ I started wondering why they had a genre where they can do whatever the fuck they want to do, and rappers are scorned if they don’t have enough machismo.”

Today, art rap is even a tag on this website. To sum it up (albeit reductively), art rap is avant-garde rap music that is antithetical to terrestrial radio station playlists. (That’s not always the case—records by artists like Kendrick Lamar certainly push the boundaries of rap.) More broadly, the subgenre has some identifying characteristics, including but not limited to: left field, forward-thinking production, unconventional song structures and cadences, songs written from the perspective of fictional characters, explicit and protracted engagement with social and political issues, and absurdist metaphors and similes.

From the description above, it should be clear that labeling a song/album “art rap” does not mean that it’s only that. Nor are any of those characteristics necessarily new. The list of art rap forebears is long, spanning from west coast jazz-rap progenitors Freestyle Fellowship to one-time Def Jukies like El-P, Aesop Rock, and Cannibal Ox. The list below features 12 rappers whose output—either recent or career-long—meets some of the above criteria. Most, if not all of them, have worked with at least one other rapper on the list in some capacity. This overlap was not intentional, but its existence affirms the artists’ aesthetic kinship, the reality that art rap has always been and will continue to flourish.

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No More Drama For Nocando

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Photo by Adam Stanzack.

James “Nocando” McCall seems happy. When we caught up with the underground staple in his Los Angeles home, positive spirits abound, which might seem odd considering that his new record, Severed, delves into the pain he’s faced over the past few years. He’s seen his marriage fall apart and his Hellfyre Club crew disband. Severed is a direct reflection of these events. McCall put these songs away for a few years after the initial recording sessions, only to be reminded of their existence during a wedding he attended last year—love can still withstand, after all. The place he’s in now is far from the man he was then. “It’d be dangerous for [those songs] to come out at that time,” McCall tells us. “It would have been wasted. I would have been heartbroken and angry.”

His decision to hold the music is remarkably level-headed, given the pain associated with it and how all-encompassing it can feel at the time. McCall is now in a better place, and Severed is a diary of incredibly dark times. We spoke with the MC about balancing art and commerce, making music for the underground, and his early days as an all-world battle rapper.

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