Dues Paid Finally

By Paul Rogers

Posted March 31, 2011 in Feature Story

When the Paid Dues Independent Hip Hop Festival rolls into San Bernardino on Saturday, it’ll be showcasing some of the genre’s most revered names. But alongside the likes of Black Star, Immortal Technique, E-40 and Murs (who created Paid Dues) will be a local up-and-comer who will not only be representing the IE’s hip-hop community but, he says, owes his place on the event’s bill to that community.

“It’s at a point where it’s not about me, y’know?” says San Bernardino rapper Noa James, who’ll be the opening act on the festival’s Dues Paid Stage. “It’s about a lot of people who supported me when I needed them and who Tweeted and Facebooked Paid Dues and Murs that they want to see me there. So, it’s more about the city than me.”

Battle Rapper Beginnings

While James is honored to be the hometown hero (Weekly readers, by the way, voted him Best Rapper for our 2010 “Best of IE” issue) at such a prestigious festival, the role comes with a sense of responsibility too. “I can’t let my city down,” he says. “I can’t let down the people who looked up to me or I can’t let my fans down that got me here. Without them I wouldn’t be nothing; I wouldn’t be on this page.”

The burly, sometime bodyguard James started rhyming at age 13 and initially made his name as a brutally sharp battle rapper. When, after five years on the “battle field,” he decided he wanted to morph into an MC, the challenge was considerable.

“The struggle was writing,” he recalls. “Battle rapping was punch line, punch line, punch line. When you try to become an artist, the writing part is way different—you’re trying to connect . . . [and] I wanted to tell a story.”

A single-minded, thoughtful man, James made a perhaps unfashionable move to improve his writing skills: at age 19, he enrolled at community college. “I wanted to flow smoother, so what I did [was] I just went to [San Bernardino] Valley College and learned how to write better. I took an English course and just started reading more . . . Now, how I write is kinda in sentence form, like I’m writing a paper.”

James’ favorite reading matter was Greek mythology—not just for its content, but also the style in which those tales are told.

“That’s what I took from that and applied it to music,” he explains.

James’ improved storytelling is made doubly potent by the stories he has to tell, including his mother’s incarceration after abandoning him his time in an orphanage and his father’s deportation. But despite his dysfunctional upbringing, James remains firmly family-first, and so the passing of his beloved grandfather also made a huge impact.

“No matter what you’ve been through . . . your current life is hard but it gets better,” he insists. “It gets better by time and hard work and dedication. It gets very better. And whatever you want, go after it—don’t ever be too cool or too scared to go after what you really want, because if you really want it, you can get it. I’m a true testament to that.”

Black Cloud Rising

Noa James’ dark past and perpetual optimism are equally reflected on his debut album, last year’s aptly-titled Beautiful Darkness.

“Every song is heartfelt, y’know, from the intro to my last song,” says James. “The title fits it well ‘cos that’s what I wanted. Some songs were beautiful and blissful, and some songs are dark, like my intro and even ‘Disrespectful’ and ‘Therapy Session 2.’”

Yet for the apparently hyperactive James, recording and performing is just a part of his involvement in the IE underground hip-hop scene. He’s a member of Black Cloud Music, the label which released Beautiful Darkness, alongside five fellow area artists. As well as booking shows for Black Cloud, James is also behind the Common Ground hip-hop open mic night at The Vibe in Riverside every Sunday, which celebrates its two-year anniversary in June.

“[I] give artists a platform in the Inland Empire, because there’s not that many out here. And there’s not that many that’s doing it right. Y’know, I’m not making artists sell pre-sells; you just come out and you bring your fanbase and I provide a little bit of a crowd for you, and you just perform and gain a new fanbase,” he explains.

James insists that there’s a wealth of hip-hop talent in the Inland Empire, but that local fans, media—and the artists themselves—will all need to work harder to get the scene recognized.

“The city’s gotta get a little more involved,” he says. “The radio gotta get a little more involved. The papers are getting involved now—that’s dope. And more artists have got to go and really reach out . . . That’s how I started getting noticed—I started reaching out to the outlets that are out here.

“The media don’t know what’s really going on . . . reach out to the media and let them know. A lot of these papers and some of these local AM radio station—a lot of stations—are willing to put [local artists] on.”

While James is as Web-savvy as they come, and has used social networking extensively, his self-promotion efforts go well beyond his computer keyboard. “You can’t do everything on the Internet,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and network with people—go to shows . . . I go to a lot of shows and network.”

Dues Paid in Full

This virtual/actual approach was personified by the campaign James launched—he says somewhat inadvertently—to get him booked onto the Paid Dues bill. After receiving an email about Tweeting and Facebooking to get your favorite artist onto the Festival, James hit a couple of people up to do just that for him and unwittingly unleashed a viral monster.

“It got to the point where Murs had to call me and tell me, like, ‘You got it—tell your people to stop hitting on my page!” James recalls. “He needed to promote his album, but he couldn’t promote the album because thousands of people was hittin‘ him up for me!”

On top of this, James also whipped up street-level support for his Paid Dues push. This included a well-attended “Noa James for Paid Dues Rally” at Common Ground in January. It all started when he was in the audience at last year’s Paid Dues. “I was like, man, I’ve got to be on this stage,” he remembers. “It do sound cliché, like dreams do come true if you work hard for it, but that’s what I did—I made my dream reality because I went for it.”

James credits his paranormal work ethic—which defies a long battle with diabetes—to his grandparents (“They always worked for what they wanted”), whose example he has clearly heeded.

“I’ve always worked a 9-to-5. I worked 15-hour shifts and then went to the studio. I was a bouncer and I did bodyguard work. I remember doing regular security and then at night doing bodyguard work and I got three hours of sleep, and with that three hours of sleep I just started writing lyrics . . . I figured out I work hard now so I’m able to chill later.”

“I’m going to keep working hard no matter what. I remember Murs Tweeted something like, ‘I’m out here earning my sleep.’ And that’s what I’m doing—I’m earning my sleep.”

“Total Destruction”

James somehow still finds time for charity work, in particular supporting House of Mercy in San Bernardino.

“It’s for battered women and children,” he says. “At a point in my life my mom was a battered woman; I was a battered child. It’s very dear to me because I went through it—I understand what they’re going through. So, anything I do it would go to them or a Boys and Girls Club or something like that, because I used to go up to the Boys and Girls Club a lot. I do like a toy drive now. I’m trying to put a kickball charity together for the summer.”

But don’t let Noa James’ big heart and rare empathy for others lull you into a false sense of security about his live show. As the Paid Dues crowd is about to find out, on stage James unleashes a shocking inner rage.

“Man, it’s crazy,” he enthuses. “It’s like an elephant in a funeral home punching holes in the wall until the dead wake up! That’s my stage persona . . . I am 6’2”, 400 pounds, but I take pride that I’m movin‘; I’m skippin‘ across the stage; my shirt is off. Y’know, water’s getting poured; a mosh pit might break out . . . It’s going to be 15 minutes of just total destruction!”

Performing with just a DJ (due to his short time on stage), James is promising a “best-of” set laced with a possible glimpse of his upcoming EP: Intelligent, Elegant, Elephant: Humbled Power (which was due to drop this very week, until his uncle’s passing upset James’ writing process).

“I got a lot of singers on this [EP] and on each song you’re going to learn something different about me,” says James, who’s known as the Intelligent, Elegant, Elephant in hip-hop circles (and incorporates a pachyderm in his logo). “It’s going to be way different than anything that I’ve ever done. I think my fans will love it and I’m going to gain some new people into my music.”

A Death Machine

“The whole Humbled Power, I took that and kinda ran with it, because that’s how I feel. An elephant to me is humble power. It’s the most powerful, biggest land animal on this earth, but it’s very family-oriented; it’s graceful; it’s peaceful—but it can be a death machine . . . so an elephant is perfect; it’s a perfect symbol for me.”

Ever-ambitious, Noa James won’t be resting on his Paid Dues laurels. He’s already trying to get onto the Coachella bill for 2012 and aiming to be a part of major festivals like Rock the Bells or an opening act on a big name tour. And his vision extends not just beyond the IE, but outside of the U.S.

“I think overseas is where I’d love to perform at—I know the scene over there is still pure,” he mulls. “Hip-hop used to be just about emotion and passion and lyrics and beliefs. Nowadays there’s politics, marketing, super-networking . . . You can’t speak your mind—if you speak your mind you’re a hater or you’re an asshole.”

Whether here or over there, don’t expect Noa James to stop speaking his mind anytime soon. The Intelligent, Elegant, Elephant might be a lunchtime opening act at Paid Dues on Saturday, but he’ll hitting that stage like a headliner and spitting his gritty tales with the sugar-free frankness they deserve.

Noa James, Black Star, Immortal Technique, Murs and others at Paid Dues Independent Hip Hop Festival at NOS Events Center, 689 S. E St., San Bernardino; paidduesfestival.com, www.blackcloudmusic.com. Sat. April 2. Doors open 11:30AM. 

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