A crowd dressed in hoodies emblazoned with the logo of a ski-masked face atop of two crossed baseball bats rushed a Calgary stage. The branded clothes marked the concert goers as Stompdown Killaz (SDK) supporters, a hip-hop movement started in Surrey, BC. They were mixed in with a distinctly different type of fan at the Marquee Beer Market show: mostly white dudes with faces painted in clown makeup there for Juggalo Weekend. The two-day April concert focused around Insane Clown Posse fandom and getting fucked up. Though not my first choice of concert, I was curious to witness the madness and wanted to see SDK's rising star, Merkules.
After documenting SDK and their affiliate brands, like Ephin, for nearly two years, I've seen Merkules gradually stand out as visionary while the BC-based artist collective pushes into the mainstream. That direction wouldn't be possible without Snak the Ripper, a figurehead for SDK. Many believe he is the literal face of their logo, allegedly inspired following his first music video back in 2008. Snak eventually gave Merkules, real name Cole Stevenson, his first shot as an emcee in the studio when he was around 15-years-old. Before that, young Cole hung around the Ephin headquarters in Surrey. He was their most loyal fan. Since those early years, which were characterized by a focus on graffiti culture and bar-heavy rap, both Snak and Merkules now tour internationally and have fan bases numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
It was clear Merkules stood apart from the musical roster at Juggalo Weekend. When he took the stage, people packed in and many appeared to be there just to see his early Saturday evening spot. Merkules' branding is in an interesting spot: in-flux between the underground rap scene thriving in western Canada and the mainstream artist he is trying to become. While he has several full-length backpack-style rap albums under his belt, newer releases include remixes of Ed Sheeran, The Chainsmokers, and Desiigner, and a catchy original single called "Way Down" off his new album, Trust Your Gut. All of these videos have millions of views on Youtube and Facebook.
While these examples perhaps risk alienating his hardcore, underground-focused SDK fanbase, Merkules is hardly faking his way through the industry. On the contrary, he still seems to be the same self-deprecating, charmingly goofy rapper with facial scars from a vicious attack and a big tummy who can spit fire in the booth. I interviewed Merkules after his set at Juggalo Weekend. He talked about the release of the aptly named Trust Your Gut and I found out how Merk is handling the career shift. I also brought him a case of chicken nuggets as part of the interview deal.
Noisey: First of all—McNug life?
Merkules: Yeah, 'nug life' all day. A lot of people in the rap game feel like they're in this position where they act hardcore so they rep the thug life, but you know me, I got that extra meat on me. So I rep 'nug life.' That's my thing.'
Merkules unwraps his chicken nuggets.
Those are probably pretty cold.
I don't give a fuck. I'm gonna eat them. You came through with the sauce too.
Spicy mustard okay?
I feel like if you're a bigger guy and you eat spicy food it makes you sweat, so when you sweat while you're eating spicy food, you're basically losing weight at the same time. I tell myself that.
You have slimmed down a little bit though.
Oh yeah, for sure. At my peak, I was like 380, 400 pounds like two years ago. Maybe three years ago.
Let's start by talking about [your old rap persona] Merk Mikz.
You're like Nardwuar already. Merk Mikz was a 14-year-old kid who had a really bad attitude and he grew up with a great family that supported him no matter what he did. Grew up with the wrong crowd and did a lot of stupid things in his adolescence—stealing cars and doing dumb shit like that. Robbin' houses for alcohol and shit. Being teenagers.
I grew up in Surrey, which is not exactly the nicest. My family was always really cool, but my friends, a lot of them grew up in broken homes and stuff. My parents actually took them in as their own children when they didn't have a place to go. Since I grew up around the wrong crowd, I became a part of that. I'd like to say by accident but it was kinda on purpose. I found music. All the people I knew back then are either in jail for life or strung out on the streets. Music definitely saved me from a lot of bad things that could have happened. Merk Mikz was a little shit, and then Snak [the Ripper] and Evil Ebenezer put him on.
That brings me to the lyric: "In my neighbourhood, you could get shot or stabbed bein' in the wrong place at the wrong time." What does that mean to you?
Yeah, the main reason I chose music and believed in myself is because the first day I went to the studio with Snak. He brought me to the studio. We laid a song—I was probably 15 at the time—it was my first time being in a professional studio. We did a song called "Walk With Me." In his verse, he said, "In my neighbourhood, you could get shot or stabbed bein' in the wrong place at the wrong time." At the time, I was just stoked to have a song with Snak. That was someone I looked up to. I was sneaking into clubs [to watch him.]
After that studio session, I went to a house party because it was New Years. I just did a song with Snak the Ripper, so I'm trying to celebrate. Left the party, obviously drunk with our girlfriends at the time, and a car drove by us, also drunk, and almost hit me. And I just yelled out, "Slow the fuck down." And he pulled over and got out with his, "What the fuck are you going to say to me?" kind of thing … He swung at me. He was much older than I was. He got back in his car and yelled he was going to be back.
We kept walking and got to this little corner where we used to hang out. Two cars pulled up and about eight guys got out—it's hard to say for sure because it's a blur for me. They had ski masks and machetes and shit. I got hit over the head with a bat and knocked me the fuck out. I remember they grabbed me and stuck a switch in my mouth and cut me from the cheek up. I remember the girls we were with—[the men] were trying to grab them. The buddy I was with, Jordan, he definitely has a pretty hard past. He was used to these types of encounters. I was in shock, I never went through things like that. [Jordan] went and grabbed a piece of pipe from behind a garage or whatever and swung [the attackers] off. [Jordan] got stabbed in his hand and shoulder I believe and his face similar to what I got. But his scars are much more noticeable. The girls got away.
That freaked me the fuck out. It was a wake-up call. If that didn't happen, I wouldn't have ended up taking music as seriously as I did.
This explains your album Scars [from 2015].
I have that album and the title track "Scars" that explains the whole story … At the end of the song, I actually the thank the people who did it because I would still be the dumb kid stealing cars and doing dumb shit.
Are you still tight with Snak?
Oh yeah. He's my older brother. We have our ups and downs, I mean that's natural with anyone you have that kind of relationship with. He's not my blood brother—a lot fans ask me that all the time. But I always have love for him and Evil [Ebenezer] too. They literally gave me this platform. They handed me the torch.
Didn't Snak give you the name Merkules?
Yeah, the name Merkules came about when we were on tour. My first tours I had a fake idea to get into clubs and bars … My first tour was with Snak the Ripper and R.A. the Rugged Man. I was 15. I learned a lot on that tour.
No Snak feature on your new album though.
I'll be honest, I had a song for him. I was like, "Ripper, I need you on this album." He was like, "Okay, Merk, I got you." But he had six shows in Ontario. We had a hard deadline and it just didn't work out. Me and him have lots of music in the vault no one has ever heard before. We have Evil [Ebenezer], Caspian, and Tech N9ne on this new album.
You interviewed Tech N9ne once in 2014 .
Which is crazy, right? I remember that show because I was so fucked up. We both were. Hip-Hop Vancouver wanted me to interview him and I thought that was deadly, and they wanted it before his set, which was good because I wouldn't be too fucking twisted. It ended up being after the set. I know it's sad to say, but I always get drunk before I go on stage. It's kind of my crutch. I know it's not positive, but I own that. It's the truth. I did my set. He did his. By the time it was time to interview him, I was loaded. I had the questions on my hand or whatever, and it was so blatantly obvious I was reading them.
Here we are, full circle and he's on my album in 2017. Shout out to Stevie Ross. He's an artist we've been working with a lot from Vancouver. Very talented guy. He's more of singer than a rapper, but I'm trying to step out of the underground rapper box.
I've noticed that.
It was all about "I'm the illest rapper and I'll stab you in your sleep," but I'm over that. I can write those verses in five minutes if I want to, but I'm bored with it. My first single, for instance, "Way Down" is a lot different and a lot more mainstream. I was nervous as hell. I knew when it came out, I was either getting a really positive response or my fans were going to hate it. After the Ed Sheeran remix though, I thought they were down for anything.
The Ed Sheeran mix has a ton of views though.
15 million total.
But who's counting?
[Laughs] Exactly. I think after I dropped that I got 120,000 new followers on Facebook. It's crazy.
As of writing this, Merkules' Facebook was hacked and he lost all of his followers. His new page sits at around 82,000.
For you, what does it mean to Trust Your Gut?
I'll be completely honest with you. Two years ago I decided to get "trust your gut" tattooed across my gut. I thought it was funny but also true. A guy named Juno did it. He used to be heavily affiliated with SDK. Graffiti artist turned tattoo artist. I made the [album] and sent it to Ryan [aka Vision, a founder of the SDK and Ephin brands] and he came up with the name for the record. It was perfect.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Devin Pacholik is a writer from Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter.