Surrey-raised rapper Merkules is constantly looking forward while aiming to take things to the next level in the world of music, but that doesn’t stop him from looking back every so often.
In particular, he remembers the good ol’ days of performing at the Olympia, a Central City-area restaurant that offered a stage where teens like him could drop rhymes and develop their talents.
Located on King George Boulevard, the Olympia was “almost like the 8 Mile of Surrey,” recalled Merkules.
“It was this place for artists like me who were just coming up,” he said of the Olympia. “Lhord, he was such a great guy who ran it, because a lot of other places wouldn’t do hip-hop shows because they were scared they’d cause trouble. He never felt like that, and always gave everybody an opportunity to perform. It was definitely a legendary spot for awhile.”
The Olympia wasn’t far from Merkules’ stomping grounds in Green Timbers, where he was raised as Cole Stevenson, future rising star in the rap world.
Today, at age 26, Merkules is buddies with people like Shaquille O’Neal, makes songs heard by millions of people, tours to far-off places and, this week, is set to headline a show in Cloverdale that will feature many of the musicians he grew up with.
“My parents always joke that I’ve seen more of the world than they have, and they’re in their 60s,” Merkules – whose rap name rhymes with Hercules, man of strength – said on the phone from Red Deer, where he now lives with his girlfriend.
On Saturday (Aug. 24), Merkules will return “home” to perform at Shannon Hall as part of a Summer Rap Up concert that will also feature Snak the Ripper, Lil Windex, Prada West, Evil Ebenezer and many others in an all-ages gig that gets going at 3 p.m.
“It just fit into the schedule before I go to Australia again, so we booked it with Chelsie (Grobins, who runs Where It’s At Entertainment and booked a lot of his shows at the Olympia),” Merkules said.
“Little did I know all my friends would be joining me there, which is awesome because we haven’t done a show like that, where the whole crew is together, since the Stompdown Killaz tour we did a couple years ago.”
As a kid, Merkules remembers going to the Cloverdale Rodeo, “so there’s that, too,” he said.
“I’m really excited about it, and it’s going to be a really good time. That show, it’s like a bigger show of what we would have done at the Olympia, with something like 37 acts performing, all local talent getting their chance to shine. That’s cool because I remember doing shows at the Olympia and there were so many opening acts who were local, and I was one of those guys, right.”
In the years since then, Merkules has scored a pair of Western Canadian Music Award nominations, boasts more than 130 million song/video views and millions more audio streams, and has toured to hundreds of places across North America, Europe and Australia. His “Young Merkules” channel on YouTube has nearly a million subscribers, with remixes of “Shape of You” and “Old Town Road” the most popular clips – for now.
Among originals, the title track from Merkules’ 2015 album Scars hits hardest, and closest to home. The song documents a brutal attack he suffered at age 16, while walking home from a New Year’s Eve party in the snow, not far from where he lived.
“That was the first time I ever publicly spoke about what happened to me, and it was really therapeutic to get it off my chest so many years later,” recalled Merkules, who went by the rap name Merk Mikz in that era of his career.
“It was hard for me in a PTSD kind of way, because it was kind of reliving what I went through that night, through song, but I’m glad I did because it put a stop to a lot of rumours of people wondering how I got so scarred up on my face. People said I was attacked by a pitbull or fell off a building, all this stuff, but no, I’m going to tell you exactly how it happened.”
That night, a car almost drove into Merk and his friends, so they yelled for the driver to slow down. A confrontation escalated before the driver peeled off, promising to return. He did – with friends, all wearing masks and brandishing knives.
“They went to work on us,” Merkules recalled. “It was super, super traumatic experience. I got hit with a bat and got stabbed.
“In a way, though,” he added, “it was a good thing that happened because nobody died, and it was kind of a wake-up call I needed because at that point in time I was doing a lot of dumb (expletive) as a teenager, stealing cars or what have you, and that event was kind of like God’s way of saying, ‘Hey buddy, you’re getting in a little too deep, smarten up,’ and after that I kind of focused more on music, which was always my passion but I made my first real song.”
The attackers were never caught.
“At the time I kind of lived by the code of where I didn’t talk to the police that often, but the detective guys did ask questions,” Merk recalled. “There was only so much I could remember anyhow, because I was in shock the whole time. While in the ambulance I thought I was going to the hospital for alcohol poisoning or something, because I didn’t realize I’d been stabbed. I put my face in my hand, and that’s when I saw all the blood on my hand, and the next thing I knew I woke up in hospital with my family there and they told me what happened. It was a really crazy thing.”
Last April, Merkules scored a hit with a remix he did of “Old Town Road,” the massive song recorded by Lil Nas and Billy Ray Cyrus. Merk’s version has been viewed more than 19 million times on Youtube.
“That was a big thing for sure,” he said, “and I didn’t expect that thing to take off like it did. I did it in this comedic, parody kind of way, and it was insane how quickly it got picked up. I’ve done remixes of songs that are big, but not like this, and the people who were reacting to it – like, Shaq hit me up and we became friends now, where we’re texting each other, it’s really crazy. I got to meet him in Toronto at a Raptors game and he invited me up, and he’s just huge, right. It was hilarious, the photo of us.
“But that song, I joke that we’d been working so hard over the years, to get to that next level and make my dreams come true, and all it took was for me to put on a cowboy hat and pretend I was singing country music, and then it happens, you know what I mean? Funny how the world works, for sure.”
Saturday’s concert in Cloverdale might offer some of the new music Merkules is working on for a new album.
“It’s almost ready to go, it’s coming soon,” he said, “and it’s cool because on this record I get to work with a lot of people I grew up listening to, and I’m in a position now where I can reach out to people I want to work with. The popularity and buzz is at a place now where things are happening. There’s one song where I’m explaining a fan’s story of him being a heroin addict, so there’s a lot of cool angles I’m taking with this record, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
“I actually haven’t put out anything for over a month now, which is weird because I’m a guy who usually puts something out every two weeks. Me taking this break is strange, but it’s a bit of a strategy to starve the fans so when I do drop the album, everybody will know about it.”