The British Columbia-based rapper, Merkules (born Cole Stevenson), hasn’t been getting much sleep lately. Two nights ago, he got maybe two-and-a-half hours. Last night, somewhere around the same. That’s how the prolific artist can get, though, when something important is about to happen. Merkules, who released his latest LP, Apply Pressure, today, has put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into his big and burgeoning career. From surviving a violent attack to finding at least some moments of inner peace, Merkules has harnessed his story, his truths, and funneled them into his latest LP, which is a collection of self-aware, at times-dark, at times-jubilant tracks that assuredly won’t disappoint his fans. Above all else, Merkules satisfies a need for honesty.
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“Anyone can rhyme cat and hat,” Merkules says. “But the most important part of freestyling or songwriting is if you can say something. If you can tell some sort of a story, that’s the hardest part. Something that’s counts, that matters.”
Merkules knows freestyling. He rose to popularity several years ago with his “Car Bars,” in which he would rhyme over already known popular beats. His YouTube videos would get tens if not hundreds of thousands of views. With this newfound attention, Merkules knew he had to up his game. So, he began recording actual tracks over popular beats, at times outdoing the originals. This led to more attention, more fans, more connections and millions more views and streams. Simultaneously, Merkules put out original work and became recognized for that, too.
“I’ve done some of the glamorous rap stuff,” he says. “But at the same time, fans can look at me as Merkules or they can look at me as Cole and see me as the same person. I’m no mental health guru, but at the same time, me being honest about my journey, about my struggles – being myself makes me stand out.”
Coming up in the music game started early for the emcee. He came to music quickly, listening along with his father’s record collection. He found rap music around nine-years-old, seeing posters in his cousin’s bedroom of Tupac, Eminem and others. He was hooked after that. But coming from Canada can feel, at times, awkward for an emcee. It isn’t always obvious that the country has a rich history in the genre (see: Drake). But as Merkules dove into his own love of the music, so did he find local artists that inspired. He befriended some, even beginning touring with them at sixteen-years-old. It was the older cats who gave him his name.
“I used to be the guy on stage as the opening act who would stay on stage too long,” Merkules says. “I would maybe drink more than anybody else. And the older guys would says, ‘Here comes Merkules.’ It stuck. Sometimes a name finds you.”
While the artist has done a lot in his years in the industry, it may never have come to fruition hadn’t it been for a violent physical attack one New Year’s Eve over a decade ago. Walking home with some friends, a car nearly hit him and his crew. He yelled out, shouting for them to slow down. But before he could realize it, out of nowhere, two more cars showed up. People got out and began beating him and his friends. Merkules was slashed in the face with a switchblade, beaten with baseball bats. It was devastating but oddly educational.
“That definitely was the most influential thing that’s happened to me career-wise,” her says. “If it didn’t happen I might not have been in the mental space to say I know what lifestyle is not for me. That I must make music.”
Though the attack was done at random, Merkules, at the time in his own life, wasn’t always hanging with the best crowd of people, he says. When he and his friends were jumped he then realized he didn’t want to associate with anything that could lead to further future violence. He cut ties with anything non-music-related. While many might not think violence can come from cookie-cutter Canada, Merkules knows very well that’s not the case. But, strangely, he remains grateful for the vicious confrontation. He even calls it a blessing in disguise.
“I was lucky how it worked out for me,” he says. “It was a wakeup call. A lot of people I hung out with back in the day are on drugs or in jail now.”
One of the standout tracks on Merkules’ new LP is the track, “Death Wish,” on which he collaborated with famed rapper, The Game. The song, which has garnered over one million views on YouTube since its release in September, talks about Merkules’ journey coming into music. It’s appropriate The Game features on the record, too, because the two artists connected over Instagram after Merkules thanked his childhood hero for his catalogue. The LP also features Kevin Gates, E-40 and some of Merkules’ favorite local heroes, like Evil Ebenezer and Jelly Roll. And while Merkules is equally comfortable rapping about his dreams coming true as he is about the depression that can creep into his consciousness, it’s the connectivity that music offers that keeps him in the business of making more of it.
“You know how the first step of getting better is being able to admit that something’s wrong?” Merkules says. “For me, saying it out loud and addressing that there’s something bothering you can really help. Being able to connect with people through music – knowing that I can put out a song today that can help a bunch of people I’ve never met – is the coolest thing.”