Rapper Merkules’s harrowing history is written in the scars on his face.
Two sharp lines — one extending from the left side of his mouth, and another just missing his right eye and continuing across his nose — have inspired his new album Scars.
The upcoming release will be weighted with gritty songs about violence and recovery, as well as more melody-driven tunes of gratitude, and should take Red Deer resident’s career in a new direction.
“Maybe some youths will hear it and think twice about who they’re hanging out with, and what they’re doing with their lives,” said the 22-year-old who is originally from Surrey, B.C.
So far, Merkules is best known for coining the slogan “Bacon over Bitches” and the music video of his song L.A.S.H., about the glories of marijuana, which made him recognizable in places like Germany, Spain, Greece and Bulgaria.
The headliner of a hip-hop show on Friday, April 24, at Wild Bill’s Sports Bar has also been pigeon-holed as a “jolly, big fat rapper” when actually, he spent the last years of adolescence as a self-described mess.
Until recently, Merkules said he was pushing 350 pounds and had to psyche himself up to leave the house or get up on stage.
“I had the worst social anxiety ... I was basically a hermit. I put on 100 pounds eating and drinking, and trying to forget what happened.”
His story, as recounted on the title-track of Scars, goes like this: Early on New Year’s Day, six years ago, he and a friend were attacked by eight men in a Surrey alley. Merkules, who was then a 16-year-old named Cole Stevenson, paid a high price for shouting at the wrong person.
The aspiring rap artist had just finished recording vocals for his mentor Snak the Ripper’s song, Walk With Me. “I was so excited. It was my first-ever mixed tape,” he recalled.
After celebrating at a house party in Surrey with his then-girlfriend and another teenage couple, the four were walking home when a car came speeding past, nearing hitting them.
“I yelled, ‘Slow the f--- down!’ ” Merkules recalled.
The vehicle immediately braked and a furious driver, a stranger in his late 20s, came out threatening retaliation.
A few minutes later, when Merkules and his friends were walking down an alley, two cars pulled up to block both exits. The same driver and some cohorts came out of the vehicles, brandishing weapons.
Merkules said that he and his male friend were beaten with a baseball bat into near unconciousness. They had their faces slashed with a knife and — in the most frightening moment of his life — Merkules recalled looking up and seeing someone standing over him with a machete.
The rapper squeezed his eyes shut and shielded them with his fingers when the blade came down across his face and hand. He believes his protective instincts saved his sight.
He was later told the assailants scattered when a Surrey resident came out of his house and fired a gun into the air.
No one was ever arrested for the attack, said Merkules, who believes police had some idea of who had done it, but couldn’t get enough evidence.
While his scars gradually faded — thanks to the expertise of a skilled plastic surgeon who used 150 stitches — Merkules remained haunted by this experience.
“I couldn’t go out into the real world. I was scared by how easily these people were set off. I was worried it could easily happen again.”
Merkules put on weight. He avoided friends and rarely left the house. The only positive was that he had many hours to work on his music. And after some time and a period of taking anti-anxiety medication, he said he could even begin performing in front of audiences again.
Merkules embraced his “big fat rapper” persona. With tattooed arms and legs and stubble on his head, he cut a formidable figure on stage. But things weren’t working so well in his real life.
He remembers a tour manager, who once worked with late rapper Big Pun, took him aside after one of his concerts in Kelowna.
“Big Pun ate himself to death,” said Merkules — and this tour manager, called Vidal, told him that he was heading down that same path.
“He said, ‘I’m not trying to be rude, but you remind me of him, when he was on his last legs and struggling with breath control. ... You put on a good show, regardless, but you remind me of Big Pun.’ ”
Merkules thought long and hard about what image he wanted to project to fans and decided to turn his life around.
He began eating better and exercising on a treadmill. “At first I was on a strict smoothie diet,” he recalled, then he expanded his entree choices to chicken and brown rice.
The rapper lost 130 pounds over the last year or so and is feeling more positive about the future — which includes a new girlfriend from Red Deer and residence in Central Alberta.
With a more positive mindset, he finally felt he could deal, musically, with what happened to him that night six years ago.
The result is his 14-song Scars album, which is slated for release on Friday.
The title-track deals directly with the assault, while the tunes My Bible of Bars and Save Us pay homage to musical inspirations, including his mentor, Snak the Ripper.
Kill Em All and Scumbag should appease Merkules’s more hardcore fans. The tunes feature contributions from Sticky Fingaz and Fredro Starr, members of the U.S. rap collective Onyx.
Merkules said the latter track pokes fun at public perceptions, while the former lets out “the angry side of me ... it’s about the people who talk trash.”
The rapper challenged himself by telling stories and singing on the album, and plans to include a bonus track expressing gratitude to those who have stood by him, including his parents. “They’ve always been 100 per cent supportive,” said Merkules.
“They’d take a lot of my friends in when they didn’t have anywhere else to go. My house was like a drop-in centr . ...”
He grew up in the tough central part of Surrey known as Whalley but insists “I hate it when people associate me with it. ...
“It’s like, yes, I have been through some hard stuff, and yes, I’m a big guy all covered with tattoos and scars on my face,” but he doesn’t believe this defines who he is as a person.
One new track, Hunger Pains, pokes bitter fun at his oversized image. He feared it would enable other overweight kids to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle.
“I’m trying to do something right (with this album). It says that bad things happen and you can do one of two things: Turn it into a positive or let it bring you down.”
As time passes, wounds heal, he said, “and somewhere in the world, someone’s always got it worse than you.”
Merkules hopes listeners take away the idea that “in life, we’re just fortunate to be here. ...”
While the hip-hop artist is becoming one of Western Canada’s better-known rappers, his success leaves him ambivalent.
He described his nervousness — and then amazement — at being approached by three thuggish-looking Bulgarians while touring in that country only to discover that they recognized him from his video and wanted him to appear in their selfie.
“I’ve had people faint when they see me, girls bawl their eyes out, or shake when they see me ... I can’t walk through a mall in my hometown anymore,” said Merkules.
“It’s like, be careful what you wish for.”
Tickets to the 8 p.m. to 2 p.m. show, also featuring special guests, are $20 ($35 for VIP access) from the venue or Eventbrite.