For Big Meridox, Knuckle Rap is an album about growth.
But even though it's a set of "grown-man" songs that touch on religion, giving up old habits and the daily struggles to do what's right, don't expect Knuckle Rap to sound like anything but raw, classic hip-hop.
"What Knuckle Rap is to me is pulling every piece out of what I've done, and finally putting it down on the table and saying, 'This fits the puzzle of what I want to say,'" says Ox, aka Marcus Meridian. "When I started writing Knuckle Rap, it was a metamorphosis from my past albums. It's kind of my opus album."
A fixture in Tucson hip-hop for 15 years, Ox embarked on his third full-length album with the idea that he needed to narrow his focus, dial back the swagger (just a bit) and plunge into a lyrical realm that draws out bigger themes in life.
"I'm still an angry, militant rapper, but when I first started this album, I was just going to make an album that was really serious to me," he says. "I knew I had to show a new type of growth in my album, and I hope people see that. It's still in that punch-you-in-the-face-type style, but it's a little more focused on what's real. The lyrics are more thought-after; a lot of it shows growth in my religion, which is Islam."
One big difference-maker for Knuckle Rap was working with a single producer. Ox's 2008 debut, Gimme Your Lunch Money: The Block Bully Album, and his 2010 follow-up, If Not the Best at Least a Beast, were collaborations with multiple producers, and even though he felt he was coming into his element, the albums had a scattered vibe.
Knuckle Rap, however, has one producer, and one MC: Gunky Knuckles and Big Meridox.
"Gunky Knuckles approached me at a show, back in late 2010 at Club Congress. Usually, I don't accept CD-Rs from anybody; I want professionalism. I don't know what it was, but I popped it in the CD player. He had nonstop beats for days, and it fit that personality I'm always looking for, that rugged boom-bap, 1990s golden-era hip-hop sound. That's how I like to rhyme," Ox says.
"I'm a picky cat when it comes to beats. I delve into what's new, what's old. But Gunky personifies everything that's raw about hip-hop. I'm still raw; I'm still killing it; I'm still going full-fledged. When I met Gunky, that was exactly what I needed."
Working with a single producer allowed Ox to work on crafting Knuckle Rap as an album that flowed seamlessly track to track.
"The structure of an album is an art; you've really got to understand where you want to put everything. It's a storytelling piece, and not many MCs can do that. To put it piece by piece, it's like a puzzle," he says.
For Ox, the storytelling aspect of being an MC comes from more than just being able to write and freestyle. A big element of his style comes from being able to blend both truth and imagination.
"Writing and putting together a song is really a private matter. It's a ritual; it's a session; it's a sweat lodge. I put myself in a room—no fan, no TV, no computer; it's just the music and me," Ox says. "My process is: I listen to the beat, and then I just start. The first line comes to me, and it's all downhill from there."
As a kid in Philadelphia, Ox used to recite Public Enemy and EPMD lines with his cousin, recording themselves on a Sony double-deck boombox.
"We used to push 'record' and sit there just rhyming into the boombox, and it was funny and dope. We'd do skits and bag on each other, and that's how I started," he says.
Moving to Tucson at 18, Ox studied at the University of Arizona, worked on his freestyle and ended up joining the group Reddirt Specimenz.
"I've been downtown since day one. I was always in the mix. I've been downtown since Plaza Pub. That's when I freestyled, and the real heads know what's up," he says. "I've been in Tucson hip-hop for 15-plus years, and people who want to call me old, call me old. People need to understand I still do this for the love. I'm still as hungry as I ever was."
Since he began, Ox has seen hip-hop blossom in Tucson, not only with fellow MCs like Jivin Scientists, GLDN GHST, Isaiah Toothtaker and Shaun Harris, but also with DJs like Bonus and Herm, as well as skate shops, clothing brands and graffiti artists.
"Tucson hip-hop is growing. Here's the funny part: Everybody wants to be the king of Tucson hip-hop. There is no king. There are so many cats out here rhyming, so many cats I've met, and I'm just so proud of. I've seen it grow, and I give them all the props in the world. The real recognize real, and unfamiliars don't look familiar," Ox says.
"Feelings in this game have to be left to the side. You have to. I had to learn the hard way. If you want to be a true MC, if you want to make a business at this, all emotions have to go out the door. I'm done with people's egos. You think you're the best in Tucson? You think you can rhyme with the best? Do it. By all means, please, open doors for the rest of us."
Ox recalls some advice from his grandfather, an old-school music fan who didn't like rap music.
"He listened to If Not the Best at Least a Beast, and this is all he said: 'It takes a lot of courage for you to put yourself out there as an artist and have people accept you for who you are. No matter who they are, you accept yourself for who you are.' I get onstage, and I love what I do. I love it to death.
"This album, it's not about how tough I am. It's not about how I want people to respect me because I'm tough, or fear me. I want people to understand I go through the everyday struggles they do," Ox says. "It's grown-man music."