Personal enlightenment is when an individual can give himself away for free. It's not a gift because you don't get a thank you card. It's when you can contribute - to community, country, family, anything - and walk away with nothing less than you arrived with. Until then, everything is a transaction.
Only the legendary Tucson rapper Big Meridox can tell you if he himself is there yet, but he's trying. The 40 year-old is a high school teacher, but on the weekend he indulges in one of his very few vices: Polo shopping. So after a cheesesteak lunch with the Philadelphia native, we're walking through the main corridors of Park Place to Dillard's to see Ralph Lauren's current offerings. A large amount of people, by themselves and in groups, of all ages and walks of life, say hello to the charismatic Meridox as they pass. He is friendly and cordial to them. When I ask if he knows any of these people, he says "no" and keeps walking, as though this happens every day.
Earlier, he talked about growing up in Philadelphia. "There was a lot of crime in North Philly. It's the hood," he explained. "My cousins were getting into trouble. ... I'm not a gangsta. I could've been, from my background. The reason I rap like that is to keep violence off my mind. I rap hard. I'm an educated cat. I had to get knowledge. Either that, play football, or get into the life. My mother kept me out of that because she did keep me and my sisters in schools that would educate us. From my standpoint, nobody really advocates for knowledge anymore."
At 13, Meridox (born Marcus Williams) moved for the first time to Tucson, where his father was known as a star football player at Tucson High. "Philly is where I learned to grow up but Arizona is where I learned emceeing," he says, beginning a long music career that has seen him share stages with legends, but not idols, KRS-One and Lauryn Hill, among many others. While his most anger-fuelled record was 2010's If Not The Best at Least a Beast!, his latest EP, The 7th Division (due for early April release), shows no signs of compromise. At lunch, he told me most of his inner demons were gone, that he's comfortable with himself and his life now and has nothing to prove. On The 7th Division, which is co-credited to producer RA Stone, Meridox backs this up, chanting the phrase "stay true" from here to infinity on the track "Field Negro Rebellion."
"I'm a one man army," he adds. "I don't compromise for anybody. I spit realness. I never had to ride nobody's coattails to get where I needed to go. I did it myself. I come from an era where you show and prove; put up or shut up."
And The 7th Division is probably his greatest work to date. "Blue Light Special," "Paper Cuts," and the aforementioned statement of purpose "Field Negro Rebellion" are unlike anything in hip-hop today. It's the sound of someone advocating for knowledge.
But what about the Polo obsession? Why does Meridox proclaim himself "Rugby King" on his new EP?
"I got tired of the backpacks and the baggy pants," he says. "Wearing Polo means distinguished. It's not cheap. I'm not trying to floss but when I walk into a place, people see I got Polo on and they say 'He's grown up.' And yeah, I grew up. I'm not trying to do kiddie rap. Kiddie rap is 'How many fans can like my page? How many photo ops can I get?' The Polo is for people to know that I stand distinguished as a man. I do grown man rap. Grown man rap is the money that I make goes to bills. It goes to my daughter."
That's a transaction that Big Meridox can ethically live with. And as usual, the endlessly quotable rapper gets the last word: "Respect is earned, not bought, sold, traded, borrowed, or bartered - You can quote that!"