Two young bulls were flopped on a sofa on the third floor of a Fishtown rowhouse on a recent afternoon.
One of them was an actual pit bull, a cuddly 8-week-old puppy named Kira lying on the chest of her 12-year-old master, whose Death Before Dishonor T-shirt matched her jet-black coat.
The other was Matt Ox, Philadelphia’s leading preteen viral rap star, whose fidget-spinner-featuring video for his super-catchy song “Overwhelming” announced his arrival in May: “Matt Ox in the building, ’bout to break the ceiling / I don’t think you feel me, am I too overwhelming?”
Apparently not, because since the young emcee, who counts “the old Eminem” and Marilyn Manson as influences, wrote and recorded the song with producer Oogie Mane, it’s been viewed more than 16 million times on YouTube.
“No other young bull is doing the things I’m doing,” says the rapper, who was raised in the Lawncrest section of Northeast Philadelphia and whose given name is Matthew Grau.
He’s not wrong. The rapper who sat, or rather lounged, for an interview with his mother, Laurel, and great aunt Terry Iovine in attendance on Halloween afternoon has been signed to Warner Bros. records.
He and his mother moved out of his grandparents’ house and into a spacious new spot in Fishtown in September. On the day of the interview, he went trick-or-treating dressed as a smiley face emoji in the early evening, and performed at the Theater of Living Arts as a guest of electronic dance music artist Slushii later that night.
On Thursday, Ox will open for the Brooklyn rapper Young M.A. at the Electric Factory. On Nov. 11, he released a new song, “Athlete.” The home-schooled artist is part of the Philly Working on Dying hip-hop crew headed by his co-managers Rich “F1lthy” Ortiz, 25, and Terrell “Finesse” Green, 29.
The appropriately titled “Youngest Coming Up” was Ox’s first single for the Los Angeles record label, and he’s followed it up with “Messages.” He has a mixtape due in January, and a debut album tentatively scheduled for April.
Even before “Overwhelming” went viral, a number of major labels were in competition for Ox’s services based on online hits such as “Pretty Penny” and “Michael Myers” from early in 2017. His success started just months after he focused his creative energies on rap. He bought his first $120 microphone with money saved from doing chores in September 2016, and asked for and got a mic shield for Christmas last year.
By February, he was already collaborating with the Working on Dying team, who had discovered him after he posted snippets of his songs on Instagram. He had recorded them on his mother’s MacBook Pro.
Green, a U.S. Army veteran who got his start in the music business interning at string arranger Larry Gold’s the Studio in the aughts, says he was impressed by what he heard.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sold on Matt until I met him,” he says. “He’s comfortable in his own skin, and he’s very self-confident.” Green sees Ox expanding into other arenas, like acting, and calls him a natural entertainer who doesn’t curse in his songs and wo is ideally positioned to reach the enormous market of 16-and-under music fans (and their parents).
But what is it about Matt Ox that qualifies him as a viral sensation who could have a career that lasts? What distinguishes him from every other wannabe rap star white kid posting videos on YouTube?
His flows are far from dazzling at this stage. But the songs with which he’s built up a following so far are cute and clever — check out “Michael Myers,” in which he compares his skills as a rap assassin to the Halloween slasher film killer. And working with WOD creative partners like F1lthy and Oogie Mane, there’s an an authentic scuffed-up quality to the productions that sounds surprisingly legit — and not the least bit corny — coming from a kid.
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But Ox also has legitimate star quality and projects an entertainer’s persona. Green notes “that internet Matt and real-life Matt are two different things. Not many 12-year-old have had to deal with the real-life stuff that he has.”
“I was 15 when I had Matthew,” says Laurel Grau, 27. When Ox was 2½, his father committed suicide. “We weren’t together at the time, so it was just me and Matthew. It’s always just been me and Matthew.” His father, she said, “suffered with mental illness, so that’s always been my No. 1 concern with Matthew. And I think just being open-minded and honest helps him do the same with me.”
Besides being a 12-year-old rap prodigy, Matt Ox is a normal kid. “He leaves his crap all over the house,” says Grau. “But as far as his work ethic, that amazes me. He’s always saying how he wants to take care of me.”
“She took care of me when I was young, so I’ve got to take care of her when I’m young,” the rapper, who turns 13 in December, says.
The name of his crew “means like if you do anything, you working on dying. If you breathing, you working on dying. If you eat a cheesesteak, you working on dying. Everybody’s working on dying, because everyone’s going to die one day.”
After “Overwhelming” went online, the Graus’ lives changed. Ox wrote the lyrics “in nine or 10 minutes” one school night just before his 10 p.m. bedtime on the Notes app of his phone. “She was yelling at me, ‘Go to bed!,’ and I was like, ‘I’m trying to write this song, Ma!’ ”
The video featuring Ox’s wheeling, popping pals staring down the camera and the young rhymer being showered with $1 bills while walking the aisles of a corner store drew more than a million views its first week. When a New York Times article called the song “the Sound of this Second,” Iovine says, “we were down in Wildwood going, ‘What the hell?’ Watching him blow up, it was so much fun. It bought us so much joy.”
Offers started coming in, like one to fly to Atlanta at a moment’s notice to record with Philly trap rapper Lil Uzi Vert. (Grau didn’t let him go, despite his pleading, but the duo will be releasing music together soon, Green says.)
Before Ox signed with Warner Bros., another rapper who’s been in the news lately also expressed interested in Ox.
“I’m cooking dinner after the gym,” Grau recalls. “And I’m on FaceTime with Meek Mill because he wants to sign Matthew. They’re like, ‘We’ll buy you a car.’ They wanted to give you three dirt bikes,” she says to her son. “But then we hung up, and he said, ‘I’m not signing with him.’ ”
“Meek Mill is the king of Philly,” Ox says. “And if I sign under Meek, then I’ll never be the king of Philly. If you sign on with another artist, they like to get their name in there, so people will be talking about them. I want people to be talking about me. I want people to be talking about Matt Ox.”