Rap trio Ground Up—MCs Azar and Malakai, along with producer Bij Lincs—eat, sleep and breathe hip-hop. Literally. Every livable square foot of their North Philly home studio is used to capture, create and convey the trio’s diversified sound. They’ve built a sure-fire formula for success on their terms, and by all appearances, their Do-It-Our-Damn-Selves strategy seems to be working as planned; they’ve opened for acclaimed emcee Talib Kweli here and local giant Reef the Lost Cauze in Amsterdam; rhymed alongside heat-bringers like Freeway and Young Chris; and held court in bustling freestyle ciphers on Temple’s campus. With a laser-like focus on “skill over swag,” Ground Up continues to crank out first-rate material —10 mixtapes, in fact, and all of them bangers, from start to finish—for an insatiable and rapidly growing fan base. Oh, and did we mention that they make all that music available for free?
“We went into this music thing with the mindset that our fans are our best publicists and PR agents that we could ever have, so we decided that the thing that would set us apart is an abundance of not only music, but free music,” Azar—the butter-voiced rhymer, versus Malakai’s gruffer stylings—told us via phone from the group’s creative hub. Instead of pressing up product to sell, they choose to make each Ground Up collection a free download via their website, GroundUpSounds.com, and sell home-burned CDs and selected Ground Up merch at their shows. “Hopefully, our fans accept the trade,” Azar says. “Who are we to sell our music right now when some of the most famous people are still giving away their music for free from time to time? Too many rappers put their CD on iTunes and sell like 10 copies. Good for him, but I don’t want to go on iTunes and sell 10 copies.” He estimates that they’ve given away at least 100,000 recordings in total, each of them serving as bricks in the rock-solid support system they’re creating for when they finally decide to put price tags on all that genius.
But success, like life, is a funny thing, ultimately rooted in what one values—and these Ground Up cats value their independence, so the only standards they live up to, however lofty, are their own. They’ve been hard at work on the Supernatural Series, a succession of skin-tight, lyrically deft singles—buttressed by the clever, psychoactive artwork of friend and cohort Mike Oberlies—available weekly on their site since July 14, all culminating with the release of their latest tape, Supernatural—again, for free—on Sept. 18. “It’s something we’re all extremely excited about,” says Azar. “For the first time in our music-making careers, we put ourselves in a position where we feel we’ve made so much music in the last few months, we’re really able to pick and choose the cream of the crop for this release, and that’s something we weren’t able to do [in the past.]”
Aside from Ground Up’s pending Philly show dates—including tonight in Rittenhouse Square, at PW’s annual Concerts in the Park, performing with and backed by The Lawsuits—their Happy Hour Tour, launched last week in Wildwood, N.J., will wind them through cities including Baltimore, Richmond, New York City and Buffalo—even Toronto, cementing them as international, lovers. “Abroad, you sort of see how fans here take hip-hop for granted,” Azar says. “They love it so much, and they cherish it so much over there because it’s so much less the norm than it is here. Just seeing that passion and that intensity from the fans out there just drove us to be sure we’re coming back.” ■
Wed., Aug. 22, 7 p.m. Free. With The Lawsuits. Rittenhouse Square Park, Walnut St. & So. 18th St. philadelphiaweekly.com/concertsinthepark
PW's Music Issue 2014