Guitar bands. Buncha slackers. Cuz motherfuck this album-every-couple-of-years business. In hip-hop, many of today’s rappers are putting out three or four or 40 releases a year. They’re shooting and editing their own videos. They’re their own publicity firm. They’re booking their own shows. They’re working smarter and harder than ever before, and doing it independently.
And perhaps no Philly hip-hop act exemplifies this DIY spirit more than young upstarts Ground Up. They’re their own insulated, independent music universe.
The group’s two MCs, Alexander Azar and Malcolm McDowell, met during freshman orientation at Temple in the summer of ’08. By fall, a shared love of hip-hop, weed and spoken word brought the two together, and they began recording demos in their dorm room. Azar brought in producer Bijan Houshmadinajad, a friend since middle school, to make beats. Ground Up was born.
In the years since, they’ve moved into a North Philly house together, along with one of their managers, Frank Santella, with whom they’ve formed Ground Up Sounds LLC. At the house, Houshmadinajad makes beats on the top floor. Merch goes in the basement. They edit videos and test ideas for music everywhere in between. Each member of Ground Up Sounds works on the group from the moment they rise until the time they fall asleep. (Azar is the only one still at Temple, grinding out one or two classes a semester at a tortoise pace that will see him graduate in roughly 2065.)
Ground Up’s sound is all over the spectrum, from the in-your-face, horn-stab bombast of “No Thanks” to the bluesy, soulful bliss of “Got Damn,” but it can generally be described as laid back—best enjoyed with bud. As MCs, McDowell and Azar are the perfect complement to one another vocally. McDowell’s smooth, Drake-ish timbre is the yin to Azar’s gravelly, hard-edged yang. Their two very different voices—Azar’s sandpaper, McDowell’s silk—recall groups like A Tribe Called Quest, where Q-Tips buttery tone was a perfect anchor to Phife’s hyperactive high-pitch, or the three distinct voices of Beastie Boys. It’s worked in hip-hop for years. It works for Ground Up.
On March 6, Ground Up will release their ninth mixtape, The Get Up, which will feature Jahlil Beats (See: “The Producers”), Young Chris (See: “The Next To Pop Off”) and Philly institution Freeway, with whom they’ve worked previously on a stellar track called “Wonderful Day.” Later in the month, they’ll headline the TLA for the first time.
“It’s a dream come true,” says McDowell of the gig they’ve just booked. “We’ve been working hard, and we’re beginning to see it pay off.”
Of the three, McDowell, 21, is the most vocal. Azar, 21, is quiet and unfailingly polite. Multi-instrumentalist Houshmadinajad, 22, is bashful. (For the sake of Philly music trivia, it’s worth noting that Houshmadinajad’s brother, Farzad, played in Drink Up Buttercup, and is now in White Birds. He also sings the hook on Ground Up’s “Fast Enough.”) All three members of the group have a singular goal in mind, unchanged since they formed: Build a strong fan base, naturally, from the—you’ll pardon the pun—ground up. They do this through meticulous and thoughtful use of social media. “All the social media we do is so important. It’s key,” says Houshmadinajad. “We want to stay connected to our fans. It’s why we release new material constantly. We want them to feel like a part of our family.”
This is in full evidence at Ground Up shows, where the line between fans and friends is blurry. Because all their fans are friends, even if they’ve never met them face to face. Many of their actual friends log time promoting the group, whether it be behind the lens of a Ground Up Sounds-issued SLR or passing out fliers. “We’ve had friends helping out since day one,” says Santella.
This tight knit family structure is important to Ground Up’s ability to remain independent. They’re solely responsible for their base, their marketing, their brand. They wouldn’t have it any other way. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned from working with people like Freeway and Young Chris and Reef the Lost Cauze is: You can do this on your own. You don’t need a label. You don’t need a consultant telling you what you can and can’t do,” says McDowell.
“You’d see their name—Ground Up—everywhere,” says Mike Jerz, a producer, engineer and studio owner who’s worked with everyone from Beanie Siegel to the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson. “They were all over the Internet, and you’d see their name on fliers at every show. I’d heard a lot about them before I’d heard them. And then, when I did, I just thought, ‘I would love to work with these guys.’”
Now he does, for a minimum of six booked hours every Sunday at his Northern Liberties studio. “It’s one of my favorite days of the week,” says Jerz. “I love Ground Up.”
This last Sunday, the New York Giants are handing the Green Bay Packers their asses in a playoff game on a flat screen in Mike Jerz’s control room, but no one pays it much attention. Azar and McDowell concentrate on a looped sample playing through the studio’s speakers and write rhymes. Houshmadinajad barely understands football, something he’s gently teased about by the 10 or so people hanging out during this week’s session. Young Chris is to stop by later, along with Vanessa Winters of the Lawsuits, a local indie rock outfit. She will be lending her vocals to a track. The ability to work with a wide range of artists is important to Ground Up. “We don’t want to be easily pegged,” says McDowell after nonchalantly punching in a verse about a girl so bougie she only eats caviar and sushi.
“That’s hot,” Jerz laughs through his microphone. One thing he loves about Ground Up is that they haven’t let what success they’ve found change them, and he doesn’t see it happening as they inevitably find more. “Some guys find a taste of success and become assholes,” he says, declining the opportunity to name names. “It won’t happen with Ground Up.”
Part of the reason it won’t happen: Ground Up refuses to let others define success for them. “I look at a guy like Reef,” says McDowell. “He’s never had a mainstream radio hit, but he travels the world and does what he loves for a living, and has for a long time. That’s success to me. If we do that, we’re good.”
With that, it’s back into the booth to work. Always to work.
Follow Ground Up on Twitter @TheRealGroundUp
Who’s hot in Philly hip-hop right now? That’s the perilous question we asked ourselves at the beginning of a long journey. It’s impossible to answer. Or, more to the point, impossible to answer succinctly. The list is lonnnnnng. So we’ve broken it down.
“Jahlil Beats. Holla at me!” If you didn’t hear those words kick off a song last year, you didn’t listen to rap music. There was no escaping it—the club, the car, the street—especially in Philadelphia.
“People always ask why I ain’t got a girlfriend,” says Young Chris during a break from working in a Northern Liberties studio. “I tell ’em, ‘Yo, rap’s my girlfriend.’” The North Philly-born rapper’s been devoted to the game since the early 2000s, when his Young Gunz duo with MC Neef Buck was signed by Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, and their first single, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.
Perhaps change will come this year, as several female rappers are gaining momentum. Harlemite Azealia Banks’ “212” displays the 20-year old’s impressive range and skill, and White Girl Mob leader Kreayshawn definitely has more than the “Gucci Gucci” meme hidden up the sleeve of her baggy Fred Flintstone jacket. Will these ladies threaten Nicki Minaj’s queen-status in 2012? Maybe. The only thing that could hold ’em back are the dick-centric rap fans and critics who guard the gates.
The Internet exploded at the close of 2011 with rumors that Planets were uniting for a new studio album. While talks are underway, nothing’s confirmed. “I’m down, no doubt,” says Irving about another reunion. “Planets was the best time of my life, but a gift and a curse. As a musician, I wanna spread my wings and not always be stuck as ‘that Digable Planets dude.’ I wanna try new things and experiment.”
Books are mostly how he makes his living, but the heart of Bookman’s street vendor operation, located just outside 52nd Street Station at 52nd and Market, is hip-hop. Most days, he’s bumpin’ beats from his tabletop rig—a CD player and speakers powered by a car battery. And those in the know know Bookman’s the man when it comes to getting your hands on the latest, greatest mixtape to hit the streets. Albums are nice, but underground mixtapes (they’re CDs, but the classic nomenclature sticks) have been the life-blood of hip-hop for ages.
PW's Music Issue 2014