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Ground Up: The Headliners.

March 5, 2012

Text by Sofiya Ballin. Top image by Michael Beon. Bottom image by Caitlin Morris.

The home of Philly’s hip hop trio Ground Up is reminiscent of a frat house. As soon as you step through the door, you’re hit with the feeling of haste, the smell of smoke and immense amounts of testosterone.

Frank Santella, one of the group’s managers, runs up and down the staircase, rounding up the crew – Bij Lincs, Malakai McDowell and Al Azar, so they can head off to the studio. Azar, one of the two MCs of the group, is the last to get in the car. He smokes his joint and looks out the window as the car speeds off. Between puffs, he describes the differences between regular Al and Azar, the performer. He makes it clear that Azar is in no way a persona.

“Azar is Al but he’s a little more outgoing,” he explains. “Azar has to have a smile on his face all the time.”

Drake’s “The Motto” comes on the radio and Santella automatically turns it up.

“It’s that bass line!” Azar yells, as he proceeds to rap Lil Wayne’s verse word-for-word.

Azar, 22, manages to take four classes at Temple University while keeping up with studio sessions and performances.

“It gets really difficult sometimes with the music, school and maintaining a relationship,” Azar admits. “It becomes a juggling act. But it’s a great problem to have.”

He talks about music, his recent birthday and Mitt Romney and then, the car pulls into a parking lot. Once outside the studio, Santella, 22, takes orders for Wawa.

“Sour Patch Kids and a big drink,” Azar says.

The inside of the studio is decked out with graffiti art and paintings. Tonight, they’re working with producer Ritz Reynolds to record the track “Layin Low” from their newest mixtape The Get Up, the group’s tenth release.

“We’re expanding featurewise, getting other bits from other people,” says Lincs, 21, the group’s beat maker.

Lincs is social yet shy, which complements Azar’s laid-back attitude. The two have been friends since middle school in Bucks County.

“In 8th grade, I made a pledge that I would make him a fan of hip hop by the end of the year,” Azar says, grinning as he reminisces.

Lincs laughs.

“I’m very picky when it comes to hip hop,” Lincs explains. “I listen to jazz and classical.”

He lists off some his favorite artists and groups, from OutKast to Cole Porter. He’s a self-taught multi-instrumentalist with the words “PADAM PADAM” tatted on his wrist.

“It’s a French onomatopoeia for ‘boom boom,’ and the name of a song by Edith Piaf,” he explains.

Lincs takes these influences and marries them with hip hop, providing Ground Up with diverse beats. As “Layin Low” plays in the background, heads subconsciously bob to the chill heaviness. Malakai, 21, the other MC, sits, concentrating, and then enters the booth. His voice becomes almost a rumbling whisper as he raps the chorus.

“I was always big on music and poetry,” says Malakai. “In high school, I wrote three books of poetry and eventually it turned into rap.”

Malakai and Azar met at Temple University during orientation in 2008 and they became quick friends.

“At some point, I told him I was working on this mixtape,” says Azar. “I gave him my mixtape and he showed me his poetry.”

This trade-off sparked the idea of Ground Up. They decided to record a song together.

“I was nervous about it because he has a tiny speech impediment but his verse was unbelievable,” Azar recalls.

“I kind of knew I wasn’t going to stutter,” Malakai says and then pauses. “And I was probably drunk.”

They circulated their first mixtape, Grand Opening, via e-mail, text messages and SoundCloud. They started throwing parties, charging at the door, and they performed to their music, backed by a laptop. Azar connected with his friends from middle school, Bij Lincs and Santella, to produce and manage, respectively. This DIY approach and enduring friendship is why many of their fans gravitate toward their music.

“I saw this since the beginning,” says Lincs. “We all have such a good friendship. It’s so easy to be optimistic with these people because they’re so positive.”

Ground Up has proven they are more than an opening act. After opening for Philly music veterans like Freeway and Jaguar Wright, Ground Up will headline at the Theatre of the Living Arts for the first time on March 24.

Now that they’re starting to pick up steam, fans have taken to the Internet to voice their fears of a mainstream Ground Up.

“I resent that a lot,” Azar says while sitting in the engineering booth. “I speak for everyone in the crew when I say that. Why can’t we make popular music that everybody likes without selling out?”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Malakai adds. “We understand that fear, being fans of hip hop ourselves.”

Lincs concludes, “I feel that whether we’re mainstream or not, we’re always going to bring something new to the table that is not considered mainstream.”

Azar enters the sound booth and nails his verse. Friends talk and laugh while contributing to the clouds of cannabis smoke slowly filling the room.

As time passes, the atmosphere gets more lax. Nearing midnight, Malakai and Azar work with Ritz Reynolds to perfect the track.

“I have a lot of friends who devote a lot of time to this,” says Malakai. “I can’t have all these people booking shows and doing stuff for me and I’m not working my ass off.”

One Comment
  1. MESOPOTAMIA . permalink
    August 7, 2012 9:45 pm

    yo i reply ……..because you wanted that beat…. indea music right ? BEBO…… MESOPOTAMIA .

    PEACE BEBO.
    MESOPOTAMIA .
    AMSTERDAM THE NETHERLANDS .

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