Student musicians build from the ‘ground up’

Hip-hop duo Ground Up finds inspiration for its music in Philadelphia and rap legends.

Making it as a musician is not as cut and dry as simply being “discovered.” Unknowns have to labor for some time to get recognition, and that is exactly what two freshmen are doing with the help of many contributors.

Ground Up by name, “ground up by nature,” Malcolm McDowell and Alex Azar, also known as Malakai and Azar, respectively, create tracks in their home studio with producer and friend Bijan Houshiarnejad.

Behind a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle curtain, Azar and McDowell rap their lyrics and complete tracks using Pro Tools.

Their latest album, Best Friends Vol. 2, was inspired by their personal lives, Philadelphia and the art of making music. A hip-hop amalgamation of genres, Ground Up is inspired by Kanye West and Jay-Z, who McDowell thinks is the “greatest rapper of all time.” Other idols for Ground Up are Notorious B.I.G. and T.S. Eliot.

The Wasteland is genius,” McDowell said, who has written and published his own book of poetry, All The Great Poets Are Dead.

Ground Up wants to make music about real life.

“I would like to think we make songs everyone can relate to – no rims, that’s just unrealistic,” Azar said.

“If people are going to take the time to listen, you might as well say something,” group manager and local rapper Jonathan “J-Row” Secchino said. “It all started when I met these guys. We were making magic.”

Azar had been rapping solo for two years before meeting McDowell and the group’s promoter, Robert Mooney. He produced Best Friends, the group’s current album.

The members met at freshman orientation last semester, seemingly by cosmic intervention, as McDowell and Mooney were supposed to have attended another orientation that was full.

Becoming more serious as the weeks passed, the McDowell and Azar began performing in their house, located near Main Campus, in February.

“We get a lot of noise complaints,” Mooney said.

“We listen to everything, even if we don’t like it,” Azar said. “Nowadays, you have to stay current.”

Case in point: Soulja Boy, whom the group considers a musical fraud.

“Even Soulja Boy is an influence because he is anti-Ground Up, making music for money,” Azar said.

Houshiarnejad, a California native, began making beats in high school.

“Al is the one who introduced me to hip-hop,” he said, “I played violin, guitar, piano. I was a musical kid and never really did anything with it. Music is my passion now.”

On his night table, Azar has a framed photo of philosopher and scholar Cornel West. On his wall is a quote by Henrik Ibsen: “The strongest man is the one who stands most alone.”

“All of my friends listened to hip-hop,” Azar said. “I just connected to it. When you see flaws in something, you want to do it better and make a contribution.”

“It’s a big process,” Zecchino said. “It takes a lot of thought, but we have fun with it, of course.”

“We all inspire each other,” Azar said of the group members. “We couldn’t do it by ourselves.”

Ground Up plans to play at nearby universities, and McDowell jokingly suggested cranking up the record at Best Buy and walking away.

Bianca Brown can be reached at

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