When Kid Ink first met his manager, DJ Ill Will, CEO of Tha Alumni Music Group, in June 2010, the Los Angeles producer/artist was simply "dabbling" in rapping. At the time, neither one had any idea that Ink's first album would make a splash on the Billboard charts.
This week, the 26-year-old's introductory album, "Up & Away" (Tha Alumni Music Group), debuts at No. 20 on the Billboard 200, No. 3 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 2 on Top Rap Albums. The set sold 20,000 in its first week, with 97% of sales coming from downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In just two years, Ink built a buzz through a grass-roots movement including touring, merchandise and self-produced online projects. The rapper has released three mixtapes - "Crash Landing" (2010), "Daydreamer" (2011) and "Wheels Up" (2011) - and collaborated with notable names like Chris Brown and Meek Mill without compensation. Ill Will, who spent five years working with Brown and others, also helped Ink's climb to the top. All of Ink's official videos are uploaded to Ill Will's YouTube channel, which has garnered close to 133 million views.
After KPWR Los Angeles' DJ Reflex broke Ink's first single, "Time of Your Life," in February, the rapper set a firm date for his album and buckled down.
"It wasn't easy," Ill Will says. "But once key radio stations started paying attention and put in a few spins, they realized he was the real deal. It was about getting his movement exposed to a larger market first." In May, Ink graced the cover of XXL magazine's "Freshman Class" issue, alongside French Montana, Future, Danny Brown and others.
"Time of Your Life" debuted at No. 40 on the Rhythmic Airplay chart in February, peaking at No. 32 on May 12.
Ink's independent success follows that of Hoodie Allen, Childish Gambino and Mac Miller, the lattermost debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last November.
"The breaking of Mac Miller and Childish Gambino, on an independent level, made radio stations feel like they lost their ears to the streets," Ill Will says. "They lost the wave of those artists. Thankfully, Kid Ink followed."
Ink decided not to include any collaborations on "Up & Away." "It's 100% me," he says. "I wanted to make sure everyone - brand-new fans and [core] fans - knew who Kid Ink is without distractions, without other artists or [without thinking] I was riding any coattails."
As stations begin to pick up on Ink's second single, "Drippin'," Ink and Ill Will are entertaining "four to five" major-label proposals and plan to sign a deal before Ink begins a European tour in August.