Injury Reserve on a future without Groggs

Injury Reserve on a future without Groggs
‘He was the heart of the band‘ — Over a year ago, hip hop band Injury Reserve tragically lost one of its three members. Now, amid the release of their new album, the band’s remaining artists, Ritchie With A T and Parker Corey, are facing up to and finding ways to honour the late rapper’s legacy.

So many of the rap groups who’ve dominated the charts over recent years have appeared like unreachable capitalists draped in Off-White. Yet Arizona-based rap group Injury Reserve developed a cult fanbase due to the fact that they were just three ordinary dudes from the desert attempting to create an extraordinary sound. 

Over five boundary-breaking releases dating back to 2015, the three-man weave (the group consists of producer Parker Corey alongside emcees Ritchie With A T and Stepa J. Groggs) consistently pushed their music into weird new directions, progressing from a blitzed-out, internet-age De-La-Soul, who’d release B-sides onto the dark web, into a hyper-confident, experimental punk rap outfit.

In the early days, the band played local venues in front of crowds that looked like a mix of gurning Aphex Twin stans and the cast of American History X. Yet being pushed outside their comfort zone and playing rap music to house and hardcore heads resulted in a unique electricity on the live stage, where each member was clearly braced for war. In truth, Arizona didn’t have much of a rap scene to begin with, forcing Injury Reserve to create their own.

“If another piece of music already does the same thing as our song then our shit doesn’t need to be created,” the band’s producer Parker Corey tells me of the group’s ethos, citing Groggs’s line of ‘Nobody in our lane cos we’re constantly repaving’ on ‘Look Mama I Did It’ as a mission statement. “If someone makes a song to replicate another song’s feeling then it’s just about making money. There’s no defence to it.”

Corey is the crazy scientist behind the boards, sampling the kind of eclectic acts (Black Midi, Phoenix, Yellow Days) you don’t hear often on rap songs. If they let him score movies, he might just become the next John Carpenter. On ‘45’ his inventive production combines the echo of warped drums, which breathe out sadistically like Jason Vorhees ready to pounce on a victim, with glistening R&B that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Aaliyah slow jam. This musical tug of war between light and darkness inspires absolute truths from the group’s emcees, both galvanised by the challenge of working out Parker’s complex equations.

The more outspoken Ritchie (real name Nathaniel Ritchie) is responsible for the group’s melodic range and rousing hooks, the most likely to diss a wack rapper and grapple with the shadow of his dead father in the same couplet. Groggs, meanwhile, is more inclined to talk shit about himself, ensuring some of Parker’s more otherworldly moments are rooted in a relatable everyman quality. This is achieved by consistently turning his biggest weaknesses into trophies (‘I got fat cos’ there used to be nothing in my tummy’). From working in McDonald’s and “balling on a budget” to creating anti-yuppie mosh pit anthems about hacking into Tesla’s over glitched-out synths that hit like a fatal heart attack, Injury Reserve were stars of a romantic hip hop fairy tale only in its opening chapters.

However, in July 2020, the tragic death of Groggs at just age 32 changed everything. Speaking over a Zoom call from his apartment in LA, it’s clear Ritchie is still processing the death of a dear friend and creative partner, who he often talks about in the present tense. He says he’s aware the group’s new second studio album, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, is likely to be framed by listeners as tragic, but this is something he’d like to avoid. “I want people to know this isn’t a eulogy,” he tells me from his apartment in LA. “We were fucking around and having so much fun in these sessions.”

Groggs’s passing meant he was only unable to finish one verse. The record therefore feels complete and is free from the stitched together, zombified-feel of other posthumous rap releases. The only thing in the album rollout created in reaction to Groggs’s death was the music video to single ‘Knees’, where the late rapper’s silhouette is beautifully lit up in tribute. “Maybe I am biased because this is new, but Groggs’s two appearances are my favourite things he ever recorded,” insists Parker. “He’s shockingly looser and his world weariness feels more direct as a result.”

The album’s opener ‘Outside’ is a funeral confession from someone slumped over a church organ that descends into an exhilarating rave. The more dejected ‘Top Picks For You’ features Ritchie coming to grips with the sudden death of his stepfather, with the artist singing an intoxicating if slightly tortured auto-tune melody. The way he raps about embracing the next steps in the grieving process (‘I scan the room, I see bits and pieces of you scattered / It is those same patterns that gon’ get us through the next chapter’) means hope begins to filter through the electrical fog.

The dread-inducing ‘SS San Francisco’ is in debt to the vocals of Leonard Cohen, and the sheer Lynchian weirdness of ‘Ground Zero’ is also likely to test the patience of Injury Reserve fans expecting a continuation of the self-aware camaraderie on their more feel good 2019 self-titled studio debut. Whereas that previous album clowned on rappers for making formulaic rap songs, this one is rooted in heavy concepts like avoiding having kids due to an uncertain, potentially apocalyptic, future and why the time for empty gestures is over. This music is routinely haunted by demonic voices and lumbering footsteps, which are supposed to symbolise the looming threat of irreversible climate change. It’s as if the band is getting to grips with their own mortality. There’s certainly an argument for it being one of the best albums of the year. 

 “I like that things were less premeditated and more based on feeling,” says Ritchie. “I recorded all my stuff alone in a dark room, but this created a truth. I was trying to rap in new voices so I could get out of my head.” Parker adds: “I’d say this is probably our biggest leap from a previous album. We weren’t interested in connecting back to something or tapping into nostalgia. This is us trying to crack it open with art people haven’t heard before.” 

Thankfully, whenever the new music gets too heavy, Injury Reserve do what they do best and fire up a curveball that sounds like the soundtrack to an end of the world party. ‘Footwork In A Forest Fire’, which is one of two songs to feature Groggs, has a beat that sounds like a lorry manically sounding its horn just before crashing into glorious flames. It’s a real rush of a song and an energised Groggs is rapping more instinctually than in the past, pledging to start a riot and eerily referencing the idea that unknown forces want to take his life. Given the late-rapper’s love for creating chaos on stage, the song captures him in his element.

The growing pains of ‘Knees’ also capture Groggs on fine form, with the brutally honest artist spitting a typically raw verse about grappling with the allure of drinking himself into oblivion. He also raps about being playfully teased by an aunt for putting on too much weight. The way he ends his verse, rapping: ‘Well, fuck it n**** at least my dreads grew / watch me swang on em’, shows his resilience and need to go down swinging. As Ritchie concludes: “[Groggs’s] fighting spirit really is our essence as a group.”

To mark the release of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Huck spoke to Ritchie With A T and Parker Corey in two separate interviews about the legacy of Groggs, battling grief, coming of age, and what comes next for Injury Reserve. 

I watched this old No Jumper interview you did where Groggs is silently playing with Adam’s cat. He really comes across as this gentle giant…

Ritchie: That was him for sure. People had really individual relationships with Groggs and he was the only person who knew important secrets about their lives. He just brought that type of care and comfort into conversations. I first met him when Obama was elected and he got a job at my mum’s Foot Locker store. In the beginning, he would send me home with CDs filled with [Little Brother] songs to listen to. He was seven years older, so he’d put me on game. It was like a father figure role. Your relationship changes when you get into business with someone. That is my biggest regret about the whole situation, but I guess it’s also human and unavoidable. Groggs was the heart of the band, both professionally and out on the road, too.

Parker: Me and Groggs were roommates on tour, so we learned how to be still in each other’s company, as there’s only so much shit you can talk about. What I remember is reaching a new city at 2am and sitting in the hotel watching a very specific kind of trash reality TV show with him. There was this one show where people were competing to make the best knives and they had this sick little guy who would test out the strength of their blades by slicing open dead pigs. I just remember watching that shit with him and laughing. He was someone you could be comfortable with, without really talking. 

I loved how Groggs was able to really shed his demons on a track in a way that took the awkwardness out of the situation, somehow making you laugh. Not many people who struggle with alcoholism could rap something like: ‘Yo my name is Step and I probably need like 12 of those’. Do you think he was deflecting?

Ritchie: He had a lot on his plate. There were responsibilities he took on which he didn’t have to take on. If I’d made certain sacrifices, I would tell you about it, but you’d see Groggs on the street and have no idea [what he was going through]. Listening to old projects, Groggs was always so fucking good! Some of the writing I did back then was corny and amateur, but he never felt that way. He just made you care about his story. 

Parker: I think one of those things you see a lot of in general is artists feeling they must rework a song and tone it down, like, after the fact. We’ve never approached music like that. I guess when he would rap things about his demons, you’d just hear them as part of the song. It distances them as some type of personal connection or even hearing them as something you’re caught up in, too.

I sense a lot of this new music is about you guys finding a way to smile through a storm. ‘Knees’, in particular, is a really beautiful way of moving past grief.

Ritchie: As a kid, you’re the hip one who’s asked to help your grandma set up her new TV, but now it’s like: ‘Damn, I can’t even figure out the manual!’ The roles have reversed. ‘Knees’ is about realising you are not at the cutting edge anymore. I had some of the most fun making this record because, while some of it is really personal, a lot of it is very impersonal and tapping into ideas, like 5G conspiracies, that exist beyond my perspective. People will misread what Groggs is saying, but the difference between the record and what it was supposed to be was one Groggs verse! When you are in a band, you blink and you’re not on a song; we were all mature enough that it wasn’t ever about egos. On ‘Knees’, you can hear me reacting in the background while Groggs recorded his verse. I was just so excited. He hasn’t gone crazy like he did on this project in a while.

Parker: Groggs would usually be the very last element of a song. He picked up this knack of finishing whatever Ritchie had started and cleverly reacting to it. On this new record, it wasn’t like that at all. We did ‘Footwork In A Forest Fire’ together in Australia, when Ritchie had to rush home because his stepfather died. Groggs laid down his verse in 30 minutes. Groggs might usually sound measured, but here he’s so raw because he’s half freestyling his verses. It shows an evolution into a more instinctual way of working.  

The title of the record references your hometown, which you’ve had a hate-love relationship with. Would you say your views have changed? 

Parker: My position has matured on it. I still struggle with, and it is painful sometimes, to see art communities that are trying to get going but can’t sustain themselves. You find people who are in a good position to be making weird stuff, but completely unaware there is even an audience out there for it. Bands try to recycle things they see work in LA, which is depressing. But I guess there’s a lot of depressing things about liberal metropolises that think they’re above everybody else, too.

You spoke of Groggs being the heart of the group, can Injury Reserve keep going without him? 

Ritchie: I can imagine him joking and saying: ‘Y’all better still do this shit!’. But then I can also imagine him saying: ‘You better not step on a stage without me!’. We’re still figuring it out. We will definitely perform this record, but when you perform the older discography it becomes a lot harder. I guess the fact Groggs lived in Arizona and I was in LA, well, it allowed my brain to not fully take in what happened. But the second we’re doing a sound check for a live show, that’s when his absence is going to be so visible. It’s going to be the realest it’s ever been. We’ve not had an explicit conversation about continuing the group, but me and Parker will continue to create together [in some capacity].  

What’s the main thing you want people to take away from this project? 

Parker: With the title, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, it is like this torn thing. On one hand, there is this cliché of the phoenix rising from the ashes, but we didn’t really care much for the redemptive theme. I think we all liked the idea of the process: burning everything down to get there. That’s what this music signifies. It’s about escaping being fixed by any genre tag.  

Ritchie: Look, we were inspired coming off tour trying to do new shit while bouncing off one another. Just, doing the damn thing. I am not into things being super heavy or morose. I think about when Groggs said: ‘Well, fuck it least my dreads grew / watch me swang on them’. That line is about coming to the grasp of defeat and still fighting back. I hope people can find comfort in that message. Groggs’s daughter is the spitting image. Personality wise, too. It is terrifying. He will always live on through her. 

By The Time I Get To Phoenix is out now on most major streaming platforms. 

Follow Thomas Hobbs on Twitter.

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