Few groups are as genuinely eclectic and creatively self-aware as Injury Reserve. Originally formed in Phoenix, Arizona, the trio, composed of rappers Nathaniel “Ritchie With a T” Ritchie, Stepa J. Groggs, and producer Parker Corey, have been adjusting to life as full-time artists since the release of their second album Floss last December.
This year has brought the group a new house in Los Angeles and flung them into the depths of the creative underworld, a place in which intellectualizing a course of action is less effective than simply executing it. “That’s the part that takes the most trust in yourself, I think,” Parker tells me on a conference call with his two group members, “You kinda just have to live, and know that you’re gonna find the groove.”
When lined up, Injury Reserve looks as if they were the product of a compulsory group project in high school and not a manifestation of regionally ambiguous, post-internet rap. Nathaniel is spirited and engaging, talkative without the desire to dominate the conversation, and infectiously confident. Parker and Groggs display a more stoic demeanor; the former speaking with an air of virtuoso that humbles the delusion you actually work hard, the latter embodying the spirit of a street-wise uncle you’ll never pin down with absolutes. The reciprocity of their dynamic is evident, even through dropped signals and other headaches of telecommunication. Nathaniel would interject when he felt Parker or Groggs being needlessly humble, and both were equally as adamant about Ritchie’s role in furthering the group’s progression.
Their latest offering, Drive It Like It’s Stolen, continues to challenge assumptions about what this quirky bricolage of personalities can produce. The brief EP, seven minutes shy of a half hour, is a departure from the larger-than-life aesthetic of Floss. Whereas cuts like “Oh Shit!!!” and “All This Money” can fuel your most braggadocious and opulent moments, DILIS picks up after the crowd has dispersed and the money evaporates. As Parker says, the production on Floss was “maximized,” pushed to its full potential, and that’s one of the reasons he challenged himself to strip down the beats on DILIS. “[I wanted] to prove to myself these beats could still sound amazing with three sounds instead of twenty,” he says, giving context for the EP’s minimalistic bent. Without the verses, you wouldn’t assume the first single, “North Pole,” is even a hip-hop instrumental. It would be safer to guess Ray Lamontagne ballad over a rapper’s introspection.
Jeff Ellis, the mixing engineer for both Floss and DILIS, used the following analogy to describe the difference in the two projects: “If you think about them as colors, Floss was light blue, like ‘sky’ or ‘baby.’ DILIS is more of a dark, hunter green. Neither are fully sinister or bright, but they have their tendencies.”
Moving Beyond the Sum of All Parts
There’s a causal link between the group's workflow and output that explains the departure from Floss’ extravagance. “It’s never really been elaborated on,” Parker says, “but I feel like the way we create is our biggest weapon.”
Though asked different questions relating to specific DILIS tracks, the members unanimously brought the conversation back to the fact they exist as a group and cited that as the source of their development. Parker continues, “I feel like most music goes this way: a beat gets made and then vocals are added. Maybe it gets arranged a little bit, but that’s the song. A lot of people record over production, where ours is such a back-and-forth. The song and beat are always evolving with each other.”
Rather than stitching together bars and MIDI signals, the lyrics are embedded in the instrumentals in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Verses are nurtured, trimmed, and often transplanted to a completely different collection of sounds. “It’s a continuous back-and-forth cycle between each other,” Nathaniel says, furthering Parker’s description, “It sounds so simple, but you know it’s not quite there...until it is. You can tell when a producer just sent someone a beat to rap over, even though they probably wanted to do more with it. Nothing is ever like that for us, ever. Everything turns into something completely different.”
Nathaniel expresses his thankfulness for the range of perspectives critiquing their music-making. “It would have never gotten to the finished product if we didn’t have someone like Parker striving to make something interesting,” he continues, “[There’s] something to having three people in a group because everyone has a responsibility for what’s released. It’s our song, each one of us. We’re not working on each other’s songs. Often we’ll do our verses, and Parker does this gnarly rough mix that makes it more experimental and goes, “Hey, I like this, maybe we should veer more towards this aesthetic.”
Nathaniel reveals that’s how “Colors,” the sociopolitical anchor of the project, was molded: “On 'Colors,' Groggs recorded first and we were like, 'The verse is great, but it doesn’t fit the tone of the track, it doesn’t fit what you’re talking about.' So Parker suggested he get drunk and incorporate that sloppiness, a sense of griminess, into the verse. It was there lyrically, but the performance wasn’t quite right.”
Even without confirming his state of consciousness, as Groggs slurs his opening bars to the sound of liquor pouring, it’s evident we’re meeting him at the intersection of gin and problem-solving. His verse weaves tales of karmic responsibility and societal contradictions. Groggs can’t reconcile the paradox of American culture scoffing at Black success (“You know that they hate when you successful and Black”), while simultaneously absorbing and monetizing aspects of Black culture (“Everybody wanna be a n***a”).
With respect to his poignant chorus, a foreboding map of reality for Black and Brown people, Nathaniel provides the following insight: “I was basically trying to say things aren’t glitter and gold but didn’t have enough syllables. Pink was cool because I liked that it was a simple color. The colors I list are blue, green, black, brown. I even tried to get red in there too. Something like, 'Since I re(a)d Sandra Bland was murdered in jail,' but it was too much. It’s not something super duper deep, I mean it is, but it’s kinda like, let’s not act like everything is great when it’s not. We’re not in hell, but definitely below heaven.”
Speaking with Injury Reserve, you’re thrown into a gamified version of “passing the buck.” Each member would push an innovative element back to someone else. Groggs would praise Nathaniel for inspiring his own vocal manipulation, yet Nathaniel and Parker would give mixer Jeff Ellis credit for helping them choose a mic that captures those sounds. Jeff follows suit when asked about his role in the vocal experimentation: “First, Nathaniel is a phenomenal engineer and he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t just put his mouth up to the mic. The geniuses with music are always focused on getting better. They don’t stand still, literally. He’s one of the few rappers I’ve met that thinks about where his mouth and voice are in relation to the microphone. He cares about his relationship to the microphone and they put a lot of work into picking vocal effects.”
When I asked Ritchie about their vocal effects, independent of Jeff, he formulated his response identically, only the roles were interchanged: “When it comes to me understanding mic positioning and how we recorded, this isn’t something where it’s like I’ve always been aware of these things. I don’t really know anything about tech or recording, Jeff and Parker are the geniuses. What I did know on this record is that, since we lived and breathed rap, I built a relationship with the mic. We woke up, worked on the record, and went to sleep. No jobs, no school, and that’s what facilitates that relationship. It sounds corny as fuck, but it’s true. We spent a lot of money on a new home studio and bought a nice fucking mic.”
Searching for one person to assign credit can miss the point, though. Regardless of the inspiration’s genesis, Injury Reserve is diversifying the way in which they deliver their raps—as Injury Reserve. No decision is unilateral. When they change, it’s collectively, and that gives DILIS a certain boldness. As Ritchie says, they weren’t “being as goofy,” and he didn’t yell as much as Floss. For DILIS, they opted to punctuate their lines with a range of guttural inflections that give their raps a sense of urgency. When paired with the minimalistic beats, it makes the listener uncomfortable and anxious, as if they’re tapping into a force that sets off primal alerts. Given the weight of subjects discussed, that’s its intention.
The outro is the lone exception, charged with an angelic melody that intertwines their verses of beatific visions. They felt ending with a positive sentiment best represents who they are. “I think it’s us,” Ritchie says, “It’s a good way to think about it. Specifically, on this record, I think it was absolutely important, especially with the weight of 'Colors' to stress that the grass does get greener. It would’ve felt contradictory to not end with something uplifting. Plus it just sounds fucking good.” It’s also a testament to their spontaneity, as the song grew out of Groggs’ drunken, 5 a.m. desire to “make a hit” after finishing “Colors.” “It was a real feel-good moment, just vibing out before the sun came up. It worked itself out,” Stepa recalls, and you can hear the smile in his voice.
Theoria and Praxis
In his book What is Ancient Philosophy?, scholar Pierre Hadot claims the defining aspect of Ancient Greek philosophy was its emphasis on practice (praxis). These were “lived philosophies,” as distinct from pure theory (theoria). While Injury Reserve isn't concerning themselves with Zeno’s paradoxes, part of their draw comes from the way in which they execute the ideas of their raps.
Songs like “Colors” and “2016 Interlude” posit social change that corresponds to their non-music activism. In the weeks leading up to our conversation, Ritchie discussed the group’s involvement with an anti-Trump protest on Twitter and invited others to join events in their native Phoenix. Ritchie was shot by Phoenix PD with a 40mm foam bullet during the demonstration. “It was basically a march against Trump’s pardoning of Joe Arpaio,” he explains, “While what he’s done has reached a national scale in recent years when you live in Phoenix, Arpaio’s like Voldemort. He’s affected everyone even if he hasn’t tried to get your family deported or trapped your family in a fucking cage. Everyone knows someone that was affected by Arpaio’s policies.”
This wasn’t the first time the trio asserted their values in the streets, attending a Black Lives Matter protest last year and getting maced in the process. “This is something that we wish we could do more,” he says with an earnest tone, “If we could we would be at everything, but it costs money to do that. I was jealous that Vic [Mensa] was able to pick up and go to the frontlines of the Dakota Access Pipeline. But Phoenix is accessible to us, so it feels good to exercise your rights in your hometown. We’re not those people who are just gonna have talking points. We’re ‘bout it, you know what I mean? It was important to us, so we did it.”
It’s impossible to claim one aspect of Drive It Like It’s Stolen as the seminal departure from Injury Reserve’s previous work. DILIS is a nuanced amalgamation of each player’s skill set being honed into a project that’s cohesive in its diversity. Nathaniel innovates vocal deliveries, Parker draws inspiration from French experimental classical music, and Groggs knows how to deliver learned wisdom that sticks to ribs (and when to let the liquor tell it).
If forced to distill the philosophy of this EP into a phrase, Ritchie gives us a succinct one. After highlighting the problems with backhanded compliments and historical ignorance of some “old heads,” he ends his “Boom (x3)” verse with the imperative, “Just spit raps.” That’s what they’ve been doing for the last year: spitting raps, crafting instrumentals and existing. There was no calculated plan for DILIS or a template to follow. It was the product of three friends not overthinking direction and just living rap.