Rap communicates feeling better than any genre of music I’ve encountered in my life. Rap is a cloud of sounds and ideas—both new and repurposed—congealing into tangible emotion. This phenomenon first drew me to California-via-Arizona rap trio Injury Reserve—composed of rappers Ritchie With A T, the late Stepa J. Groggs, and producer Parker Corey—in December 2015.
As I wrote in my 2017 DJBooth debut, early Injury Reserve single “Yo” dug into my brain from the moment I stumbled across it on YouTube. Despite its conceptually ambitious video, the song itself couldn’t be more straightforward: propulsive raps over a throbbing breakbeat. “Yo” was a timeless reminder of why I fell in love with rap.
As much as I enjoyed Ritchie’s dazzling wordplay in the first verse (“And we back with another one / Like I’m makin’ a Tracy McGrady jersey”), the opening of the second verse stopped me dead in my tracks. The beat abruptly halts for one bar as Groggs makes his entrance distraction-free:
“Fuck these niggas and they lame brands / All I rock is Vans shit and TVTs / I swear even when we on I’m still / Gon’ have my girl buying groceries at EBT.”—Stepa J. Groggs, “Yo”
Who was this guy? His clear and familiar voice, brimming with menace and humor, cuts through the brief silence like a thin razor with a hefty handle. I had to double-check what shoes I was wearing just in case (they were blue Vans hi-tops).
On Monday, June 29, Jordan Alexander “Stepa J.” Groggs passed away. He was 32. Groggs used raw directness as a secret weapon. He wasn’t afraid to let listeners into his thoughts. He was ready to slaughter fellow rappers like TV serial killer-killer Dexter one minute while openly pushing through bouts of depression the next: “Never settle in life, Jack, this ain’t as good as it gets.”
Groggs had an innate understanding of closing the gap between a punchline and a sobering thought. A bar like “Yea, my name’s Step and I probably need like 12 of those” from “Bad Boys 3,” a song from 2017 mixtape Floss, is a confession of alcoholism so naked it almost slips by unnoticed. It flows off his tongue the same way the compressed history of his Bay Area upbringing does: “Black tee, A’s fitted, Chino’s and some shell toes / Been nice since I was wearing baggy ass Girbauds / Used to write my shit on the BART headed to the ‘Sco.”
Groggs’ alcoholism was a vice always on the fringes of his writing. A fifth of Hennessey in hand, he fought “demons like Constantine” on “Whatever Dude.” His verse on “Colors,” a standout selection from the group’s Drive It Like It’s Stolen EP, begins with what sounds like ice clinking in a glass before the liquid is poured in, further accented by roughly mixed vocals and a slight slur to his speech. The warm haze of booze on Groggs’ breath clashes against sage advice (“Life doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be lived”) and musings on bad karma scored from the shit he did as a kid (“At least I know that it’s coming, bruh; it is what it is”).
Groggs wasn’t afraid to be a work in progress.
Artistically, I appreciate how Groggs was able to get to the point without being sanctimonious. Not every rapper would be strong enough to begin a song by saying, “Not one to take the high road, so why start now?” as he does on “North Pole,” another highlight from the Drive It Like It’s Stolen EP. Finding connection points between himself and the listener was paramount to his writing.
Connection was also an essential part of being around Groggs in real life. I first met Injury Reserve and their manager Nick Herbert outside of a Days Inn on W 94th Street during their first trip to New York City in May 2017. They wanted to see the “touristy shit” on their first night in town, and I obliged: Times Square, the M&M Store, street dancers, the works. After a late-night McDonald’s run, we followed each other on Instagram and parted ways.
Five months later, the group was back in the city on tour with The Underachievers. The crowd—clearly there for the psychedelic raps of the headliner—was not kind to IR’s sonically aggressive act. As I spoke to Parker by the merch table after their set, Groggs immediately approached me and asked about the Funko Pop collection he’d seen on my IG story. As a fellow lover of toys, our connection was instant.
I had the privilege of watching Groggs interact with fans on this deep of a level during, and after, every Injury Reserve show I was able to attend. Onstage, his gruff voice commanded attention through the boisterous flexes of the raucous closing number “All This Money.” He ended every set the same way: shirtless, sweaty, and smiling with a handle of alcohol, usually Apple Ciroc.
I couldn’t tell you where Groggs found the energy to converse with every single fan who approached the Injury Reserve merch booth. No matter how big the rooms got, Groggs stayed regular. He was just happy to be in the mix. For proof, check out the group’s subreddit, which is filled to the brim with dozens of stories and memories from fans.
Over the last three years, I’ve confided in Groggs like a big cousin. Before a 2018 show at NYU, he and I walked around Washington Square Park for a half-hour trading rap takes and toy stories. On Saturday, June 27—two days before he passed—I texted him about how Pop Smoke had a perfect rap voice. “Big ol facts not biggie esc but still perfect ny rap shit,” he responded three minutes later.
Rap came as naturally to Groggs as breathing. As Injury Reserve’s music became more experimental, his voice and perspective continued to anchor them to reality. He was clever and always readable. For instance, on “Jawbreaker,” from IR’s self-titled debut album, Groggs laments the loss of his mother while admiring being as well-dressed as N*E*R*D on the cover of their 2008 album, Seeing Sounds.
Groggs’ grasp of wordplay is a pleasure on the ears. It shines brightest when he gives off little details of his life, like this incredible sequence from “Gravy n’ Biscuits”:
“I went from Duck Duck Goose to gettin’ fucked up / Off Goose, Connect Four to hittin’ my connect / For four grams or more just to make it through the day / Now I fly for some Harold’s and come back the same day.”—Stepa J. Groggs, “Gravy n’ Biscuits”
Or this heartfelt passage from “Wax On”:
“Gotten less checks since I got the blue one / So please tell me what the fuck that verifies? / Twitter feeds don’t feed my daughter.”—Stepa J. Groggs, “Wax On”
Rapping gave Groggs an outlet to offer golden advice. His verse on fan-favorite “What A Year It’s Been” features some of the most memorable lines of his entire career: “What a year it’s been / A lot of ups and down / Keep fallin’ off the wagon, but never hit the ground”; “Ain’t doin’ enough, just doin’ the most.” These lines impact and break apart, revealing layers I continue to consult during times of crisis.
I could go on, but the truth is, Groggs’ death will remain shocking. His resilience and positivity were infectious. His love for his family—his partner Anna and their four beautiful children—pushed him through the dark times. His mentorship to his younger bandmates gave him purpose and brotherhood.
He said it himself on “Look Mama I Did It:” “I’m living proof that you’re never too old.”
Thank you, Groggs. Thank you for the conversations. Thank you for the advice. I’ll carry your smile in my heart forever.
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