Band To Watch

Band To Watch: Injury Reserve

“Jailbreak The Tesla” is an evocative title, one that can work as a mantra for the Phoenix hip-hop trio that created it. “That was kind of the idea of Injury Reserve,” says Nathaniel Ritchie, the rapper also known as Ritchie With A T — “taking this thing that’s supposed to be this futuristic modern car, but then still fucking it up in this traditional aspect of customization.”

Injury Reserve do fit the description. The group hails from a desert metropolis that’s also mostly barren where rap music is concerned. There is no celebrated Arizona hip-hop lineage to join or reject, no local signature sound to follow or subvert. Instead, Ritchie plus fellow rapper Stepa T. Groggs and producer Parker Corey have spent the better part of this decade building up their own unique template and then doing their best to upend expectations. The jazzy sound of 2015 debut project Live From The Dentist’s Office — recorded in an actual dentist’s office belonging to Corey’s grandfather — gave way to noisy experimental beats on 2016’s Floss. Then 2017’s spacious Drive It Like It’s Stolen EP dropped the bottom out of that sound; lead single “North Pole” was built from little more than acoustic guitar and ghostly samples.

Chalk up some of that evolution to the trio’s unconventional trajectory. Before they officially became Injury Reserve, the group began collaborating circa 2012, when Ritchie was still in high school. His family had moved to Phoenix so his mom could launch the local Vans store, where Groggs was one of her first employees. Groggs and Ritchie bonded over music, developing an older brother/younger brother dynamic and eventually making songs together. Corey came into the fold when a friend from a rival basketball team recommended Ritchie check out his beats. Ritchie was so impressed that he asked Corey to produce a whole mixtape and invited Groggs to participate.

Within a couple years a group identity had cohered; Corey describes the process as “more of a gradient.” Ritchie is the frontman of sorts, verbose and charismatic and overflowing with ideas. Corey’s the visionary producer, a redheaded former swim team captain eager to let innovation run wild. Groggs, about a decade older than his bandmates, is their veteran mentor; the other two say they spent years catching up with him. Over lunch last week at a Mexican restaurant in East Austin during SXSW, he barely said a word, but on their records he manifests an emphatic, guttural presence.

Injury Reserve had something unique to offer: Three misfits who looked and sounded nothing like each other, carving out a hodgepodge discography with its own distinct contours. Trouble was, there wasn’t much of a rap scene in Phoenix to feed their development, no established networks like the ones that help lift rappers from Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles to national prominence. Even the avenues that were available weren’t really a fit. The only way they were getting gigs was by opening for veteran touring acts like Dilated Peoples. “Even in there, you were playing in front of like four guys,” Ritchie says. “There was no real scene where it’s like young kids doing something.” Ritchie saw it as a purist scene with a hierarchy founded in seniority, not talent — “so for a young act that was trying to do new things, your only opportunity was, like, opening up for four acts.”

Momentum only began to build when their manager introduced them to the DIY scene at Arizona State, which in turn skewed their aesthetic away from the clubs. “It obviously has an impact on our live show,” Ritchie recalls. “It had an impact on what kind of music we wanted to make. Because at that time we were basically playing houses, and we wanted people to go crazy.” Watching them onstage at SXSW last week, the influence was clear. Although presented in a traditional two MCs, one DJ configuration, their set felt just as much like a rock show. As Corey twiddled away in mad scientist posture, Ritchie and Groggs emanated a bit of the chaotic punk-rock energy that has trickled up from peak-era Odd Future all the way to Travis Scott’s arena tours. Yet there were traces of other identities in the mix, too, from old-head park-jam party tracks to cavernous sound experiments.

This stylistic diversity has helped Injury Reserve to stand out and to attract an intriguing range of collaborators including Chuck Inglish, Cakes Da Killa, and Vic Mensa. On the flip side, finding their place in the world was challenging, especially as record labels began showing interest. “We always had the issue of living between scenes because we haven’t been one particular thing,” Ritchie says. “It’s always been a little bit harder to grow because we weren’t one specific niche.” Various label reps had their own ideas about what the group could be, including one who pitched Injury Reserve as heirs apparent to Rage Against The Machine. Not until they met Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua did a shared perspective snap into place.

Joshua is the man who signed Kanye West to Roc-A-Fella Records; he’s name-checked in the opening bars of Graduation closer “Big Brother.” These days he does A&R for Loma Vista, an independent label with a lot of major-label ties: based in Beverly Hills, founded by former Warner Bros. Records chairman and CEO Tom Whalley, formerly a joint partnership with Universal Music Group powerhouse Republic. Loma Vista’s roster is heavy on hard rock, indie, and experimental electronic artists like Marilyn Manson, St. Vincent, Iggy Pop, Ghost, Sylvan Esso, Show Me The Body, and HEALTH. Prior to Injury Reserve, the one rapper on their roster was Denzel Curry, whose career proved to be a valuable test case as they were weighing their label options. Between Loma Vista’s successful promotion of Curry’s music and their sense that Joshua was the first exec who truly understood and supported their vision, they inked a deal to release their self-titled debut album on the label this year.

Loma Vista demonstrated its trust in Injury Reserve’s instincts by allowing them to release “Jawbreaker” as the album’s lead single this past January. Over a Corey beat that’s somehow both cacophonous and barely there, a bluntly atonal hook from Andrew Phipps of Phoenix indie rockers PRO TEENS confronts the listener: “How come you staring like you don’t know what it’s for? Get your shit together, get your jaw up off the floor.” From there Ritchie, Groggs, and rising star Rico Nasty take the piss out of the fashion world, working in a dig on hypebeast villain Ian Connor along the way.

Premiered with a Corey-directed video parodying runway shows, “Jawbreaker” was a lot to take in, which was by design. “We had this really bizarre song, probably the least accessible song from the album, but we wanted to lead with it just to fuck up any …” Corey trails off. “It’s like a palate cleanser more than anything.” It’s also a prime example of Injury Reserve’s exploratory ethos. Typically the group’s creative process is a freeform journey to a destination they only recognize when they get there. In the case of “Jawbreaker,” the tweaking and tinkering involved throwing a full-fledged drum track on one mix before paring it back to almost nothing.

The Aminé collaboration “Jailbreak The Tesla” — out today with another Corey-directed clip — turned that process upside down, setting a destination and then figuring out how to get there. Ritchie knew he wanted to make a song called “Jailbreak The Tesla” that traced a path from jailbreaking iPod Touches in ninth grade (“this was Limewire on crack”) up to the present. “Jailbreakin’ it and you was hot shit/ what if you could do the same for the whip?/ Turn the X into a Batmobile rip.” Corey, in turn, decided to build a beat around car sounds, a process aided by a kalimba sample from LA producer Dylan Brady engineered to sound like Tokyo drifting.

The song is also a completed circle of sorts. Injury Reserve’s bond with Aminé was forged when he tweeted “get a tesla, take it to west coast customs,” a Ritchie lyric from Floss track “S On Ya Chest.” Ritchie made contact: “I hit him up and the first thing I was was, ‘Oh, I was really jealous that you had Girlpool on your album.'” He soon learned that Aminé’s introduction to their music had been Drive It Like It’s Stolen, which features a Tesla on the cover. So when they played Aminé songs they were working on, he knew which one he wanted to jump on: the one where Ritchie quoted the Tesla lyric that initially brought them together.

“When we originally made it, it had no feature spot on it,” Ritchie says. “It completely existed by itself — it was kind of a ride and it just broke down, and that was it. But it was kind of cool that it was this full circle thing because it was this line that attracted him to us, and that’s how we met, but it’s also the same concept of the song that we did together.” There’s another neat bit of symmetry here: Aminé is from Portland, a city that, like Phoenix, is not known for exporting rap stars. So “Jailbreak The Tesla” isn’t just a cool song, it’s the sound of two bright young rap artists from non-traditional hip-hop markets teaming up to carve out a new lane. Where that Tesla is headed remains uncertain, but judging by the sound of these tracks it’s not going to be boring.

Injury Reserve is out later this year on Loma Vista.