Even though Phoenix gets its name from a regenerative mythological beast, no rapper has ever risen from it. Its most famous MC is John McCain. A mere six-hour drive from L.A., the capitol of Arizona might as well exist in an alien dimension where the microwave sun bleaches humans and buildings to shades of burnt salmon and Sheriff Joe Arpaio was given carte blanche to make the Marquis de Sade look like Mary Poppins.
There are 4.3 million people within the metropolitan area and other than a Ludacris protégé perplexingly named Willy Northpole, no one had even come close to breaking out — until Injury Reserve came through and crushed the gila monsters. In the last two years, the trio composed of Ritchie With a T (22), Stepa J. Groggs (29) and producer Parker Corey (21) instantly became the best rap group from the land that brought you Gin Blossoms.
Six months ago, they relocated to a large house in Pasadena. “The decision was simple,” Ritchie says before a rehearsal at Bedrock Studios in Echo Park, the day before the group embarks on a cross-country tour with The Underachievers. “[Our manager] had already moved out here and we were always visiting for work or meetings, and we knew that we’d hit a ceiling with Phoenix. New York would’ve been cool, but this was closer, cheaper, and even people from New York are starting to come out here.”
Their move underscores the ongoing east-to-west shift of the music business. It also illustrates the internet’s limitations. A generation ago, Injury Reserve would have had to first move to L.A., New York or Atlanta to blow up, but by offering up a pair of free EPs on Mediafire, they quickly built a sustainable, decentralized fan base to accompany their burgeoning following in Phoenix’s hardcore punk world.
Yet with a few notable exceptions, crossing over still requires establishing at least a part-time headquarters in one of the three rap industry capitals.
“So many people are happy with finding their fan base and sliding headfirst into that,” Corey says. “Like, all right, I’m an underground rapper so I have to stick to that and make these songs about these subjects. Or it’s the other side. We’re trying to exist in between all of that — which is where we are naturally.”
If every artist wants to defy comparisons and subgenre, Injury Reserve are the rarity who pull it off. Two of their biggest songs, “Ttktv” and “Oh Shit!!!,” exist in natural polarity but feel versatile and experimental rather than contrived. One is a jazzy two-part suite that sounds excavated from a never-heard late-night Soulquarian jam session at Electric Ladyland. The other is neo-crunk reminiscent of a Youngbloodz deep cut, on which Ritchie proclaims, “This ain’t jazz rap, this that spazz rap/This that raised by the internet, ain’t had no dad rap.”
It’s a sound rooted in the freedom that exists when there is no local tradition you’re expected to adhere to. Last month’s excellent Drive It Like It’s Stolen sounds like a hover-converted futuristic hooptie run on a fusion of Hell Hath No Fury, The Bake Sale, hyphy and jerkin’ music. If you already lived through that era as an adult, it ostensibly would make you feel old; yet the energy and imagination suffuse it with youthful adrenaline.
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“I want people listening to our music for the first time to be like, ‘What the fuck is this … who the fuck is this?’” Ritchie says. “Not, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ or, ‘This shit reminds me of that.’ We want to make songs that you have to brace yourself for.”
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