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After Injury Reserve, RiTchie gets back in the game

The Phoenix rapper RiTchie, on the heels of his genre-breaking group Injury Reserve, returns from a creative block with his solo debut, <em>Triple Digits [112]</em>.
Patrick Driscoll
The Phoenix rapper RiTchie, on the heels of his genre-breaking group Injury Reserve, returns from a creative block with his solo debut, Triple Digits [112].

Most mornings at his home in Phoenix, RiTchie rises with the sun. "Wifey's nine-to-five, so I try to stay on the same schedule," he tells me. He converted a spare room into a home studio in the house they bought a year ago, so he doesn't have to go far to record. But because it faces south, it's also the hottest room in the house. By afternoon, he's usually cooking in more ways than one.

"When I'm basically really deep into making a song, it's piping hot in here because the sun's beating on it."

That notorious Phoenix sun serves as an unrelenting backdrop, and co-conspirator of sorts, on Triple Digits [112], a solo debut that finds RiTchie, formerly one-third of the experimental rap group Injury Reserve, packing his own metaphorical heat. He was in the middle of recording last July, while Phoenix was suffering a record-setting hot streak. For 31 days, temps soared to 110 degrees or above. "I was doing this record while Phoenix broke the record," he says. "So in between takes, I'm turning the A/C on and off." The record highs coincided with an internal pressure he felt to produce something that would match the eclectic, technical standard he'd set with Injury Reserve.

The album finds RiTchie taking respite from all that. Not just because it's his first outing apart from Injury Reserve or By Storm — the duo he and producer Parker Corey formed in the wake of losing Injury Reserve member Stepa J. Groggs, who passed in 2020. Triple Digits [112] is a release from the stifling expectation RiTchie felt to outdo himself and surpass a discography that's easily one of hip-hop's most experimental. Unlike the avant-garde 2021 LP, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, which found the trio obliterating genre norms, RiTchie wanted to go for something ... fun: rappin' about rappin' again.

The resulting title track, which started as an innocuous observation of his city's refusal to take shelter in spite of the extreme weather advisory, could easily double as commentary on the sweltering state of rap. "I ain't rapped about rappin' in a minute / cause I don't like wasting no wax on you n*****," he raps on "RiTchie Valens," going for the jugular with vocals that melt over the track. On "Dizzy," he and Aminé trade bars while taking out trash rappers. The two early singles from the album showcase RiTchie's pared down approach this go round, even if it gave him pause at first. "I was insecure about 'RiTchie Valens' and 'Dizzy,' 'cause I thought it was a pop record," he admits. "It's weird, but it's very straightforward." The creative angst RiTchie felt in the lead up to Triple Digits [112], shows up here, too. On "Looping," he gets meta, detailing how it feels to be haunted by the blank canvas of a new beat. Yet the newfound elbow room still finds him stretching creatively, as he harmonizes with himself over plodding basslines and yowls adlibs that register somewhere between Gucci Mane and Godzilla.

While he harbors no intention of going solo for good, RiTchie definitely sounds reinvigorated. At a moment where rap is being fueled by competition again, he's found himself right back in his creative wheelhouse. And the heat is on.


This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Rodney Carmichael: The day before releasing the first single for the album, "RiTchie Valens," you posted on Instagram about how intimidating or defeating the process of making music had become because of the reputation that Injury Reserve and By Storm carries. How hard has it been trying to live up to this catalog where it feels like each project you all put out is more adventurous, more boundary pushing, even weirder than the last one?

RiTchie: Yeah, it's crazy. Honestly, it's stressful, I'm not gonna lie. And I think what makes it so stressful is Parker, as a producer, he's just ready to go. He's ready and he's got it. And this could be naïve of me, but I feel like on a production basis it's a bit easier to show growth record by record. As a rapper and a lyricist and a songwriter, it's a lot more complex to show growth.

But I think a lot of it, honestly, is all internal stuff.

What makes it harder to show growth as a rapper, as an MC?

To be able to push it vocally, it's really mental and approach-based and it's a lot of decoding. Because, as rappers — did you ever rap?

That's a funny question. I mean, as a teenager, young adult, I tried my hand at it.

The fundamentals are very formulaic. But what's crazy — and I think that this is the more interesting thing — the fundamentals have drastically changed so much. I think it has a lot to do with technology, because fundamentals had so much to do with how you had to eventually record that record: We're doing 16 bars, hook, 16 bars, hook. And now, most people don't even write anymore. They're just recording on top of each other and they're punching in. But what's so cool about it — It ended up changing the whole formula. The evolution of the rap flow, it's based off of technology. It's so fascinating to me.

As a rapper, you get ingrained in this structure on how things need to work and even how things need to rhyme. And obviously that's changed over time. Regional dialect has a lot to do with it. In the South, you can rhyme things that I can't rhyme in Phoenix. They're not the same word. but I just think it's just so much more formulaic. So it's like, well, what am I drawing my inspiration from? But I just think it's harder to evolve.

Especially if you have that as a goal, which all rappers probably don't necessarily.

We all have just such different goals on what we want to do while we're on Apple Music, but I just think the parameters are a little bit harder to push as a rapper. But if you can do it, it's mind blowing. Like when you hear someone like billy woods, just how singular his style is. We're gonna be looking back in 40 years like this is John Coltrane or something like that.

I get crazy hearing him and like [Young] Thug. Him, Thug, Frank Ocean. There's just a few people where I'm like, 'Man, the way that they look at this music s*** is just different.'

I would seriously put you in that same category, especially when it comes to flow. How do you approach recording, because some things you've said about your process in the past make me think it might be as spontaneous as you just sitting in front of a mic and letting it rip?

It's funny because it is and it isn't. You remember that Kanye song where he's just doing a bunch of gibberish for four minutes? That's how all of my songs start. It's that instinctual, emotional reaction that we all get to music. I try to capture that, because after that it's all calculated. If the calculation can just be me articulating what I'm saying, then that's good. But what I don't want to be calculated is that initial feeling. 'Cause the feeling is obviously everything. Well, it's not everything — especially in rap music. But if you can make the feeling, then a very particular direction — whether it just be a great bar or a good song concept or something that's being articulated — that's when you get 3 Stacks, Mos Def, you know. It's those people where they can combine this feeling and there's articulation that is just unmatched.

When I'm hearing these beats, the mics on every time I do that. I don't really do the whole, let me see if I like the beat. And then let me pen and pad. A lot of it is just train of thought and spontaneity. But it's mostly gibberish, and then I go in and I have to write to it after. But the good thing about doing that is I get all those interesting nuances and some stuff that's a bit more melodic or just a bit less conventional than if I were to write it down. Because when you're writing it down, you're automatically putting yourself on a grid.

How would those self-imposed expectations manifest while making this album? What would happen when you sat down to record a new track?

Is this enough? Have I heard this before? The type of questions that I think are always healthy to ask yourself, but I would take a little too seriously. It's a bit of insecurity, but it's also just a bit of competitiveness. It was obviously dramatic and just a bit OD. I think that I would just be in these situations where I'm making something and maybe it's not the best thing in the world. And I'm immediately like, this isn't enough.

I've kind of learned over time that not every song is the next single. Not every song is going to make the album. But it's all like a workout. So I'm flexing my muscles, I'm stretching, I'm figuring things out. And what I'm doing in this process is going to benefit me somewhere else, and it almost always does because I'm almost always learning something new about myself or the process.

Was any of that expectation you placed on yourself wrapped up in Grogg's passing and the challenge of continuing to make music without him?

No, I don't think so. That hasn't really affected me creatively. I mean, it's just loneliness. The only thing that's affected me is like, Damn, I got to write this verse. Cause I used to have my boy [and] he's going to go crazy. He was always going to come in and ground the songs. I think that was his strength, his grounding element. Especially the more and more I got into just kind of letting go. He was bringing everything home.

How would you say this solo journey is transforming you as an artist?

So much of this stuff comes in cycles. And you always think that you're moving forward as a creative. But everything that you've done in the past is so beneficial. I wouldn't change anything about By The Time I Get To Phoenix. But, creatively, I spent so much time trying to deconstruct the genre. Now that I have that in my bag, I feel like there's some things that I can combine with some of my older material that could just make it even more me.

My music has always been rather personal — whether that's in a bright light or in a dark light. It's just been a fun process to kind of always be recycling this stuff. Cause once I feel like there's not more that I can learn and more that I can build off of, I probably shouldn't do this anymore.

You have a line on "RiTchie Valens" that reminds me of a Pitchfork interview you did a couple years ago with Dylan Green where you said, "It's hard for you to just rap about rapping." But it sounds like you're intentionally doing that a little bit on this album. Are you frustrated, to some extent, with the state of rap?

I'm never really frustrated with the state of rap because I'm always such a big fan of it and I love what's going on. I think it's just the competitive nature. When I first came out, that's all I did. I remember my manager being like, 'You rap too much like a battle rapper.' That's all I did was just talk s*** about rap. I kind of outgrew that because I really don't like that.

What I really don't like is when people [get] to the point where all they rap about is, like, [their] rap career. It's very strange — and some people it's their whole market. Like, Drake. Even Hov does that now. It's really just rap elite, like competitive. And that's fine. I've just always tried to not do that — not in a sense of pretentiousness. I just felt like maybe that's not my place. Maybe that's not what my goal is here. But then, as corny as it sounds, I'm like, man, De La Soul's got one on every record. They got a couple, you know what I mean? They got a couple where they got to get it off. That's my favorite group. At the end of the day, that is rap. And sometimes it's just fun to get it off.

I imagine that having fans whose only expectation is that you constantly defy their expectations probably makes it even harder in terms of trying to come up with something new and fresh every time.

Yeah, for sure. But I guess I would rather be in that situation than the opposite, because man, the people that got to make the same record every time, that sounds like hell. It's at least fun that when I put it out there, they at least are open because a lot of people are not in that position and I would much rather be in this position than that position for sure.

I was just looking to make something that I liked, that I felt like my boys wanted to ride around to a little bit more. There's a time and place for everything, but that's what I wanted to do with this music. I wanted to make something that I could send to my brother and he's like, this is fire.

Do you feel underappreciated in terms of what it is you do? Because Injury Reserve historically kind of got classified as — use whatever adjective you want to — from alternative to whatever else.

I feel like no one feels appreciated, but at the same time I'm definitely appreciated enough. This s*** is doing well. Like, we got a house. I'm living comfortably. I'm definitely not mad at anything. I'm just competitive. If anything, it's really the peer thing. I wish the people that I thought were my contemporaries thought that I was their contemporary.

Even in the hip-hop landscape. 'Cause some people tried to make us outside of hip-hop, even though we've never, ever wanted to be or tried to be [anything else], and that's why that's been our biggest insecurity. Because I've never not thought I wasn't a rapper.

We've never made a song and not tried to make a rap song.

But at the same time, y'all were pushing boundaries.

Yeah, but we pushing boundaries in the name of rap music. I'm not one of those singer-songwriter dudes. I'm a rapper. I've never thought of this any other way. I don't even think of music that way. That's how we've always been. And it may sound different, but like, even if I'm singing the whole song, I'm rapping.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
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