Slowcore Hip-Hop: Injury Reserve’s Cutting Edge Sound Is Actually Really Old

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The music of Slowcore artists is generally characterized by downbeat melodies, slower tempos and minimalist arrangements. With its roots in the late 1980s, it crystallized as a distinct genre in the early and mid ’90s under the helm of critically acclaimed groups such as Galaxie 500, Low, and Codeine, despite remaining little-known to this day.”

-via Rate Your Music

In the wake of Injury Reserve’s 2016 album Floss, the group has become synonymous with catchy, intelligent pop-rap. The album’s breakout singles  “All This Money” and “Oh Shit!!!” blended contemporary sounds like trap and hyphy with the groups left-field tendencies, and tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, to great effect. Floss’ left-of-center charms were lauded in critical circles, and skyrocketed the young group into internet celebrity on most hip-hop oriented online communities. But there’s something to Injury Reserve that’s lurking beneath that silly, bombastic world they presented on Floss.

For those who listened to their debut mixtape Live From The Dentist Office, or have now listened to the first single, “North Pole”, from their new EP, there is this other sound to the group, a really interesting sound. At first, it might be easy to peg it as just another melancholic hip-hop song, but there is more to it. I’ll admit I personally didn’t think too much of it either, at least until I read Robert Christgau’s review of their debut mixtape for Noisey. He writes, On two successive six-minute closers [“TTKTV” and “Falling”], however, they either run out of ideas or mistake slowcore for a good one.”  

(Note: Robert Christgau is famous for both his importance to the history of American music criticism, and for being kind of an asshole)

Slowcore is a genre I find I listen to a lot, but one that I had never really connected to Injury Reserve. Maybe that just proves I’m an idiot, or that Christgau really is the genius he’s convinced he is, but either way, it was the perfect label for what made those songs feels so distinctive. Just look at the meditative and repetitive song structures, matched with the almost glacially slow melodies, and dark song topics. The brooding minimalism matched with emotional maximalism. Those fundamental components of slowcore are all there. These songs were really only a few guitars away from being Low or Duster.

But the striking thing about this sound which Injury Reserve is pioneering, is that it took until 2017 to find it. Or rather, that more than a decade after slowcore’s brutal death to post-rock at the beginning of the new millennium, it’s somehow back in such a radically new form.

Now, I don’t want to imply that hip-hop taking on the defining characteristics of slowcore is a completely unprecedented thing, because that would be wholly inaccurate. The most notable attempt at the idea was back in 2001, in the dying days of the slowcore. Seminal UK slowcore act Hood released their magnum opus, Cold House, an album which added elements of glitch pop, and indietronica to their classic slowcore foundation. But while adding in electronic elements to their sound was a revelation of its own, there was something even more special hidden away in there. On the song “Branches Bare”, they UK group hooked up with American MCs Dose-One and Why?. Looking back at it now it’s eerily predictive.

After the more conventional, slowcore preamble of the song, Why? gives a truly amazing, melancholic, and monotone verse, a rapping style which he had perfected with his own solo material, and as a part of hip-hop pioneers cLOUDDEAD.

We spit in the pond to give the fish something to pray to

Sometimes the sunset doesn't want to be photographed

We are no tigers in the picked-bone grasslands

How a deer knows a dork in a thrift store hat

(And that is that)” 

You can just imagine copy and pasting that verse into a song like Injury Reserve’s “North Pole” without losing an iota of it’s feeling. But this was a wholly conventional slowcore song, made by a conventional slowcore band. It’s flirtation with hip-hop is presented as a novelty, albeit, a great one. More importantly, this song came out almost two decades ago, I doubt Injury Reserve, or frankly many people at all, have even heard of it. No, the truly fascinating element of Injury Reserve’s slowcore sound, is the idea that they stumbled upon it entirely by accident. An accident which is uniquely tied to their location, and place in the music industry.

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona Injury Reserve are not from a conventional hip-hop city. In fact, the group had almost no interaction with other hip-hop in their early days. Their first performances would be house shows alongside Indie Rock and Punk acts. Acts which they would consider their artistic contemporaries despite those pesky, surface level genre differences. Take for instance the close relationship the group keeps with the band Slow Hollows, whose lead singer is featured on “North Pole”.

What little hip-hop interaction they had was with local cloud-rap kids like GLASSPOPCORN and what they were listening to on the internet. They existed outside the grander narrative, constructing a sound out of the pieces they were given. Deeply influenced by the hyper-emotional trend of hip-hop kicked off by Kanye with 808s and Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (which the group named as their collective favorite album), they tried to reconcile those worlds within their sound.

Intensely Emotional Hip-Hop + Slow Indie-Rock Songwriting

And Viola! In through the back-door of the slowcore world, Injury Reserve had arrived. In biology they call it convergent evolution, when two species who are distantly related arrive at similar features. In music we call it talent and providence.

Now Injury Reserve are clearly not slowcore in the conventional sense, and to say “oh check out this new slowcore act Injury Reserve” would probably confuse anyone un-familiar with the genre, and even more so anyone who was familiar with it. The idea of hip-hop living by slowcore’s rules though, even if we don’t call it that, is something a fan of either genre should be interested in, and something Injury Reserve should be praised for, at least enough so that’ll make more of it.

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