OAKLAND — For a festival with “noise” right there in the name, there was no more appropriate way to kick off than with Injury Reserve, one the noisiest alternative hip-hop groups making waves today.
The Phoenix trio, consisting of rappers Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie With a T, and producer Parker Corey, capped off the night at the New Parish with often nightmarish, bombastic and—as Injury Reserve’s reputation preceded it—often outlandish hip-hop.
The trio made a bold statement that backed up the buzz building since 2015 mixtape Live from the Dentist Office and to last year’s full-length self-titled debut, which this publication included in its best hip-hop albums of the year.
As the three took the stage, fog machines whirred into overdrive and enveloped the performance area. Strobes then reflected every which way off that fog, likely blinding half the audience as Injury Reserve, somewhere in the fog, launched into “Koruna & Lime,” one of numerous cuts from the 2019 album. It was an energetic start, but Injury Reserve was just warming up and had yet to get truly weird.
The aggressive (and less safe-for-word than the title implies) “GTFU” devolved into a mess of scattershot beats and screaming. “What’s Goodie” bounced back and forth between nearly traditional hip-hop verses and completely out of control breakdowns with more monstrous screams. If Busta Rhymes pursued some sort of Nordic metal, it might sound like something approaching these songs.
Shrouded in fog, Stepa and Ritchie carried a threatening presence, with only their silhouettes coming and going. On “Washed Up,” the two traded vocal lines with a gnarly delivery that grew from childlike to demonic. Their vocal tones carried as much weight as the pounding bass on tracks like “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe.”
Following “What a Year It’s Been,” the trio mellowed slightly on “Wax On” and “North Pole”—that, or we were becoming desensitized to the aggression. The latter, down-tempo song used choppy electronic samples before awkwardly picking up pace and spiraling firmly back into weird territory, while the following “ttktv” began with the ominous sounds of an alien encounter. It didn’t stay in one place for long, and began to sprint into Injury Reserve’s demonic comfort zone with an audience call and response chorus, massive distorted feedback and plenty of screaming. And the group hadn’t even gotten to crowd pleasers “Jawbreaker” and “Jailbreak the Tesla” yet.
The comparison to Death Grips was apt, though this trio also has a style and aesthetic all its own.
Earlier in the evening, Toronto’s Haviah Mighty and Maryland’s Heno (who lives in the Bay Area now) delivered energetic sets with a socially conscious message.
Haviah Mighty took full advantage of her 30 minutes on stage, showing the range in her songs, as well as her light-speed rhyme delivery from the outset of set opener “For Free.” With swagger to spare, she hopped around, kicking her leg out. The following “Fugazy” blended agressive verses with a melodic chorus. She wore track pants, which suited her because of how fast she rapped on new single “Smoke.”
The beat may have slowed on “Waves,” but certainly not her rhymes. As if to say she was serious now, Haviah Mighty removed her in-ear monitors for “Blame,” which featured another blistering speed rap. “Squad,” which grooved top piano samples, was melodic, upbeat and anthemic. “You ain’t fucking with my squad,” she declared over and over, with the audience joining in. The rapper’s emotive stage presence shined here.
Haviah Mighty closed by rapping two bars from her song “In Women Colour.” Beforehand, she spoke about how, growing up in Canada, where people believed racism didn’t reach, she began to silence her true feelings and experiences. But before making her 2019 album, 13th Floor, and this song, specifically, she came to a conclusion she couldn’t do it anymore.
The song, or the parts of it she rapped, dealt with how oppression and racism have changed over time but have never gone anywhere.
Heno, who opened the show, got a workout, repeatedly hopping from the stage to start mosh pits on the floor. Following an aggressive opener, possibly called “I Don’t Care,” he dived into the melodic “Coffee,” delivering triplet rhymes with ease and finishing up by playing some synth alongside the backing track. After another cut, this one featuring woozy synths, the artist spoke about being desensitized by violence growing up in Maryland; both by police—here he name-checked Freddie Gray—as well as black-on-black violence.
“Diversity doesn’t define you,” he said later in the set. “How you handle it defines you.”
Another song was about mortality, as Heno rapped about wanting to see his grandparents before finishing by striking the keys of a sampler.
Sandwiched between Haviah Mighty and Injury Reserve, crooner Tony Velour provided the show’s main support with an abbreviated set of AutoTuned synth-rap. That may not be an official genre, but it was one way to describe his blend of R&B, hip-hop and synth-pop.
Backed by a DJ and drummer, Velour opened with the keyboard-led “Elastic” and “Wild.” He dedicated another song to friends recently lost, while “Flourish” was Velour’s most traditional hip-hop track, dependent not on keys but on thumping bass.
Fighting the night’s storyline of outside-the-box songwriting, a couple of Velour’s songs included sets of screams, or in the case of new single “Unfazed,” punk. During this set closer, Velour pulled his mic stand apart and went writhing around on the stage before laying the microphone down and walking off.