“Who the fuck is this?” I asked my mate Jim as he played some strange, oppressive and aggressive hip-hop. It turned out we were listening to "Death Grips". Jim can’t remember how he found out about them but he played them for me a few months back. I won’t lie and tell you that I instantly fell in love but we listened to quite a lot of Death Grips that night whilst sharing our recent hip-hop finds.
There’s something hypnotic in the abrasive atmosphere created by the Sacramento based trio. And it stuck with me in the days after my initial introduction. I downloaded all their music available to me. Much of it directly from the Death Grips website (nothing says that you’re in it for the music quite like giving it away free of charge). I keep going back to their LP ‘The Money Store’ again and again. Like I said, there’s something hypnotic about Death Grips.
Death Grips is a rap group. Sort of. I’ve read countless reviews of Death Grips and no one can really decide how to categorise their sound. Experimental hip-hop, rap rock. one even tried on "Noise Rap"; which makes sense but made-up genres fuck me right off. So let's just say Death Grips is a rap group.
The band do however record rap with a punk ethos. A garageband in the true sense of the term. Death Grips even make their own music videos, many of which are as inventive as the music they’re set to. Their sound reflects this punk attitude. Entirely forward thinking, Death Grips sound original in their use of sampling but the anger and attitude of their music is reminiscent of late 80s hip-hop groups such as Geto Boys and NWA.
“We practice the art of deconstruction with the devotion of possessed fanatics.” - Stefan Burnett, the group's front man.
There’s a reason that most reviewers make good use of the word ‘abrasive’. The musical equivalent of Graham Greene’s The Destructors, Death Grips often sound like a collapsing building. In a good way.
One reason it’s so difficult to describe the sound of Death Grips is the way they record. Playing live the band breaks into a simpler threesome of drums, keyboards and vocals. When recording though anything is game. The band source samples from their everyday lives, bums in the street, conversations with friends or even from videos on the internet. ‘System Blower’ from The Money Store contains a distorted sample of Serena Williams sampled directly from Youtube. For the most part you’d be hard pressed to hear the source of the samples as they are so frequently distorted and twisted into unique and bizarre shapes.
“We all carry around camcorders; we’ll record sounds with digital cameras and use those sounds on our records, with a real disregard for sound quality. We’ll build something around something that’s just fucked. Like, you shouldn’t use it. But there’s a majestic quality to that rawness.” Drummer Zach Hill told Pitchfork.
But who are Death Grips and why are they so angry? After offering to write this article I realised I knew nothing about the band themselves. I texted Jim and he didn’t know anything about them either. When I started researching the band I discovered that nobody really knows much about them. Turns out that ‘reclusive’ is a word as synonymous with the band as the word ‘abrasive’. In particular vocalist Stefan Burnett (MC Ride). I only found one interview with Burnett himself and that interview was conducted by fellow abrasive, experimental musician Alec Empire. The rest of the band is made up of Zach Hill on drums and Andy Morin on keyboards. Production is handled mainly by Hill and Morin but the band is always and inarguably a collaborative effort.
What I did find in the research does help explain how they arrived at their style. Much of it comes from the city they inhabit. Sacramento. It’s in California apparently.
“Sacramento is a slow but watch your back kind of town, stuck inside the downward spiral of a never ending Twin Peaks trip. Last week someone decided to call it quits on the train tracks and their decapitated head was found close by.” Burnett told Alec Empire.
Grim stuff. But it’s telling of the atmosphere they create. “There is a toxic air of desperation here that lingers on and on. It’s disturbing and inspiring.”
“There is a toxic air of desperation here that lingers on and on. It’s disturbing and inspiring.”
Burnett and Hill were neighbors who used to hang out and talk about doing something new with hip-hop. Hill who had been playing drums in other bands for years brought in his friend Morin and eventually they got jamming together and realised they were all on the same page.
Death Grips was born through dissatisfaction. Dissatisfied with their lives and dissatisfied with the state of modern hip-hop. “...shameless pride in total ignorance pushed over spineless beats that sound like senility...oppressor worship force fed to the masses by entertainers disguised as artists…”
No doubt a jibe at acts like Kanye West who recently claimed his own tiresome auto-tuned dirge to be ‘perfect’. The band knew that hip-hop could be and should be much more interesting and fulfilling than current acts.
However with all the anger and the dissatisfaction in the music there never seems to be any overt political agenda to Death Grips, which means that as oppressive and abrasive as the band gets it never preaches; allowing you to sit back and enjoy the guided chaos.
Signed this year to major label Epic/Columbia the band got a big break but Burnett and the band have been careful not to change attitudes telling Alec Empire, “The opportunity we have been presented with is a double edged sword and we handle it as such”.
They definitely weren't bluffing. Chances are if you've heard of Death Grips you’ll be aware that their latest album, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, was released recently online and completely free, and against the wishes of their label. And speaking of handling double-edged swords; the artwork for Death Grips latest effort is a huge, hard cock with the album title written on it with a Sharpie. They teased the release on Twitter and stated that the label would be hearing it with you for the first time too. Not a planned stunt. A genuine ‘fuck you’. Epic/Columbia wouldn’t confirm a release date so the band just released it anyway. The punk attitude alive and strong.
So now is as good a time as any to give Death Grips a go. A rap group that sounds unlike any other and who care more about getting their music out there than they do about getting paid. A band who would rather release an album for free than wait for a big label to stop pussy-footing around. A band who would also slap a big, fat cock on it for good measure. What are you waiting for?
“... we don’t want to make anything that supports indifference.” Zach Hill.