All of the opportunities, contradictions, hopes, fears, and anxieties of the music industry in 2012 have been laid bare by Death Grips. In that time, they signed to major label Epic, planned an international tour, and released two labyrinthine albums, The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEB. They also got booted from the label, canceled the tour, and intentionally leaked NO LOVE DEEP WEB before Epic could make a cent off of the band’s hard work. Their open-wound punk-rap captures the darkest corners of the overwhelming internet culture, and yet they manage to explicitly deny the myriad assumptions of that culture as well.
Their meteoric rise passed right through the fame territory unscathed, defying the entrapments that come with being a musical firebrand, an audience loved rampage. While many artists complain about the intrusion of the media into their daily lives, Death Grips go to a place of radio silence — social media obtusity — deleting their Twitter account and refusing nearly every interview request. Consequence of Sound attempted to reach out to the band for a few words, only to be told the likelihood was slimmer than none. Their PR explained it thusly: “They adhere to a specific rulebook all their own… live by these ideals at all costs. They don’t compromise. Ever.” The few interviews they’ve done are incredibly terse, and always include notes about how little they say and how hard it is to get them to say that little. In a world in which Rihanna participates in hashtag trends and RiFF RAFF stops by podcasts to demand sushi, it’s hard not to pay attention to a band who seemingly doesn’t care if they have your attention. Burnett put it pointedly in a recent interview with Spin: “I’m very distrustful of human beings in general; I’m very distrustful of media.”
Part of the band’s appeal is that their story is so difficult to tell, an anomaly amid the new media transparency. Even the band’s current lineup sits behind a smokescreen of disinterest. We know that the beats are furnished by Zach Hill of veteran psych-rockers Hella (not to mention an in-demand collaborator for everyone from Mike Patton to Wavves), while Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett contributes the paint-peeling barks and startling yelps. But the inclusion of engineer Andy “Flatlander” Morin remains unclear, as he hasn’t been seen with the band since their Coachella performance early this year and no one’s said anything about his involvement.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The groundswell behind their 2011 mixtape Exmilitary and some reportedly brutal live shows led to their signing with Epic, which segued into that coming out party of a Coachella set and the near universal love for The Money Store.
Nearly any other band in the world would ride the wave into the scheduled world tour jubilantly, but Death Grips seemed disinterested in appeasing the demand for live appearances. Their since-deleted Twitter account simply announced “we are dropping out to complete our next album NO LOVE see you when it’s done. (there are no longer any scheduled shows).” In the Spin interview, Hill explained that he was more interested in pushing their art in new directions rather than reliving their old achievements: “with all due respect to everybody, nothing comes before what I want to do creatively.” This decision (which went entirely without consult from label, publicity, or booking agents) was the first step away from the mega-watt lights, and certainly wasn’t the last.
Focusing on a band with this disinterest could be construed as chasing the hard-to-get type, except for the fact of their output’s evocative intensity, everything earned thematically. Take the hollowed barks and just-off electro-thrum of “I’ve Seen Footage”. One listen and you’re unsettled, confused, but certainly drawn into their fire. A few more listens and, though no less physically affected, you start to parse out themes that arc throughout the band’s bio: impressionistic anxiety (“Where ya think you’re goin’ / Ain’t goin’ nowhere / Satellite, handle that”), the overwhelmingly available evils of modernity (the entrancing availability of real footage of hit and runs and a cop shooting someone’s head “off his shoulders in slo mo”), and a fear of other people (the grimacing “don’t touch me”).
Sure, some ill will undoubtedly remained after the tour cancellation, but the promise of more Death Grips material squelched the uproar. In the end, however, more Death Grips material caused nothing but uproar. Just before the initial release date of the album, the band tweeted that the label was pushing their release date back indefinitely, so they leaked the disc along with a cover picturing a penis with the album’s title printed on it. In the Spin interview, Hill explained that this decision was inspired by his brother’s discussion of the card game Magic: The Gathering: in one of the game’s strategies “you un-summon people’s magic by using their own magic against them. It’s totally control; you put yourself in the same place as the other person, so they have nothing on you, it’s like an illusion.” As might be expected, Epic didn’t like this very much, and let the band know, writing e-mails about how “upset and disappointed” they were, and how they will “not pay [sic] for an album that thousands of people have already downloaded.” And we know that because the band leaked those supposedly internal e-mails on their Facebook.
At first glance many attributed the messy ending at Epic to the band (understandable after the tour cancellation fell entirely on their own heads and the caption “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA NOW FUCK OFF” above one of those e-mails) but the story they’ve selectively revealed shows at least some of that belongs to the label. In an interview with Pitchfork, Hill explained that the team at Epic that initially brought them in were fired, and they “were left with zero real contacts at the label and we couldn’t get people to listen to the new music.” But then again, what were they expecting signing to the label run by X-Factor judge L.A. Reid (who, by the by, Hill repeatedly defends whole-heartedly)? Hill also blithely explains that “there’s massive intent behind our decisions,” which is to say that there is no chance they went into this decision without thinking it through.
After the explosion of Odd Future, another dark hip-hop set with controversial themes, perhaps both sides thought the time had come for something somewhat similar to take over. Perhaps the label saw dollar signs and the band saw the opportunity to infiltrate (a word used in their few interviews pretty frequently) the outside world. In his book Everybody Loves Our Town, Mark Yarm explains a similar problem that arose in the grunge scene: a band like Nirvana or Soundgarden explodes into mass market popularity, and dozens of other bands get handed major label deals only to get unfocused attention and trouble when they don’t match what those wildly successful bands accomplished.
But Death Grips aren’t Odd Future. Rather than saying something homophobic or sexist and looking for you to grimace at their bleak interpretation of the world, Death Grips walk off into the hazy sunset after delivering a message of accepting the reality rather than shrinking from it: “the music has emotional suffering on the darker and deeper side of what the human experience is like, but it’s also a beast — you could take a bite out of a bowl while listening to it,” Hill told Pitchfork.
They’re showing you things that aren’t societally “normal” as if they were: the image of a penis is just something sitting on your iPod as you walk around listening to their music, talking openly about horrific videos of shootings and maulings, accepting that cacophony sometimes out-duels organized melody. They dropped that Schlong Song of an album in the world’s lap knowing full well it would end their major label tenure. They delivered gritty explosions like “Guillotine” into a world totally unprepared for it, only to let the art speak for itself, let the world take it in and interpret it themselves. Death Grips provide a serious challenge and one entirely worth undertaking. “We’re already existing a year from now,” Hill told Spin; we’re all just trying to catch up.