The last 2 years have been a rollercoaster for Sacramento natives Zach Hill, Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett & Andy Morin. Their band, Death Grips, have gone from idea to unknown, Internet darlings to signing to LA Reid’s Epic label. This year saw the release of their first proper album, “The Money Store”, a cancelled tour, and the leaking of their follow up after a dispute with the label. Questions of their authenticity led to the posting of confidential internal label documents and them being dropped by the label. The legal aftermath remains to be seen.
The band formed in Sacramento, California in December 2010. Within 3 months a self- titled EP debuted, followed a couple months later by a mix-tape album, “Exmilitary.” Sounding little like anything that came before, their music is brutal and demanding, not something for a casual listener. The music is ostensibly hip-hop/rap, but they challenge the normal genre structures, distorting the usual 808/909 formula into a more industrial, tribal territory. The dense layering of their material becomes hypnotic, pulling you into the space it inhabits, especially in live presentation.
In performance, Death Grips is only the two primary members, with Zach Hill drumming while MC Ride channels his inner banshee to a backing track. Zach Hill’s years performing with live bands (most notably, Hella) manifests in their approach: a barrage of a set with no breaks. The band quickly takes the stage and steamrolls their way through a 45 min set, leaving the audience a rapturous sweaty pile. A bass-heavy mix of beats and backing music set the scene while a pair of flat screen tvs turned on their side play a stream of elements from their music videos. MC Ride stalks the stage barking his verses while Zach Hill beats a stripped down drum set into submission. House lights mostly stuck stark white with heavy use of strobe.
The performance I went to was all ages, their L.A. debut after cancelling at least two shows here. At the sell-out show, it was hard to tell how much of the audience were actual fans as opposed to kids that can’t get into many shows due to age and had an opportunity to see something they have heard of. It is similarly difficult to discern what the crowd makeup means to a rising independent hip-hop group in 2012. Made up mostly of young white males, the crowd lapped up the bombardment. A steady line queued up buying their t-shirts all night long, there were 2 main designs to choose from, a collage of flyers in black or white or a shirt with a 15 by 15 inch print of their latest album cover, a photo of an erect penis with the album title scrawled on the side. Several teenage girls took sphotos of themselves posing next to the shirt throughout the night. I can’t imagine too many people actually purchased that design.
A Twitter user, @m_brand compared them to the feeling that listening to Rage Against The Machine and Nine Inch Nails gave in the mid ‘90s. In my estimation, this sounds about right. Those bands brought a sense of danger to mainstream music that had been lost in the fluffy years of the ‘80s. Either in direct content or abstracted in videos and imagery, this element is something that has again gone missing in recent years, especially in the digital/ social media age. Death Grips have deftly used social media to present themselves as outsiders, attempting to breakdown the social structures that they are supposed to inhabit. If they are true to their vision any hopes of significant commercial success seems unlikely, but I can’t help but hope that I’m wrong, that people still get inspired by difficult artists, that things pan out differently for them.