Throughout their three year history, Death Grips thrived on confrontation. Their first record, 2011′s ExMillitary, was a messy, puzzling, and delightfully primal stew of industrial rap, featuring what sounded like a shouting hobo plastered on top of Pink Floyd and Beastie Boys samples. Bloggers and music fans were polarized by this release; while some were repulsed by the vocal delivery and chaotic instrumentals, others were tantalized by its feral quality, wanting to know more about this mysterious Californian trio that refused to play by anyone’s rules.
The characters behind this provocative release turned out to be just as secretive and anachronistic as the music itself. Zach Hill was already an accomplished musician, having played an integral part in the noise rock duo Hella since 2001. He has also been affiliated with numerous other artists of varying genres, such as Teem Sleep, Xiu Xiu, and Wavves. By contrast Stefan Burnett, aka MC Ride, was a Hampton University dropout who lived on the same street as Hill. He was certainly not as prolific as his future band-mate—following the demise of a rap project featuring his brother, he spent ten years working at a pizza restaurant, painting in his spare time. Not much is known about the third member Flatlander; besides production work with Zach Hill’s project Face Tat, Death Grips is the most exposure he’s ever gotten as a musician.
A group this varied, with each member existing in radically different stages in their musical careers, doesn’t succeed under regular circumstances. The level of conception and ambition is simply too contrasting and the egos of the successful members often smother the voices of more inexperienced bandmates. Reading or listening to Death Grips interviews, however, it becomes impossible to see how this multimedia experimental project couldn’t work. All three of them are insular and focused, possessing great knowledge and confidence about their artistic ideals. You get the impression that everything they do must be completely intentional, that their reticence is an offensive decision, removing the traditional artist-fan dynamic. Though Death Grips might have been easier to figure out if they had of been more communicative, their subsequent releases saw them follow their own distinct path, taking some musical left turns that few would have predicted.
In 2012 Death Grips released two albums: The Money Store, containing less samples and more creative hooks, and No Love Deep Web, a dark, minimalistic work that pushed rapper MC Ride’s tortured bellow to the forefront. It was the latter of the two that landed the band in hot water. Despite objections from their label, Epic Records, the band released No Love for free online. Also, the cover was a picture of a penis with the album name scrawled up it in permanent marker. By this time, it was firmly established that Death Grips thrived on interpersonal as well as musical confrontation. This was further evinced by later incidents—the cancelled shows, the surprise releases.
All leading up to their disbandment in the summer of 2014 as well as the surprise release of yet another album, Niggas on the Moon. Though we haven’t heard the last of Death Grips (Niggas is the first half of a double album; the second, Jenny Death, will be released sometime in the near future), it seems like a fitting time to examine their career as a whole, to tear off the veil that concealed their true intentions, their overarching artistic vision.
Niggas on the Moon seems like a perfect vehicle for this sort of retrospective dissection. It’s a logical progression of their sound, tearing apart their fundamental elements and reassembling them into fascinating and unsettling shapes. Thankfully, they continue to oppose the listener as well. Everything about this record, from the awful cover font to the presence of Bjork on all eight tracks, seems tailored to defy expectations. And within this tattered landscape, Death Grips have created a dazzling, enigmatic record, whose overall meaning seems interminably elusive.
Despite the outlandish nature of the album, the instrumentals are quite docile, preferring to layer sounds on top of each other in dizzying soundscapes rather than pummel the ears of the listener. On “Up My Sleeves” MC Ride delivers his opening lyrics in a hypnotically conversational tone, giving way to swirl of buzzing synthesizers, the ghost of Bjork’s digitally manipulated croon dancing in the background. It’s a curious switch-up, and it makes the unexpected tempo change at the two minute mark even more jarring. Programmer Flatlander has given the music a life of its own, a collection of burbling, off-kilter electronics, cut and pasted into a thousand tiny shapes, lurking in reserve or exploding in glitchy breakdowns.
The Bjork samples are treated in the same way. Her ethereal voice is stretched, compressed, beaten and broken, filling in the nooks and crannies in tracks where additional instrumentation is tastefully absent. She takes on a thousand different roles on this album, many of them vital to the progression and character of the individual tracks. On “Black Quarterback” she becomes the main hook, a small looped phrase that’s a neat counterpoint to MC Ride’s frenetic rambling. On the closer “Big Dipper” a handful of notes bounce along with the pulsing beat, barely holding it together until the big finale, where the song collapses into an ambient whirlpool of layered singing. Is her presence really necessary on every single track? Probably not. But it’s an interesting change, especially given the overtly masculine demeanor of their regular frontman.
The vocals inhabit a curious place in this record. Again, a sense of confrontation is felt here, with MC Ride retreating into his own twisted imagination, spitting out lyrics that are both evocative and indecipherable. (Confrontation by retreat is an odd notion.) But it seems apt when discussing the music of Death Grips, who have a penchant for imagery that addresses a specific threat. Here there is no tangible danger; the vocals vary in intensity and subject matter seemingly without cause: “Don’t it feel good to drive a bus/people need to get picked up” MC Ride cries over a pulsating synth line on “Say Hey Kid.” Soon after there’s another tempo change, accompanied by a rising drone and the urgent blaring of a lonely keyboard. The outrageous lyrics are swept away by the ensuing progression; any meaning his words might have had is lost in the digital chaos.
Understandably, the ambiguous nature of the lyrics could be irritating to some. In all honesty, the fact that I could barely decode a single line on the album was kind of annoying to me. However, I get what they were trying to do. To me, this is a perfectly natural evolution, shying away from any sort of clear lyrical narrative (like what was found on ExMillitary). They almost seem at war with themselves, determined to destroy the very essence of their past sound, as well as the audience’s perception of it. Who would have expected, listening to the opening bars of “Beware” in 2011, that Death Grips would ever drop a song like “Fuck Me Out?” Here MC Ride’s vocals mellow from a biting snarl to an earnest plea, babbling “fuck, fuck, me” over and over in the song’s coda like a broken computer. On “Have a Sad Cum” there’s an equally perplexing vocal sample, a ridiculous voice relaying the song’s title to us before a sort of tribal rhythm kicks in underneath the chorus of stuttering manipulated voices. It’s kind of weird to think that, while this is certainly the band’s least abrasive release, it’s by far their most ‘punk ‘ album yet.
Yes, punk. Death Grips are a punk band, one of the last of their kind.
But what does ‘punk’ mean exactly in today’s musical landscape? Death Grips didn’t rebel against some autocratic government. They aren’t some group of dissatisfied, nihilistic youth, challenging the bombastic structure of progressive rock songs with three power chords and a drugged-up singer. Instead, they challenged the structure of their own music, as well as the relationship between themselves and other people. This, I think, is why we all got so excited about Death Grips. The inherent characteristics of a regular band just didn’t interest them. It was all about confrontation with these guys, and staying one step ahead of the audience.
Perhaps Jenny Death will never even be released. That would be something, wouldn’t it? One final refutation of expectations, abandoning their fans with the first half of a dense and confusing double LP. I’d be fine with it though. Niggas on the Moon is an extremely satisfying album on its own, a perversion of their original sound that manages to find beauty and perfection through layers of synthetic chaos. If this is the last transmission we get from Death Grips, we should be content knowing that we witnessed one of the last great punk bands cement their place in music history.