Death Grips - The Powers That B
by Rob Scott
Death Grips are the most hyped-up, obsessed-over band you’ve never heard of. Unless you have heard of them in which case you know what I mean. Death Grips’ fan-base gives meaning to the term “cult following”. It’s like a discerning music critic, an anti-social internet-meme obsessed teenage boy, and an astrological conspiracy theorist all spat into a petri dish and developed an online community. Scroll through the Death Grips subreddit and you’ll find everything from in-depth analyses of their lyrics, repeated private in-jokes, and theories of when the next Death Grips release will arrive based on lunar cycles, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and tweets from obscure Twitter accounts which may or may not be anything to do with this Sacramento based California experimental hip-hop band. Comment sections even became the drawing boards for plots to break into record stores thought to be holding copies of The Powers That B before its release. The devotion is both impressive, and mildly disturbing; a cultural studies thesis waiting to happen.
My petri dish analogy may not be entirely accurate, as it is Death Grips themselves that cleverly engineer this hype. The 2011 mixtape Exmilitary and the 2012 LP, The Money Store, easily established them as the best experimental hip-hop group in the world with its use of the hip-hop genre with blistering punk aesthetics. However, since then they have become the equivalent of guerrilla fighters against an ever more corporate music industry: booking shows with no intention of turning up, releasing albums for free, leaking one themselves against the wish of their label, making the album art a photo of drummer Zach Hill’s erect penis with the album title No Love Deep Web scrawled across it in black marker, and subsequently getting dropped from their label. That they rarely self-promote or do interviews paradoxically gains them far more attention. People have become desensitised to constant advertisement and insights into musician’s personal lives, and to have a band that leaves a trail of breadcrumbs rather than bombarding you with bread (to use another mildly clichéd analogy) is so refreshing. While Death Grips music is incredible, ground-breaking even, for better or for worse it cannot be separated from Death Grips as a concept or as an on-going anarchic performance art piece through their guerrilla marketing techniques and tantalising interactions with their fans.
When they “broke up” last year via a scrawled note on a napkin posted to their Facebook page shortly after the free release of N****s on the Moon (the first half of this double album The Powers That B), they promised the release of the second half, Jenny Death, before the end of the year. The end of the year came and went with nothing, leading to speculation whether it even existed. But in January they released an instrumental album, Fashion Week, without any warning, suggesting that the band had not broken up, and that Jenny Death exists after all, which turned out to be the case. After the album leaked on the 19th of March, Death Grips returned to Facebook with a link to a free download, shortly followed by a post saying, “You’re right, we might make some more.”
The first disc, N****s on the Moon, is Death Grips’ most esoteric and uninviting release yet, but perhaps their best. It’s like something that’d be used as torture at Guantanamo Bay, in a good way. The songs are characterised by cold, rapid blasts of noisy electronica, sounding both alien and futuristic, with only rare hints of traditional instrumentation. As the songs are wildly volatile in structure and the album is gapless with every track streaming into the next, the first few listens will be completely disorientating. Unless you’re paying close attention, you’ll miss when one track ends and the next starts. The most startling innovation on the album is its use of vocal samples of Icelandic music heroine Bjork as an instrument on every song, often warping it and repeating it beyond recognition.
The opener, Up My Sleeves, is one of their best tracks yet. Bjork’s stuttering voice and the massively syncopated beats coupled with vocalist MC Ride’s voice jumping between muttered non-sequiturs and bellowed aphorisms make it bewildering but exhilarating. The lyrics explore themes of death and existential crises. They are dense and opaque, but with flourishes of dark poetic beauty, such as “My dead mother’s in my dreams. Remember when December blew her ashes ‘cross my jeans.” The suicidal pun, “quench my hearse,” is particularly great. Other tracks such as Fuck Me Out and Have A Sad Cum are far more sordid and nasty. The lyrics for Have A Sad Cum have no decipherable meaning or story, but the distorted vocal samples alone of “666,” “blood,” and “shoot it up” are enough to get you kicked out of any party for queuing it on the playlist.
While Death Grips on N*****s on the Moon are at their “least musical,” conventionally speaking, the album isn’t without its danceable moments, particularly the banger Say Hey Kids with its glitchy groove motif and the revving up sounds in the chorus.
If you’ve never listened to Death Grips before, then probably don’t start with N****s on the Moon, fantastic as it is. It’s chaotic and baffling and unwelcoming, until you just go with it. Music reviewer Anthony Fantano once likened listening to Death Grips to joining a gang. You have to work through painful, unpleasant initiations, but once you’re in, once you work through it, you feel a sense of both exclusivity, and adrenaline-fuelled irresponsible freedom. As a well-behaved middle class Exeter student, Death Grips are my cathartic vent for all that repressed cooped up negativity. Y’know what I’m talking about.
Disc 2, Jenny Death, is a completely different album to Niggas on the Moon in style and delivery. If you’re a Death Grips virgin then this is probably a better place to start. In place of N****s on the Moon’s tinnitus-style detail and belches of electronic noise, Jenny Death is pure, upfront, raw power. It’s what punk would sound like if it came about in the 2070s, rather than the 1970s. The brilliantly-titled opener, I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States, signals this transition from chaotic detailed noise, to unbridled punk energy. Zach Hill plays acoustic drums alongside the relentless electronic beats, and Ride belts the chorus’ hook “I don’t care about real life!” like he’s on a Black Flag or Circle Jerks track.
The punk rock influence also manifests itself through the use of guitar, first really apparent on the track Turned Off. The guitar tone is fuzzy and compressed to hell, and the live drums are messy and distorted, making the track sound like it should be performed in an illegal basement show. Beyond Alive even draws influences from the 90s no-wave genre with its churning, slightly tuneless guitars. Why A Bitch Gotta Lie has one of the hardest guitar riffs I’ve heard in a long while. Imagine Daft Punk and Death From Above 1979 decided to write the loudest song of all time and it’s kinda like that - not as loud, though, as the album’s title track which sees MC Ride doing perhaps his most aggressive vocal performance ever, and the fuzz-synths on the chorus the hardest I think I’ve ever heard.
On GP is probably one of Death Grips best tracks, certainly one of their most mature and personal with its themes of depression and suicide. MC Ride, or Stefan Burnett, articulates the personal nature of the track as he drops his pseudonym with the lines:
Last night, 3:30 in the morning, Death on my front porch Can feel him itching to take me with him, hail death, fuck you waiting for, Like a question no one mention, he turns around, hands me his weapon He slurs, “Use at your discretion, it’s been a pleasure, Stefan.”
On tracks like this Death Grips almost completely defy the hip-hop label. Its use of rock organ and soaring guitar leads gives it an almost classic rock vibe, but with an undeniable Death Grips twist that’s difficult to put into words.
While the two halves of The Powers That B are very different, together they embody all that’s great about Death Grips. They’re nihilistic, cathartic, noisy, obnoxious, and irresponsible. The energy and adrenaline their songs provoke kindle the primal fire with us all. Death Grips don’t set out to offend or shock, there’s no pretense or excess in what they’re doing. But they do powerfully reveal and acknowledge the darkness and negativity of life, not to depress or anger, but to act as exorcist for their fans, and themselves.