My relationship with Death Grips and any other cultural obsession I’ve had.
April 25th, 2011: a screaming came across the sky.
I personally was not there to witness this mysterious and sudden advent arrival, but some dedicated audiophiles were. Within the internet, a free digital package of brimstone-breathing, high-energy concentrate, visceral-sensation music had managed to bounce and ricochet across numerous music blogs, whereby its impressive force, powered by the music’s boldness and inventiveness, would forge a path through unknown realms in the Internet Age of music.
Ex-Military‘s appearance was unexpected and thus, peculiar. The giveaway album (not uncommon with today’s music makers) had almost no surrounding context with the exception of an attention-grabbing, lo-fi, aggressive music video “Full Moon – Death Classic” posted to what would eventually become the official Death Grips’ Youtube Channel. But beyond that, any information on the band or its album were as elusive and abstract as their single video.
To put it in less blatantly bolstering words, April 25, 2011 was the day a musical outfit called Death Grips had released their first album, Ex-Military, for free onto the Wild West that is the internet. In retrospect, the opener for Ex-Military, a six-minute track titled “Beware” serves as the perfect introduction—almost a thesis statement for the dramatic, intriguing, and bold music and actions that would come to define Death Grips over the next four years.
Beginning with a looping, ominous guitar melody coupled with an audio extract from the Charles Manson court interview containing haunting declarations of delusional self-importance (“I make the money man!.. The game is mine! I deal the cards!”) “Beware” abruptly detonates into a brilliant blast of vivid, flaming guitars and pummeling percussions that sound apt for a Lord of the Flies theme song. Laying to waste the idiosyncratic intro, a bellowing voice quickly emerges from the resulting discordant symphony of musical chaos, chanting intriguing mantras:
I CLOSE MY EYES AND SEIZE IT
I CLENCH MY FISTS AND BEAT IT
I LIGHT MY TORCH AND BURN IT
I AM THE BEAST I WORSHIP…
And so began the undisputed bizarro, yet still incomplete (they have the second half of a double and supposedly final album entitled The Powers That B that has yet to be released) tale of Death Grips. Or at least, so began MY story with Death Grips. But, before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge a definite truth about my relationship with this music:
i am an absolute fanboy for it. take that as you may. i will elaborate further.
Death Grips’ music is challenging, to say the least. Just try to label their musical output as a whole and you’ll see what I mean. The blanket term that they have acquired is generally known as “Experimental Hip-Hop,” but this is a rather shallow description of their work.
Both ideologically and sonically, Death Grips is devotedly radical and boundlessly energetic. They are a chaotic yet surprisingly sophisticated collision of Techno, Noise, Industrial, Metal, Punk, and finally Hip-Hop; all brought cohesively (and sometimes not cohesively) together like some sort of “Warhol-ian nightmare” (their term, not mine). Their vocal front-man, MC Ride (Stefan Burnett, a guy who has reportedly worked at a pizza joint in Sacramento for the past 10 years while painting on the side), only heightens their aggressively perplexing sounds with lyrics that cryptically depict either a disturbed/paranoid, drug-induced character or some theme/idea that blends futurism, nihilism, and mysticism all in one fatally addicting bite. Even his vocal delivery defies any clear, contemporary classification, ranging all the way from a Punk-ed out howling to a sort of Spoken Word whispering.
Over the course of their mere four year career they’ve released six albums, all the while succeeding in morphing, expanding, and accelerating their sound to the point where each new release causes their previous one to sound relatively normal. This is quite the feat considering each album they make always sounds like their strangest to date. For example, their latest release have songs like this…. Weird, right?
I have not even begun to touch upon their actions as a band, and maybe I shouldn’t; there are plenty of news articles that can give you the same information. But it is seriously worth looking into if one is so inclined, because Death Grips’ decisions have been just as dangerous, risky, and experimental as their music.
Their most infamous incident involved being dropped from the mega-corporate Epic Records after the label allegedly planned to hold back the release date for their 2012 album No Love Deep Web. In response, Death Grips “understandably” released photos of confidential letters from their label on the band’s Facebook page, uploaded the album for free without lawful permission on BitTorrent, and then, made a crude, minimalist photograph of member Zach Hill’s penis with the words No Love Deep Web scrawled by sharpie on it the album’s cover. While this was happening, they were also staying at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and blowing their label’s money because apparently, according to Zach Hill, “…the whole idea was infiltration. It’s not what you could consider a smart move financially, or logically. But the place where we’re coming from sometimes transcends logic.” So yeah, pretty insane, right?
Any which way, this is the kind of music and the kind of band that is nothing but polarizing. Most people will either fall into two camps: believing that Death Grips’ music is completely ingenious, or simply unbearable to listen to; either their actions are nothing but immature, pretentious, prankster havoc, or it is calculated performance art (Death Grips said this first, unsurprisingly) and boundary-breaking for music makers in the internet age. In a way, I think it is all of the above and all at once. But, most importantly, I know where I stand… right?
I started off this tale of Death Grips with “Beware” because that was the moment I immediately, without question or doubt, felt their music. I immediately fell in love with it—it was like receiving a straight, electric surge through my bloodstream. I was hearing sounds I did not even know I wanted to hear.
But how quickly did I find this track in my initial explorations and dives into their large, varied discography? Not quickly at all. In fact, it took me a while to find the song that I had truly, without a doubt, “felt.” And, this is what has slowly begun to disturb me the more it is seriously considered.
What precisely was driving my desire/need/obsession to continue (almost relentlessly) a pursuit of their discography? What was I looking for? Because to be totally honest, I found the majority of the songs I had exposed myself to to be completely awful. Their song, “Get Got”, I could not even listen to past the first fifteen seconds before tossing it aside. Eventually, I broke through, and found myself loving it (it is one of my favorites by them now,) but how many times did I continue listening to it? Why did I feel I had to break through the music? Should not one’s reaction to how they feel about music be organically decided relatively shortly after hearing the music?
How many times did I force that song down my throat like some sort of fanatical drill sergeant hellbent on submission? I do not exactly know for sure, but I am willing to accept the possibility that I pushed that song, this band (or my idea of the band) on my brain so hard that I tricked myself INTO liking it, which is an absolutely terrifying idea. Why would I want to do that? What about Death Grips did I want so desperately to “get?” Had I been trying to enjoy this band so much out of some pathetic idea that my outward, social reflection and status as a person would somehow be elevated by my peers for liking such misanthropic, eccentric, and critically-acclaimed music? Would I have given this band this amount of chances to enjoy if they were not praised by the “end-all-be-all” that is online music journalism? When I’m being completely honest, the answers to all these questions are dark and unsettling, mainly because I myself do not know for sure…
There could be at least one possible explanation for all this. However, I’m aware that I am reasoning from the mind of a fanboy, which in some ways immediately negates any form of objective perspective that I could have on this perplexing situation, but even considering this, here it goes:
Perhaps Death Grips truly are making such masterpiece music. And perhaps, all those times I was listening to it, that was merely me processing a truly great piece of art. I had to realize what they were doing objectively to appreciate it subjectively. Because great pieces of art are supposed to be polarizing, right? It was actually inwardly polarizing.
Maybe the problem lies in my incessant desire to be some kind of fanboy. Perhaps in reality, Kanye West is a really good musician, Death Grips are really a good band, and Paul Thomas Anderson is a really good director. Why do I have to take it any further? Why do I have to be convinced, and earnestly try to convince everyone around me, that what they’re doing is constantly groundbreaking? Because here’s the thing I’ve learned through selfishly shoving my musical tastes down everyone’s throats: every music lover has their own Death Grips. They have their own band that they’re convinced is groundbreaking and great and so inventive and so bold and this and that. And the truth is, very few musicians are groundbreaking because the way music works, or art in general, no idea is original. Everyone is stealing from one another. Two, completely polar opposite musicians can have the same idea for an album and make that album separately and never even know each other. No musician truly “created” a genre or a style. They just mixed and mashed everything that came before them. What they create can in turn be “novel”, but essentially not really, because a musician can mix and mash totally different influences into their work and still get the same or similar result.
Like anything I believe, searching for an absolute truth is futile; when it comes down to it, life and existence is a paradoxical mess of contradictions. Two things can exist and be true, yet still contradict each other. Or perhaps the only reason we see contradictions is because our brains simply can’t process the scope of god knows what the universe and what everything actually is. So maybe there are absolute answers to things. Ultimately, I don’t know.