As they prepare to unveil their sixth studio album Year of the Snitch, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on and give thanks to the fact that Death Grips even exists. The three-piece band most easily described as an ‘experimental hip-hop act’ truly have no equal in any realm of musicality, and their very nature is one that seems to constantly be on the verge of self-implosion (which has, in fact, happened before).
Indeed, Death Grips are in many ways an 'anti-band.' They do not give press, they do not hold themselves accountable to any planned gigs or record contracts, and they definitely do not feel the need to explain the outrageous, at times disturbing, nature of their work. They do not care what fans or executives have to say, they bend to the will of nothing but their own agenda. They have survived catastrophes and weathered storms that would utterly ruin any other band, and still they prevail. One does not even really ‘listen’ to Death Grips, one can only ‘submit’ to them; savoring their work is an exercise in the exchange of power, not entertainment.
It is obvious then that, for the reasons listed above, many find Death Grips to be intolerable, irrelevant, and just plain bad. Which is a fine assessment to make, particularly when a great deal of their catalog seems tailor-made to use as a form of torture in a CIA black site. But to write them off by equating their sound as nothing more than ‘noise’ is an extreme disservice to their artistry and the artists that have come in their wake. At this stage in their hugely innovative and influential career, it is fair to suggest that Death Grips may be the most important hip-hop act of the decade.
The unholy trinity of drummer Zach Hill, keyboardist and programmer Andy Morin, and the incomparable MC Ride united under the moniker of Death Grips in the last days of 2010 and promptly recorded their first song, “Full Moon (Death Classic).” As far as debut singles go, it effectively sums up the entirety of both their sound and aesthetic in one fell swoop: skittering, spastic percussion, jarring waves of distorted guitar, abrupt melodic changes, and MC Ride’s other-worldly wail spewing viscera like “Eye to eye with death/ Gazing through me like an uzi/ Spraying through me, bag of flesh/ Body bag of flesh.”
It’s grisly, unsettling, and burns with a heart of darkness, making it immediately apparent the extent to which Death Grips are as much a proper punk band as they are a hip-hop outfit. Emerging out of Sacramento, California’s DIY scene, the cultural mores that dictate the world of hardcore are in their very DNA (as if that weren’t immediately clear in every guttural shriek from MC Ride). It’s an influence they wear on their sleeve; their self-titled debut EP and their lovingly-received first full-length Exmilitary, both released in 2011, featured samples from the likes of Bad Brains and Black Flag, creating a direct through-line with their hardcore forebears.
Death Grips courted proper mainstream success with the release of their first studio album The Money Store in 2012. It hit like an earthquake upon its first release, and even now it remains a thrilling listen. Tracks like “Get Got,” “Hacker,” and the unstoppable “I’ve Seen Footage” displayed an even further embrace of electro-dance first hinted at on Exmilitary that meshed with their punk and hip-hop sensibilities to create a monstrously energetic whole, something akin to an amphetamine-fueled rave in a circle of Dante’s Inferno. It has an enviable ability to draw the listener in even as it jolts them with unexpected, blaring moments of noise; Kanye West, whose own abrasive opus Yeezus arrived the following year, was surely taking notes.
The production on The Money Store alone could cement their legacy as one of this generation’s most imaginative sonic engineers. With the budget afforded them from signing to Epic Records, their chaotic sound was packaged into a crisp, highly-polished finished product that lost none of its intensity. A song like “System Blower,” for instance, combines a motorboat-engine of a synth line and a sample of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams grunting into their already potent blend of elements. It has all the bite of their more DIY releases, but the precise sharpness of the clipped beat turns it into something far more in line with a booty-jam than a head-thrasher.
It was here, right on the cusp of a breakthrough after a critically-adored debut album, that Death Grips seized control of their narrative and all hell broke loose. Unwilling to contend with the organization thrust upon them by their label, they uploaded their next full-length, No Love Deep Web, for free. To add insult to injury in this direct breach of their contract, the album art displayed bandmate Zach Hill’s erect penis with the title written across it in black marker. Naturally, they were dropped from Epic Records, and they have remained independent ever since.
This did little to deter their work ethic, even as their already-volatile relationship with the outside world continued to spiral out of control. Their next full-length, 2013’s Government Plates, was preceded by a string of highly-publicized no-shows for a slew of live performances. The most infamous of these took place at a scheduled Lolapalooza after-show, in which they skipped the gig without warning and projected an email of a fan’s suicide note on stage. Enraged fans proceeded to destroy their equipment, making for an evening that was shocking, tasteless, and very much in line with their ethos.
The following year found Death Grips unveiling the first half of a double album - N*ggas on the Moon, written with and featuring none other than Björk on every track - and announcing their infamous ‘break-up.’ Written on a napkin and posted to their Facebook, it cited “we are now at our best and so Death Grips is over.” The irony of course being that, aside from cancelling a huge swath of gigs, they have never stopped. Within a year of this note they had uploaded the second half of their double album The Powers That B and would soon be on the verge of dropping the instrumental mixtape Fashion Week.
As the 2016 album Bottomless Pit and the heap of singles released from the upcoming Year of the Snitch prove, Death Grips are not even remotely close to running out of ideas, nor has the quality of their work dimmed in the slightest. Taken as a whole, their remarkable run of projects throughout the decade points to a few key signifiers that form the basis of their legacy.
Chief among these is their use of sampling. One of the foundational elements of hip-hop, sampling in the hands of Death Grips has reached new heights of innovation. It goes far beyond their ability to crate-dive for unexpected sound bites or chop-and-screw Björk’s voice to create an orchestra’s worth of instrumentation; Death Grips have a fascinating history of literally sampling themselves.
While this technique is not one they invented, you would be hard-pressed to find an artist so wholly-committed to its use. Every single one of their major full-length releases (if not every song on it), has snippets or beats from their past material woven into it. “Flies,” one of their most recent singles, contains samples from two different tracks on The Money Store and another from Exmilitary, while tracks from their debut EP have been plundered numerous times in the now-seven years since it appeared. For Death Grips, sampling has moved past the notion of lifting an exterior sound and building off of it and into uncharted territory; a seemingly endless journey of self-reference and refinement that creates a dialogue with their entire output, as if all timelines of their work are infinitely co-existing.
It is also worth noting that Death Grips preceded, or anticipated, the idea that artists could use the Internet to both bypass and reject the industry model of success. Many assumed that the band was dead in the water after purposefully leaking internal emails (in addition to dropping their album for free online) to escape their contract, but it was a move which, if anything, was prophetic of things to come. An artist dismissing the procedures of a major label in favor of self-release and autonomy over their work is par for the course these days, yet it seemed outrageous that they could possibly succeed circa 2012.
As we near the end of this bizarre decade that becomes more nightmarish with each passing day, the tenet of Death Grips that rings with the most resonance is their monolithic commitment to chaos. Mirroring a certain presidential election of recent times, their career is a testament to the fact that no amount of controversy is enough to sink you if your message has an audience.
And it is clear that Death Grips has, and always has had, a dedicated audience. Their sound presents unbridled id, a manifestation of the righteous rage at the rot of the world all around us. It is frightening and violent, but in the true spirit of punk, it does not reflect hatred or exclusion of any one community. On the contrary, their sonic world is extremely egalitarian, a communal zone of catharsis achieved through skull-crushing beats. For that reason alone they hold a singular place in music, but their commitment to the simultaneous expansion and deconstruction of the tropes of hip-hop leave Death Grips without equal, and certainly position them as one of the most essential groups in the genre of our era.
Death Grips' 'Year of the Snitch' is out Friday, June 22. For more like this, read our take on how Beach House became hip-hop's favorite indie band.