THE BEGINNING

A TOUCH OF DEATH: the extraordinary tale of hip-hop punks gone rogue.

Death-Grips

Words by Daniel Dylan Wray | Photography by Jonny Magowan

One day, in mid 2011 while trawling through the usual mire of garbage and inane commentary on my Facebook feed, I came across a video. Quickly looking at its still image, I felt lured in, like a porno-shop window glance. It was a grenade-flash insight to a murky, scratchy, sinister underworld. Then I watched the thing.

Being authentically freaked out by new music is a difficult feat to achieve these days; a screaming, bearded, black man sat in the front of a car (seat belt firmly in tact – an irony and metaphor so black and dense it’s beyond humour), surrounded by black and white grainy VHS-hiss, does the trick. The imagery alone was odd, the music odder. Charging pulses of throbbing, industrial barrage twitched and squawked, the vocals coarse and electrified, so deep, malicious and penetrating they felt deranged. Having no prior knowledge of the group, I was none the wiser to the sincere belief this could just be a demented meth head being filmed as he tweaked and spun out of control, his week long bender coming to a grinding, spasmodic halt, culminating in the complete psychological and physical breakdown of a human being. Was it rap? Hardcore? Techno? Grime? Punk? Electro? What it was, was completely irrelevant.

Aside from being weirded out and confused, I felt other emotions that had long since evaded my new music-exposure psyche – fear, an indisputable fear.  A threat, menace and malevolence spewed from that song (‘Guillotine’) that was beyond palpable, instead becoming a sticky, opaque layer hanging in the back of your mind like an agoraphobic spirit afraid to leave and clasping tightly around your throat. I pounced on the free download mixtape (‘Exmilitary’) that had just come out and listened to it relentlessly, remaining terrified and increasingly perplexed. The visceral, emotional and head-butt brutal sonic assault was enthralling, intriguing and petrifying, but it almost begged the question, do I actually like this? It was often so fucking abrasive that it felt like rusty nails being slowly hammered into your ear lobes; deeper and deeper they would go with every drop-kick song.

Roll on 2012 and that video I saw has today been viewed well over a million times.  And if Death Grips lit a fire in 2011, they slashed and burned their way through the following year.

The major labels wanted a taste of the carnage and Sony in-print Epic Records snapped them up, although soon they’d wish they didn’t. February saw tracks released from their forthcoming debut album; April saw said album (‘The Money Store’) released to widespread critical acclaim. In turn, the band also scheduled a U.S and European tour and promised a second album by the fall. They just as quickly pulled all scheduled dates (on the eve it was due to start) and delivered the news with as much blunt force and antagonism as their album had just spat out. “We are dropping out to complete our next album ‘No Love’. See you when it’s done. (There are no longer any scheduled shows)”.

When this was announced the cancellation was news to everyone, including the venues, which had no idea the band weren’t coming until they posted this comment. It was an early indication that Death Grips had no intention of following any prescribed path for 2012 other than their own. What also became blatant was that they couldn’t care less who got trampled in the process.

With continued cancelled shows stretching across summer, the buzz and hum seemed to be a little quieter in the Death Grips camp, that is until a release date of October 23 was announced for their second LP, the now newly titled ‘No Love Deep Web’.  However, a shitstorm of epic (excuse the pun) proportions was brewing.

On September 30, Death Grips announced that their label intended to push back the album they had essentially put all of 2012 on hold for until 2013. Death Grips reacted, they told fans to wait until midnight. On the stroke of midnight 1 October 2012, Death Grips offered up their album for free download. And the cover art? An erect penis with the album title written on in felt pen, of course. While an extended middle finger would stand as an act of rebellion or defiance on the part of many, Death Grips took that one step further with the aid of a throbbing cock. Later that day, BitTorrent announced its ‘List of most legally downloaded music’ for 2012 – Death Grips topped it with a head-spinning 34, 151, 432 downloads. However, upon further investigation, perhaps even more dizzying is the fact that data for this chart had finished being collated on September 19, meaning that astronomical amount of downloads had been racked up pre-‘No Love Deep Web’.

Due to confusion over the timing of the release of this information many have attributed these figures to the shock and awe of ‘No Love Deep Web’, yet it seems impossible to find the real figures post the band’s second album. However, if one wishes to estimate the genuine impact Death Grips had on legal (so note this would not include any downloads of ‘The Money Store’) downloading in 2012, a realistic figure – based on their already huge total – could well be 50,000,000+.

Death Grips’ website was soon shut down by their own record label, so claimed the group’s drummer Zach Hill. Epic denied any involvement and the site soon re-emerged, but a rift had been built between artist and label that would soon explode.

On October 31 Death Grips leaked confidential emails from Epic over the album leak, accompanied with a message of “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA NOW FUCK OFF”. Many claimed it was a publicity stunt, many saluted Death Grips for sticking it forcefully to the ‘man’ and many accused them of being petulant brats.  According to Billboard.com, when Death Grips went for their contract signing with Epic back in October 2011, MC Ride tagged the company’s bathroom with graffiti beforehand, “demonstrating a sense of rebellion that sold executives on the threesome”. However, any such affinity for rebellion had soon dwindled to the point of exhaustion and Death Grips were promptly dropped by the label in November, squashing any claims of a publicity stunt.

Loved. Loathed. Feared. Misunderstood. Death Grips can be all of these things and much more yet their antics seem to have certainly created a polarising split in 2012’s musical community. Some crediting them as outlaws; a genuine uncompromising unit whose never-ending assault on the industry and our poor, battered eardrums is a gift sent up directly from Lucifer himself to cure the world. Others bark at their unprofessionalism, willingness to fuck up a deal that many would kill for and their childish, grating and unreasonable behaviour – some even claim they are ‘killing the industry’. Which camp you lie in is somewhat extraneous, because adore or abhor them, Death Grips cannot be accused of being lily-livered, sitting on the fence or exuding creation in moderation or mediocrity. They have had a seismic musical and cultural impact on 2012, one of which the waves and cracks will be felt well into the dawn of 2013 and beyond. You’ll be hard pushed for any artist to top their mad year. In music news, 2012 belongs to them.

Originally published in Loud And Quiet 44. Read the issue in full here.

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