Why Death Grips is So Important to Hip-hop
Before reading this article, I would recommend listening to a song or two (explicit) by Death Grips to better understand what I am talking about. Try “Takyon” or “Guillotine” (the Guillotine video is also quite unsettling if you wish to give that a watch).
Death Grips is…complicated. To put it as simply as possible, Death Grips is an experimental hip-hop trio from Sacramento California that used a mixture of the internet, their obscurity, and genre pioneering music to boost themselves into a position that lets them make a living off their music (i.e. be successful). The reason Death Grips is so important to modern music—especially hip-hop—is because of what they do as an experimental band: push boundaries.
Death Grips consists of three band members: vocalist MC Ride (Stefan Burnett), drummer Zach Hill, and keyboardist/audio engineer Andy Morin. The band was created back in 2010 and has since put out seven studio albums, three extended plays, one mixtape, and forty-seven music videos. The music this band has put out has always been changing, starting with their first extended play that contained songs ranging from deranged, guttural screams and another being a punk rock song. The mixtape they dropped (Exmilitary) started to gain them traction but it was not until their next album, The Money Store that they really blossomed. The album did not have as much screaming but it still had the brutal, primal aggression of the previous album, with even more disturbing and violent lyrics to boot: “Cut your brain stem as my combat boots grind your head. To the cadence of this dreath [sic] stompin’ mu, Sick [swear word] contagion wagin’ war with all you knew”. The vocal performance of which is even more terrifying due to Ride’s distraught delivery. Although there are these types of edgy and dark songs that are actually somewhat disturbing, a lot of their violence is too excessive to be taken seriously. This is purposeful because they are trying to satirize modern hip-hop. Rappers that sing about murdering people and doing drugs motivate Death Grips to take those ideas and laugh in the face of these rappers by and making it something not “cool” to talk about. Instead of a 21 Savage song like “Bank Account” (where he raps about how his crew is going to “Spray your block down”), Death Grips uses disturbing imagery while screaming at you over distorted bass about how Ride will “ hover above you” with “life pulled out your mouth”. Death Grips does this to mock the hip-hop genre by taking the violence and take it up ten more notches.
Ride is constantly changing up flows that range from rapid-fire, manic yelling on songs like “Full Moon (Death Classic)” to calmer vocals like the track “Get Got”. Ride is also a very mysterious person and has even been quoted as saying, “I’m a very private person. I have very few people that I call my friends. I’m very distrustful of human beings in general; I’m very distrustful of media. I have no interest in sharing my personal life with the world. Zero”, and so he doesn’t. In fact, finding up to date Death Grips interviews is impossible since, at least in my research, their last published interview was from 2012.
Although in recent years there have been artists who seemingly do not care for their public image, they still interact with their fans and they still use media (like Lil Pump).
Fan-interaction is important because it allows for the fan to feel a closer connection to the artists they are buying music from. As part of generation Z, I absolutely love following a musician and scrolling through their Instagram page, seeing their history, what they have done, and what they are currently doing. To me, it is interesting to see a personal side to an artist, especially the more cryptic-lyric-y ones as they usually have something interesting to talk about. All of this seems to be somewhat important right? Well, according to Death Grips, no. The band has minimal social media presence and only has an Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, all of which are only used to promote their music, concerts, and merch. The members themselves also have little presence, with Ride not even having any publicly known social media, at all. Zach Hill has a Facebook under his name and has been using it to repost Death Grips posts, as well as a couple of selfies, obscure photos, and drumming videos (only in 2014). He also has a Blogspot that boasts his impressive discography as well as every single one of his live performances. Lastly, Morin has had a Twitter since 2011, and—unless he deleted all of his Tweets—only has one Tweet that came from May of this year. As of May this year he made an Instagram page that boasts posts of him doing random things like drinking, listening to music, meditating with turtles(?). However, there is still no social aspect of him or any of his bandmates on social media, apart from earlier this year where the Death Grips official Twitter began sporadically re-Tweeting anyone who Tweeted the name of their new single “Death Grips is Online”. But what makes their actions and behaviors so interesting is their reason for doing it. They want to exist as a successful band without relying on media to do so. They rarely acknowledge fans let alone talk to them. But not only do they ignore their fans online, they also have done massive tour-cancellations, and even been no-shows multiple times. In 2012 they canceled a tour to finish their next studio album, No Love Deep Web. In 2013 they had a cluster of no-shows, and at one concert they did not show up too, and instead, they put up a supposed suicide note of a fan. Lastly, in 2014 they cancelled a tour because they had “broken up” despite evidently not breaking up as they continued to put out music. The band has an abusive relationship with their fans too say the least, but this matches with the Death Grips philosophy: you are your own master. They do not care about how the mainstream media perceives them and sometimes their own companies.
Death Grips used to have a record label but the label attempted to delay the release of their third album, No Love, Deep Web for a year. So the members decided to leave the label, leak the album online for free, and change the album cover from a picture of some socks with a vulgar phrase on them, to one of the member’s…member. The picture was taken in a room of the famed Chateau Marmont of Los Angeles where the band allegedly stayed for two months while recording the album. This sort of behavior shows that Death Grips’ are their own masters and do not care what people think of them. Hill has also echoed the part of this philosophy in an interview with Pitchfork back in 2012 when he said that “[He and Ride] are believers that there are still so many places to go with what being a band even means.” Hill believes that the pathway of a band’s career is not linear and what many believe to be requirements for being a successful band in 2018 are not entirely true. Humphrey Bogart said it best, “[Artists,] the only thing you owe the public is a good performance”.
Not only do they prove that aspects of the music business that seem important are not, but they push boundaries sonically and visually. The band’s music videos often have a very minimalistic approach with many of the videos probably having a budget under fifty dollars. This minimalistic style adds to the videos strange and sometimes disturbing aesthetics. Their videos are numerous and all very unique. Take for instance the fact that the music video for “Double Helix” is just Ride yelling the song’s lyrics into a car’s reverse-camera (pictured on the right). Apart from having unique music videos, they also have unique sounds. For their album, The Money Store, Hill and Morin reportedly went around in their day-to-day lives filming random noises and sampling them. In fact, on their song “System Blower”, Death Grips sampled a Skytrain taking off and the grunts of professional tennis players Serena Williams and Venus Williams in their 2008 match. Not only that, but the part one album of the double album The Powers That 🅱, [N-words] On the Moon had Icelandic musician Björk’s vocals sampled on all eight tracks. More recently on Year of the Snitch, the band has gone as far as to sample their own songs. Death Grips commonly has high amounts of distortion and bass which can be seen on tracks such as “The Powers That B” and “Takyon”. Their ear-busting music is a satirical reaction to what has been dubbed the “Loudness War”: a music-mastering and mixing trend that has been around since the 2000s. The idea is that producers are increasing the intensity of certain sounds by using excessive compression when mastering songs. Take for instance the remastering of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. Here on the left you can see how the original version (1986) is much quieter in waveform than the 2012 version which has bigger waves. Even artists like Bob Dylan have spoken out against the trend, staying “You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” His reason for thinking this is because when a song undergoes such intense compression it loses the already disadvantaged audio quality of an MP3 file. As a result, Death Grips makes music that is turned up even further, often using distorted bass and grainy drums. This is all done to parody modern production.
However, sampling is not the only unique musical aspect of this band, all thanks to Zach Hill of math rock band Hella. Hill’s style of drumming is not very common, and for good reason, because not only is it hard to get the timing, but also to do it for extended periods of time. He abuses his drum kit: often breaking cymbals, snares, and even kicks. Hill also abuses himself with his frantic, hard-hitting style: often winding up with major blisters on his hands. The reason he plays as he does is so he can create an angry cacophony to match the anger and aggression coming from Ride on songs like “On GP” and “Full Moon (Death Classic)”. Although not every song utilizes his technical skill and many have artificial drums, his live performances are a constant battle of who will survive the longest: Hill or his drums? I will admit that sometimes it is difficult to listen to (and definitely not pop-material) but Hill’s drumming is fast, hard, and well-timed. Death Grips utilizes Hill’s lack of care for his body and his kit to create loud and in-your-face percussions.
But what makes this band important is how they are able to continue to write such visceral, noisy, and sometimes unlistenable music. Even though I hold Death Grips in such high regard, I still dislike some of the projects they put out (i.e. their album Government Plates), but the band could care less what I, or anyone else thinks. They have done cruel things to their fans and yet we are still loyal because in a weird way, it is respectable and part of what keeps my interest in the band. It may seem like the band consists of a bunch of jerk-wads that care about
nothing and no-one, but it’s actually quite unique and refreshing to have artists who are not clambering to please their fans. The band has some interesting (and unlikely) celebrity fans, such as Robert Patterson (pictured on the left with Beyonce and Death Grips), Edgar Wright, and even David Bowie.
Not only are they satirizing and critiquing their genre with the drugs, violence, and but they are also expanding it by adding unique elements to songs that nobody else would dare do. They push these boundaries and have carved a new path. Their music is not for everyone and most people will hate it because it is loud and it is abrasive, but that’s what makes it such beautiful chaos.
If you are looking to get into Death Grips, you can either just start listening to their albums starting with Exmilitary, or see this list of my personal favorites:
-Full Moon (Death Classic), Guillotine, Takyon, Get Got, I’ve Seen Footage, Hacker, No Love, You Might Think He Loves You for Your Money but I Know What He Really Loves You for It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, Birds, Up My Sleeves, Inanimate Sensation, 80808, and Disappointed.
 As stated before, Death Grips tends to laugh in the face of rappers that idolize drugs and murder. In fact, the entirety of The Money Store is Ride playing the character of a broken down, violent, and dangerous drug addict. Take for instance the song “The Fever (Aye Aye)” which is a song about a man, paranoid and violent, “I got the diamonds, scrapin’, sidin’ Wastin’ my life in altered states”. Here; the diamonds are being used to scrape and clean a pipe, and the life being wasted in “altered states” is Ride’s character being high.This character exists as a mockery of the casualness and commonality of these themes in hip-hop, only this time, it’s not as fun.
Many parents may look at this type of lyricism and assume that is is damaging to their kids but Death Grips makes their music unappetizing and unrelatable. Many rappers have songs about drug use, and some are even named after drugs (like Lil Xan, short for xanax). Take for instance the pop song “Motor Sport” by Migos, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj, where one of the Migos raps about how they “Feel like I can fly” when using “Xans, Perky, check (Yeah)”. Death Grips on the other hand do not paint pretty pictures with their lyrics and often make drug use into a harsh reality like on the song “Anne Bonne” where ride is screaming, “My scabs under my fingernails. Can’t help myself, don’t wanna feel myself.” Here he describes a character being addicted to some sort of drug and not wanting to be sober or “feel” himself. These lyrics may be abrasive but they paint a bleak reality that almost everyone would not want to be a part of. Whether or not this is intentional is up to question. It is very likely that they are just using such extreme wording to criticize other musicians casual use of murder and drugs in their lyrics, and yet the outcome is still the same. [Back to text]
 Not including Interview 2016 which is an instrumental album that was released alongside a video interview of Death Grips by TV host, Matthew Hoffman. The interview’s audio was replaced with the instrumentals so we can only see their mouths moving. [Back to text]
 He does have a website actually, http://stefanburnett.com/. But it features only what I assume to be his paintings. According to the earlier SPIN article, Ride actually studied visual arts at a college in Virginia. [Back to text]
 For those of you who are interested, here is a story of a fan who supposedly met the band and approached them, asking them to sign his shirt: https://www.reddit.com/r/deathgrips/comments/57p6co/the_time_i_met_death_grips/?st=jl85cy6b&sh=e1f8552e
 Check out more of their crazy samples here: https://www.whosampled.com/Death-Grips/
 For all you drummers out there, Hill does one pedal triplet kicks for the entirety of this song. For all you non-drummers out there, believe me, it’s very difficult. [Back to text]