If you’ve been on any music sites in the last five years, chances are you know about Death Grips. Hitting the music industry like a bat with nails spiked into it through a Tesla windshield, the three-piece Sacramento-based outfit is arguably the last “true” high-profile punk band, constantly subverting audience expectations by, well, doing whatever the fuck they want.
Described often as experimental or industrial hip hop, Death Grips’ music not only straddles the border between hardcore punk and rap, but acts as a steel-and-concrete bridge between the genres, blending characteristics to the point that they become something rarely seen since Rage Against the Machine started raging against the machine. Continually thrashing against the borders of the taboo, Death Grips embodies what it truly means to be an outsider in this disorienting era of cancerous technological growth.
From the very beginning, Death Grips’ rise to fame has been as cyberpunk as any modern band’s can be. The brainchild of vocalist MC Ride, producer/drummer Zach Hill, and recording engineer Andy Morin formed and recorded their first single, “Full Moon”, in late 2010, which was released with a music video in March of the following year. While “Full Moon” is not representative of the sound Death Grips would come to embody, using little more than Ride’s harsh, aggressive vocals and a stripped-down drum track, it pulses with their signature disdain for society.
Less than two months later, they released their Exmilitary EP and began making waves with critics and a budding community of fans on the internet. Eventually their popularity, cultivated almost exclusively online, grew to the point that they were approached by and signed on with Epic Records, whom you may know as a juggernaut label that rarely features culturally-subversive bands. Contracted to record two labels in 2012, Death Grips’ first LP, The Money Store, was released on April 24th of that year, but their follow up, No Love Deep Web, had its release date indefinitely delayed, much to the band’s displeasure. As a result, they bit the hand that feeds by leaking the album with a cover featuring Hill’s erect, uncensored dick with the title scrawled across it (for the love of Gibson do not click that link at your cubicle farm), as well as record execs’ emails posted to their Facebook, effectively giving Epic one of the biggest middle fingers in music history.
Naturally, the label dropped them like a ton of bricks, but by this time Death Grips’ success as independent artists was set in stone. Since then, they’ve released five more albums and one EP in a five-year timespan, spurned a headline spot at Lollapalooza by having a fan’s suicide note fill in for them, dropped albums without prior notice, and constantly mocked their audience’s blind, fanatic devotion through their music. In fact, their last album was an attempt to alienate their fans and critics (unfortunately, it didn’t work). Also, this is tangential but it should be noted that, in anticipation of No Love Deep Web, Death Grips created essentially a treasure hunt for players that was only accessible through Tor, and in 2015 they leaked their EP Jenny Death through hacker collective Anonymous’ favorite clubhouse, 4chan.
But wait, there’s more! All this street cred Death Grips has been racking up isn’t counting their impact on society at large–aside from their music appearing in similarly-subversive media like Atlanta, they’ve inspired their fans to push back against authority, as with the case of the guy who destroyed the Hollywood star of certain anthropomorphized moldy Cheeto with a fucking pickaxe.
It’s clear that Death Grips has a mastery over modern marketing through social media, so much to the point that it has been speculated that the Death Grips we know and love may be the result of branding that appeals to society’s refuse. Even if that is true, however, it doesn’t change that the music they crank out on a yearly basis is anthemic of a high tech, low life ethic. This is a group whose success in the underground and at the fringes of the mainstream has hinged upon the existence of the internet–of course, that isn’t uncommon these days, but if synthwave and other bands that fall into the cyberpunk category are designed with a specific function–to knowingly sound and feel like music from the (retro)future–then Death Grips is like the Puppet Master, emerging from the ‘net’s primordial ooze with no specific function, wreaking havoc wherever they go.
Death Grips is Online
It’s kind of a wonder that Death Grips is one of the few bands to fuse punk with rap, as both cultures share a deep revulsion with authority, carry a fixation on pop culture, practice an almost-ritualistic indulgence in some of the basest of vices, and share an affinity for the art of vandalism. Of course, we could always look back on the rap-rock trend that emerged in the late ’90s and overstayed its welcome through the turn of the millennium, but I’m already regretting bringing up that dark, dark period in music history. And, as far as I’m aware, no other bands at this point have set hip-hop lyrics with a vitriol Henry Rollins himself would shed tears of pride over to distorted, harsh synths.
Ride’s vocals tend to fluctuate on a sliding scale between conventional, collected rapping and the barbaric, near-incoherent yawping most commonly associated with hardcore punk. On more than one occasion, Death Grips has leaned into the latter roots, producing tracks that hearken back to the early days of the punk movement. For instance, “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” off Bottomless Pit feels like a sendup to classic hardcore bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Adolescents.
In fact, Death Grips’ entire ideology is rooted in second-wave punk’s taboo-breaking mentality, MC Ride constantly expresses unbridled violent urges, and twisted fantasies in an attempt to expand the boundaries of what’s “shocking”, until those boundaries no longer exist. This may be most evident in Bottomless Pit‘s title track, which draws vivid, extreme sexual imagery and references, of course, to BDSM, possibly drawing parallels between a thirsty submissive and Death Grips’ similarly thirsty fanbase.
Additionally, their 2013 album, Government Plates, rails viciously against authority and society and references drug use, possibly representing the darkest material Ride, Hill, and Morin have to offer yet. As an antithesis to the oppressive society he finds himself in, Ride paints himself as a twisted, psychotic individual in tracks like “Two Heavens” and “You Might Think He Loves You for Your Money but I Know What He Really Loves You for It’s Your Brand New Pillbox Hat” (Jesus that’s a mouthful).
But you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve seen all this avant-garde self-destructive shit in basically every major punk band to come before these guys. Where are the god damn cyber eyes?!” And you’re god damn right, cyber eyes for everyone! But also, I gotta point out how someone on Youtube posted a video that synced up Death Grips’ first two albums, The Money Store and No Love Deep Web, with the entirety of the highly influential anime Akira. Unfortunately, the movie has been taken down due to fucking copyright laws, but a portion of it remains–the famous bike jousting scene. I can’t post a video of it here due to said copyright laws, but I’ll let you do the math. It’s synced up to this adrenaline shot, now in audiotherapy form!
In case you missed it because you were too busy rocking out to those killer industrial riffs, “The Fever” is about a druggie scumbag roaming some nameless city’s streets as he loses touch with what’s real, growing more ambiguous as the song progresses. That’s fucking darker than Philip K. Dick, and even if that example is a bit dramatic, it’s not that big of a stretch from what you might find in reality. And that’s hella fitting for Akira.
See, you might notice that Death Grips makes a lot of sci-fi-ish references in their music. Song titles like “Double Helix”, “Death Grips 2.0”, “System Blower” and the memeified “Death Grips is Online” all suggest a normified version of tech speak, which is a very cyberpunk thing to do. They also apparently coined the term “’noided” (or the constant feeling of The X Files’ favorite catchphrase) in their song “I’ve Seen Footage”, which is about desensitization in the digital era’s oceans of porn. That’s the kind of futurespeak you’d find in a Gibson novel.
But other than references to a cyborg and a “party in the future from the past” that gets broken up by solar panel-smuggling cops in their wonderfully debaucherous song “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood” oh hold on we’ve got to listen to this. I kind of hate myself for loving it so much.
Anyways, their music contains no concrete references to any science fiction concepts (although they do reference video games here and there). But just reel back for a second and check out “Whatever I Want”.
That is the biggest fucking fuck you to the surveillance state we’re living in I have seen from a modern living artist. “Anne Bonny”, from the same album, mixes the dependency of a crippled man on Vicodin and the Wormhole of Self-Loathing that is the internet in a terrifyingly real Molotov cocktail of a song.
Dig deeper into Death Grips’ discography and you find a whole fucking treasure trove of tech-savvy tracks. No Love Deep Web is a clear reference to the real-life crime-ridden underground of the internet. “No Love” in particular is an industrial assault by Hill and Ride on your senses in a hypnotically terrifying simulation of a bad, bad trip if you’re listening at full volume. Live a little, you audio junkie.
And, well, do I even have to explain this one?
See, No Love Deep Web and The Money Store in particular share an incredible quality in their themes. While Ride, Morin, and Hill are obviously influenced by industrial artists, who were inspired by cyberpunk as the progressive genres were by space operas and high fantasy. Sure, Ride’s worldview may be skewed a bit by listening to “too much” good ol’ Trent in his adolescence. But outside of concept albums released here and there, the influence of cyberpunk on industrial music has become obscured over the years. Even if Death Grips’ songwriters are aware of cyberpunk culture, they don’t draw from it heavily. Instead, as punk was designed to do, they angrily tear into increasingly modern problems. They make commentary on how the internet dissociates us from the world around us through porn and mindless, empty pleasures–in “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”, Ride even chants, “I don’t care about real life”. They paint for us a world ridden with drug addicts, internet junkies, psychos, and unscrupulous bodies of authority. Their lyrics are laced with paranoia and rage, their vocabulary informed by the digital era. They compare L.A. to a prison–gee, where have I heard that one before?
Friends and enemies, this is a very, very rare case of life imitating art imitating art. This is cyberpunk that has been raised in the wild, bubbling up from between the seams of a city sidewalk when nearly everything else has been grown in a petri dish.
Still not satisfied? In 2016, between releasing their Niggas on the Moon and Jenny Death EPs (which would later be combined to be rereleased as The Powers That B) Death Grips released a standalone album, Fashion Week, which is comprised entirely of instrumental tracks as MC Ride was probably preoccupied with expanding his horizons as a traditional painter.
Honestly, if I was satisfied, I could end this article series right here. Death Grips is the perfect example of what I’ve been looking for. The beautiful, destructive force of nature Ride, Hill, and Morin have built is the result of a world immersed in dystopian means of control. They’re John from Brave New World at a whole new level, up to their eyes in drugs, distractions, desensitization, disenchantment, and paranoid dissociation. They’re among the growing ranks of 21st century lowlives. They’re already making waves in pop culture, suggesting that this is only the start of their music blasted through the speakers of underground cage matches (cyborg limbs optional).
In an age where it seems like most artists, even under the punk umbrella, are afraid of smashing cultural norms and inspiring people to actually cause trouble for once, Death Grips flies straight in the face of that. They’re an urban legend come to life from the deepest bowels of the internet, and when they’re in front of the microphone, they’re pure, sonic chaos.
Already know everything there is to know about Death Grips, but hungry for more dystopian expression bleeding into our reality? Then check out the first two articles in this series and our articles on Massive Attack and Theatre of Tragedy, and if you’ve got a band in mind that does the same, send them our way.