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Understanding Death Grips

Understanding Death Grips

Scramento-based experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips have turned the internet upside down since the release of their debut mixtape Exmilitary in 2011. They have become one of the most enigmatic, polarizing and debated bands of the twenty-first century and the de facto successors of Marilyn Manson as official boogeyman of popular culture. But there are two stances on Death Grips: you're into them or you're wondering what the fuck?

So, I'm here to help. Long-time readers of this site know I gave them a fair amount of press over the last year, so I spent a lot of time researching, pondering and, of course, listening to their music. My take on them is partly based on persona observation and not necessarily enlightened, but I believe it can help you understand better the nature of the beast. So, without further ado, let's get to work.

Who Death Grips are

They are three guys: Zach Hill, Andy Morin and Stefan Burnett, who's better known as MC Ride. The most common story about the band formation is that Zach and Stefan were neighbors in Sacramento, casually shooting the shit with each other until the day they started making music. Andy would've joined a little later, helping the band develop an identity aside of Ride's madman howls and Zach's powerful, but atypical drumming. 

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So, this is how Death Grips was born. What you need to know, though is that Death Grips is the culmination of three great artists' career. It's not their first project by far. Their most reputable member prior to the inception of the band was Zach Hill, who was a member of cult math rock band Hella. Stefan Burnett was (and still is) a painter. He's quite talented too. It's tougher to find information on what Andy Morin was doing before Death Grips, but word is that he was already a reputable local producer.

Death Grips is not just a band. It's an artistic project born from the vision of three experienced multidisciplinary artists. That, you have to take into account when you press PLAY.

What Death Grips do

They are commonly referred as an experimental hip-hop outfit, but the reality of it is a little more slippery than that. What they do changes slightly with every album they release. They remained within the scope of hip-hop from Exmilitary to No Love Deep Web, exploring the boundaries of what they could do within the genre. The incorporated (and still incorporate) elements of industrial and noise music, and even sometime punk rock. Their 2011-2013 period was merely a prelude to what was to come, though.

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Death Grips have been slowly veering away from hip-hop and onward to more of a compound, inimitable electronic sound since the release of their much maligned album Government Plates. They have been (and are) deconstructing their identity since then, not unlike Radiohead did from Kid A to A Moon Shaped Pool. Ride now breaks his rapping with punk howls reminiscent of old school hardcore bands like Minor Threat or The Damned. He's even absent from certain releases. Some of the beats now incorporate guitars. Their latest release was entirely dedicated to gabber, etc. 

Part of the interest of Death Grips' music is that you have no idea what they're going to do next, but you know they're going to do something unexpected.

Why are Death Grips important?

Death Grips are not only a good band that makes music with a lasting effect on the listener, they're also culturally important. Why is that so? There are several reasons, but it all comes down to their confrontational attitude towards the music industry. They famously leaked their own record three weeks before release because they were fed up with delays, exposing themselves to a world of lawsuits. And they went on. And they kept succeeding anyway because the music was that fucking good and forward thinking.

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On a nerdier level, Death Grips love to confront the ideas we have of just about everything. Whatever we take for granted. Hip-hop, for example. They're not the first artists to attack the tough-guy foundation of gangster rap - Kanye West started doing that ten years ago - but it's the way they've been doing it that's entirely new. MC Ride created that demented, paranoid persona that confronts the violent clich├ęs of gangster rap and exposes violence as something dispossessing and ultimately terrifying.

Death Grips constantly challenge themselves to renew their sound and reinvent their image, opening up a world of possibilities to other artists. Perhaps even more important, they're laying a blueprint for being different and successful.

How to enjoy Death Grips' music

Another reason why I love Death Grips is that they're not a band you can just passively listen to. They're going to sounds unintelligible or downright hostile if you do that. They're a cipher that keeps renewing itself. You have to listen to their albums at least twice to figure out what hit you. Then, you have to read the lyrics. Then you have to research them and discuss them on message board with other fans. Compare notes. You can't love Death Grips casually. If you're into them, you're into them all the way. That's what makes them special. There hasn't been another band who required to be loved fiercely, who could deliver such tremendous music over and over again.

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