Death Grips, "niggas on the moon"
In an effort to quantify the visceral impact of the Death Grips, your correspondent cornered three of his loved ones, demanded that they watch the opening to the Grips's breakout video, ‘Guillotine’, and then recorded their first reaction. The results follow:
- “Oh… God.”
- “Who is this? Why is this?”
- “I'm not sure I want to watch more of this.”
These reactions are, well, understandable. 'Guillotine' and its accompanying video are violent, nightmarish, guttural. Music this abrasive and aggressive doesn't often make cultural inroads, but since their inception in 2010 the Grips have attracted a devout fanbase, signed a major-label contract with Epic (from which they were dropped for leaking their own album) and established themselves as a major force behind rap's current flirtation with dissonance and noise. (Death Grips fans take pains to point out the band's obvious influence on Kanye's Yeezus or Danny Brown's Old.) niggas on the moon, the Sacramento-area three-piece's latest release (released as a free download (.zip)), forms the first half of a double album (entitled the powers that b). Though it doesn't stray too far from the Grips's core competencies and probably won't convert any skeptics, it's nonetheless a solid release from pop music's angriest and most reluctant luminaries.
Two of the Grips—MC Ride (born Steven Burnett) and producer/keyboardist Andy "Flatlander" Morin—avoid the spotlight as though it were a necrotic and highly communicable disease. The role of mouthpiece thus falls to drummer/founder Zach Hill, one of the most frighteningly virtuosic drummers active right now. His stylistic nuances—the intensity with which he hits the drums, his preternatural ear for polyrhythms and hemiolae 1 , his trademark dilapidated and broken equipment—inform every aspect of the group's music. Not every Death Grips track features live drums—indeed, most of niggas on the moon uses programmed drum sounds—but Hill states that he plays every note. As such, there is always an element of thrilling, baffling dissonance and energy to any given Grips song.
MC Ride's vocals are unmistakable and unignorable—he delivers his vocals in a hurried, strained bellow, as frantic and abrasive as the shrill keyboards and Hill's frenetic drumming. The lyrics are near-aphasic, often unintelligible, seldom coherent enough to tell a story but always powerful enough to control the mood, as with album opener "Up My Sleeves":
TSK TSK TSK
My terracotta army
ALSO ALSO ALSO
Mr Rigby told me
You play highway hocus
Ain’t much more highway can ride me
My dead mother in my dream
Remember when December blew her ashes ’cross my jeans
OFF THESE CHAINS
Some things only I have SEEN
Some people only I have BEEN
Used to know who I WAS
Fuck if I knew who that WAS
Pay no mind illogical
Just don’t die in a hospital
Oh YEAH I should be worried
Oh YEAH I’m temporary
The notion of "real hip-hop" is a vacuous one: there is no gate, and anyone who claims the role of gatekeeper is usually trying to sell you something by appealing to snobbery. This aside, there is no question that the Grips's music is diametrically opposed to the traditions of the standard studio-producer-MC formula employed near-universally in commercial (or most indie) hip-hop. If you come to this music looking for lyricism, you will be disappointed.
The most salient difference between niggas on the moon and the Grips' previous work is its electronic influence. Producer Andy's Morin is quite the enigma 2 : he has, as far as I can tell—given no interviews at all with the band—but some digging reveals electronic tracks that may provide insight into Morin's effect on the album's sonic construction, especially the moments at which it seems to lapse into Autechre-esque techno straight off of a Kompakt compilation (‘Billy Not Really’, especially the last thirty seconds).
NotM features a perhaps-unexpected collaboration with Björk: her vocals appear on every song, perhaps expanding the Grips's usually-narrow melodic palette. How this collaboration came to be is something of a mystery, though Björk asserted on Facebook that "i adore death grips and I am thrileld to be their 'found object'". Yet the collaboration works: ‘Have a Sad Cum’, one of the album's stronger moments, is held together by a two-second Bjork sample, falling down a pentatonic scale, as the shouted exhortation "HAVE A SAD CUM, BABY!" punctuates MC Ride's best Gravediggas-on-datura shouts about blood and the number 666. This is heavy, multilayered, sedimentary music: Burnett's voice stutters and skips, crashing against Björk's plaintive vocals and the hectric scrabbling of Morin's synths. The effect, if it can truly be compared to anything, is something like if Atari Teenage Riot produced an Esham record.
Yet despite Björk's presence and the band's shift towards electronica, this record is not a particularly radical step forward for the Grips: the core elements remain more-or-less unchanged from 2012's The Money Store and 2013's Government Plates. This is ultimately niggas on the moon's main flaw—though the Grips are exploring new instrumentation, when all is said and done the sonic changes are surprisngly conservative. This will no doubt endear the album to loyal Grips fans, but it will not persuade any skeptics, nor does it ever challenge its listeners with something truly experimental the way Money Store and 2011's Exmilitary did in their best moments. It’s too early to accuse the Grips of being stuck in a rut, but it’s certainly a possibility.
It would be remiss to avoid mentioning the controversy that has followed the Grips everywhere. It's certainly not malicious for artists to rebel against the creative and business constraints placed upon them, and Grips have certainly done their part: their self-perpetuated album leak (complete with dick-pic cover (NSFW) courtesy of Hill) and subsequent drop from Epic have already entered the realm of legend. Yet Grips also ruffle feathers among their fanbase, having acquired a reputation for unexpectedly cancelling shows—in order to have the chance to finish 2012's NO LOVE DEEP WEB, the Grips cancelled thirty shows, including one in their hometown. They pulled a similar stunt in mid-2013, refusing to show up 3 to a Lollapallooza aftershow, instead leaving a kid's drum set on stage and projecting a fan's suicide note behind it. (You can view an image of the note here, though please be aware that it makes for very disturbing reading.)
The ethics of using a fan's suicide note are murky—especially in the Lollapalooza situation, one that is at best a hostile artistic gesture towards fans and at worst a publicity stunt. If the note is not authentic, it is nigh-inarguably crass: in a country where nearly 40,000 people kill themselves in a year and a world in which people self-immolate with horrifying regularity, it is hard to argue that a fake suicide note isn't insensitive to a horribly traumatic and tragic event (especially for a purpose that an uncharitable observer might term a publicity stunt). If it is real (and if the author of the note completed their suicide), do the Grips have a right, as the recipient of the note, to post it? Does the broadcast of the aftermath of a horrible and traumatic event constitute further injury to the family of the author? Is this, in short, this exploitation masked as edginess?
In their interview after winning SPIN magazine's 2012 Artist of the Year award, MC Ride asks "I mean, do we seem like macho people?" Yeah, uh, actually, they do. This is masculine music, caterwaulting, angsty, simultaneously magnetic and difficult to like. It is not devoid of beauty or melody, but it will discomfit a significant section of the listening public. Whether or not we as listeners should encourage the Grips' behavior is something that we'll have to leave to the philosophers.
Stream niggas on the moon below, or download it from Third Worlds.
Such is the level of mystery associated with him that, when he stopped appearing with Hill and Burnett at Death Grips shows for six months, no one was clear as to whether he was still a member of the band.↩
Let’s be real here, refusing to show up to a show that fans paid to attend is a dick move. (It was a dick move when MF DOOM did it, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a figure in hip-hop more beloved than DOOM.) And come on, they didn’t even stand up Lollapalooza proper—now that would have been punk rock.↩