Check the Chain Link: Understanding Death Grips

Even though they are well-known for their obtuse and nonsensical lyrics, when in 2010 Death Grips’ MC Ride groaned, “Hell if I know, just wanna ride/ Until the wheels, fall off and I run off the road”, it’s easy to get the impression that there was no masquerade or greater meaning. Knowing what has happened around and within the band in the subsequent five years, it easily reads as a statement of intent.

‘What are Death Grips?’ is a question commonly asked in a number of guises. One listen to their blend of Saul Williams-esque spoken-word hip-hop and grinding industrial electronica should provide the most basic response. Yet any deeper questions of meaning, particularly when it comes to the band’s increasingly convoluted public image, are much harder to answer. While we soak up the band’s recently-leaked come-back record, Jenny Death, I think it’s worth asking the question just once more.

Death Grips 2Around the time that they first started to gain critical steam in 2012, Death Grips were popularly categorised as a ‘punk’ band, a designation that often lent itself to tired semantic arguments about the whats and whys of a pie-in-the-sky ‘punk’ ethos, not to mention plain-clothes arguments about what frontman MC Ride’s often unintelligible lyrics intended to say in the first place.

All of these discussions ultimately foregrounded a single conclusion: if Death Grips espouse any ‘meaning’, it is inaccessible to those merely listening to the music. Of course, an album title like ‘The Money Store’ signposts a clear discontent with postmodern capitalism, yet outside of tired platitudes about taking control and a particularly notable call to ‘make your water break in the Apple store’, their music more often than not sidesteps any wider narratives. Songs like ‘I’ve Seen Footage’ and ‘Hustle Bones’ stab at the increasing discontent risen by issues like internet nativity and Western wealth distribution without ever quite setting their chips on a definite message.

Meanwhile, wider attempts to grasp meaning are hindered by the contradictions inherent to Death Grips’ persona. For example, drummer Zach Hill’s claim that the album cover for No Love Deep Web—an unflattering close-up of an erect schlong—was intended to combat the band’s perception as aggressively masculine is disserviced by an oft-noted strand of misogyny in their lyrics (see ‘I Want It I Need It’) that, even if merely parodical, still brings to mind aggressive, male-dominated debates about the necessity of negative representation in the first place. Failing to mention, of course, the dissonance between an album like ‘The Money Store’ and their occasional commercial venture.

Death Grips 4With so many inherent contradictions, Death Grips seem to ‘mean’ nothing. What we’re left with is an entity, a radio-unfriendly cipher for aggression and unrest that has no clear message to impart.  Any given Death Grips song is a postmodern mess of signifiers, divorced from a historical or future context, concerned vaguely with a wider concept of a musical ‘game’, but shy to speak too loud. ‘Gaga can’t handle this shit’, we’re told in ‘Hacker’, but exactly what distances Death Grips’ consistently morphing image from that of the art-pop singer seems little but a matter of taste.

It’s this that is perhaps the most insidious element of Death Grips’ legacy: they are a Fantano-appointed ‘punk’ band without any politics or ideology to speak of. They are anti-ideological: a square hole into which each individual audience member inserts the round peg of meaning.

Candid images of the band meeting with popular superstars Beyoncé and Robert Pattinson stand alongside dimly-lit, low-resolution snaps of MC Ride prowling graveyards. Unsurprisingly, they have become known for a rebellious spirit and outlook more so than actually rebelling against anything. The idea of being ‘noided’—paranoid—is all, a mood and a brand-image no different to the ‘I hate my parents’ theatrics of early 2000’s nu-metal.

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I’m not the first to say this. Death Grips were often categorised by the inhabitants of massive music communities like 4chan’s /mu/ and Reddit’s r/deathgrips as a ‘meme-rock’ band, a slogan-spewing exercise in brand awareness and marketing.

It highlights the two interpretations of Death Grips, both as a self-serious artistic project, and as a crassly commercial machine. Neither necessarily speaks to the listener beyond. On one hand, they are an experimental band that cancels shows as part of a noble, distant agenda, on the other, they are—as Noisey’s Ryan Bassil puts it—a machine; every cancelled show and defiant album cover part of an unending grab for the arts-paper headlines.

Death Grips alternate between crass meme-rock (‘Have a sad cum bb’ was readily printed on official shirts days after that song’s release) and equally crass anti-corporatism (No Love Deep Web’s (in)famous cover) seemingly by the minute, engaged in a never-ending game of ideological rock-paper-scissors.

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In light of this, it strikes me that the ‘punk’ vest has always been ill-fitting, always in disservice of the band’s alienating, apolitical posturing. It’s something that Flatlander and co. are obviously aware of: the default genre tag for the most recent official release was set to ‘pop’, a sly nod to the discussion erupting around their evolution and their image.

It was only in a not-so-final farewell note, scrolled in a characteristically defiant style on what appears to be either a napkin or a roll of toilet paper in 2014, that they ever saw fit to categorise themselves, not as a band, but as ‘a conceptual art exhibition anchored by sound and vision’. There’s no telling if they would have referred to themselves as such when they released their self-titled EP five years ago, but it seemed fitting as an end to their first, Gorillaz-esque iteration. They are ‘anchored’ by sound and vision, but not defined by it: this art exhibition was always an exercise in public image.

Perhaps it’s worth noting here that this article doesn’t mean to diminish the work of a group that, for all intents and purposes, produced some good—great, even—music. Yet to suggest that they were anything more—to suggest that they had any concrete revelation to offer outside of the music industry—is perhaps a step too far. Ultimately, their reach extends to an oft-disputed influence on Kanye’s Yeezus, and maybe a slight dip in sales of shaving cream.

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If there’s even one takeaway from this ‘conceptual art exhibition’, it’s that the music landscape has changed. Death Grips never had more to say than they could with their mere presence on listener’s radars in the first place. Record labels aren’t needed anymore. Popular music can be free. Popular music can be scary. Popular music can also, however, be popular. It can be crassly commercial. It can be contradictory. We didn’t need Death Grips to teach us any of these things, but they’re an apt response to anybody that would ever say otherwise.

Perhaps, as the Jenny Death tour cycle ramps up, we’ll find an elaboration on this basic message; but until then, Death Grips remain stuck in an ideological cycle of life imitating art imitating life. They exist only to be abrasive; to challenge our conception of what music can be, and in doing so, highlight just how little there is left that can genuinely challenge us.

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