(This post is adapted – very slightly – from a paper I gave at this year’s International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference in Brisbane, Australia. As I was speaking to a diverse academic audience, I set-up the paper with a lot of biographic information at the front here so if you’re familiar with the work of DG, you can probably skip this.)
BACKSTORY: THE RISE OF DEATH GRIPS
Both ends of my candle
Never stop chasin’ each other’s faces
I’m the mask that separates them
I’ve been interested in the American experimental hip-hop band Death Grips for what feels like a long time but it’s actually been about three years. Three years feels like a lifetime in music criticism. The band emerged in 2011 with a self-released mix-tape titled Exmilitary, something that travelled far and wide online, finding all sorts of places to reside, namely MP3 blogs and more prominently, Grindcore Karaoke, the online label of Jay Randall (Agoraphobic Nosebleed). The links between Grindcore Karaoke and the band appeared clear: in addition to hip-hop, Exmilitary had strong ties to (and samples taken from) aggressive rock, punk and art music and as such it felt like a natural fit for GK’s emphasis on the borderlands of noise, grindcore and punk, whereby the tinny drum machines of Death Grips sat directly alongside the spluttering electronically programmed blast beats of electro-grind.
Personally, I thought Exmilitary was interesting more than good. Others were more taken by it. When one writer for Forbes Magazine came to assemble his 2011 list of ‘Best Free Albums’, Death Grips came in about halfway at #5, edging out The Weeknd, Fugazi-Wu-Tang Clan mash-up Wugazi and Crosses, a side-project of Chino Moreno of nu-metal titans Deftones. The record also earned good reviews in The Guardian, Pitchfork and NME.
From 2011, the band’s trajectory trended in one direction: up. Less than a year after their debut, they would be signed to the Sony-funded Epic Records (home to Avril Lavigne, Fiona Apple, Michael Jackson’s catalogue). The band announced two albums for 2012 and in April, Epic released the first of these called The Money Store. To promote the album, a 30-date international tour was booked. It was due to start in May but…
After 11 years of being on the road, (drummer/producer Zach) Hill knew there wasn’t always something at the end of the touring rainbow, after playing “the same circuit of the same things of the same this of the same that.” Rolling with the future meant finishing the second record…They gave the world no more notice than…
They didn’t tell anyone they were bailing on 30 shows, least of all their booking agent, manager, record label, or publicist. (Quote taken from this piece from Spin.)
Further to which, the band essentially opted out the album’s promotional cycle completely. They did a small, select handful of interviews that year, most of which went online well after the The Money Store had passed. All this did not go down well at Epic or in any other part of the music industries associated with the band, except the press: all of the intermediaries around Death Grips were effected and the band’s audience were deeply unimpressed, almost comically so for a band so readily adopting the punk mode.
Yet Death Grips followed through: they spent the next four months of 2012 locked away in their Sacramento apartment finishing their third album No Love Deep Web. When they returned to LA and Epic in a bid to have their third album released, they were met with a far less-than-enthusiastic response. They persisted, hounding the executives of their own label for a release date and got no where. The label refused to schedule the album until, ‘sometime in 2013’. Frustrated and feeling the moment passing, the band leaked No Love Deep Web on October 1st and it looked like this:
There’s some peen under the black box.
This provoked an unusual response from Epic:
Epic Records is a music first company that breaks new artists. That is our mission and our mandate. Unfortunately, when marketing and publicity stunts trump the actual music, we must remind ourselves of our core values. To that end, effective immediately, we are working to dissolve our relationship with Death Grips.
The band have remained active since: they started their own label, signed it over to another major-label funded subsidiary Harvest. Finally, in August of this year, they were set to play a small number of shows and festival appearances. When audiences packed into Chicago’s Bottom Lounge for the first of these dates, they were met with an AV projection, of a suicide note while a mix tape of the band’s music played. This was the entire show. The Bottom Lounge’s venue staff were repeatedly told the band were delayed but it was later revealed they were not even in the state.
THE SPECIFIC AND THE EXTRAORDINARY IN THE STORY OF DEATH GRIPS
As one can imagine, online music portals like Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound and whomever else desired the traffic loved all of this. This all made the news pages regularly, tediously even: Pitchfork reported the tweets, the tour cancellations, the album leak, then Epic’s response to the leak and so on. On just that one website – the most influential music site by a long margin – there have been over 50 stories about Death Grips since February 2012. Stereogum has run 29 stories since the start of 2012, not bad for a site that has no actual access to the band. In one of these stories, a Stereogum writer referred to Death Grips’ success as ‘open source acclaim.’ This was a quip, of course, as much is the daily grind of music reporting tends to be but it got me thinking. The scenario of Death Grips looks open, and it’s designed to look this way but is this really true? This band’s constant provocation rings out as equal parts punk resistance and traffic optimising online promotion but does that mean it’s accessible, hackable, adaptable? I started looking for the specific and extraordinary in the story of Death Grips.
NOT YOUR STANDARD DEAL
Firstly, the recording deal the band signed with Epic was extraordinary in a few regards. The band’s way into the label was via L.A. Reid’s then-executive vice president of marketing Angelica Cob-Baehler:
“It took about six seconds,” she says. “I was just sucked in. What I saw was a band that had the ability to capture violent, raw aggression in a way I hadn’t seen this decade. I couldn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was scared of them! I couldn’t resist the feeling of just wanting to be a part of it.” (Quote, again, taken from this piece from Spin.)
What Cob-Baehler watched, in this quote here, was this video:
It has almost 2 million views, despite the fact that it looks like it was shot on a phone. What’s interesting to note at all points thereafter – even when the label is dismissing the band – is the adherence to the act’s cultural currency. This fairly potent cache they have, of bristling rawness, of a mix between the gritty, almost Ol Dirty Bastard-esque blather of MC Ride and the brashly experimental and hardcore referencing sounds underneath, all of this appears preserved under the band’s recording deal. The deal they signed seems very far indeed from the all-encompassing, all-controlling and encroaching contract work Matt Stahl has analysed recently. To the contrary, Epic seems to make no attempt whatsoever to tame Death Grips for the broader commercial market. At no point, does Epic appear ready or willing or even interested in pushing Death Grips to cross-over more broadly. When the band fails to live up to expectations, recall the wording the label used in their denouncement: they spin the story as a means to promote their ‘core values’ of authentic music, while Death Grips’ spin is pure punk-rock brattiness.
NO NEWS IS NEWS: DEATH GRIPS AND THE DIGITAL ENCLOSURE
My second point of exception with Death Grip’s open source acclaim is their self-management, namely the direction they have taken their band. Over time, the band’s sense of DIY self-determination has started to look more and more perilous, both bane and boon. For example, if they were, in fact, in total control as the touring stunts aimed to demonstrate, then they were also the origin of all this tactical promotion. Today, the band has really started to look like it’s own version Malcolm McClaren. From there it’s hard not to think of Greil Marcus and Debord and the spectacle. Here was Death Grips and the online music media and digital technology producing the ‘reality’ of Death Grips. While so heavily invested in the culture of online technology, the band’s music – it’s core – seems to slide to the margins. The more attention the band got in 2012-2013, the less emphasis was placed on its sound. It’s frightening how few of those 50 news pieces on Pitchfork centred on Death Grips as musicians or creators of sound-based art or music or songs. This has become almost pure media spectacle now. When a band is celebrated for not performing live what is there? The music media is celebrating an absence, a ‘mysterious’ lack of personal presence, as if the fact that anything can and does lies outside the digital enclosure is suddenly a curious and novel idea. Suddenly, no news has almost become newsworthy, by merit of the fact it jumps the track of daily updates and feeds.
Death Grips produce work directly aimed at these gaps, between all these processes and not for them. They draw attention by being neither one nor other. Likewise, they sit between punk’s authentic resistance and commercial hip-hop’s brash swagger, between music as communicative centre-piece and brand rallying point, between orderly business and chaotic art and finally, centrally, between promotion as a musician’s chore and as marketing as story-based art-form. Death Grips ride this age-old tension all the way. There’s real power here between the spectacular online and absent off and they are relentless online, releasing song after song, video after video, animated gif after gif but none of this reveals much about their concrete week-to-week existence. They are not the story. They’re telling the story.
THE PAROCHIAL BIAS
Finally, I want to finish up with one final piece of detail. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that what Epic wanted from Death Grips was this cultural power and cache, their ability to command attention. This is the central process by which music is being monetised at present. The album sales are never coming back. The Money Store was anything but. It reportedly sold as little as 4000 copies in its opening week and it is not surprising Epic proved elusive when it came to scheduling the follow-up album. Yet the story of how – exactly – the band approached Epic a second time is really illuminating. For a band steeped in outsider mythos, Death Grips were living anything but: In 2012, after completing No Love Deep Web in Sacremento, the band took the remaining portion of their record advance and set up a base in one of rock’s most mythologised places:
…they were walking down Sunset Boulevard with their bags and passed Chateau Marmont, the famed $435-a-night luxury hotel and/or castle where Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, Lindsay Lohan got booted for skipping her bill, and Katy Perry and John Mayer currently rendezvous on dates. (And again.)
Despite the band’s Bourdesian strategising, it didn’t work. The leak of No Love Deep Web was made from the hotel, the cover was shot in one of it’s bathrooms. As this era of the band came to an end, it was a failure almost, if not for the rapid succession of news pegs it provided for transmission.
As an Australian music critic, I find this particular anecdote interesting. Is it not a rich metaphor for the band’s career more broadly? The band’s positioning within a certain geographic zone – the U.S., close to L.A. – afforded them significant advantage.The aesthetics of Death Grips are cheap to produce and transferred through a media most of the West have access to. Yet how far did Epic’s gaze travel in this brave new digital world? To Sacremento? To Youtube? And look at the hustle involved in that second-chance Death Grips were chasing. That experience is what most musicians outside of a select few struggle with every day. High quality accessible product can find its way to market despite geographic obstacles but fringe music like Death Grips? It was a miracle it made it to Epic once and even with the aid of Epic’s own capital investment, the band couldn’t get back inside the door. This is the size and shape of the ‘democratised’ and utopic digital media. You are free to do as you please but attention still travels along a circuitry of place and capital that still appears completely dominated by the U.S., even in 2013, even with something as unflinching as Death Grips.
The American music press seems wilfully blind to this. In an age were all sorts of music journalism tropes surrounding gender, race and class are being rigorously dismantled, little is made of the obvious parochial bias. While the online spectacle of constant daily churn and music for everyone – and by everyone – continues, much is obscured as we click through to the next illuminating and distracting moment. We are, each of us, a little like Death Grips. We have a plethora of options that look like an open source of inspiration and transmission but I’m not sure how often we exercise these ideals. Instead, we stare into the digital music media online and suddenly find ourselves compromised, conflicted and occasionally ostratcised by our own so- called revolution, our own marvel of creation. And while I’ve been fairly critical at times about this band, I think they really understand this. I think they feel it. They get it. Because interwoven between so much of what they do and so many of the band’s lyrics is a strain of nihilism. Spin critic Christopher Weingarten wrote of the band being one that “embraced the chaos of the internet.” I agree. But the internet Death Grips have a hold on is no business marketplace or visual pleasure zone, it’s an abyss, a place of cynicism, noise, alienation, surveillance and rampant, unchecked expectation. I think that third album title – No Love, Deep Web – might just describe the thrust of the band far more completely than an insider exposé.