There’s a running joke around the Frogs office that Mark will be able to find the only post-punk ska folk band in existence, and enjoy the hell out of them (it doesn’t matter that I’m the only that makes that joke). Well, I have a confession to make; I’m your fool, because I found the only hip-hop metal band in existence, and I enjoy the hell out of them. But we all have our chains to break, and Mark will tell you. Just ask Mark or Elliott; I’ve been listening to Death Grips pretty much non-stop the last 2 weeks, and I love it.
Death Grips is a California based hip-hop band fronted by MC Ride (aka Stefan Burnett), with Andy Morin on the keyboard/synth, and Zach Hill (of Hella, Holy Smokes, and Team Sleep fame). They’ve been together since December 2010, and have been pumping out music pretty consistently since about March 2011. It’s hard to peg their style down; MC Ride is clearly doing the whole hip-hop thing, but Morin is doing a gothic synth-pop, and Hill is just banging away at the drums like a metal band. That’s why a lot of different terms, like alternative hip-hop, experimental hip-hop, and my own personal label, rap-metal/rap-rock (yes, I know it makes them sound like an “edgier” Limp Bizkit, but it’s applicable and makes the name cool) have been applied to them. Interestingly enough, they’re the first intentionally lo-fi hip-hop group I’ve ever heard of or seen. And surprisingly, it all works together so well.
They released their first mixtape, Exmilitary back in April of 2011, but I wasn’t feeling it. There was a song or 2 that I really liked, but the rest didn’t really jive with me. Maybe I was too new to the whole experimental aspect of their act, or I just didn’t get what they were going for. Although it did get a lot of positive reviews and made a few top 10 lists, I just could not get into it. It wasn’t until Death Grips dropped The Money Store did I finally fall in love and understand why I didn’t like the mixtape.
Once they got a record deal, and they either found their sound or got an executive to guide them in the right direction. I started listening to the many, many, many, many singles released, and I was getting ever more excited. And when I found out that the entire album was available to stream for free, I had the same scream-like-a-10-year-old-school-girl-who-just-met-Justin-Beiber-in-person reaction that Elliott had when he found out Pow Pow from Man Man was giving him drum drum lessons (see what I did there? Did you see it? Awesome, you saw it). This time around, MC Ride wasn’t just yelling out angry lines about… whatever Takyon is about as loud, metallic drum hits clanged in the back with a synth dropping a variety of pitch-shifting and almost scary notes. This time, their anger seemed directed, although I’m not exactly sure what it’s directed at, but it does have a concentrated feeling to it. And their lyrics and content fun and funny, in a Tyler, the Creator sort of way. But instead of just crazy like Tyler, they’re angry and crazy.
The appeal here is the same appeal for punk rock (not post-punk or pop-punk, but pure The Clash or Sex Pistols punk) and metal; aggression, loudness, anger, violence, dirt, mud, blood, energy. They take a new approach to what rap-rock or hip-hop, and turn it into something grimefully beautiful (yes, grimefully is a word. Look it up. Or better yet, don’t). Death Grips is able to capture and store all that rage unlike any other band I’ve heard of in the last 20 years, and release it to an unsuspecting public that wants, no, needs this kind of music. That’s one of the reasons why I loved Tyler, the Creator so much; he brought an anger and energy that was missing from most music, and especially missing from rap, given the NWA roots a lot of modern hip-hop has. Let’s take a look at a few of their songs.
If you know me, I love me some delicious lows, whether they are sexy, hard hitting, or just really loud. So not only was “System Blower” an awesome Death Grips take on dubstep, but just a dirty track that I loved the second I heard it. It’s a pretty good example of MC Ride’s vocal delivery, and how it gets swallowed up by the instrumentation behind him no matter how loud he yells. And let’s not forget those bridges with the Youtube-sampled, heavily distorted Venus Williams serve-scream right before the drop, and the “WA-WA-WA” synths blaring at you. It’s one of the few songs that I can listen to and honestly feel like flipping tables and punching holes in my walls and throwing desk lamps out of windows and kicking Steve in the face (although I do want to kick Steve in the face a lot, so that’s not all that unusual).
“The Cage” has a synth riff that I can only describe as what the Devil’s ice cream truck would play in hell. It’s a fun melody, but dark at the same time. And the pitch-shifting at the end of the riff just gives it a sinister vibe that makes you uneasy. Vocally it starts off with more a traditional vocal delivery, but even that devolves into shouting everything. And lyrically, it’s the same as a regular rap song; it’s all about killing and doing drugs, but the reason it’s so good is that it’s the grimy, dirty side of the killing and drugs. And it just comes together so spectacularly.
Of course, that’s not to say they don’t have their own softer songs. They still pack a punch, but in a more traditional way.
“Get Got”, the lead single and opening track of The Money Store, still has MC Ride mumbling through his verses, slowly building up the energy until he finishes the verse and the chorus comes in. The synthesizer has this fast, uneasy high-pitched melody to it that starts slightly off beat. It’s there almost as a buffer from Exmilitary, to show that they aren’t going to be as constantly intense here, and that they know how to make something that won’t push people away. It features some rather restrained drumming, which, after hearing the rest of the album, is an accomplishment in and of itself.
“Hacker” sees a spoken word over a beat I would expect to hear as the bridge for some indie song. Lyrically, it’s what Kurt Cobain would write if he was alive and was a rapper (although I would kill to see Zombie Cobain spit hot fire at a crowd). The hook has almost no relation to the rest of the song, which doesn’t have relation with itself. It’s a spoken word song of barely related couplets and lines, with a fun hook (“I’m in your areeeeeaaaaaaaaa”), kind of like “Something in the Way” (although it’s not an embarrassment to an otherwise fantastic album), or if Serengeti’s “California” was any good. I mean, what does “The table's flipped now we got all the coconuts bitch” have to do with stealing stuff, or being an intern at Wikileaks? It’s densely cryptic and comes at you so fast you barely have time to make sense of it all, much like most of the Death Grips material.
Much like WZRD or Swan Lake (for Elliott), Death Grips isn’t something you jump into expecting to love it, or even truly enjoy and appreciate it the first few times you listen to it. But, if you pull up the lyrics and put the album on repeat a couple of times, you’ll start to see what I’m seeing in these guys. Yes, it’s weird, it’s abrasive, but it’s smart and thoughtful at the same time, and will hold you in a death grip (man, I’m on fire with these puns). Once I’m done fixing all the stuff in my apartment that I broke from listening to The Money Store (after fixing the destruction Elliott brought to my building), I’m going to have to give Exmilitary another listen.
Check out their Soundcloud page to stream anything and everything by them (and download a few songs too), and go out and buy the album. It’ll be totally worth it. If you’re too lazy to go to another website, just check out the song/video for “The Fever”, one of my personal favorites, and the same goes for “Bitch Please”. Had The Money Store come out a little later, it would have been my #1 album out of my top 42. I cannot express this enough; buy The Money Store. Nor can I express how much I want you to like the blog on Facebook.