death grips: the sound of pre-post-apocalyptic anxiety

September 17, 2011

Most attempts to marry punk and hip-hop have come from the punk side of the canyon. As such the attempts, despite being well meaning, tend to be embarrassing rather than revelatory. What makes Death Grips‘ debut mixtape ‘Exmilitary’ such a revelation is less the sense of hearing something genuinely new (which it certainly is), but the fact that it works, and works so well (Stream + Free Download below). The band describes itself as avant hip-hop, but make no mistake, this is as hardcore as anything Youth Brigade ever recorded.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Once the initial rush of hearing the mixtape for the first time subsided and my eardrums cleared all I could think was: “What took so long?” The bowels of bargain bins are littered with bands who have thought “hey, hip-hop and punk are kind of similar in theory. We should combine them!” What makes Death Grips different is that they’re not using the language of punk to record hip-hop music (see: Crass’ misguided Smash the Mac), or integrating elements of hip hop into punk rock (see: the intriguing but flawed bands Happy Go Licky and the Beatnigs). Death Grips has one foot planted firmly in each world, and they are irrevocably tied to one another. MC Ride spits rhymes with the full throated fury of Henry Rollins (who they sample in the album highlight Klink). And the dense production of Flatlander and drum legend Zach Hill (Hella and Wavves; he’s your favorite drummer’s favorite drummer) throws pummeling distorted guitar and bass over breakneck hip-hop beats.

The combination is something cohesive, but just barely. It’s a balancing act that sounds like it could fall apart at any second. It’s the sound of volatile chemicals captured in the two seconds after they’re mixed but before they explode. In the dubstep inflected Thru the Walls, Zach Hill (on the one track where his presence is really felt) holds down a lightening fast beat that constantly threatens to collapse under its own weight. It’s that touch of human urgency that sets Exmilitary apart. The unsung masterpiece Deltron 3030 may be a hip-hop record about turn-of-the-millenium futuristic anxiety, but ‘Exmilitary’ is the sound of our pre-post-apocalyptic anxiety.

MC Ride’s lyrics often push towards Odd Future’s manic offensive for offensiveness’ sake, but always with a purpose. Where Tyler the Creator has a childish delight in pushing buttons, Ride’s rhymes are backed by frustration and pain. The violent sexual imagery in Spread Eagle Cross the Block evokes a sado-masochistic relationship with drugs, and later in the track, music. “I want some more of it / I want too much / I got so bored with it / I shot it up.” In Ride’s world sex, music, and drugs are almost interchangeable. He wants them, he needs them, he knows they’ll kill him. “What is it, where is it / How it will affect me / Fuck that shit, I need that shits bound to be the death of me.”

The tape largely skips from anxious high to high. Missteps like Guillotine (and that weird distracting Beastie Boys sample on Lord of the Game) are easily forgiven when they’re so far outnumbered by tracks like the mind boggling Culture Shock. Built around a mutated David Bowie sample and the sound of a computer dying, Culture Shock is Death Grips’ defining contradictory statement. It’s a song that would be impossible without mountains of technology (or more likely, a single laptop) that rails against the way modern technology depersonalizes and dehumanizes. Glitch and noise samples collide with IDM breaks to somehow create a defiant punk rock anthem. And it is the genius of Death Grips that it all makes perfect sense. Lots of artists have written music about the contradictions of life in the early 21st century. Death Grips may be the first group to write music that sounds like the 21st century.

“Useless information occupies every open space inside your skull
You know what’s going on every day every night
Everywhere swear you’re so international.”
* Death Grips, Culture Shock

Death Grips – Exmilitary by deathgrips