Stories

Published on April 22nd, 2015 | by joshenjammer

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The Story of Death Grips

4d69596eTechnology has always been an important part of hip-hop. From the very beginning, DJs and MCs have used turntables and speakers to practice their art, and as the movement has progressed and modernized, more and more new technologies have found their way into use by hip-hop artists.

From its inception, the internet was one of these technologies utilized, mainly for its advertising abilities and the option to connect with other like-minded individuals. The internet can be used to discover new music and artists in ways never before imagined, not only through music news websites, but also through music streaming and downloads, both legal and illegal.

But this had never been truly utilized by musicians to its full potential. When Death Grips introduced themselves in 2011 via a self-titled EP, it was released exclusively on the internet and made some waves in the underground music community. It was noticed by a few keen-eared individuals, but not many realized that this strange, experimental release marked the beginning of a career that would be entirely unique and set a new standard for DIY music and hip-hop in the internet age.

This sound was unlike anything heard before in the hip-hop genre or otherwise

Death Grips formed in Sacramento, California in 2010, when Zach Hill (who had already established himself in the local scene through bands like Hella and other session work) befriended neighbor Stefan Burnett. Burnett already had some experience rapping (under the alias “MxlPlx”) through a group he and his brother formed called Fyre, but was predominantly a visual artist and painter.

When Hill and Burnett (who took on the new name “MC Ride”) realized that they shared similar musical interests, they recruited producer Andy Morin to form Death Grips. Their first release, the self-titled EP Death Grips, was put up on the internet via a .zip file. This was followed up soon after with the entirely free release of their first album in April 2011, entitled Exmilitary.

This release, which featured some of the same songs as the previously released EP, showed Death Grips’ aggressive new take on hip-hop, using samples and live drums to create an intense atmosphere over which MC Ride half rapped, half screamed dark lyrics about violence and occultism.

This sound was unlike anything heard before in the hip-hop genre or otherwise, and naturally this release had mixed reactions.

DSC_0363However, through music review sites such as Pitchfork, the band slowly gained an audience, and many eagerly awaited their next release. During this period, very little about the group was actually known, since the only member already established in the music scene was producer/drummer Zach Hill. Mainly known as a noise musician, his presence added credibility to this strange new group, and helped Death Grips gain traction both in experimental/noise music circles as well as in the hip-hop community, despite their uncompromising and abrasive sound.

For the rest of the year, Death Grips played small, low-key shows to support the release while Exmilitary spread across the internet.

The group sent fans on what was essentially an internet scavenger hunt

Thanks to the press the group was getting on the internet, they gained the attention of Epic Records, a major label. During this period Death Grips gave several interviews. Although they revealed some of the group’s intentions and goals, these interviews did nothing to diminish the dark and mysterious nature of the group’s aesthetic.

Nevertheless, Death Grips’ time while associated with Epic is considered to be a commercial peak for the group. Shortly after being signed to the label (in early 2012), the group released The Money Store, which is considered by many to be Death Grips’ best album. It took the screamed/rapped vocals that the group was known for and combined them with a more abrasive and electronic production style (a slight departure from the predominantly sample-based yet still abrasive production of Exmilitary) to create a very catchy but still very dark album.

The album was reviewed by online music critic Anthony Fantano, aka “theneedledrop”, on YouTube. Fantano provided the album with extra momentum by giving it his first score of 10/10. Due to the fact that Fantano’s channel had a very large number of subscribers (thus, new potential Death Grips fans), this glowing recommendation again helped the group to gain traction on the internet.

With their growing popularity and major label status, Death Grips went on a tour to promote The Money Store.

Prior to signing to Epic, Death Grips had set a goal for themselves and made a promise to fans: they would have two new records out in 2012. In an interview with Pitchfork Media, Zach Hill (Death Grips’ unofficial spokesman) is quoted as saying that the group “should not have booked” the supporting tour because it didn’t give them the time they needed to finish their follow up to The Money Store. This resulted in several no-shows by the band and the eventual cancellation of the rest of the tour, which caused outrage among the concertgoers and fans. However, this allowed them to finish the next record.

DGKDJDJThe promotion of this album is one of the best examples of Death Grips’ use of the internet going well beyond anything previously imagined in the music business: the group sent fans on what was essentially an internet scavenger hunt. Using encrypted files hosted on the deep web, the group unveiled clues about the album, such as the intended release date for the album of October 23, 2012. Other pieces of information were also found, such as unreleased versions of The Money Store and future Death Grips concert dates. These clues were discussed on internet forums such as 4chan and Reddit, further endearing Death Grips to the internet generation. Their association with these sites also became of even more importance later on in the group’s career.

In spite of the promised release date of October 23, Epic records insisted that Death Grips push back the album’s release date to early 2013. Intent on keeping things self-managed and unregulated by label constraints, Death Grips announced via social media for fans to keep an eye out for new music on October 1 and proceeded to leak the album on file sharing sites for free, with the album cover being a photo of drummer/producer Zach Hill’s penis.

The label was predictably unhappy and voiced their concern via private emails, which the group also leaked on Facebook.

Because of both the unauthorized release and the leak of the private emails, the label severed connections with Death Grips, and once again the group was on their own, without any label associations.

The album itself was well received by fans despite the controversial release strategy, and the group’s next album was eagerly anticipated. However, it was during this period (after the release of No Love Deep Web) that Death Grips began to enter back into a reclusive, mysterious state, not doing any interviews or giving much insight into their next album or touring plans.

All news on the band eventually came to be released either on Facebook, Twitter, or via actual new music and video releases via the band’s YouTube channel and SoundCloud account. The band even started its own record label, Third Worlds, to completely manage their own affairs.

2012_10_17_NPRLPR_192-1Although many of the group’s actions, (especially the break from Epic) seem hostile and ill-advised, they represent what Death Grips stands for at the group’s very core: making music entirely on their own terms. This attitude has been held by many bands in underground music for a long time, specifically in punk rock, but remains a very foreign idea for a hip-hop group particularly in today’s music industry. Death Grips took a strategy mostly employed by DIY musicians in local scenes and progressed it to a national level, employing forums and music news outlets to turn the entire internet into their hype machine, independently of any outside help from a music label.

The band leaked the album on file sharing sites with the album cover being a photo of Zach Hill’s penis

The group has always maintained that, “No representation is better than misrepresentation,” and kept very closely to this approach. This has resulted in a very closed-off and introverted public persona. Any outside sources that could misrepresent them (i.e., Epic Records) are cut off and any connections potentially harmful to the group’s image are severed.

Death Grips’ next album, Government Plates, was released in 2013. Each song was given its own music video and released on YouTube, forming a short movie. The links to free streaming websites such as SoundCloud and the like were also shared exclusively by the group itself on social media. Shortly after this, Death Grips released No Love Deep Web and Government Plates physically on CD and vinyl.

This was the first time either album had been given a physical release that fans could actually buy, and marked a change from yet another one of Death Grips’ unique departures from music industry standards: the fact that they offered all of their music, perfectly legally, completely for free.

Because of the ease with which music can be obtained for free, many listeners do just that, and it is becoming increasingly more difficult for musicians to make money off of actual album sales. At a time when many music superstars were complaining about people illegally downloading their music, Death Grips offered all of the music for free anyway.

They were among the first bands to accept the fact that all digital music can and will always be made free in the end

It seems that the main way to make money in today’s musical economy is through live shows and merchandise sales, and Death Grips had realized this. This is another way in which the group has broken the old music industry molds and fully entered the digital age: they were among the first bands to accept the fact that all digital music can and will always be made free in the end, and have used this to their advantage in releases and expanding their fanbase. They even do this in spite of the fact that their touring schedule is not busy enough to compensate for the lack of music sales.

The summer of 2014 was full of news for Death Grips fans. The alternative rock bands Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails announced a tour, and in a surprise move, said that Death Grips would be touring with them. The group also released (again, for free) Niggas on the Moon, what they said would the first half of a double album called The Powers That b. The second half of the album, Jenny Death, was to be released later in the year.

Following the release of Niggas on The Moon, Death Grips made one of the strangest and boldest career moves in recent music history: they told fans that they had broken up. With all of the apparent plans in store, the announcement that their career as a group was now over was a surprise to many following the band.

The breakup was announced in a strange, impersonal and cryptic way characteristic to Death Grips: they wrote the announcement on a napkin, a photo of which was posted to Facebook. Fans were baffled by this move, but the note promised one more thing from the band: that part 2 of The Powers that b, Jenny Death, would still be released by the end of 2014. This gave fans one more thing to look forward to.

death_grips_interactiveAlthough for most groups breaking up means an end to creativity and work, as well as the end of a career, the breakup of Death Grips came to mean something very different. For fans, the promise of Jenny Death began a waiting period that would not only keep Death Grips on the musical map, but also prove to be very fruitful for their ever-growing popularity.

It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Death Grips’ online importance: the growth of the Death Grips subreddit, known as r/deathgrips. Reddit is a website that allows users to create their own community page (called a subreddit) for anything they want, whether it be a sports team, a game, or a musical group.

Up to the release of Niggas on the Moon, r/deathgrips’s only notable contribution was being a part of the internet scavenger hunt that preceded the release of No Love Deep Web. Other than this, r/deathgrips had been used only for updates about releases and Death Grips news.

“Everyone thinks we broke up, but we didn’t.”

However, only once the wait for Jenny Death began did the subreddit become an important part of the Death Grips story. Fans on r/deathgrips began posting theories about the album’s release date, and their interpretations of news about the group. Since Death Grips never gave an actual release date for Jenny Death, it was anyone’s guess when it would come out. The only thing apparently certain was that it would be released before the end of 2014.

The anticipation for the album (as well as the hype surrounding the band) grew significantly because of this waiting period, and a new slogan, “JENNY DEATH WHEN,” seemed to take over parts of the internet.

It was during this period that a mysterious twitter account called “@bbpoltergeist” surfaced, but no one in the group confirmed its validity. The account posted strange updates about Death Grips, including a message that said, “Everyone thinks we broke up, but we didn’t.” No one actually knew if the account was real or not.

However, after the song Inanimate Sensation (a single from Jenny Death) was released, people suddenly paid more attention to @bbpoltergeist: the account had posted an image used in the song’s music video a month before the music video was released.

Fans then began to watch @bbpoltergeist for any updates, and developed even more release-date theories based on items the account had posted.

As the year came to a close, the hype only grew more and more, with more insane release date theories being posted to r/deathgrips every day. Since the group had promised the album’s release by the end of 2014, fans thought that the album would come on Christmas, then New Year’s Eve.

But fans did not get Jenny Death in 2014, and many began to wonder if the album would be released at all.

On January 4, 2015, Death Grips surprised fans with the release of an album of all instrumental electronic music, called Fashion Week. The release of this album is notable mainly because it proved that the members of the group monitored their fanbase and knew of everything going on: the album had been anonymously posted by one of the group’s members on the subreddit several months prior to its actual release (but was ignored because most thought that it was a fake), and the song titles on the album spelled out the slogan created by fans during the wait: “J E N N Y D E A T H W H E N.”

Not only was Death Grips aware of what the fans were doing on r/deathgrips and the havoc they were causing on the internet, but now the group was taunting them with their new releases.

This release also gave fans new hope that Jenny Death was in fact still coming, and once again hype for the album began to build. More and more cryptic information (including a lo-fi video of the group practicing, as well as another song) was released, until finally the twitter account @bbpoltergeist made an announcement: the album would be released on March 31, and that a tour announcement would be made on March 24.

Although the authenticity of the account remained unconfirmed, fans chose to believe this information, and it paid off: these dates proved to be correct, and the album was officially released on the promised day.

When looking at the strange Twitter account and the r/deathgrips subreddit, it is important to remember: the group was technically still officially broken up, and not affiliated with any major label that would market or advertise for them. The only input Death Grips had in any of the hype-building were the occasional unofficial social media updates, and a few cryptic messages in the form of song titles and low-quality videos.

Indirectly, they built up hype for their album entirely through the fans and online communities, and independently of any major label assistance, they gained one of the most dedicated fanbases in modern music.

b5c3d177Even while sticking to their antisocial tendencies and making literally no public appearances or interviews, they forced the music industry to care about what they were doing and gained traction in the media using the internet exclusively, even some of the lesser-known circles such as the deep web.

While other groups have used the internet to build up hype in different ways (such as fellow hip-hop collective Odd Future), Death Grips took a more punk rock approach, destroying any connections they did not feel represented their mission statement and managing everything themselves (even though they used a mostly hands-off strategy).

Every interview they did, every video and album that was put out, especially the abrasive and uncompromising style of hip-hop they made, all of it contributed to forming a group that was truly unique, and made them the first group to completely utilize and embrace today’s digitally-based culture.

Death Grips has come to represent a mastery of the internet age

Right from the start, with the release of the abrasive and harsh Exmilitary, music fans knew that this was something different. It was not like regular hip-hop, and had equally ambiguous roots in punk rock and noise music. The group behind the music was mysterious and strange, and was to stay that way throughout their career, continuing to live their lives independently of the fame that they had gained.

By embracing new trends in music and marketing, Death Grips shed light on a new direction for the music industry that had previously been untapped in the mainstream. Through entirely managing their own affairs in a very counterculture and DIY fashion, they still managed to become the favorite band of the internet and book a sold-out tour.

Death Grips has come to represent a mastery of the internet age, and did so completely on their own terms.

References & Bibliography


About the Author

I am an artist, musician and writer based in Athens, GA.



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