One Awesome Thing

They Came to Blow Our System

The unmanageable verbal surge of Death Grips.

Death Grips’ Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett performs onstage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 13, 2012, in Indio, California.

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

Death Grips were the last thrill. Or my last thrill, anyway. Valedictory nervous noise-spasm, adrenal exhaustion scream, my last chance to get good and worked up about a band. Now I’m just going to have to sit quietly in my orgone accumulator, pulling my earlobes, and reading a back issue of Mojo.

Death Grips—drummer/producer Zach Hill, keyboarder/something-or-other Flatlander, and poet/orifice Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett—were savage and sophisticated and seething with all the latest dysfunctions. If Run DMC’s “King Of Rock” had been called “King Of Schizophrenic Bombast,” it might have sounded like Death Grips. The virus is alive, I can see it in your eyes. … Career killer, double-decker packed with suicidal brides. They were the Lightning Bolt of the digital berserk, the Aphex Twin of Marshall McLuhan. A vector, a vortex: As one of their lyrics had it, they came to blow your system. Meaning cracked woofers and exploded concepts. You either bought it or you didn’t, I suppose—either turned away, or followed them willy-nilly into ringing domes of hyperbole.

Megalo-paranoid rapping, blast-farts of the electro-carcass, carnivalesque punky hooks. Why can’t I just float through the walls?/ THROUGH THE WALLS! The hooks were the thing: For all the pressure and the artiness, Death Grips were never too far from Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” Boiling tonsils, avant-squelch—pop music! You wait:

In 20 years they’ll be playing “System Blower” at weddings. Because I am a middle-aged bastard, Death Grips reminded me of another keyboard/drums/voice trio—Switzerland’s all-sampling, all-swallowing Young Gods, who would crush passionate pieces of Voivod or the Stooges into their own clinical-operatic wreckage. Death Grips used Black Flag. And the perished magnificence of Jane’s Addiction’s “Up the Beach.” And musics as yet uninvented: goonstep, karate metal, dark donkey dub. They also made me think of Fugazi, if all the outsiders in the Fugazi songbook—the glue men and margin walkers—were fused unstably in one person, one lean body, and gifted with a riot-starting, Jericho-blowing ram’s horn of a voice. Thoughts squealing through my mildew/ Watch my back or I’ll kill you.

Death Grips answered to no one. That was the Death Grips feeling. A perverse autonomy—or perhaps an enormous drug habit—seemed to guide their every move and utterance. They came from California, of course, where it all shakes to bits. They lived for months in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel, with all the industry scum, as some kind of inside-out act of magical resistance. In three years they made four-and-a-half albums (one of which had a selfie of the drummer’s furious-looking penis on the cover), gave away most of their music for free on the Internet, signed to and got dropped by Epic, raised hackles everywhere, endeared themselves to legions of nutters, and then—this past July, at the top of their game—split up. As Dylan Thomas once exclaimed: “Blood, boy! That’s the stuff!”

Critics went mad for Death Grips because their music sounded like an extreme of critical thinking—an apocalyptic X-ray of modernity, dispossession, power-and-subjection, sex, chemicals, demons, the whole thing. And when I say “went mad” I mean nobly, beautifully. And in detail. “Every track operates in a hyperstitious state of mania without hope of reprieve,” wrote John Calvert, “groaning under blue-note distress, and around every corner a sputtered percussion event. … Deicidal chest-thumping. … Quantum folds…” One wishes to urge him, to egg him on, yelling Go! like a dude with a beret at the first reading of “Howl.” For this too was the Death Grips feeling: unmanageable verbal surge. A popping head. Their music was both theoretical and actual. It was music about the possibility of Death Grips.

And so to the One Awesome Thing. I could have chosen “Artificial Death in the West,” with its beam-like shimmery Kraftwerk notes and shafts of doomed desire: Wet hair on her neck, breathe/ She shoot pussy through your chest you DIE. (And isn’t that just exactly how it feels?) I could have chosen the interstellar murder binge of “Takyon”— Cryonic haunted bullets hollow-tipped with toxic waaaaste—or the prophetic power chords of “Beware” or the horribly decelerated, moving-its-slow-thighs mosh-pit monster that is “Guillotine.” And I should say that, currently, I haven’t reached any sort of mental accommodation with the newest, post-split album Niggas on the Moon.

But I’m going with “Hacker,” from The Money Store. This track is, if you like, the lighter side of Death Grips, surrealist satire with a pump-me-up Euro-house banger of a chorus. Going back to Tangier, announces MC Ride, with some Jordans and a spear/ Post-Christian shit/ Post chicken-or-the-egg addiction shit… Tangier, eh? That was the dwelling-place of the sorcerer William Burroughs: Burroughs the vindictive, who once psychically disrupted a diner by playing secretly recorded diner-noise tapes under his wanker’s mac until the temporal feedback howled and the waitresses were driven out of their minds. In “Hacker” MC Ride, surrounded by a disco phalanx of stammering robots, appears to be putting a Burroughsian hex on a mall. Make your water break in the Apple Store. … Throw up a black hole at the entrance of Linens ’n Things. We are entering the poetic zone of Michael “Alien vs. Predator” Robbins here: I turn on Shark Week, plan a killing spree./ I’m all stocked up on Theraflu. Trash culture as imaginal space. But then the chorus goes whoosh, and we’re pinned wriggling to the dance floor: When you come out your shit is gone! I’M IN YOUR ARE-A! “Hacker” is kind of an anthem for trolls and stalkers, for highly motivated dabs of virtual anti-matter. You’re an intern on WikiLeaks, observes MC Ride, quite sanguine, as ludicrous synth-drums ping and pong. Most loved therefore most hated. Oh, Death Grips. We shall not look upon your like again. How do I end this piece about your ending? With a last line from “Hacker”: Cut the birth cords, press “Send.”