Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is the singer and guitarist for Liturgy. He also plays in the group Survival. He lives in New York.
Death Grips have the ambiguous honor of being the most “now” band around right now. The originality of the music itself lies in their unique answer to a question that gapes open these days: the impossible problem of the marriage between rock and rap. They’re one of the first groups to plant a stake in the genuine in-between space of those genres at a structural and musical level — which is very different from the various forms of pastiche we saw in the ’90s: metal groups with MCs, collaborations between rappers and rock bands, etc. But Death Grips are more than just their music — MC Ride’s personality and lyrics, and the way the group conducts their career are also notable and consistent with one another. Death Grips are living on dangerous, unexplored territory within each of these dimensions.
It was very now of them to release No Love Deep Web without warning and for free, apparently without the consent of their major label. The decision engages the current mess regarding music distribution in a number of ways. It is easy and justifiable to react to the move with a certain paranoia —i.e., to wonder if it was a publicity stunt secretly blessed by the label. But this paranoia is not a coincidence. It’s part of Death Grips’ essence, and part of now’s essence. Death Grips are an emblem of the intensification of paranoia in the social media/internet age.
MC Ride’s tone of voice and lyrics mix a bitter and contradictory cocktail equal: parts aggression, suspicion, sadism, masochism, anxiety, and lust — but these all exist as waves or surface inflections on an ocean that is fundamentally paranoia. “Watch my back/or I’ll kill you.” from “Hunger Games,” more or less sums it up. Later in the song: “You want a lift?/You can sit between the back seat and my dick.” These paper-thin invocations of modes of human connection like camaraderie, charity and romance are rendered void by an atmosphere of aggression and fear.
In a recent article in Artforum, John Kelsey articulates the idea of “next-level spleen.” If spleen is the authentic aesthetic mode of modernity, a sort of beauty in disgust, the internet age intensifies this with its posthuman speed. Human connection begins to mimic its digital counterpart: concatenation of elements in a system or the links between nodes in a network. The result for humans is an increased anxiety and paranoia. Today there are no reliable coordinates for human-scale distinctions like those between friends from enemies, right from wrong, even pleasure from pain — and MC Ride’s whole vibe is a symptom of that fact. No Love Deep Web is nothing if not hyper-splenetic.
Death Grips live impossibly inside the system — whatever “the system” is these days — and outside it simultaneously. Signing to the mega-major label Epic Records in the first place seemed like a work of performance art, since the band so obviously resembles the type of project that lives on Twitter-fed internet hype and perhaps never signs to a label at all. But Epic isn’t just their label — it has become a full-fledged character in the passion play of Death Grips’ career — Epic is the nameless, all-powerful-yet-impotent dead father. Epic, the enemy/friend whose approbation is sought, to whom one makes concessions — but whose laws one must transgress in order to establish one’s own self-respect. Counterculture has both more (because things are worse) and less (because there’s no enemy — am I the enemy?) of a raison d’être than ever before. And so the rage intensifies, flailing silently with useless intensity in the void. “Careless and free / it’s all suicide to me.”
It is worth mentioning, though just barely, that No Love Deep Web isn’t as enjoyable to listen to as Death Grips’ previous albums. On Exmilitary (2011) and The Money Store (which came out last spring) they always managed/chose to produce infectious, catchy hooks using their chopped-up samples and envelopes. There’s not much of that on this record, and the music overall is far more dissonant. But they trade their relative accessibility for genuine groundbreaking experimentation. Earlier in the year the group released a statement that former Hella drummer Zach Hill would be manually triggering the percussion samples on this record rather than programming them. The replacement of quantized/programmed beats with the “feel” of human performance saps the music of a lot of its power qua rap, making the music harder to categorize and also to enjoy. If Exmilitary’s “Takyon” could almost have worked in a DJ set alongside Waka Flocka Flame, there’s no track on No Love Deep Web that wouldn’t clear out the dance floor.
“No Love” is the clearest example of this frustrating rock/rap indiscernibility — it uses a beat that could be in a Helmet song, a piercing combination of triggered hi-hat and cymbal samples performed live, overlaid with — it sounds like — a through-recorded acoustic drum set, along with an out-of-sync sample of a bending guitar note and a tensely restrained vocal performance. Tepid, lacking the “in the pocket” ecstasy of rock, but filled with all its signifiers, this song could almost be a joke, like a Rage Against the Machine shred video. But it’s the kind of track that I feel I’ll be able to enjoy once I learn how to. It’s worth reconsidering the presupposition that breaking new ground is an end in itself, but in any case that is what Death Grips are doing across all 360 degrees.