Death Grips is an experimental hip-hop group based in Sacramento, California that was formed in 2010. The group consists of 3 members: MC Ride, the frontman and vocalist; Zach Hill, the driving creative force as well as their drummer and producer; and Andy Morin, who serves as the keyboardist and recording engineer as well as an additional producer. Their style is somewhat notorious for being very abrasive, in fact it might not even be fair to call them just an experimental hip-hop group, as they seem to transcend that. They incorporate many sonic elements from different genres into their projects as well, including punk, industrial, electronic and noise rock styles.
Many of those who had just listened to Death Grips for the first time don't like them, in fact, most hate them initially. Despite this, there's something about their music that gets people coming back to it, even if they dislike them at first. After a little while, those who were skeptical may start to think, "Okay, this might actually be good." After that, there's no going back. Unfortunately, there are some who never do receive the pleasure of enjoying their music, which makes sense, as it certainly isn't for everyone. Some are put off by the raw abrasiveness of their music as well as the fact that MC Ride is almost always yelling and screaming just to ensure that he isn't being drowned out by the chaotic production present within their music. However, I believe that there is something genius present within all of the music in their discography which I will go over in this article.
Death Grips' debut project and mixtape, Exmilitary, was released for free via their website on April 25, 2011. The cover art appears to be a photo of an Aboriginal Australian which originated in 1968. Andy Morin spoke about the photo, saying that it "[is a] photograph that one of our members carried in their wallet for roughly 10 years straight. It’s a power object." It is most definitely true that it is a power object, as it relates to one word that could summarize the entire mixtape: empowering. It's clear from the lyrics that MC Ride yells on the very first track, "Beware":
"I CLOSE MY EYES AND SEIZE IT (SEIZE IT!)
I CLENCH MY FISTS AND BEAT IT (BEAT IT!)
I LIGHT MY TORCH AND BURN IT (BURN IT!)
I AM THE BEAST I WORSHIP!"
I CLENCH MY FISTS AND BEAT IT (BEAT IT!)
I LIGHT MY TORCH AND BURN IT (BURN IT!)
I AM THE BEAST I WORSHIP!"
The project consists of MC Ride yelling over somewhat minimalist production all the way through in his signature aggressive and vulgar manner. It has its own story, which follows a Vietnam war veteran suffering from PTSD among other mental illnesses returning to regular civilian life. This album does a perfect job at encapsulating that experience through its intriguing, yet unsettling and primal production and lyrics. Ride's vocals are also a major contributing factor to establishing the theme of this album.
This album certainly isn't easy to listen to, to the point where I'd say it's more inaccessible then a good portion of the other work in their discography, but there's something genius about the raw minimalism and aggression displayed throughout this project. Although abrasive, many of the songs on this album manage to be very catchy, which goes to prove how great the group is at songwriting. This mixtape also laid the foundation for the rest of Death Grips' work to come by being their first work where they managed to revolutionize industrial hip-hop. A couple months after its release, on September 8th, 2011, the group released a teaser for their project Black Google which was later released for free via the band's website. Black Google notably allows music editors to remix Exmilitary by providing all of the stems, instrumentals and acapellas used on their debut mixtape.
Their debut album is famously known as one of the five albums that Anthony Fantano has assigned a 10/10 rating to, and it's honestly a shame that some people have only heard of it due to that reason. This album, released on April 24, 2012 (almost exactly a year after Exmilitary), is considered by many fans and music critics alike to be Death Grips' best work to date for good reason. It's plain to see how much Death Grips matured and perfected their sound after Exmilitary. Right off the bat, the first track "Get Got" features Ride demonstrating his technical rapping capabilities while rapping about a getaway from the police over these chaotic, blaring synths in a fashion unseen on their previous project. “Born with a ski mask on my face,'' he raps, which I feel like could definitely be the case after listening to the rest of this album, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The production, while not necessarily maximalistic, becomes a much greater part of the music; take songs like "Hacker" and "I've Seen Footage" as examples of this. We see Ride's vocals weave into the beats much more smoothly on this project. We also see Ride embracing what is perhaps an even more energetic style of yelling and rapping than on their previous release while still retaining the catchiness and lyricism of Exmilitary.
While this album is as chaotic as the last, it managed to be surprisingly cohesive and organized, more so than the last project; which on its own is something not easy to pull off in an experimental/industrial hip-hop project. Oddly enough, it managed to be unpredictable at the same time. It's hard to really ever tell what Ride's about to do next, it constantly keeps you guessing, which further enhances the listening experience. It pushes the boundaries of hip-hop to the point where it could possibly not even be hip-hop anymore. It simply isn't supposed to work, but it manages to surprisingly well. I'm not quite sure how it's possible for an album to exemplify all of these risky and experimental decisions in a way that works so well, but I suppose that goes to show just how genius Death Grips are.
First of all, I might as well address the elephant in the room here: is that really someone’s dick that’s censored in the album artwork? Yes, it is. In fact, it’s Death Grips member Zach Hill’s dick. Although it might seem like a shitty choice for an album artwork, it starts to make more sense when you hear what Ride has to say about it. In an interview with Spin Magazine, he said, “If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don’t really have anything to say, pretty much. I looked at it and said, ‘This is a great photo, and I’d love for this to be the album cover.’ [...] It was difficult to do, honestly, in general, it was very difficult. It's difficult even telling people that's the source of it; it feels sacrificial in a sense. That idea existed long before, by the way. This is going to sound funny to other people, but we saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal. Also, it comes from a place of being a band that is perceived as...such an aggressive, male-based, by some, misogynistic-seeming band... It's a display of embracing homosexuality, not that either of us are homosexual. Am I making sense? People are still going to think that it's macho, but that's not the source of where it comes from.”
That aside, this album, released on October 1, 2012, is quite different than what we had seen Death Grips do up to this point. This is more beat- and bass-oriented than even The Money Store, and features no manually programmed drums. All of the drums on this project were recorded with a Roland electronic v-drum set which helps create the straightforward and direct feel of the album. Minimal yet dominating presence of basses also appear on every track here. The only thing that hasn’t changed is Ride’s signature style of vocalism, although this album seems more raw than The Money Store, akin to Exmilitary. Similarly to their debut project, they incorporated some guitar-oriented sonic elements while not always even using a guitar to do so, sometimes relying on synths. With all things considered, the sound of this album is nearly indescribable outside of what I’ve already stated; the production, vocals and lyrics speak for itself on every track.
On their fourth project, released November 13, 2013 alongside music videos for each track of the album, we see Death Grips at their most experimental, abrasive and divisive. While many Death Grips fans consider this to be their worst project to date, this album does have its cult following. This album toys with more glitch-hop and deconstructed club oriented sounds while still keeping the foundation of Death Grips’ experimental/industrial hip-hop roots. It is also more sample-oriented in their previous work, which we will see happen to a greater degree on their next project. Ride, while very much still present on this album, gets back a little to let the production take center stage throughout most of the project, with “This Is Violence Now (Don’t Get Me Wrong)" being a prime example of this.
This album is also nearly indescribable sonically, even more so than their previous work, but if I had to put it one way, imagine that you are having a manic episode while being high on LSD while also being pissed off at literally everything in the world at the same time. This album captures that feeling almost exactly through its incredibly dark, abrasive and somewhat psychedelic production. One could criticize the seemingly “unfinished” nature of the album due to the slight majority of the 11 songs on the album not having actual verses from Ride but I believe that this adds to the aesthetic of the album by making it a more interesting and abstract project.
Their fifth project, released March 31, 2015, is the group’s first and only double-disc album to date. It is comprised of Niggas on the Moon, released on June 8 of the previous year and Jenny Death which was released on March 19 of the same year. The first disc, Niggas on the Moon, is one of the most unique pieces of music that the group has ever put out. Like No Love Deep Web, the drums are recorded entirely off that same Roland v-drum set, but more interestingly each of the 8 songs contains a chopped-up vocal sample of acclaimed Icelandic singer Bjork. Death Grips mesmerizingly explores each and every detail of Bjork’s vocals throughout this record which largely contributes to the uniqueness of the album. On both discs, the production is about as minimal as it’s ever been from the group, which lets the Bjork samples take center stage on Niggas on the Moon. The lyrics are more cryptic then they’ve ever been from the band on both discs that allows the project to let off a very mysterious yet intriguing vibe. At the same time, it’s just as harsh as their music has ever been.
The second disc, Jenny Death, is even more abrasive than the first. Here, we see them master the use of their guitar melodies that they had explored on previous projects. We even see Ride’s most emotional performances on tracks such as “On GP”. While perhaps not necessarily more abrasive than Government Plates, this disc is much more disorienting. Even I, who had listened to about half their discography at the time of my first listen, was left thinking “What the fuck did I just listen to?” Songs like “Pss Pss” and “Death Grips 2.0” may leave you with the same initial impression, but it all starts to come together after a while, just as the rest of their work does.
The group’s sixth project was released on May 6, 2016. Unlike their previous work, this album is chock-full of straight bangers making it their most energetic project to date. Songs such as “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood”, “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle”, and “Spikes” largely create this atmosphere. We even see them go back to their The Money Store-esque synth melodies on songs like “Eh”. While their previous album was more focused on its cryptic and introspective lyricism, this album focuses more on catchiness, as shown by the killer hooks and instrumentation present throughout this album. That makes this project even more reminiscent of The Money Store while nearly keeping the disorientingness of Jenny Death.
Their seventh and most recent project, Year of the Snitch, was released June 22, 2018. This album manages to be nearly as controversial as Government Plates. I’ve heard people criticize this album for its “bad instrumentation” and “overproduction” but I don’t necessarily believe that is the case here. While it’s very different from their other work, they manage to deliver some of their very best tracks on this album such as “Black Paint” and “Hahaha”. This could arguably be one of their most artistic pieces of work to this date, and managed to introduce some of their most interesting music into their discography which was already full of experimental and abrasive sounds. Here, we see the group combine their signature experimental hip-hop style with electronic, psychedelic rock and even jazz sonic elements in an abstract yet masterful fashion.
It’ll be interesting to see where Death Grips goes with their next album. I predict that they will continue to push the boundaries of experimental hip-hop as they’ve done with each album so far in their discography. I hope that this review of their discography and the sounds they’ve covered gave you a different perspective on their music or perhaps inspired you to check out their music if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed