Suspicious Minds – The Resolute Mission Of Death Grips

“Ultimately this is outsider music, but of course we’re happy that it’s connecting with people.”

A truly great album doesn’t stop you in your tracks – it quickens the step, speeds the blood through the veins, and has a man feeling invincible while it dominates his senses. Such is the effect Death Grips’ second album ‘The Money Store’ has on this listener. It’s unrelenting in its energy, irresistible in its passion. It priortises inventiveness, isolates itself from commonplace influence and subsequently eschews any genre convention. It is, to the wrong ears, an unholy cacophony. It’s quite possibly the most important album of 2012.

Rewind a little. Last year, the Sacramento-based trio – Zach Hill and Andy Morin on production (drums and keys live, respectively), Stefan Burnett AKA MC Ride on bellowed vocals which leave ear drums flapping like blown-out tyres – released ‘Exmilitary’, a freely distributed collection branded a mixtape at the time but now widely perceived as the group’s debut album proper. It sent the ‘net into raptures, but hardly overnight. The collection, fronted by the single ‘Guillotine’ (“It goes, it goes, it goes, it goes…”), leaked slowly into critical consciences, and the rap community was divided over its legitimacy in their stylistic sphere.

Long story short (well, several arguments later): it’s not a rap record. Burnett rhymes, sure, but his delivery is something else. The music around him trades in motifs known to the margins of hip-hop, the slow-burn bombast of dälek for instance, but is rendered in a most singular fashion. This was – is – something entirely new. That alone is worth celebrating. That ‘The Money Store’ is so jaw-gapingly fantastic is a bonus, and one that not everyone might have foreseen.

For this set comes branded with the major label seal of approval, its Epic stamp a sign to some of a sell-out stance. But the same some will soon enough get their expectations shot to shit by an end product – three-quarters complete by the time the Sony affiliate came aboard – which compromises nothing. It gives not one inch; it walks miles in the direction of progression, and Death Grips have orchestrated near enough every aspect of its campaign up to the date this writer gets on the blower with Hill, eight hours behind British Summer Time on the States’ west coast.

“With or without Epic, this would be going on,” says the man who, before his committing to Death Grips as a sole calling, was best known as an eye-wateringly talented (self-taught) sticksman for Hella and Team Sleep, amongst several others. “I guess we’ll see how our integration goes over the course of this year, but we’re really excited about the expansion of our music into wider audiences.”

Expansion is the key word: what this deal means to Death Grips is a foundation which can support their cause while allowing the group to continue their established methodologies, in terms of both artistic process and manner of release. Following the precedent set by its predecessor, many tracks from ‘The Money Store’ were available to download, for free, ahead of the album’s commercial release. Just as with their debut’s YouTube-able cuts, said songs come accompanied by self-realised promo clips, lo-fi of feel but hardly lacking in potency. Death Grips have not been dressed to impress. They remain as unattractive to what’s understood to be the mainstream as they ever have – making the label involved that little more incongruous.

“We spoke to many labels,” says Hill, “and we’ve talked amongst ourselves about how no representation is better than the wrong representation. But Epic were clear at the very beginning that they would let us handle ourselves. They went into this deal already aware of the ideology that we’re driven by, and they’ve worked to help the team move forward. They’re actually learning from us, regarding how to work in a future business model – just recently we had the label sign up to a deal with BitTorrent, which was pretty much unheard of. Actually, some people at the label got in trouble over that…”

But enough about the business. Death Grips deal in something that can’t be analysed in quarterly meetings, or plotted on a graph for investors to take stock of. The trio trades in fire, in soul; they spit acid where others dribble a familiar froth. “We’re unfamiliar for some fans of rap,” says Hill, “because mainstream rap tends to concern itself with literal things. We’re coming to this beat-based music with a sound that’s almost more punk-orientated. Stefan’s words have total meaning behind them – but for us it’s as much about who is saying them, and how they’re doing so, as much as the explicit message. The words work as symbols, the emotion behind them really important, as is the musical foundation around them. The whole thing is a single vehicle – we make things we feel, and don’t make things we don’t feel.”

An admirable attitude, so often summoned in interviewee rhetoric but, here, meant from the heart. All the evidence is there to hear in ‘The Money Store’, in the arrhythmic percussion and buzzsaw melodies that form a base for Burnett’s empowering preaching. Some will hear the band as angry – certainly, their frontman sounds like he’s been getting out of the wrong side of the bed since his first chin hairs sprouted (and the hirsute fellow has had a few since) – but this perception is one Hill can understand.

“We’re aware of how we can be seen as these three angry voices, and how our outward energy can obscure everything else. But we’re not like that at all. We all have our creative outlets – Andy’s an audio engineer (He’s also not ‘AKA Flatlander’ – “it’s basically subtext for Death Grips, so when we use that name it’s an alias signature for something that we all made together,” says Hill. “I don’t think anyone else has really stated that yet.”), and Stefan’s a very serious painter – which has enabled us to turn any negative energy into positives. If you stripped these outlets away, perhaps we’d all be living in different worlds, but we’re here because of this passion, which is crucial to Death Grips. It comes through in our music. We’re not caged, at least not in our minds, and it seems that a lot of that is connecting with people. They’re intuitively feeling what we’re feeling, through what we’re putting out.”

Words by Mike Diver
Photo by Nick Dorey

This is an excerpt of the cover feature of the new issue of Clash magazine, out 3rd May. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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