Death to Rebirth: The unconventional fall and rise of Death Grips

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Death Grips | Photo by Kenny Sun | kennysunphoto.com

Last summer, when my favorite band Death Grips called it quits via cocktail napkin, I was beyond elated.

For most MC Ride-or-die fans, the group’s story is well-worn territory by now: between 2010 and 2015, the Sacramento trio spewed a prolific string of releases that split the difference between Damaged-era Black Flag and It’s Dark and Hell is Hot-era DMX, filtered through the most pernicious and unstable strains of UK bass music.

As luck would have it for a band that regularly referenced the occult (“Black Dice”) and particle physics (“Takyon”), Death Grips became accidentally zeitgeisty; the group’s ascent came on the heels of mainstream breakthroughs by the likes of Chiraq nihilist Chief Keef, punk-rap pranksters Odd Future, and left-of-center club-rappers like Die Antwoord and Azealia Banks. Not to mention the primetime NSA dramas of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks.

However, just as quickly as Death Grips had hopped into bed with the “enemy”—they signed to Epic in 2012 at the behest of X-Factor judge L.A. Reid—they appeared to purposely dismantle its relationship to the music industrial-complex in a series of misconstrued public stunts/performance art pieces: blowing their advance on a 2-month stint at LA’s famed Chateau Marmont, leaking their own album, releasing internal Epic Records communiqués, canceling tours. Instead of participating in the dehumanizing industry album cycle—record, release, tour, rinse, repeat—Death Grips spearheaded a more contemporary model that everyone from Kanye to Beyoncé to U2 has since adopted: the surprise “voila” content drop. Then they seemingly broke up.

Unlike the PR antics that seemed to overshadow Death Grips’ relentless artistic output, it could be argued that the only real public provocation was the group’s music itself. When Ride bellows, “I am the beast I worship” on the opening cut to their 2011 debut mixtape Ex-Military (followed by a Charlie Manson sample), it’s both a mission statement and a call to arms to take control of one’s own destiny, unhindered by the pressures we internalize from the social world.

As desperate part-time punks continue tarnishing their legacies to cash in on the summer festival circuit, Death Grips’ break-up struck me as the rare, egoless case of simply knowing when to leave a party. So, the group’s decision to “reunite” to tour in support of Jenny Death, the less interesting half of their hypothetical swansong The Powers That B, suggests that the break-up “stunt” was a haphazard deus ex machina in the Death Grips saga.

But maybe the definition of “death” in their moniker points to the Buddhist interpretation of the word—the destruction of the body followed by the quest for a new form. In industry terms, perhaps disbanding and reforming will enable Death Grips to begin a new chapter on its own terms, free from the shackles of the earthly trappings of its naughty reputation. So, when Death Grips roll into Philly on July 10th for their sold out evening at Union Transfer sans opener, they will do so without drama, paper trails, or fanfare—just a catalog of great music. “YUH,” indeed!

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