A certain illusive quality has always surrounded Death Grips. It is both a component of their art, and a by-product of their independent management and marketing.
It is this illusory nature that breeds much interest around the California band. From producing music that is at the very least dense, abrasive, and heavily experimental, to skipping live dates and keeping away from interviews, Death Grips appear and disappear deliberately and indiscriminately; building a cult fan base who must keep on its toes to match.
I wondered, amongst other numerous questions I had about a live Death Grips show, how or if they would maintain this in the live setting. After all, seeing a band or performer live is the best way to put a face to the music, and to further your attachment with the artist – so how would they remain out of reach?
What I found was that MC Ride, Zach Hill and Flatlander maintain a certain disconnect that allows them to keep the audience guessing and constantly on edge, and by doing so, they remove themselves from the equation to place a focus on the music. To do so, Death Grips hide in plain sight.
The show at the Village Underground in Shoreditch, a patchwork venue built out of old train carriages and a warehouse, was billed with a ‘Special Guest’. This was in fact a bait and switch, the only warm up act was an eerie feedback tone, a constantly charged and rising electrical note laced with indeterminable voice clips and ambient noise.
Immediately there was tension, a bubbling in the crowd that felt like more than just the average pre-show excitement. Perhaps we, the lit up crowd adoring a black, seemingly empty stage were the special guests, perhaps Dylan couldn’t make it, perhaps it was all a joke.
In any case it kept up until the trio took to the stage, and the boiling atmosphere in the crowd was given permission to erupt. All the disclaimers i’d heard about Death Grips shows rang immediately true, the first noise tearing sounds from the stage triggered a frenzy in the audience. Stuck in a crushing movement towards the stage that was persistently maintained, I barely carried my own weight for the one hour and forty minute set time.
Favourites from The Money Store sent the slow, dredging, side-to-side hardcore mosh into a much livelier mess. Fresh cuts from their latest release Bottomless Pit were plentiful. ‘Giving Bad People Good Ideas’ struck a particular chord with the audience with its sugary hook that falls down a trap door to dizzying absurdity made for the live setting.
MC Ride towers as the conductor of the debauchery in front of him, unflinched by the possible suffocation of his crowd, he appears gratified by what he and his band cause. He twists his leather gloved hands around the mic, puts it on his crotch, throws his arms out to the crowd and drenches those in direct contact with his spit and sweat.
A lack of lighting on stage meant that the best sights of the band were in the light of flash photography (that were refreshingly infrequent), offering clear sights of Zach Hills primal, ad-libbed, yet never out of step drumming, Flatlander’s shuffling hands and bouncing head, and the whites of MC Rides stretching eyes.
Even when Ride was within an arms reach of the crowd, a disconnect was tangible. He sent his lyrics to the ceiling and walls, and his stare there too. Death Grips performed as I imagine they would if no one were watching, which is to say not at all. They’re enigmatic, entertaining, endearing, but pure.
There’s no gimmick, or act to speak of, and very little evidence that the band know you’re there at all, or even want you to be, and this is remarkably refreshing. Death Grips left the stage as they had entered, arms briefly raised in appreciation, then eyes to the floor, and footsteps towards the light backstage.
Partially deafened and sweating the kind of sweat that has no recognisable source, I had witnessed it, the enigma of Death Grips, the cloak and dagger hip-hop punks to whom so many feel an affiliation for their no nonsense, bare faced artistry that they don’t want you to see or understand, but entice you to look.
-Photograph courtesy of David Zemlicka.