Death Grips

by Hayley Elisabeth Kaufman

The Mutant Rap Takeover Part 8
The food court of a suburban mall is the last place I’d imagine meeting the members of Sacramento’s mysterious rap group Death Grips. With caustic bangers like the sinister slice-and-dice track “Guillotine” and the subversive party anthem “Hustle Bones”—which both emit the visceral energy of a street fight in an electrical storm—Death Grips don’t particularly strike me as Panda Express enthusiasts. Little did I know that our mall meet-up would prove to be the first of many unusual occurrences on our daylong jaunt around Sactown.

But first, the trio arrives—composed of frontman and lyricist Stefan Burnett (a.k.a. MC Ride), Zach Hill (best known as the drummer from math-rock outfit Hella), and production whiz Andy Morin—casually strolling by a new mom in booty-popping shorts, the group looking both conspicuously out of place and strangely at home. But it’s exactly this hard to reconcile cognitive split that seems to define Death Grips—that and their unwillingness to play by the rules. After quickly determining that the mall—their choice for the photo shoot—isn’t going to work (aesthetically and legally), we set off on a location scouting tour of Sacramento’s cut-spots.

Caravanning behind Death Grips’ bright white muscle car, I pray my four-cylinder engine can keep up. As they rev the engine I am reminded of the gritty beats and spastic bass blasts of the sample-laden track “Double Helix,” the video for which, coincidentally, is shot entirely with a Toyota Prius’ reverse video camera with MC Ride pushing violently against the car as he raps.

Death Grips formed when Hill and Morin began to toy around with hip hop beats. From there, they enlisted Hill’s neighbor Burnett to join rank, and the project quickly incited a mutual fanaticism. “Once we started all collaborating we instantly became obsessed,” explains Hill while smoking a cigarette on a sunny picnic bench. “It was the energy of the music, and we also recognized the importance of being friends first, and knowing each other aesthetically, spiritually, and understanding where we were coming from as individuals, because we knew what we were capable of.”

It’s this palpable artistic and musical electricity that translates to the group’s recorded material—a sound that’s so visceral and overloaded with primordial pulsing beats, Burnett can’t keep his shirt on while rapping. The resulting “future-primitive” (Morin’s words) racket is noise-infused hip hop with a badass punk rock ethos. Death Grips’ major label debut The Money Store features thundering beats, thrashing effects, amped up synths, and high-octane rhymes that turn the notion of easily classifiable—and conventionally marketable—rap music on its head.

“We’re not afraid to do or try anything,” Hill explains about the sometimes destructive music-making process while playing with the neck of his worn-in white tee. “In terms of techniques, we’ll try things that people would never consider. And that’s how you get out the really exciting shit. You have to just break things really.”

Hill and company pride themselves on pushing their creativity, and bodies, to the limit in an effort to create a musical art form that feels primordial and abrasive, which people either love or hate. Based on responses, both critical and public, it’s safe to say there are more lovers than haters. But that doesn’t mean everyone gets Death Grips.

“I know how the music can scare people,” says Morin, who is wearing a vintage denim nehru-cut jacket despite the 90-degree heat. “I was in a car with some friends and they were bothering me because they wanted to hear Death Grips. So I put on a song and like I could feel it fucking weirding everyone out. And the rest of the trip was strange after that.”

Even though Death Grips recently signed to major label Epic by music mogul L.A. Reid himself, they don’t care about a by-the-book career with a clear-cut trajectory. “We thoroughly think out everything, and we have strong ideas about what we want to do,” chimes in Burnett. “We wouldn’t have even signed to a major label if we would have had to compromise. That is not an option.” Surprisingly soft-spoken, Burnett’s ferocious throaty growl, razor-sharp rhymes, and anything-goes stage persona make for an unpredictable live wire rather than a well-articulated and mellow guy. Sure, he’s tattoo-covered and outfitted in a signature all-black ensemble, but his eyes contradict—there is something soulful and warm deep within him.

Now we’re beneath a dusty freeway overpass, which doubles as an impromptu neighborhood for car-dwelling vagrants, an aggravated elder stateswoman is accosting Hill as he dismantles his man-bun in an effort to become photo-ready. “You can’t fucking take pictures here,” the gray-haired woman yells, wielding a pack of Red Vines like a makeshift weapon. It’s a surreal moment, but as I watch the three wildmen barely flinch at the lady’s foulmouthed outburst, I realize that this is just a typical day in the life of Death Grips.