(NCS writer BadWolf was in the audience when Death Grips played Detroit last November, and he provides the following report. The very cool photos accompanying this review were taken by BadWolf’s partner in crime, Nicholas Vechery.)
This show was a long time coming. I first heard Death Grips almost exactly a year ago to the week as I write this article, and almost instantly the group became something of a personal muse to me—I wasted no time pimping the group here, and later made them the subject of my first article for Stereogum. In 2012 the band released two albums, both excellent, and in between booked-then-cancelled a major summer tour. For better or for worse, 2012 saw MC Ride and drummer Zach Hill ride the popularity wave at its very zenith, leaving many of their loyal fans tumbling in the surf. So when Death Grips booked a second tour, and played Detroit’s Magic Stick on November 19, attendance was mandatory.
I attended the show with photographer Nick Vechery, too late to catch any of the tour’s opening act, genre-bending MC Mykki Blanco. Although Blanco hails from NYC’s now-prominent Brooklyn hip-hop scene, I find his music less appealing than, say, Azalia Banks on her 1991 EP.
Death Grips took the stage just after Vechery and I purchased our beer.
I can only describe their live performance as a short, sharp shock. The show began with the masculine swagger of “Come Up and Get Me,” the lead track on their NO LOVE DEEP Web album, and ran nonstop for 45 minutes, through choice cuts from all three records, until the paranoid jittering end of “Lock Your Doors.”
The Death Grips live experience disorients more than anything. As foretold by Bjork, I found a figurative army of me in line for the show. The average Death Grips fan is a scrawny caucasian man in his mid-20’s, wearing converse shoes and a black hoodie—I fit that description. The crowd, like Death Grips, occupied a space between genres—not overtly part of hip-hop or punk culture, but somewhere in between. Their response to the music fell between those cracks as well: attendees met Death Grips with flailing fists, a small-but-potent mosh pit, and a flurry of stage dives.
Those suckers made sure to keep arms length away from MC Ride (nee-Stephen Burnett). One attendee made the mistake of putting an arm around the emcee—Ride threw him face-first into the front row. Some people say MC Ride is a character, an invention, some sort of liberated Django-cum-terrorist-hacker. If his persona is a role, then Burnett embodies it completely.
Months of living virtually homeless have carved all fatty tissue from his body and left a raging chunk of tattooed muscle, performing in a flurry of wild gesticulation. He stood between two projectors—displaying obtuse images, barely in focus, perhaps footage used in the “Come Up and Get Me” music video—planted one boot on the front monitor and rapped without regard for himself or others. I had some concern that his rapping style would not work in a live setting, hence Death Grips’s backing vocal track. But from what I witnessed, Ride hits every syllable and lets the backing track function as his gang-shouts.
Only Zach Hill accompanied him onstage, from a drum kit tucked to the side of the stage and obscured by shadows. Hill’s drumming itself was very much present, especially his tom fills, which don’t always come to the fore on Death Grips’s records. Having seen his work in Hella via youtube, I was surprised at how restrained his performance was. Hill might have cut loose more during the middle of the set, where Death Grips exploded through the most violent cuts off the Ex-Military album, but I was too busy busting faces and crowd surfing to notice.
Flatlander, who produced Ex-Military, and can be seen in the “The Fever” music video, was nowhere to be seen. The electronic elements of Death Grips’ songs all played on a continuous tape or MP3. Flatlander’s continued involvement in the group is questionable, at this point.
But his absence live was negligible. The set felt breathless, and empowering. Not since Meshuggah’s 2009 tour with Cynic have I seen so many people enjoying extreme music in so many diverse ways—moshing, dancing, screaming every lyric in the wrong key at the right time. For a band whose fame and fanbase congealed completely in cyberspace, Death Grips play music with physical force, and garner a community reaction from it. That their music defies genre (Is it hip-hop? Industrial? Punk? And why do metalheads love it so much?) makes its tribalizing effect all the more remarkable. It is the same kind of radical bonding with strangers that drew me to extreme music in the first place, and is the key to that music continuing.