Two years ago, Death Grips bailed on a show at Chicago's Bottom Lounge, and the internet caught fire. The blaring and bracing hip-hop duo was already known as a dicey booking, having impulsively cancelled a string of 2012 dates to finish work on what would become that year's second album. But this was different.
This no-show was planned, with the group sending along a children's drum kit, which was set up onstage in front of a screen showing a fan suicide note sent to the band via email. Prerecorded music played over the house speakers. When the announcement came that there would be no performance, the crowd was incensed. The drums were destroyed in protest, and Death Grips caused the stir that they so clearly desired.
It's the kind of stunt you'd think would alienate fans and make venue owners think twice about booking the band in the future. But this incident only served to make the band a topic of conversation on every form of social media and the subject of splashy essays from various big-time music publications. It's been said that all press is good press, and Death Grips' example suggests that this old adage has become — at least when it comes to music — even more accurate in today's age of information overload.
After signing with the major label Epic Records, Death Grips drug the dirty laundry between them out into the public eye. They posted contentious email threads with the company to Facebook and claimed in an interview that Epic head L.A. Reid once compared them to Whitney Houston. They then leaked the 2012 record NO LOVE DEEP WEB — with a cover that featured a very erect, very pink penis — for free and without the label's permission. Epic responded predictably, dropping Death Grips from their roster. After breaking up briefly last year, they'll roll into Charleston as one of the most divisive and discussed bands around. And it's their antics — as much as their music — that keep folks talking.
"Their actions have scanned as humorous, aggressive, contemptible, and puerile — sometimes all at once," Larry Fitzmaurice writes in his Pitchfork review of Death Grips' 2014 album Niggas on the Moon. "And despite any high-minded claims, the ends to the means have been excellent promotion for a body of work that's proved increasingly confounding."
He's got a point. Since NO LOVE, Death Grips' second 2012 record, their defiant, noise-blasted hip-hop has hit new levels of intensity. That album matched its daring artwork with acrid, sludgy beats with samples so slyly integrated that they hardly register as separate elements. But more powerful are the coarse and crushing bass knocks — among the more caustic sounds that drummer and noise artist Zach Hill has ever mustered. With a hook erupting with some of the record's rawest pounding, "No Love" finds MC Ride, a.k.a. Stefan Burnett, raving hoarsely and delivering some truly shocking couplets: "Dead bitch float swollen corpse/ No remorse navigated off course."
Niggas on the Moon offers similar collisions of jarring sound and disconcerting words. Set to swirling synths and vocal samples, "Black Quarterback" is a feverish assault on racial stereotypes, warped and nearly incoherent, the sound of long-festering anger burning through rational thought. Then on 2013's Government Plates, coherence gave way to nervy ambience and abrasive bass clobbering. It was less a rap record than a convincing stand-in for a really bad trip. And it might well be the most thrilling record that Death Grips have ever produced, even though it's also the least accessible.
Would more casual music fans have stuck around for this profoundly challenging onslaught if they hadn't been drawn in by the group's controversial stunts? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, they at least make Death Grips more interesting, extending their music's unstoppable chaos into the real world, making their music feel more genuine — even if their antics weren't.
"We perceive Death Grips as an ever-progressing cycle that's in constant collaboration with our fanbase and the general public," Hill told Pitchfork in late 2012. "We prefer it to be this open collaboration with the world."
That's a remarkably grand — and some might say pretentious — ambition, and one that could definitely explain the band's unpredictable behavior. But even if Death Grips have been, as the cynical eye would see them, just acting out for the attention, they know how to get results.