When noise-rap trio Death Grips informally met with Epic Records executives Antonio "L.A." Reid, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart and Angelica Cob-Baehler in October 2011, it didn't expect to leave the meeting signed to the label.
The Sacramento, Calif., band, which consists of rapper Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride), producer Andy Morin (aka Flatlander) and drummer Zach Hill, had amassed a loyal following through viral videos and riotous performances since forming in December 2010. Its first recording, "Full Moon (Death Classic)" -- a stilted breed of electro, metal and hardcore rap-served as a raucous appetizer for a free mixtape titled " Exmilitary," which was greeted with critical fanfare upon its debut in April 2011.
But it was the group's unsettling, low-budget video for the song "Guillotine" that caught Cob-Baehler's attention. In October, after a courtship by several labels following the mixtape release, Death Grips ventured to Sony's Los Angeles headquarters. There, MC Ride tagged the company's bathroom with graffiti before the meeting, demonstrating a sense of rebellion that sold executives on the threesome. What's unusual is how the group responded to Epic's pitch, especially given its anti-establishment attitude.
The deal was ironed out in less than five hours. The label convinced the group that it was on the same page, promising not to compromise its artistic integrity or assume its publishing rights.
"We were kind of taking things with a grain of salt," Hill says. "That's generally what we do with anybody on the outside that's coming into the inside. But it became very apparent that these people really understood what we were doing and to not mess with it. They generally believed in this as something that was different."
"It's a unique signing to Epic, in the sense that the music isn't easily digestible at first," says Cob-Baehler, the executive VP of marketing at Epic who is heading the A&R effort for Death Grips' upcoming debut, "The Money Store." "But if there ever was a time to get fearless about signing, it's now. If you want to break the mold in any way, you have to go into unchartered territory. The fact that people keep saying this is such a unique or unexpected signing confirms that it was a great one."
Immediate plans include releasing "The Money Store" through independent retail on Record Store Day (April 21) and its follow-up "No Love" in the fall. Certain that fans will flock to Death Grips through word-of-mouth ("This band cannot be explained-it has to be experienced," Cob-Baehler says), the group has partnered with BitTorrent to release a music video for "I've Seen Footage" through the controversial downloading service. In addition to performing at this year's Coachella festival, the band is already fielding offers to play gigs in 2013.
So far, the pairing of the Sony label and the aggressive hip-hop band has been mutually rewarding. "We saw eye to eye in a sense of saying, 'Let's just do this. Let's not get caught up in record sales or money-let's just do this because we love music and we want to shake things up,'" Cob-Baehler says.
As for the group's perspective, Hill says, "We're in control. It's obvious that people have picked up on it as far as who's running Death Grips, and that's how it's always going to be. [Epic] is here to help us with what we say we need help with. And that's how it's going down."