Death Grips Post-Mortem: Better to Slash-and-Burn Out Than Fade Away

Deathgrips performs at the FYF Festival in Los Angeles, CA

Ben Clark

When noise collective Death Grips, anchored by drummer Zach Hill and vocalist MC Ride but with an always rotating roster, called it quits — announcing the news on July 2 with a note handwritten on a napkin — it was only the latest in a string of shocking (some might say self-sabotaging) moves by the critically lauded and uncompromising 3-year-old Sacramento, Calif., outfit. 

The scrawled and stained nail in the coffin informed the world -- including several festivals and Trent Reznor, who had booked them to open for Nine Inch Nails' upcoming summer run ("Why would I have ever thought those dudes could keep it together?" wrote Reznor) -- that Death Grips was dead. It was presaged by years of tumult; in fall 2012, the album "No Love Deep Web" was uploaded for free despite its label's wishes alongside vaguely embarrassing internal emails from Epic Records ("We're extremely upset") and ending in Death Grips being dropped from the label. Nearly a year later, the act caused a near riot at Chicago's Bottom Lounge when its "set" turned out to be little more than a film projection of a suicide note supposedly written by a fan accompanied by Death Grips' music on loop. That led to Lollapalooza's last-minute cancellation of its 2013 slot.

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Now left in the lurch: new label partner, Capitol's Harvest Records (in tandem with Death Grips' imprint Third World), with a highly anticipated double album, "The Powers That B," to promote — and no band. 

Indeed, this latest middle finger is par for the course for the self-declared "conceptual art" project. As Prospect Park's Angelica Cob-Baehler, the band's current co-manager, recalls of its Epic signing: Chairman/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid took one look at MC Ride in the video for "Guillotine," bellowing and berating someone from the passenger seat of a car, and said, "I ain't scared of shit, and I'm scared of this motherf—er."

Cob-Baehler was who brought them to Epic Records and L.A. Reid, after being hired as an SVP of marketing. "That was my plan even before I started working there. I remember sitting in my lawyer's office, finalizing my deal with Epic and I said, 'I have this little idea... ' This was kind of my M.O. The job I had before was at EMI, and when I went there I had an artist in my back pocket, which was Katy Perry. I'm not an A&R person -- so I'd use my honeymoon period at a new job to get this done."

But the pairing was a mismatch. Death Grips served no god save its muse, and when they promised two records in 2012, they meant it, offering October's "No Love Deep Web" for free. The result at Epic was professional apathy and the band was dropped almost exactly a month later. A run of shows in Australia, Europe and the U.S. took them right through to the following year and into their next label experience, a co-operative deal with Harvest and themselves under the name Third Worlds.

"They had an experience with their past record deal, where they felt like they couldn't operate how they wanted, and we wanted to create an environment where they could do what they want," says Giamanti. " We don't dictate." 

So why keep investing in a band that seemingly wants nothing to do with the music industry? "Death Grips' impact that will never be measured in the short term," offers Cob-Baehler. Indeed, the legacy of Death Grips is likely to be mined for years to come, a frenzied pace of output too voluminous to be properly absorbed in the short time it took to create. Their new double album, the first half of which was released -- surprise -- as a surprise in early June and features Björk, mostly unrecognizable, throughout, is stil in progress and the particulars of its release are still being worked out. It's hard to imagine they'll be traditional.

For his part, Giramonti says Harvest won't lose the farm. "In this business, the more you take [up front], the less creative freedom you get ... we structured the deal so no one would get bent out of shape."