The Albums of 2012 (#1): Death Grips – The Money Store (Epic)
Without a doubt, 2012's musical landscape was dominated by one band – hailing from Sacramento, California, and trading in a feral, cathartic, punk-infused cocktail of hip-hop and electronica, Death Grips completely redefined the power and relevance of rap for the twenty-first century. Releasing two albums amid a storm of internet hype, punishing and euphoric live shows, industry rumours and transmedia terrorism, the band reinvented The Great Rock & Roll Swindle as an ongoing act of anti-corporate protest, signing to Epic Records early in the year for a considerable sum, recording an album, and then releasing it for free on the internet with a cover showing drummer Zach Hill's erect penis, with the title – No Love Deep Web – scrawled across it in Sharpie.
A great many column inches and web pages have been devoted to discussing the facts and fictions surrounding the leaking of No Love Deep Web. Whether the stunt was an elaborate act of copyright-busting performance art, a cynical marketing ploy, or the single most virulent expression of punk ethics witnessed in the music industry so far this century is still up for debate. When we spoke to Zach Hill in May [read the full interview here], he talked of the band's commitment to giving away music for free online, with hopes of “rubbing off [their] ideology” on Epic. He insisted that for Death Grips, the Epic deal was a theatrical move: “That whole exchange, that whole interaction – it was performance art. That's what it was, and that's what it still is.” Whether the subsequent leak and legal squabbles were a planned or improvised part of that performance is moot.
Recently, the band's Twitter has gone dark, along with many of the traditional routes used by journalists to gain access to the band. And yet, they are still engaged in a world-wide tour, recently slaying a packed crowd at The Forum in London, apparently sans producer / keyboardist Flatlander. Whether the band can survive in their current form remains to be seen, but what cannot be doubted is that with both the unhinged, brutal No Love Deep Web, and the comparatively more commercially-appealing, hook-driven album The Money Store, Death Grips claimed 2012 more convincingly than any other band.
From the Salt 'N' Pepa-riffing punk-funk of I've Seen Footage, to the urgent post-industrial dubstep of Get Got, to the flat-out sonic and lyrical aggression of Hustle Bones, The Money Store had something for everyone. The aforementioned catharsis of a band driven by Hill's scattershot, drum-destroying hardcore flourishes and MC Ride's deliciously abstract, occult-influenced vocal missives, sounding increasingly like a man on the verge of a serious and violent mental blowout, lured in the headbanger contingent. Flatlander's 'musique concrete' pilfering from dubstep, juke, techno, crunk and bubblegum pop drew effusive praise from lovers of avant-garde electronica and out-and-out brostep alike. For a moment, after the release of The Money Store and before the grand guignol internet drama of No Love Deep Web, it looked very much like Death Grips were set to conquer both the mainstream and the underground, while redefining the boundaries and purpose of the traditional music industry at large.
Revisiting The Money Store, it seems significant that the band were so focused on creating infectious, ear-worm pop tracks to underpin their heavy, often pitch-dark themes and intense live shows. Hill clued us in to one of Death Grips' secrets, in terms of production: “We often make music out of material that other people wouldn't think to use,” he told The Skinny. “Like for instance we might take a sample from YouTube and then build a whole song around it with these more hi-fi instruments, and then erase the sample from YouTube so it's not even in the track.”
Notions of property, theft and influence are central to an understanding of the band's sound – their justly-lauded debut Exmilitary, which made our Albums of the Year chart in 2011, was packed with riffs and samples from Dick Dale, Jane's Addiction, David Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys. While The Money Store is largely free of samples, it nonetheless bears the trace of a band composed of omnivorous, questing musical intelligences, cutting and pasting and re-contextualising anything and everything that comes their way, from disposable pop dreck to full-on avant garde noise.
By turns exuberant, bleak and devastatingly inventive, it is perhaps less of a record of extremes than the more confrontational No love Deep Web, but nonetheless will stand as a thrillingly well-constructed opening salvo from a band preparing to leave behind their net-culture roots and take on the stadiums, concert halls and music festivals of the world. One thing's for sure – if Death Grips can continue their epic (natch) rise and rise, they seem likely to dominate much of next year, and years to come, with their densely literate, futurist, post-everything assault on popular music.
Hill sums up the band's untouchable relevance and importance to the musical culture of 2012: “Tent cities... homelessness and poverty and violence, the crash of the American dollar – all those things that seem to be coming... we see that every day, where we live... We feel a kind of energy from it. There are going to be times ahead – very soon I think – where things are going to look a lot different than they do now. That gets naturally integrated into our music.... our music represents that.” If 2012 really is the end of the world, Death Grips are the perfect soundtrack.