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Last month, seeking an interview with the elusive Sacramento experimental noise-rap band Death Grips, I e-mailed the address posted at the bottom of the band's website, thirdworlds.net. The group had announced a June 13 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in support of its much-anticipated major-label debut album, The Money Store—and with no publicity information available from label Epic Records, the direct approach was the next-best alternative.
Within an hour or so, I received a polite, unsigned note agreeing to talk. Hey, this is fun, I thought. A little mystery never hurt anything.
Little did I know that, within weeks, the band would up and cancel a full summer slate of tour dates on multiple continents and announce the about-face with a message on Facebook and Twitter: "We are dropping out to complete next album NO LOVE. See you when it's done. (There are no longer any scheduled shows)."
Fan reaction tended toward the predictably perturbed. (At the ever-vitriolic Brooklyn Vegan, comment-thread remarks ranged from "Shows don't mean shit anyway" to, referencing the band's drummer and public face, "Zach Hill = Axl Rose.") But tellingly, no one had any real information to share. Even promoters seemed flat-footed by the news: It took the better part of a day for the Music Hall of Williamsburg to confirm the cancellation. The person who answered the phone at Bowery Presents several days later refused to comment about any possible reasons or even confirm which publicist to direct questions to, saying, "It's all very secretive."
If the sudden abdication from their summer-long coming-out party hasn't made much sense, well, neither did much about Death Grips' signing to Epic in the first place. After all, we're a long way from the 1990s, when company A&R reps stretched their long leashes in order to vacation through the underground, looking for edgy acts possessed with potential above-ground appeal. In the era of crowd-sourced pop, you'd be forgiven for wondering what Epic could want with a hip-hop ensemble that delivers beats abstracted with a free-jazz energy, vocals reminiscent of early hardcore punk, and cover art that's casually sadomasochistic.
When I spoke in April with Hill—the only member of the trio who routinely talks to reporters, and as I had by then discovered, my mystery e-mail correspondent—he told me that none of it was a hard sell. Epic was the final label that Death Grips met with last winter, after the success of their self-released mixtape Exmilitary brought several suits calling. Hill told me the whole process of meeting with record execs was "feeling based," and that label president L.A. Reid seemed to be responding to the "true nature of our energy."
Months later, as the band was prepping the release of The Money Store, Whitney Houston died. And Reid, who was close with the singer, made a surprising connection, telling Death Grips that their intensity reminded him of Houston's. "He was still emotionally dealing with her passing," Hill recalled. "And I was just like, 'That was something.' . . . In our first meeting, you could tell that's the level on which they were connecting with this music. On completing the record, it was kind of reaffirmation that we had made the right decision."
Despite the WTF? Internet commentary that Reid's Whitney/Death Grips nugget set off, it wasn't that big of a leap. After all, a young Houston once sang in a group with downtown-scene eminence Bill Laswell. Energy, conceptual refinement, and pop technique needn't be enemies or even strange bedfellows, a point driven home by The Money Store, an early candidate for end-of-2012 best-of lists ever since its April release.
More hooky than Exmilitary (while managing the trick of also being sample-free), Money Store doesn't scrimp on rustling, scraping textures—even when using a Salt 'N Pepa–like beat on "I've Seen Footage" or employing riffs that recall subcontinental pop before the big distorted beat drops during "Punk Weight." And MC Ride's barked, not-always-rhymed vocals haven't taken on any corporate sheen in the interim, either. After a decade-plus of pop-culture derision of rap-rock, the fusion of the two musics has taken on a renewed legitimacy, especially for a band like Death Grips, which blends additional genres as well. There's a global pop language here, as well as a wider-than-usual palette of energy that admits of free-improvisational playing.
For a band that gets called "horrorcore," "aggro-rap," and "dark" so often—due mostly to the stream-of-subconscious disturbances that flow through Ride's head ("Lycanthropic manic cycles/Fire water burnin' Bibles/Wake up ragin', call a taxi/Take me to the nearest city")—there's an undeniable danceability residing within tracks like "I've Seen Footage" and "Hacker." Pressed on just how much of the band's sound runs through his electronically augmented kit, the place where the band's hooks are taken through a wood chipper, Hill admitted that "a lot of the music is dictated by rhythm, even the melodic aspects."
So are listeners who have thought of Death Grips as straightforward doom merchants missing something? Hill pointed to early American hardcore punk for comparison. "The energy of the sounds you're hearing may come from a negative environment. But the exercising of those feelings, on the other end, is where it becomes really positive. There's a lot of music that comes from a place of possible suffering or whatever unrest of some sort, even with the happiest rave or house music in the world."