“An onslaught of the senses!”
Usually, in the music world, the highly original groups or individuals start off as path-breakers. They’re introverted, imaginative and unpredictable. Their music pops up now and then on the Internet without warning. Their debut is like nothing you’ve ever heard of before. Yet, as they develop and become more successful, they start to do interviews and play gigs at bigger venues, until eventually, they lose what made them special – mystery.
Fortunately, this narrative does not match Death Grips ascent. The Californian trio, made up of MC Ride, Zach Hill and Andy Morin, are still as enigmatic as they were five years ago when their mixtape, Exmilitary, appeared on the internet which contained tracks that were experimental and challenging. My best description of their sound is Black Flag meets an electronic sick bucket.
The concealed nature that they embody has earned them an obsessive legion of fans, who seem to be here tonight at Village Underground. This is Death Grips’ second, consecutive show at the 1,000 capacity venue. Both shows sold out in minutes. The crowd varies from metal heads and 14-year-old boys wearing Palace t-shirts to men that look like your Dad and a few women, including myself. Yes, the majority of tonight’s crowd are male – rowdy and ready for war.
When I arrive and make my way under the restless streets of Shoreditch, a single synth echoes around the bricked walls. Its pitch gradually grows to feverish levels of uncomfortableness. This sound is the support act. It’s unconventional and slightly torturous, but that’s characteristically Death Grip’s.
With the atmosphere brewing and nervous whisperings of a no show, the lights finally darken and three silhouettes suddenly appear on stage. There’s an eruption of cheers and bouncing heads.
What follows is probably one of the most intense gigs I have ever been to. The openers, ‘Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)’ and ‘Bubbles Buried in the Jungle’, cause a riot of energy and goosebumps begin to appear on my arms from the throbbing base. The crowd on the lower level are no longer rippling with excitement but are waves of heads moving left to right and back again.
This mayhem continues for the rest of the set, which is a mixture of old and new material. From fan favourites, ‘Get Got’ and ‘No Love’, to new tracks from their latest album, Bottomless Pit, it is an unstoppable 90-minute set of blood, sweat and destruction.
At the epicentre of it all stands MC Ride (real name – Stefan Burnett), who tonight is backlit so only his silhouette is visible. Further on into the night, he begins to eerily glow like a domineering spectre of chaos. He is utterly compelling. Occasionally there is a flash of light and his tattooed torso comes into view for a few seconds and then falls back into darkness again. He prowls, jumps, contorts through the set without a breath or even a sip of water. At one point he even turns his back to the crowd and starts screaming his lyrics at Zach the drummer. It’s an unpredictable and volatile performance. You can’t take your eyes of him.
The rest of the group are equally sporadic. Andy on his synthesizers, violently head bops and Zach aggressively hits his drums at an exhausting rate. None of them talk to each other or to the audience. There is no small talk or empty or insincere statements like, ‘thank you for having us London, we love you’. Instead, each track ferociously merges into the next, causing some audience members, who are soaked in sweat and have their t-shirts ripped, to retreat back to the upper level for safety or just to assess the chaos. At some points in the set the security men at the barrier have to spray water at the crowd in attempt to prevent fainters.
Beyond this whirlwind, Death Grips have to be commended on their musical complexity and individuality. Beneath the blur of noise, is a unique musical arrangement. Indeed, there are cosmic drumbeats (‘Spikes’), churning electronic blazes (‘World of Dogs’) and intricate guitar riffs (‘Giving Bad People Good Ideas’). Every layer can be heard at Village Underground tonight. It’s loud and immersive – an onslaught of the senses.
Their unique sound is usually what people recognise them by. However, lyrically, Death Grips have always astounded me. Tonight, MC Ride delivers every line precisely in time. He barks, raps, shouts and rants about the darker-side of life. His lyrics explore the struggles of street-life, as seen in ‘Guillotine’, where he mentions how you can “get broke by the street like blood stained glass”. America’s commercialism is also a big topic of condemnation. The song, ‘I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States’, pulls apart the dehumanising qualities of capitalism where “too many mirrors share” your own face. Mid-set song, ‘I’ve Seen Footage’, similarly displays the paranoia that comes with the sensory overload of the fast-moving, modern-day life, where staying “noided” is what seems to be the only form of escape.
MC Ride pictures the present day as a nightmare. The songs talk of isolation and infection with a satirical edge too. Remember – they sample (or hijack) popular music into their own tracks to illuminate the shadowy truth that we are all numb too. So, it’s funny to see the crowd dancing in such euphoria to it. Realistically, the lyrical, punk poeticism of MC Ride washes over the crowd. You can listen and comprehend it in a more private space, but in a live setting, it’s thrown down your ears and sets fire to your headspace. Intentionally too.
As the set draws to an end, there is a final catharsis with ‘The Fever (Aye Aye)’. There is a crescendo of sirens and lights until the drop, where MC Ride begins to do his thing. ‘Here we go’, he bellows at one point, as his voice echoes around the room. One hand in the air and eyes wide, he stares at the audience who now are a blur of bodies. The song ends with destructive abruptness. The lights go up and Death Grips have already disappeared before you can even begin to cheer.
The only group that I can think of that come close to Death Grips’ transgressive sound are the punk rappers Ho99o9. But even then, they don’t have that holy grail of music – inscrutability. As much as we can all pull apart the enigma of Death Grips, I don’t think we’ll ever hit the truth. We’ll just find more wild eyes and starry beats. But I’m not complaining.
VERDICT: A Punk group, an experimental Hip-Hop group, Ravers, Metal heads– whatever you want to call them – Death Grips are like nothing around at the moment. This was an apocalyptic, storm of a show; one that I shall never forget.