Who Are…Death Grips

Arye Dworken

By Arye Dworken

on 04.24.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Someone picking a fight with RZA at an '80s-industrial dance night

For fans of: M.I.A., Big Black, and Atari Teenage Riot

From: Sacramento

Personae: Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride (vocals), Zach Hill (production, drums) and Andy Morin aka Flatlander (production)

The Money Store

Death Grips

If somehow, in the year 2012, you’re still looking for evidence of the changing face of the record industry, consider that the Sacramento noise/punk-rap trio Death Grips was recently signed to Epic Records by L.A. Reid, the man responsible for the careers of Justin Bieber, Dido, Ciara and P!nk.

Yet not only is the impeccably dressed music executive and sometimes X-Factor judge releasing two provocative Death Grips albums in the span of six months, most recently, The Money Store, he also compared them to the experience of hearing Whitney Houston for the first time. Drummer and producer Zach Hill explains that it was the band’s unbridled passion that drew the CEO of Epic in, “and an energy that connected with people.”

Whether this comparison will resonate with anyone other than Reid, Death Grips — vocalist Stefan Burnett, or MC Ride, co-producer Andy Morin, aka Flatlander, and Hill — certainly excel at both passion and energy. In fact, both last year’s free mixtape Exmilitary, as well as the group’s decidedly non-commercial major-label debut Money Store are unsettling in their unrestrained angst, paranoia and fury. The group’s dystopian aesthetic couldn’t be better suited to this time of political unrest and information overload. Tracks like the dubstep-electro hybrid “Hacker” and the ominously danceable “I’ve Seen Footage” play like the soundtrack to the confrontational meeting-point between Occupy Wall Street and Fox News. “We’re pretty paranoid and intense guys by nature,” Hill explains, “And the music acts as an outlet for all of that. Without Death Grips, I’m not sure how we’d deal with it all.”

On frontman MC Ride’s shyness…off stage:

Stefan’s not interested in doing interviews, just genuinely, as a person. He’s kind of exactly what he’s like on the albums. He’s a bit introverted, a little private, spending a lot of time in his apartment painting, but also very passionate. What you’re hearing in his music is kind of like what he’s like. He’s not an actor, or being someone else. Death Grips is him, not some creation, like the way certain MCs will invent a persona. [Ride] expresses himself through his art, visuals and music. I’m not sure if he feels like he needs to express it in a straightforward way by doing interviews.

On Death Grips’ group dynamic:

It works pretty organically. We have a pretty strong triangle according to our personalities. I mean, we do everything together and collaboratively, but we have different strengths. Like, I’m used to interacting with labels so I handle that stuff. It helps to have some knowledge of the backgrounds and the intentions of industry people. I’m also the one with the most press experience, having been around for a while, which is why I’m the one talking to you.

On that weird S&M-style cover artwork:

The cover for Money Store was done by this 21-year-old artist named Sua Yoo, who is amazing. She made zines and stuff, and the art on the cover is actually from one of her zines. We approached her about changing a bit for our album cover like the carving on her chest with our name, and she was way into it, but she’s worked with us a bit in the past. Yeah, I guess it’s an intense cover, but we felt like it said something about the music, like it communicated our energy and message so it’s not really that surprising when you see the cover and hear the music. I mean, if anything you may expect it to be more intense that it is. [Laughs]

On leaving the basements and stepping on some big Coachella-sized stages:

We always talk about how the visual aspect of the band will change and grow. We have a lot of ideas for it in the future, but some of these ideas require bigger spaces so I think we need to get to that point when we can actualize our ideas along with the space necessary. We’re all visual artists and it’s a big influence of this group so Death Grips won’t be just a band playing music, we have a bigger vision for the live experience. So playing bigger venues isn’t something weird to us, it’s something we want to have happen.

On signing with a major label:

This whole band has been a concentrated practice of buckling down and I think people are realizing our focused energy. Look, even when you sign on an independent label, I think in some instances their incentive is to associate with a cool band. They want to grab on to the buzz. But the people who signed us [to Epic], they didn’t want to touch anything of ours. They gave us 100 percent creative freedom. And it was obvious to us that they knew what we were all about because when they signed us, Money Store was 75 percent complete. There were no surprises.

When we were making music, I don’t think we thought about what label we should put our work out on. The work should never be compromised by who’s putting it out. But the people at the label spend so much time putting people’s careers together, we thought that they would be able to do that with us.

On that Whitney Houston comparison:

L.A. Reid hears a spirit in us. He hears a raw emotional core. He, at one point, compared our music to Whitney Houston — and that was shortly after she passed away and we were finishing the record. That was a pretty heavy thing to us. He related to the energy of connecting to another person. On a base level, listening to music is not always a sound, it’s a feeling. This primal energy…he felt it. He’s awesome. And you know, there are bands that are pushing boundaries on major labels and I think he recognizes that it doesn’t have to necessarily be commercial.

Look, I know it’s going to come up a lot, and I’ve been playing basements playing noise for years, and now I’m talking Whitney Houston to L.A. Reid…it’s weird to me, too. But it all feels honest.