If ever there were a figurehead for defying convention, Death Grips would surely be it. From dick pics as album artwork to bizarre and unapologetic no-shows at their own rare-as-golddust gigs, they built an infamous career on mischief and mystery alongside their four years and four records. But then it all came crumbling down. Just weeks before an arena support run with Nine Inch Nails that many groups would have sold their collective souls for, Death Grips announced they were to disband. Via the medium of a napkin.
It was a split that should’ve shaken up underground hip-hop, as fans across the globe mourned the fact that we might never see another like them. But despite newer acts like clipping. continuing to push the boundaries of hip-hop’s industrial crossover with a similar zeal to those early days of Grips’ reign, it seems the torch hasn’t quite been handed over yet. In fact, as Death Grips’ corpse continues to leak new material with a frequency that would alarm even the hardiest coroner, theirs is a flame that continues to flicker, and it increasingly seems that this supposed funeral is much more likely to be another practical joke. Could they be toying with the expectations of a band’s demise, in the same way they formerly built a career on dismantling their audience’s other preconceived notions of what a band was, or should do?
It started with the re-release of still-vital third full-length ‘Government Plates’ for last year’s Record Store Day Black Friday – a repressing that brought with it a slapdash Photoshop job of new artwork, in turn suggesting that perhaps Death Grips’ creative juices hadn’t quite dried up. Nevertheless, for a band so forward-thinking to revisit former glories in such a banal manner is a bizarre move, particularly given the dramatic bluntness of Death Grips’ supposed break-up.
The completion of promised final record ‘Jenny Death’ in October 2014 was swiftly followed by the release of latest single ‘Inanimate Sensation’ and its Space Jam-esque video. How many points does ‘Death’ have on that scoreboard? None.
“What better way to make a point than ‘play dead’, just as these genres and bands had seemingly done while Death Grips pushed things forward?”
That’s been superceded, however, by a surprise instrumental album, or ‘soundtrack’ in the group’s own wording, of which no track bears relation to ‘Inanimate Sensation’. Other than, that is, the track titles; each track features an initial, which spell out ‘JENNY DEATH WHEN’ as a tongue in cheek reference to message board 4chan’s growing impatience over their final slice of Death Grips’ recorded material. They may not be playing shows for the time being, but their continued endeavours increasingly seem like less a polishing up of leftover cuttings, and more a deliberate effort to elude death itself.
Despite initially seeming an abstract artistic statement, it’s something that’s rooted firmly in fact, given a little digging. While moaning think pieces on the culture of reunions may have reached saturation point, it’s hard to ignore the sound of the barrel being scraped as S Club 7 announce their second upcoming date at The O2 Arena. Even more credible (sorry Bradley and co., but y’know) acts have bastardised the concept of the break-up or reunion in recent years – Ipswich emo outfit Basement spent barely a year apart after making a big old song and dance over their own split. Thee Oh Sees went even further; their break for a “well-deserved break and a transitional period” lasted a whole 54 days before the announcement of another record. How hard is it to stay dead? So hard, apparently, that Motley Crüe have made themselves sign a “cessation of touring agreement”, to legally bind them to never return once this year’s farewell tour is over. At the most eerie end of this spectrum, hologram performances such as those of ‘Tupac’ and ‘Elvis’ in recent years blur the lines of an artist’s burial more than ever before. Further grave-dodging can be seen in the continued unearthing and re-touching of material from those no longer even with us in the physical realm. Michael Jackson’s ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ may have been a phenomenal pop song, but when it comes five years after his Earth-shattering death, it’s hard not to feel a chill up your spine. It’s not hard to envisage MC Ride and co. watching this from afar, plotting their next stunt.
“Hologram performances such as those of ‘Tupac’ and ‘Elvis’ in recent years blur the lines of an artist’s burial more than ever before.”
In other areas, erstwhile artistic genres and movements that were chewed up, partially digested, vomited back up and then Frankensteined back to life by Death Grips’ millennial imaginations are now reanimating in a far less reimagined manner, the 90s nostalgia train of recent years often opting to mirror its influence rather than dissect or evolve it. Given the aforementioned forward-thinking nature of Death Grips’ approach to music, it’s not much of a stretch to see this backwards glancing and repetition of sounds irking a troupe that declared themselves “a conceptual art exhibition anchored by sound and vision. above and beyond a ‘band.’“ in their own break-up statement. What better way to make a point than ‘play dead’, just as these genres and bands had seemingly done while Death Grips pushed things forward?
Of course, it’s all too easy to pull the ‘over analysing’ card, and of course there’s always a touch of wishful thinking when it comes to the possibility that just maybe they haven’t left us, but Death Grips’ musical endeavours have always carried much more artistic weight than their outer shell may reflect. Maybe their latest statement – issued this time from beyond the grave - is that in the ever mutating and transcendent art that is pop music, even the finality of death itself has begun to loosen its grip.
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