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RIP, DeathGrips (and the rest of pop music’s last punks standing)
BHANUJ KAPPAL  2nd Aug 2014

A live perfomance still of Death Grips

nd so it ends, not with a bang but with a whisper. Or to be more precise, a note scrawled on a stained napkin and then uploaded onto Facebook. On 2 July, controversial and polarising noise-rap outfit Death Grips announced that they were splitting. The note on Facebook read: "We are now at our best and so Death Grips is over. We have officially stopped." Less than a month ago, the band had surprised everyone with a new record — that they released for free. As the farewell note acknowledged, they were on the top of their game. They'd just landed a much coveted opening slot on a tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Were they really going to quit now?

For a little while there was nothing but a shocked susurration on our Internet streams. Then came the inevitable sh*tstorm. While some fans mourned publicly, others raged about what they saw as a betrayal. Music writers tried to make sense of the decision, casting it either as the final radical act of popular music's last real punks, or as the latest irresponsible move by a group of spoiled di**s who mistreat their fans and music industry colleagues alike. Personally, I was most surprised at the fact that everyone was so surprised. After all, Death Grips have always revelled in uncertainty and chaos, it's the cornerstone of their whole ethos. Coming from them, this breakup should have been almost expected.

I think that surprise has to do with the fact that we are so used to the idea of music as an entertainment product, that we no longer even look at it as art. We're looking at Death Grips as a "band" that is part of the traditional music industry with a business model dependent on touring, record sales and good press. From that perspective, their decisions — cancelling tours, releasing a record for free — seem both irrational and irresponsible. From a music industry perspective, it's self-sabotage. But Death Grips have been clear from the start that they're not a "rock band" or a "rap group". Instead, as their farewell note states, they see themselves as a "conceptual art exhibition", one that seeks to challenge the audience not just with the music but with everything it does — from surprise album releases and complex ARGs to carefully orchestrated concert no-shows. We're so used to bands deploying nihilistic posturing and gallery-speak for media attention that we instinctively scoff at any band with ideas beyond their station as pop musicians. But Death Grips really are that rarest of rare things in these times — pop music as avant-garde art. 

In the three years of their existence, DeathGrips mounted a spirited challenge to the dominant narrative of pop music as industry, as business, as product.

From the very beginning, Death Grips had made no secret of their avant-garde orientation. When they talked about their music — an explosive new form of experimental hip-hop that takes cues from hardcore punk, no wave, industrial and Modernist avant garde — they claimed inspiration not just from hip-hop and punk rock but from the danger-obsessed performance art of Chris Burden and the pop art of Andy Warhol. Vocalist Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride is a painter outside of his music career and you can almost see Death Grips as Surrealism for the 21st century; a hyper-violent Surrealism filtered through techno-paranoia — information overload and the surveillance state are running themes.

Of course, Death Grips are neither the first or the most innovative musicians to take the avant-garde-through-pop route. In fact, it's a territory that has already been mined extensively by the art-revolutionaries of the post-punk era — from the No Wave scene in New York to the industrial terror of Throbbing Gristle's London. And those predecessors are acknowledged in their sound. But Death Grips is also something entirely its own, those old ideas (and ideals) updated and pushed forward into the new century. The idea of pop music as a vehicle for groundbreaking, futurist avant-gardism died a silent death in the '90s as the underground was first hit by the commercialisation of the grunge era and then infected with the ironic retro-fetishism of post-modernism. Not in a long time have we had an act that takes its ideas and cues from the best of the avant-garde, but still aspires to be pop music. In the three years of their existence, they mounted a spirited challenge to the dominant narrative of pop music as industry, as business, as product. Not just in their music but in their words and actions. "We live as futurists," Zach Hill declared in an interview with Pitchfork's Jayson Greene. And more than the emerging new genre of industrial/noise rap, it is the renewal of that commitment to modernity and futurism that will be Death Grips' legacy.

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