Music's Most Subversive and Unpredictable Band Just Broke Up
Over their short but prolific four-year career, Death Grips have made a long list of enemies. The electronic hip-hop/punk project, led by renowned drummer Zach Hill, has been dropped by two separate labels for leaking their own albums. They've defied procedures by publishing private emails from music industry executives on their social media channels. They've released disturbing 13-minute, mostly silent music videos (see below). They've stood up fans at shows without apology. And on Thursday, the group took their hell-raising to a whole new level by completely disbanding on the edge of their biggest worldwide tour, where they would've been an opening act for Nine Inch Nails.
The members of the band wrote their resignation on a napkin, opening with the brutally simple line, "We are now at our best, so Death Grips is over," as if it were a no-brainer. They explained that their group has always been more of a "conceptual art exhibition, anchored by sound and vision" and not an actual "band," a claim that puts all of their past absurd actions in perspective. Everything they've done up until this point has been a massive parody of the music industry's arbitrary standards and vulnerabilities, and with this beautiful sign-off, they've now joined the ranks of music's greatest subversive bands — acts like GWAR, GG Allin and the Butthole Surfers.
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Take any music industry standard, and Death Grips have perverted it. Industry rule No. 1: Release a visually-striking (but appropriate) graphic for an album cover. Death Grips' answer: a photo of a half-chub penis with the album title written on it in permanent marker (NSFW). In that grotesque vein, they didn't go nearly as far as fellow ruckus-raisers GWAR, who constantly pushed to see how vile their art could could get while still attracting fans. Their stage props included huge erect penises and a tooth-filled vagina monster (which would inevitably eat a band or audience member during their set — it ate Jerry Springer once). The Butthole Surfers designed their shows to "freak the shit" out of their audiences. Their lead singer frequently lit his hands on fire on stage, and another member would get naked and strike "spastic poses in time to a strobe light, covered in lurid body paint."
That's the rich context for Death Grips' art. Death Grips' wildest shows were the ones when they wouldn't even show up, but would instead pay a few audience members to lead a charge on the stage to smash the band's equipment where it stood. So much for the "encourage your fans to love and engage with you" aspect of music promotion.
Of course, not everyone has loved Death Grips' jokes, and their recent announcement has provoked ire from many of their most ardent supporters. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails tweeted about the break-up, apologizing to fans for thinking the band could "keep it together." The Fun Fun Fun Fest, where Death Grips was scheduled to play later this summer, also wrote a napkin-letter to Death Grips, cursing them out for all the lies and betrayals they've perpetrated over the years.
But all this anger is misplaced. Or rather, Reznor and FFF Fest are playing right into Death Grips' trap. That confusion and anger is exactly what Death Grips craves. They want to expand our perceptions of what music can be, and how a musical act should behave; they always to resist the industry line to remind people that music is art first, business later.
In an industry where the art must often tailor itself to fit a carefully plotted marketing strategy and standard operating procedure, it's important to have someone willing to rock the boat. It helps keep the boundaries loose, so all varieties of expressions can find a home and make an impact. Art should be unpredictable, free and should challenge our normal perceptions of the world. Death Grips should be celebrated for the way they've defied the conventions and defiled their audience. That's what legends do.