Death Grips Is IRL: Privacy, Community, & The Shadow Of Deltron 3030 Hang Over Year Of The Snitch
Year Of The Snitch will be remembered as one of Death Grips’ better records. It’s no Disc 1 of The Powers That B, but it’s pretty damn good. It has an energy that could get me to bet my savings account on one round of poker. I will instead place a hypothetical bet on this premise: Death Grips’ chief inspiration is fellow Bay Area hip-hop iconoclast Del The Funky Homosapien.
All of my evidence comes from Deltron 3030, the 2000 space-rap benchmark from the supergroup of the same name. Backed by accomplished producer Dan The Automator and scratcher Kid Koala, Del (in character as Deltron Zero) is a paranoid rogue, an outlaw armed to the teeth with his tongue, his brain, and futuristic weapons. He’s living in the year 3030 and, in spite of his lyrical prowess, shit sucks — corporations reign supreme, technology is no longer liberating, alienation is inevitable. From a series of skits featuring the likes of MC Paul Barman, Prince Paul, and Damon Albarn, among others, we know that the people of the future are nostalgic for New Coke and Strange Brew while they suffer the “progress” that comes with homogenization. As a result, Deltron’s solaces are the simple things in (futuristic) life: hip-hop, hanging out, honing one’s craft. And a pinch of (presumably space) weed, here and there.
Deltron 3030 is as much of a warning about the future as it is a celebration (and condemnation) of the past and present. Old-school samples (which were considered old even in 2000) and then-current cameos create a balance between “Everybody’s invited!” with “My feet hurt and I wanna go home.” When Del’s not indulging in sci-fi wordplay, he’s opening up about his reclusive tendencies. Deltron 3030’s longest detour from outer space is “Madness,” a track that may well be the Death Grips blueprint. Del’s world is defined by skepticism (“‘Cause you lookin’ sheisty, you might be intelligence”) and suffering (“If I had to describe the way I survive, it’s like vice squeezin’”), with music as a rare reprieve (“I’m glad I love music and life / ‘Cause it’s easy to see the pain and strife and end it all tonight”). “Madness” is the fifth stage of grief, and a huge moment in the middle of a record about intergalactic rap battles and transhumanism. It’s a quick return to Earth, maybe for fuel or a quick dose of a reality. It’s also, the best I can tell, the first time anyone has has used the phrase “niggas on the moon,” which happens to be the name of the best Death Grips release.
Jump with me, if you will, to the year 2012, when a certain brand of experimental hip-hop was gaining traction. The Sacramento-based Death Grips — made up of drummer Zach Hill, vocalist Stefan Burnett, and engineer Andy Morin — dropped two records in April and October, respectively: The Money Store and No Love Deep Web. I’ll refer to The Money Store as “Side A” and No Love Deep Web as “Side B,” in part because both records had varying messages and rollouts within an fairly short amount of time.
Side A was industry promise. It was springtime hype over their major-label debut on Epic Records, which coincided with Adult Swim promotion and leftover blog adoration from 2011’s Exmilitary. It was a series of music videos that looked like a lot of fun to make. Side A was the major markets’ first time hearing DG’s versions of straight bangers. Maybe most of all, Side A was defined by the aux cable readiness of “I’m your air-REE-uh,” “I stay noided,” and “It’s such a long way dooown.”
Side B was a lot of people asking “What the fuck?” Side B was their time spent in a haunted hotel. Side B was giving the finger to Epic by way of a self-leak, their 13 paranoid songs made available for free. Side B was a 13-minute colorless music video with an herbivorous protagonist, and, maybe most importantly, Side B was the drummer’s dick.
Six years later, Death Grips are basking in the exuberance of Side A while existing in the reality created by Side B. Social media has always been integral to their success — they are very much online — but Year Of The Snitch is an extroverted record. The vibes are IRL. It’s hard to picture them not having fun during the process of making this album. “Black Paint” is dense noise-rock from the bottom of a pit. “Flies” is deliberately scatterbrained and is what Death Grips sounds like to non-fans. “Disappointed” is uptempo shout-core made for the stage.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a statement among the thickets of psych-rock guitars, erratic drumming, and self-sampling, and that’s no detriment. Year Of The Snitch is the kind of moment-to-moment record that we’ve come to expect from Death Grips; their wheelhouse is banging out 13 abrasive rock-rap hybrids that are closer to unnerving than corny. Death Grips threw themselves a 30 mile-per-hour pitch, and hit it over the left-field wall. They exist within a vacuum of their own making, one that almost completely isolates them from their peers, at least publicly (for instance, Death Grips do not come up in most conversations about music in regards to drug use, mental health, technical skill, or psychedelic revivalism, despite being emblematic of all four).
If anything, Year Of The Snitch is another neon sign that points to Death Grips avoiding social media — not in a neo-Luddite way, but in a I-don’t-need-to-tell-you-what-I’m-up-to kind of way. Privacy is a priority, both as a lifestyle (“Drop the curtains soaked in shadow”) and as a cloak of mystery (“Weightless glisten press the cactus”). Misanthropic behavior and puzzling lyrics are nothing new for the group, but there’s something to be said for keeping your business on the sly when you have a foaming-at-the-mouth fanbase, eager to devour whatever you produce. If social media is a self-imposed microscope, Death Grips have turned it back at the listener, begging the fanboys to interrogate what deeper meanings lie within “Death Grips Is Online.”
And it’s a good thing they aren’t totally cut off from the physical world, because the featured guests do add something to this record. Like Del and Dan’s friends and their goofy voice-acting, absolute madman Lucas Abela and his face-breaking glass stunts are exactly what a Death Grips album needs, at least in theory (shredding your mouth is objectively an antisocial behavior, but the context changes when you start doing it in a studio with some friends watching). DJ Swamp’s scratching almost tricks you into thinking it’s a record you should put on in your friend’s car. It’s not exactly clear what Tool’s Justin Chancellor contributed, but I’m willing to overlook it.
Death Grips is not a revolving-door project with different producers and collaborators when it easily could have been given Hill’s Rolodex of musician friends. Nor is it the supergroup it could have been had Hill recruited a vocalist with hard-earned clout. Suppose it’s 2010, and you’re a working drummer with a small cult following in the freaky rock underground, and you want to make a hip-hop-ish record that’ll sell a couple copies, and your name is Zach Hill — who would you want to join forces with? Maybe Danny Brown? Killer Mike? E-40? Del himself? Brown or Killer Mike could attract an audience from their respective regions. A partnership with E-40 or Del could have boosted Hill and his collaborator with the title of “Voice of The Bay Area” or something. You could write and record it in a few weeks, put it out on an indie label, and see where it goes from there.
Now, instead, suppose you decide to work with a neighbor who you’ve known for a while, a local artist without a fanbase tracking their every move. You can feel a kind of intuition that says there’ll be some musical chemistry between the two of you. According to the origin story, that’s how you end up with Death Grips as we know it, a group predicated on intuition and auras and gut decisions, for better (making music with your friends) and for worse (skiving off from a gig). The shortlist of guests on Year Of The Snitch feels like a similar urge, a strange desire to ease up on the reins and allow some peers to include their own styles. Inadvertently, it’s a reminder that there’s strength to be found in both solitude and socializing, and knowing exactly when to let other people into your space.