It’s July 1, 2013, and Death Grips’ Zach Hill and Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett are backstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles posing for a photograph. Compositionally, it’s one of those innocuous meet-and-greet pics, but instead of some wealthy, well-connected industry person’s kid staring dead-eyed next to their favorite pop star, it’s the band left standing vacant, seemingly unsure of how to pose so they pretty much don’t. That part isn’t weird. It’s classic punk posturing — two guys trying to look above it all while still telegraphing deep irritation, a suitable silhouette for what was at the time the world’s most inscrutable and potentially dangerous band. No, the weird part is that also present are the most powerful woman in popular music and the Batman.
Once the Staples Center photo went viral, a million fan theories spawned. Were Death Grips #BeyHive? Certainly they were #TeamEdward. “Death Grips were one of my favorite bands for years,” a pre-Dark Knight Robert Pattinson explained of the genesis of the now infamous awkward snapshot during a Reddit AMA. “Then they randomly were sitting next to me in a restaurant a year later eating salads which kind of surprised me. I started talking to them and they were awesome. we initially were gonna do a video together, and then almost started doing a movie. but through the process became really good friends.”
A Death Grips movie never materialized, and neither did a Beyoncé collaboration, but the sheer sense of possibility contained within that photo was genuinely exciting. Here were a group of Sacramento decibel abusers who, thanks to a free mixtape (Exmilitary) and two proper full-length releases (The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEB) over the span of two short years, had managed to not only push but break the boundaries of rap, industrial and electronic music, and confrontational art. And there they were, on camera, literally rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s elite. The plan was to blow the system, right? So why not make it an inside job?
That fantasy never really materialized, either. Death Grips were pronounced dead, to one degree or another, in August of 2013, a month after attending the Mrs. Carter World Tour. The project began to unravel quickly, first with a spate of cancelled gigs, then an intentional leak of their sophomore album at the band’s hands after their label wouldn’t (or couldn’t) support their abrasive vision any further. (Death Grips’ parting gift to Epic was shoving a big, fat dick in their face in the form of a record cover, the title neatly Sharpie’d on the shaft.) Not long after, they cancelled their scheduled Lollapalooza appearance and ducked an after show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, leaving behind a fake(?) suicide note from a fan and equipment that would later be destroyed by angry real-life fans as their music played over the PA. The message was clear: If Death Grips had finally made it, they didn’t want it, and their fans were welcome to whatever was left.
What was left, of course, was the music, despite it having been thoroughly obfuscated in the name of art (or artifice, depending on who you ask). Their breakthrough debut album, The Money Store, was released 10 years ago today on Record Store Day 2012 — a few days after it leaked, and a few days before its official digital release. It has not only endured but stands as one of the most primally exhilarating records of the ’10s, a Molotov cocktail gleefully launched at a server farm.
Anchored by Burnett’s frenzied, apocalyptic raps, Death Grips rode a mutilated wave of nihilism that treated genre constraints as laughably disposable, taking the noisiest, most tempestuous aspects of punk and hip-hop and hardcore and whatever else they found lying around and exorcising them accordingly. Andy Morin and Hill — the Hella co-founder who’d also played with acts like Wavves and Marnie Stern — integrate almost comically disparate samples, synths, and drums into their beat-making, a grab-bag approach that’d be frankly nauseating if they didn’t have such a fondness for allowing brief, sticky little melodies to gum up the works of their terrifying machine. Upon its release, the term “rap rock” was still being thrown around pejoratively, but The Money Store seemed unconcerned with opinions and criticisms being lobbed from message boards or the press or L.A. Reid, knowing it was easier to just point the nitpicking art dorks and gatekeepers to tracks 11 and 12 of their record instead: “Fuck That,” “Bitch Please.”
But what really makes The Money Store still so magnetic a decade in is Burnett, our ‘noided Nostradamus, barking into the void like a street preacher who just received word on good authority that God is dead and we’re alone. Mixing the sacred and the profane with frightening ease, Burnett’s cryptic raps are more evocative than literal, his quasi-gangsta dadaisms delivered like blunt force to the sternum. “Criminal intent, anti-legal ill/ Thief in the night, peel your life back spin the wheel,” he warns on the outro to “Hustle Bones” with a matter-of-factness that still registers a tangible chill. And while its Burnett’s onstage presence that (rightfully) sucks up most of the oxygen in the room –wild-eyed, pouring sweat, his torso seemingly constructed of nothing but strained sinew — there’s never a moment on The Money Store where he doesn’t feel like a physical presence. He’s in your area whether you like it or not.
As we all know (to misquote another great American trickster), reports of Death Grips’ death were greatly exaggerated. A few months after the meltdown, they returned with Government Plates. It was the first in a line of several releases that boasted both some impressive highlights and a good deal of evidence to support the idea that maybe the project had already accomplished what it needed to with The Money Store and the inimitable shrapnel it left behind. “What made Death Grips’ story compelling was that it was without moral or direction,” Mike Powell wrote for Pitchfork in a eulogy for the band in 2014 after yet another break up. “Never fully independent, the band could only define themselves in opposition to the parental presence of their label. Never fully obedient, they learned to make a spectacle of their own bad choices. As heroes go, they were bratty and misguided. I’m tempted here to write that maybe being bratty and misguided was the point, but in my most respectful and adulatory moments I would say that I’m not sure Death Grips had one.”
That may be so, but it’s still a big part of the allure that remains inextricably linked to The Money Store, for better or worse. In a different reality, in which Death Grips maybe hung around a little longer backstage and picked Queen Bey’s brain a bit (let’s not forget that The Money Store is frequently a killer dance record), we might be talking about them today as genuine pop influencers as well as sonic terrorist innovators. We’ll never know, and that’s probably for the best. As literary and political iconoclast Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately listed Andy Morin as one of the Death Grips members in the photo with Beyoncé and Robert Pattinson. We regret the error.