Tuesday, January 1, 2013

PCP and Late Capitalism: The Death Grips Demolition Machine (Modernism and Pop Music 2)

- Death Grips, "Guillotine"

This is the second of a series of articles I'm planning on writing about pop music and modernism.  You can read my first post on The Weeknd here.

It's hard for me to be anything other than intensely enthusiastic about Death Grips. I mentioned them in the first post on this blog as part of pop avant-garde that is attempting to push the nihilistic elements in pop music as far as possible.  They manage this by combining hip-hop and noise into a lean, hard, and nasty statement:

Death Grips takes the masculine, violent posturing of hip-hop and pushes it to the point where it nears unintelligible noise, no longer easily gendered or understood. They have a real affinity with the subject of my last post, The Weeknd.  Where the Weeknd (at his best) takes the sex and drugs out of hip-hop and distills them into a hedonistic final statement, Death Grips takes the violence out of hip-hop and uses it to brew up a clanking mess.  At times we'll recognize a sentiment or a turn of phrase from mainstream music, but it is contextualized by a frantic psychosis.  We've seen this sort of move before, the most eminent examples being Scarface's work ("Mind Playing Tricks On Me") and Gravediggaz' "horrorcore" efforts.  Death Grips even has a musical relative in early Insane Clown Posse.  While the juggalos take the violence of hip-hop to the point of cartoonishness, Death Grips takes it beyond serious.  And it's easier to take Death Grips at their word than, say, the frustrated kids in Odd Future.

 In an interview earlier this year with Pitchfork, Zach Hill (the Hella-alum drummer behind the project) talked about extensively about the band's inspiration. He talks extensively about having conversations with other, unseen forces that pervade our day-to-day life. This sort of New Age spiritualism typically has an ineffective monist sheen to it, but coming from Death Grips it takes on a sort of terrifying, Lovecraftian hue. In this aspect of their image, Death Grips is participating in a movement in 21st century culture that includes Erowid and Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. This line of thinking takes a cue from Castaneda rather than from Patrick Bateman or  the hippie movement; it has moved beyond the holistic humanism and pragmatic hedonism of 20th century experiences to the nihilist experiments of drugs like DMT.  

It is, in some ways, all too appropriate that the members of Death Grips stayed in the iconic Chateau Marmont while recording their major label record, since they inhabit and express the structural underside of violence that allows the cultural superstructure of Hollywood to emerge.  In a world where Billboard feeds us partial and incomplete cultural narratives about how life is, Death Grips attempts to show us the cultural conflict at the point of application.  The warm fuzz of late capitalist pop music is presented here with a sense of real perspective: half-quotes twisted in a conflicted mess of noise.  And through the clamor, the human voice that can be heard is alienated and furious.

Insofar as they have a positive political agenda, it comes through in songs like Klink.

Here, Death Grips has taken the political concerns of hip-hop and, in the footsteps of Dead Prez and Public Enemy, push the message out to the political fringe.  Picking up the banner from the violent anti-police rhetoric in classics like Fuck tha Police, Death Grips uncovers the political undertones of this sort of anti-authoritarian violence with lines like "Six feet deep beneath the streets so they can't never say shit again/Fuck the man with a thick broomstick and put a black flag on the end". Here again, there is no pretense of a macro-political agenda. Insofar as Death Grips has a political stance, it is a strictly tactical one; they are concerned with political conflicts, not with political narratives. They have a profound interest in the "Deep Web", a supposedly uncensored and unpoliceable network that, alongside other groups like The Pirate Bay, Wikileaks, and Anonymous, is part of the rising constellation of tactical anti-authoritarianism on the web.  In this light, it is unsurprising that the band has been dropped by Epic Records after leaking their own album.

For all of their hallucinatory imagery, Death Grips has their bloodshot eyes locked on the brutality of the modern situation. I can't resist leaving you with a few words from the perpetrators: